Study Finds Consumers Have Some Misperceptions About Sustainable Apparel

As it turns out, the customer is not always right -- at least not in fashion retail.

A recent study from a duo in Kansas State University's department of apparel, textiles and interior design found that when it comes to consumers' rationale for not purchasing sustainable clothing, perception and reality aren't always cut from the same cloth.

Joy Kozar, an associate professor of apparel marketing, and Kim Hiller-Connell, an assistant professor of apparel marketing, conducted a study over several years that looked at consumers' purchasing behavior with sustainable apparel. Sustainable apparel is clothing that is made from eco-friendly or recycled materials, produced through an environmentally friendly production process, and is manufactured without sweatshop or child labor.

"There has been more and more talk about these types of social and environmental issues in the industry," Kozar said. "So with more of that information and knowledge out there, there is that question about what effect does this have on apparel purchasing behavior."

Research began with Kozar and Hiller-Connell studying whether college students who were more aware of and knowledgeable about industry issues such as sweatshop labor and environmental standards shopped at companies that were more sustainable.

"We found that just because consumers are more knowledgeable about these issues, it doesn't necessarily reflect on their purchasing behavior," Kozar said. "Many who were familiar with these issues said that they still tended not to buy sustainable apparel."

Knowing the consumer mindset, researchers looked at what perceived barriers kept participants from buying sustainable clothing. They found that a majority of the consumers believed sustainable apparel is more costly and offers limited style and design choices, Kozar said.

But was it a case of the consumer being right?

"The answer is yes and no," Kozar said. "Yes, consumers are right in the sense that some sustainable apparel is more expensive than clothing found at outlets like American Eagle or Gap. But when it comes to product choices, we found that there's just as big of a selection of products by sustainable companies as product offerings from non-sustainable companies."

As to what this information means for apparel manufacturers and retailers, Kozar and Hiller-Connell suggest that more focus be put on manufacturing and stocking sustainable clothing for higher-end outlets where consumers are used to higher prices.

Kozar recently presented the study "Barriers to socially responsible apparel purchasing behavior: Are consumers right?" at the Academy of Marketing Science's 2011 World Marketing Congress in Reims, France.

Kozar and Hiller-Connell are using their findings for another study beginning this fall. It will explore if different types of marketing messages can encourage students to purchase more sustainable apparel. Funding for both projects was provided by a small research grant from Kansas State University as well as from the university's College of Human Ecology.