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Consumer behaviour-change: The next critical phase for sustainable fashion

5 min

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by Shaunie Brett in Features

How to get ahead of the game on consumer behaviour change, the next critical phase for sustainable fashion

In our shared mission to transform the fashion industry for the better, most brands recognise their responsibility to overhaul the clothing production process. Few, however, have managed to tackle the other crucial step: changing consumption behaviour. This year’s dip in consumption levels has not affected the forecast that consumption rates will triple by 2050, and the only way to avoid that trajectory and achieve long-lasting behaviour change, according to researchers, is to evolve to a new shopping behaviour that consumers find more fulfilling than the current. So, if our goal is a world that can thrive, and a fashion industry that can survive, we must provide consumers with a more responsible and more fulfilling alternative to the current prevailing add-to-cart mentality.

Three main barriers prevent brands from accepting this challenge: first, the understandable but short-termist concern that responsible consumption leads to lower sales figures. Second, often used to rationalise the first, the attitude that behaviour change is the onus of the consumer. And if brands are able to overcome the first two barriers, by recognising that it is no longer sensible to measure success solely by growth, and that it’s on them to lead the change, they are met with the final major barrier, that changing consumer behaviour doesn’t appear to be a simple task. But it is a crucial one, and there is a huge business opportunity for brands looking to pioneer this change.

If our goal is a world that can thrive, and a fashion industry that can survive, we must provide consumers with a more responsible and more fulfilling alternative to the current prevailing add-to-cart mentality.

Today’s unsustainable consumption behaviour is often linked to a persistent ‘values-action gap’, where consumers say one thing, but do another. Countless surveys report a widespread willingness to shop sustainably, even if it means spending more, but sales figures suggest a different story. A leading explanation for this phenomenon is that our consumer mindset kicks in and unconsciously leads our decision making in certain contexts, such as when we walk down a high street or scroll our Instagram feed. At Sussed Consulting, as well as working on new research into the values-action gap, we work with brands looking to find new strategies to close it, to quieten the consumer mindset and encourage values-led shopping behaviour.

Variables that affect consumer behaviour decisions

So how can we encourage citizens to follow through on purchase decisions that align with their concerns for sustainability? To answer that question, I created a data-driven framework for consumer behaviour change, which finds patterns and commonalities in findings from the vast body of research in this area. 

The framework identifies three key factors that impact customer decision-making: product attributes (such as cost, quality and sustainability), customer diversity (differences in knowledge, values, and social norms), and customer inconsistency (shifting interests, contexts and mindsets). Illustrated in the figure below, these factors break down into variables that can be explored as opportunities for behaviour change.

A brand that is interested in pioneering a change in consumer habits could systematically work their way down this list to identify new areas to innovate. Many brands will already be paying close attention to variables in the ‘product attributes’ category, making prices more desirable, products more accessible and supply chains more positively impactful. And some brands have recognised the powerful opportunities in the ‘customer diversity’ category, using their platforms to develop educational content and campaigns that help create a culture of purpose and change.  The third category, ‘customer inconsistency’, remains largely untouched.

A key insight to draw from this figure is the matter of longevity (the vertical axis). Changing consumer behaviour in fashion by improving cost or convenience is powerful in the short-term, because these attributes appeal to a customer’s self-interest. They do not, however, secure lasting change (something else will always come along that is cheaper or easier). Similarly, increasing consumer awareness and knowledge is not very effective at creating lasting change. For enduring change, that maintains resilience through inevitable market, societal and global shifts, brands should be looking to break customers out of their self-interest, activate identities other than ‘consumer’ (such as ‘citizen’, ‘activist’, ‘parent’, or ‘influencer’), or to develop new shopping contexts to break familiar and provocative habits. 

For enduring change, that maintains resilience through inevitable market, societal and global shifts, brands should be looking to break customers out of their self-interest, activate identities other than ‘consumer’ (such as ‘citizen’, ‘activist’, ‘parent’, or ‘influencer’), or to develop new shopping contexts to break familiar and provocative habits. 

While this opportunity remains largely untapped, there are a few inspiring examples of how impactful such initiatives can be. Asket are actively encouraging their customers to buy less, and telling them exactly how many times an item should be worn before it is replaced. Allbirds raised their prices on Black Friday, donating every extra dollar to Fridays for Future, and spurring consumers to shop according to a different set of values. Noah, who have historically shut down their entire site on Black Friday, use their entire sustainability page to communicate just how unsustainable they are, breaking consumers out of the murky world of sustainability claims and misleading jargon.

So, it is important to focus not just on the low-hanging fruit (such as education and awareness-building), but to reach for the more nutritious fruits, almost out of reach (such as mindset shifting and empathy-building). Not only will this make you a pioneer in sustainable behaviour change – because so few brands are doing it – but it will also allow you to develop a trustworthy and enduring relationship with your customer base, providing resilience and lasting success for your business.

With that in mind, here are three ways to encourage lasting values-led shopping behaviour in your customers:

  1. Treat your customers as the stakeholders they are

Oversimplified is the view that consumers are free agents, who can make all of their interests known by ‘voting with their wallet’. Help your customers break out of their consumer mindset by bringing them into the evolution of your business. Involve them in your mission, ask them for guidance; a collaborative relationship towards a shared goal will encourage informed and empowered decision-making, and customers that become your ambassadors and stick by you as you grow. Miller and Conley’s Legacy in the Making provides a wealth of ideas for how you might go about this.

  1. Let your customers’ values lead you, so they can be values-led too

Going by survey data, customers assert that product transparency increases their likelihood of shopping from a brand. But in reality, an overwhelm of information often acts as a barrier to sale, unless it is carefully tailored to the values of your particular user base. So rather than telling customers what you think they want to know, find opportunities to learn about their deep-set values, not through surveys, but through carefully-crafted user interviews and observations (and if you have the tech resource, through activity tracking and smoke testing). Use these insights to enrich the customer experience. 

Design new customer journeys that avoid typical consumer mindset triggers, and in key decision-making moments, help them align their choices with the things that really matter to them.

 3. Look beyond the contents of the cart

If you’re just changing the attributes of the products in your inventory, you can do more. How can you contribute to the cultural movement, to help shift your customers’ social norms? And are you brave enough to be a brand, like Asket, that actively encourages smaller baskets? A line of fascinating work into sufficiency-driven business models shows how businesses can remain commercially viable while actively reducing consumption rate, and as customers become more and more sceptical of brands with traditional models that claim sustainability, this new level of pragmatism will lock in the trust they are currently lacking. Since long-term engagement takes 6 months to measure, start laying the groundwork for this as soon as you can (rather than firefight later).

A growing community of consumers are developing the desire to shop sustainably, and keen to align themselves with brands that share their authentic concern for the future of the planet. They are becoming wary of being manipulated, and struggling to find brands driven by a purpose to clothe rather than to grow. Attention towards the values and decision-making processes of your customer base is crucial for systemic change, as well as for business survival. The industry just needs a few more leaders to take the leap.

Sussed Consulting, founded by Shaunie Brett, expands your sustainability strategy beyond the supply chain, helping you to develop an authentic purpose, honest communications and a transformative customer experience. Collaborating with Sussed will give you the tools to develop trustworthy and reciprocal relationships with your customers, through a robust strategy and honest communication style.

Shaunie Brett
Guest Contributor

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Shaunie Brett is a thought leader, coach and consultant in sustainable clothing consumption, with a mission to repair the relationship between makers and wearers. Through content and campaigns she helps citizens navigate the world of sustainable shopping, and as founder of Sussed Consulting she helps brands design transformative customer connections and experiences. She maintains various speaking engagements including regular involvement in the University of Cambridge Sustainable Fashion accelerators. Shaunie previously worked as Style Director and Product Manager for fashion-tech platform Thread, and as a Stylist at Burberry. Other clients and collaborators include: Nike, Selfridges, Hurr, Piñatex, Provenance, Office Shoes, Mend Assembly.

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