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Written by Lisa Heinze for the Guardian:

“It’s not uncommon for fashion shoppers to be labelled as lazy and judgemental, particularly when it comes to ethical fashion choices. A study recently published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology gained much media attention with headlines that lashed many shoppers’ attitudes as ‘ugly’ and ‘wilfully ignorant’, and exclaimed how most shoppers consider ethical shoppers to be ‘boring and unfashionable’.

While this all makes for good headlines, these stories tend to reinforce the divide between ‘ethical’ and ‘non-ethical’ consumers. This separation of consumers is not constructive, nor does it accurately reflect the complexity of the ethical fashion landscape. Today consumers are asked to make fashion decisions about issues of labour, sustainable materials, frequency of fashion seasons and clothing recyclability, among others. Under these circumstances, the definition of what makes an ‘ethical’ consumer becomes blurred and casting judgement on the ‘ordinary’ shopping public appears misplaced.

What did the research actually say? How can we move past the sensational headlines towards encouraging ethical fashion choices?

The study, led by Ohio State University consumer psychologist Daniel Zane, builds on earlier research that found shoppers prefer to be wilfully ignorant about purchases—people will use information about labour practices or environmental impact if it is provided, but if not they won’t actively seek out this information before making a purchase.

The new research found that wilfully ignorant consumers also negatively judge those who do seek out ethical products, describing them as ‘boring’, ‘odd’ and ‘unfashionable’.

The behaviour is attributed to social comparison theory, which explains that the consumer is acting in self-defence so as not to view themselves as inferior to ethical consumers. It’s not that they don’t care about ethical issues, but when they are reminded that they have not acted in accordance with these values while others have, they feel bad about themselves and lash out at those who made them feel that way.

Given that the average reader spends less than 15 seconds reading an online article (and that’s if they even bother to read it before sharing it online), the above mentioned headlines could be doing more harm than good. Readers may interpret these headlines as additional negative representations of their unethical consumer behaviour, leading to more of the ‘lashing out’ documented in the study. Furthermore, the headlines perpetuate the outdated assumption that ethical or sustainable fashion is unattractive or boring.

There is still much to be understood about ethical consumption, particularly in relation to fashion. It’s fairly well documented that guilt- and fear-based messages aren’t effective in getting people to change their behaviour. And despite what the new research suggests in regard to consumers’ desire for ethical information, it’s also the case that extra information does not always lead to action.

What needs to be better understood are the other factors that impact purchase decisions, including availability, price, identity, time, lifestyle and brand loyalty. When considering fashion in particular, a number of specific considerations come into play.

Guilt does not sell fashion—desire does. Education and awareness of fashion’s ethical issues need to be paired with an acknowledgement that clothing purchases are connected to pleasure and individual self-expression. This approach is likely to be more successful than messages based on guilt or denigration.

In addition, cost remains a primary concern for fashion purchases. Though the higher cost of many ethical fashion brands may be justified—because they are paying a living wage to garment workers or sourcing sustainable materials—consumers may not immediately understand the price premium, particularly as clothing prices have plummeted with the rise of fast fashion brands in Australia.

Fashion is also a social activity—purchases are made with an awareness of ‘fitting in’ by wearing attire appropriate for the situation and to coincide with one’s social group. By enhancing the distinction between ‘ethical’ and ‘non-ethical’, consumers not only have to consider their own personal image but also how these distinctions align with their social group.

Importantly, consumers aren’t shopping in a vacuum. They can only buy what is available from the fashion industry, distributed by retailers, and made affordable by appropriate trade agreements. The fashion industry is extremely complex with multiple layers of suppliers, contractors and subcontractors, and worryingly frail levels of transparency and traceability along the supply chain. To focus solely on consumers making ‘ethical’ fashion choices places an unfair level of responsibility on shoppers and detracts from understanding how the industry became so unethical in the first place.

The good news is continuous growth in the sustainable fashion market, which helps to overcome the stigma that ethically sourced clothes are ugly or too expensive. The many small start-up labels are increasingly being joined by larger fashion houses and department stores, which also help consumers overcome issues of availability of ethical fashion. Though the stereotypes exist, a fashion revolution is already underway.”