Time to put your money where your mouth is.
Updated: Jun 25, 2020
Recently I have been querying the consumer facts and figures around sustainability. Actually, I have been querying the consumer buy-in to all manner of topics and the data that purportedly supports it.
Naturally, I have a vested interest in the sustainability imperative – not least because my job demands it, but moreso, because I have been researching and consulting in the fashion industry for many years in relation to its environmental impact, and the scenario is undeniable. Something needs to be done, and we don’t have nearly as much time as people would like to think. Actually, we don’t have any time. I recently read that we have just under 10 years to limit climate change impact, after that it is nigh irreversible. Scary stuff, right? And it cannot be done alone. Which got me to thinking – we are all saying we want to shop sustainably, that we want a more sustainable world in every aspect of sustainable – but are we really standing behind that?
For the purposes of this article, I am only referring to a fashion and recycling mindset when I mention sustainability, as the arena is so huge (something most people do not realize - encompassing everything from corporate practices, guidelines, cultural aspects, inequality, diversity, production methods, value chains etc.) that it is impossible to convey it all in one short(ish) piece.
I have lived in Austria where for example recycling is a core consideration – it becomes so natural that you stop thinking about it, until you go elsewhere that is. In Austria, in every household, you have separate containers/bins for paper, cardboard, plastic, metal, glass (clear and coloured), food and “restmüll” - which means everything else. This is then taken to a recycling centre and placed in appropriate bins, where it is cleaned and recycled/reused. Your restmüll goes on weight, so you pay for the stuff that cannot be recycled – or that you cannot basically bother to recycle properly, if you are so inclined. It’s a great incentive I find, when people are hit where it hurts (the wallet) they stop being a little less lazy. My sister’s husband is so stringent that he even takes the plastic tops out of say the milk or juice cartons, and separates them (this is not for the weight by the way, he is a true Eco warrior, and if this planet was made up of more people like him we would all be in a far better – more sustainable – place).
I am also a vegetarian (a real one – which means no fish or seafood either), and a lover of vintage fashion, before it even became a sustainability trend.
With this in mind, I assume I am probably better placed to buy sustainably than the average person. And not least due to my own unique set of circumstances:
A. Because I now live in Morocco, and trust me the basic lifestyle and handcrafts here are pretty much sustainable - which is one of the things I adore about being here.
B. I have been working in the fashion and future forecasting industry for a long time, so I know first-hand the effects, and on a positive side I earn decent money so I can afford to spend that little bit more, which personally I think has an effect for all us when trying to shop sustainably - the price.
C. And not least, as incredibly, we are still in isolation here as I write this, and the only thing I can buy at the moment are fruit and vegetable from the village souk. Trust me, I really am living paddock to plate, you can see the tomato and carrot fields from my door – and I mean literally.
Plus, I have had time recently to explore the concept a bit more personally. As a Covid19 project during strict isolation (no going out without a paper or a mask, and only to the pharmacy or supermarket - not even for exercise) I started my #wardrobeslam Insta initiative whereby, at first, I had to recreate catwalk looks using my own wardrobe, and then as isolation trundled on and on and on… I started to #shopmywardrobe to create a new style every day. It was a simple exercise in seeing how much I actually had, how much my own wardrobe was under-utilized – figures have this at 40 and up to even 50% more recently (now that is insane) – and if I needed absolutely anything else – ever! And it was an absolute eye-opener, not least for discovering the actual amount of clothing I had, which was pretty shameful, and also in creating new styles to eradicate the need to purchase more.
It was as clear as the nose on your face that I needed nothing more – well not in this lifetime. But, and this is where the questioning came in, did that stop me wanting, looking, did it eradicate the desire to purchase? Nope. Straight up – it seriously did not. Covid19 however did, I have not purchased anything other than tiny field tomatoes as my latest big splurge, and that is serious.
So, while I may be more comfortably able to tick many of the sustainability boxes, I am painfully aware that I am far from adept at buying sustainably as a default. Suffice to say - it does not happen naturally, I need to think about it, and exercise restraint (which thankfully, I am actually getting so much better at). And if I am not doing it properly, it stands to reason that so many others, with less opportunity and/or knowledge, would be in the same boat.
However, the figures being touted around out there don’t seem to reflect this scenario.
Having been immersed in the sustainability imperative for over 10 years now, and seeing the numbers relentlessly show 74 % of consumers saying they want to reduce their impact, and that they buy sustainably, I started to wonder just how pertinent these figures actually are?
In a study well over five years ago now, 70% of Millennials stated that they would be willing to pay 70 % more for ethically sourced or sustainable goods. As researchers, we boldly brandished these statistics for the companies we consulted, stating that sustainability is the new imperative and could not, nor should it be overlooked. And we were right. And, of course, we continue to be so. This is the way of the future, it is what consumers want, what consumers are demanding, and thankfully it is making a difference. Don’t get me wrong, I am not musing on the fact that sustainability might or might not be a core consideration, it is very definitely a MUST, what I am concerned with is the amount of people saying – yet simply not doing.
We - all of us - have to walk the talk.
Companies will die a very certain death if they “greenwash” in this day and age. But what about consumers? If 70% of us purchase sustainably, then where did that mob come from outside Primark the other day (and that is only one example), when it was first re-opened after Covid19 restrictions were eased. I am not talking a queue here, I am talking a literal gathering equivalent to a Glastonbury set (if the image online is to be believed, and there could actually be some discrepancy in that).
It seems myriad qualtitative research initiatives have presented us with a range of documentation on how people feel, what they want, what they care about, where they want change etc. – but what it does not seem to have given us is any supportable insight into when they are actually going to do it.
When I broached this subject with colleagues, some were incredibly defensive stating that we should look at what companies are doing, that perhaps they have not managed to engage the cohort effectively, and they simply need to try harder, and therein lies the problem. We have made much of how companies need to deal with sustainability, (no disagreement there), how the onus is on them to lead the way (and there is truth in that), but the thought process that we can dismiss our own inertia by just saying that companies have not done enough to engage us or make us want to…. WTF? When did our sense of responsibility get so dissipated (far too long ago, methinks) that we can demand a change, and then not follow through on it? This is a two-way street people, on an incredibly important issue. Time to put your money where your mouth is. Literally!
There is no doubt sustainable is an imperative that cannot, nor should it be overlooked. But how does what we say, and what we do at the moment correlate? How does one remonstrate with the other? That in essence is my question, for it seems there are a lot of us saying, but not as many doing.
We need to stand up and be held accountable if we are to action the change we say we so desperately want - even if it means actually buying into the doctrine that less is really more.
We need to stand behind our claims if we are to make a difference. We demand it of our brands, we
need to demand it of ourselves.
And we need to do it now.
Because 10 years is really not a lot of time.