Fashion Sustainability and Consumer Accountability


After having looked at the two other areas of responsibility within fashion sustainability (look at the bottom of the page for the other posts in this series), we now focus on the third and last area of accountability: the consumer.

The exciting and challenging aspect of this stage relates to the fact that when operating in the context of sustainability, firms need to find ways to alter consumer behaviour and challenge some of their daily-life habits. Some of these habits relate to how often to shop when to replace worn-out items or even simply, how often to wash them.

This sustainable message is also a very effective way to personalise the products, considering that the non-wash approach allows developing a storytelling approach around the experience of the product.
Here’s a breakdown of the article:

  1. Low impact use strategies for fashion garments
  2. Optimised Life strategies for fashion garments
  3. Optimised End-of-Life strategies for fashion garments
  4. Conclusions

1. Low impact use strategies for fashion garments.

As washing is a very resource-intensive and frequent act, even the smallest changes in the consumer behaviour can resort into a highly effective environmental impact. Some of the sustainability messages that brands provide to their customers revolve around:

  • Low Energy Wash and Cold Washing. This can be achieved by using fabrics that do not need high-temperature washing.
  • No Washing. In this case, the fashion brand pushes towards changing the perception and behaviour of cleanliness using textiles that never require laundering. This can be done in two ways mainly: either by using impurities in the design to camouflage stains or by using highly technical materials that can be wiped clean with a towel.

In both cases, care labels are essential, as brands can use them to advise washing tips or provide advice to encourage more responsible washing practices. Some companies also encourage users to dye products as a form of cleaning, allowing dyes to cover stains or use.

2. Optimised Life strategies for fashion garments.

When it comes to fashion customers are used to discard flawed items, as repairs can hardly be done by any regular unexperienced customers. However, from environmental standpoint repairs are always better than replacements.

This is an area which lends itself for effective brand communication as companies can make use of the frequent need to repair garments and create services tailored to increase a garment’s durability. Some brands even go as far as creating a user community around a user need. This is what in marketing we often refer to as a value net, involving the end-users in the value creation process. Research additionally shows how customers who are able to repair a product, and to some extent contribute to its durability are more likely to grow an emotional attachment to it and to the brand.

Other optimised life strategies in fashion include:

  • Leasing systems. This can be done by sharing garments across multiple users attempting to change the consumer’s idea of ownership. This is also an area of business innovation, where many companies are trying to put into share economy frameworks ownership-based businesses. Rent the Runway is an example of this approach.
  • Anticipated lifespan. Considering that long-term dyeing is a very polluting activity, there are a variety of dyeing techniques that are less impacting on the environment and attempt to balance the environmental impact of a garment’s colouring process by connecting it to the item’s probable lifespan. Some argue that providing less persistent colouring for items which may last for about 1 to 2 years may add an additional level of personalisation to the product itself, making this approach desirable in more ways than one. Users, in fact, could see how a garment evolves in time, as it gets used.
  • Durability. This is an approach which pushes firms to source materials with physical properties that are aligned with a product’s expected lifespan. If a longer lifespan in achieved then the chances of developing a stronger emotional attachment to the product will increase as well.

Aside from these more technologically advanced approaches, even simply offering repairs goes a long way.

Other simple advice to optimise the lifetime of a garment entails:

  • Building in the desire for long term product care
  • Designing easy product take-back programs
  • Designing for maintenance and easy repair
  • Designing for upgrades
  • Designing garments with a potential second life

Let’s now move on to strategies to optimise a fashion garment’s end-of-life.

3. Optimised End-of-Life strategies for fashion garments.

Let’s start with a simple statement: approx. 60% of discarded textiles goes into a landfill.

In order to “avoid the landfill” companies can create new circular business designs capable of reclaiming a used product at the end of its life. This can be done by creating zero-waste processes and repurposing products to create a more circular approach to the economy of fashion.

Some of the strategies that can be employed at this stage include:

  • Recycling. This allows the recovery of materials from existing garments to be re-processed into new fibres.
  • Reuse. Old and worn clothing is reused for redistribution; this is something that usually happens via resale from second-hand shops.
  • Take back programs. Through “take-back programs”, a designer holds accountability for a product at the end of its life. Those companies who take back their items decide to either dispose of them, re-manufacture them and reuse or recycle them.

To allow consumers to develop these sustainable habits, companies need to act in terms of brand communication, by informing customers of all that the options they have available once they reach the end of a garment’s lifecycle.

Before moving on to conclusions these are additional guidelines to optimise the end of life of a garment:

  • Provide ease of disassembly to assist with recycling and disposal
  • Design reuse of “next life of the product”
  • Provide the ability to biodegrade
  • Provide for recycling
  • Provide for reuse of components

Let’s now move on to conclusive remarks.

4. Conclusions

As we’ve seen, there are a variety of things that companies are trying to do in order to create a new wave of corporate responsibility capable of countering the issues that have risen in over 30 years of global fashion expansion.

Change is already happening, and no one player can solve the problem alone. Designers and managers need to be creative as they tackle sustainability challenges by building long-term assets and developing company cultures which foster accountability and corporate social responsibility for their whole value chain.

Consumers too, have an obligation and need to become part of the solution, by changing their perceptions and behaviours to become change agents as well company managers and designers.

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Fashion Sustainability and Consumer Accountability Starting to develop sustainability strategies for your fashion firm can seem daunting at first, but it's easier to imagine it as a step-by-step process.
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