Textile Sustainability is Really a Thing. Are You Ready for It?

OekoPic2Sponsored by OEKO-TEX®

It all started with food. First people became concerned about the pesticides and pharmaceuticals they were unwittingly ingesting. Then they started worrying about the impact of their food purchases on the environment, animals, and farmers. Today, grocery shelves are stocked with foods that are certified organic, GMO-free, hormone free, cage free, preservative and dye free, free range, dolphin safe, fair trade, and a wide variety of monikers for foods that are free from harmful substances and responsibly produced. Why wouldn’t they feel the same way about their textiles? Well, it turns out that they do.

According to “The Key To Confidence: Consumers and Textile Sustainability—Mindsets, Changing Behaviors, and Outlooks” conducted with 11,000 global consumers by Anerca for the OEKO-TEX® Association, 40% of consumers are concerned about harmful substances in their apparel and 39% are concerned about their home textiles. Those numbers are not far behind the 59% of people who are concerned about harmful substances in their food.

The numbers indicate that consumers are not yet as well informed about the hazards in their closets and drawers as they are about the ones in their kitchens. However, that is changing. Information about the textile industry’s environmental and social shortcomings is rapidly reaching consumers. News stories about lead and formaldehyde in baby clothes are making headlines. NGOs with environmental and social agenda are becoming more numerous and vocal. Documentaries about factory disasters, rivers polluted by textile mills, and exploited employees are making the favorites lists on Netflix. Brands and retailers who are thought-leaders in sustainability are actively promoting their environmental and social programs. Data from “The Key To Confidence” study indicates that when consumers learn the facts, they think differently about the textiles they buy.

Consumers want their clothes to be safe from harmful substances. In fact, 60% of respondents in “The Key To Confidence” study rated it as an 8, 9 or 10 on a 10-point importance scale. Clothes and home textiles that are made with respect for the environment and textile workers also ranked high with 53% and 54% respectively rating it an 8, 9, or 10. That combination of concerns paints the scope of textile sustainability.

OekoPic1My Family And The Global Family

Textile sustainability touches consumers in two ways. First is the close-to-home aspect. Consumers want safe products for their families. Most people take the safety of textile products for granted, as evidenced in “The Key To Confidence” study. However, when they learned about the possibility of harmful substances like pesticides, carcinogenic dyes, and heavy metals to name a few, consumers began to think about their textiles differently. “I had no idea clothing contained harmful substances. When I learned certain foods and packaging contained harmful substances, I changed what I purchased and I would probably do the same for clothing,” said one consumer after learning more.

The second piece of textile sustainability has to do with the effect a textile purchase can have on the environment and on people who make textile products. The topics of pollution, child labor, sweat shops, and fair wages resonate with consumers. And, once they make the connection back to that new shirt they just bought, these concerns have them thinking differently about choices they will make in the future. “I’ve seen documentaries and articles but it’s really sinking in. Now I’m upset and I want to make a difference when I shop for clothes,” one study respondent stated.

Lifestage and generation can influence whether a consumer places more emphasis on the close-in aspects of textile sustainability or the global implications. In general, people with children tend to be a little more concerned about harmful substances. This is especially true for those with concerns about allergies, asthma, and autism. Millennials as a rule are the generation most concerned about the environmental and social implications of textile sustainability.

Doing the Right Thing — The Sustainability Mantra

With regards to sustainability, consumers around the world state that they want “to do the right thing.” They want to buy textiles that are safe. They want to make purchases that don’t cause harm to the planet or support unfair labor practices. Of course, people who live in textile producing regions are much more aware of the sustainability issues the industry faces. Now, thanks to the internet and social media, which give environmental and social advocates a global voice, the concerns in textile producing regions are no longer isolated. As people in other parts of the world learn more, they make the connections and are motivated to make more responsible decisions.

But people want help to do the right thing. People are busy. People don’t have the time to investigate every purchase they make despite how committed they are to making responsible decisions. That’s where brands and retailers can play a crucial role for their consumers. Four in ten (42%) consumers like to know the values and principles of the brands of clothing they buy. And 38% like to know what small steps brands have taken to be more sustainable, even if they are not yet fully “green.”1

Many consumers (64%) in “The Key To Confidence” study who are already thinking about textile sustainability reported that they do check claims when shopping.  A certification label from an objective, independent organization like OEKO-TEX® ranks first with more than half. Forty-nine percent say they check the fabric contents. About a third also claim to check a brand’s sustainability practices.  Of those who say they do not check claims regularly, most say that it is because they trust the brand or retailer or there is a certification label that reassures them.

Short Cuts to Trust

Consumers view brands, retailers, and certifications as short cuts to trust. Trust them, trust in their products. Shoppers count on these parties to do the right thing so that they can be confident that they are also doing the right thing. This makes purchase decisions easier and more efficient and enables consumers to take small steps toward living a more responsible, sustainable textile life.

In “The Key To Confidences” study, OEKO-TEX® explored textile certification in depth. Again, they found that consumer interest in certified clothes and home textiles was quickly approaching interest in certified food. Sixty percent of consumers say they are interested in certified clothing and 56% are interested in certified home textiles compared to the 80% who are interested in certified food. With food leading the way, textiles will follow, and on a much shorter learning curve.

So, what can brands and retailers do now to prepare? The answer is to provide the information that consumers want and make it easy for them to find it. If products are certified by an independent third party like OEKO-TEX®, call it out on labels and hang tags. If factories are implementing new resource conservation actions or programs to benefit workers and their communities, put those stories on websites, in advertising, and on social media. Share sustainability plans and corporate responsibility programs. Be open and honest about the current state and chart a reasonable path to one that is even more sustainable.  Consumers are learning that there are problems. Now they are looking for the companies that provide the better options.

The Age of Millennials

Why the sense of urgency about textile sustainability? OEKO-TEX’s “The Key To Confidence” study clearly indicates that consumer interest is growing. The most important point for brands and retailers to consider is that millennials are the ones driving that interest.

Millennials, born between 1981 and 2000, are the largest generation and represent about a third of the world’s population. They have come of age under the shadow of climate change. They are the most media savvy age cohort so their access to news and their ability to engage with and share information is immense. They have been raised in a certified world, particularly in terms of food, and understand the value. The generation, whose oldest member is 36, is poised now to move into leadership positions in families, industries, and government.

With regards to textile sustainability, millennials in “The Key To Confidence” study were much more aware of the industry’s shortcomings than Boomers with 26% of millennials citing the textile industry as a major polluter as opposed to 16% of Boomers. As a result of their greater knowledge, millennials are much more likely to be worried about harmful substances in their clothes—43%— and home textiles—41%—than Boomers at 31% for both. And when millennial parents were asked, their levels of concern were even higher. More than half of this group (51%) were worried about harmful substances in clothing and 48% about home textiles. . “As a mother, I’m very interested in making sure that our clothes and home textiles are safe from harmful substances and environmentally and socially sustainable,” explained a millennial Parent.

The other important characteristic of this generation is that that their connectedness to global information can sometimes be overwhelming and often leads to skepticism. millennials, almost more than any other generation, want information to be certified, third party, and independent or they listen to information from sources they trust like friends, like-minded organizations, and their favorite brands, certifiers, and retailers. Therefore, brands and retailers who can offer millennials that short cut to trust, will be well positioned to gain favor with this critical segment.

The Key to Confidence

When researchers asked consumers more about textile certification, half of consumers who had purchased certified clothing said that they did so out of concern for harmful substances. Consumers saw purchasing certified textiles as an easy way to do the right thing, to take responsibility, and to feel better about the clothes they buy

When exposed to OEKO-TEX®, consumers gave it high marks for being ethical, trustworthy, expert, and committed. Nine in ten consumers in the study said that an OEKO-TEX® label would give them confidence in the textile products they purchase. The attributes of OEKO-TEX® certification that generated the most confidence were testing for harmful substances, environmental and social monitoring, and objectivity and independence.

The STANDARD 100 by OEKO-TEX® and the LEATHER STANDARD by OEKO-TEX® ensure that products are tested for harmful substances in accordance with the strictest consumer product safety guidelines in the world. The MADE IN GREEN by OEKO-TEX® denotes products that are both tested for harmful substances and responsibly made in OEKO-TEX® certified factories. In addition, OEKO-TEX® offers other certifications for textile products companies to help align the global supply chain, from textile chemicals to finished products, with the emerging consumer demands for safe, sustainable textiles.

For more information about “The Key To Confidence: Consumers and Textile Sustainability,” visit www.OEKO-TEX.com/webinars.

1Source: “The Key To Confidence: Consumers and Textile Sustainability.” OEKO-TEX® and Anerca, 2017.

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