COP26: Changing consumer behaviours can help improve sustainability in fashion

11 November 2021

Prof Fiona Hackney discusses how being creative can help consumers develop pro-environmental behaviour



By Fiona Hackney, Professor of Fashion at Manchester Fashion Institute at Manchester Metropolitan University

As political leaders, environmental experts, activists, and agencies from across the world struggle to forge a net zero programme at COP26, how should the fashion industry and consumers respond?

The devastating social and environmental effects of fast fashion are now well known. Yet, while campaigning organisations such as WRAP and Fashion Revolution hold brands to account, change is uneven and slow.

The disappointing response to the Environmental Audit Committee’s report Fixing Fashion: Clothing Consumption and Sustainability in 2019 - where none of the recommendations were implemented - demonstrates governmental ambivalence.

Manufacturers, retailers, and government regulators need a wake-up call and, according to Green Party MP and Environmental Audit committee panel member Caroline Lucas, findings from Citizens’ Assemblies show that the public is ready for change.

Changing consumer behaviour

In my research for the Designing a Sensibility for Sustainable Clothing (S4S) project, we explore how consumers can develop pro-environmental behaviour.

Just as the habits of ‘throwaway culture’ - a response to wartime austerity and make-do-and-mend – had to be marketed as a lifestyle choice from the mid twentieth century, we can learn the pleasures and benefits of pro-environmental living today.

S4S proposed that change comes through processes of consensus and co-operation, which are best achieved through collective acts of creativity: making, caring, sharing, repurposing existing garments, and repair.

Through a series of workshops designed to encourage behaviour change, participants gained hands-on experience of working with natural yarns and dyes, hand-spinning, and weaving, learning visible repair skills, bespoke pattern cutting, and how to restructure and repurpose knitted garments.

Clothing diaries and wardrobe audits (clothes counts and interviews), meanwhile, helped people better understand their shopping habits, and tell their ‘clothing stories’ about how and when they acquired garments, why they have kept them and how often they are worn.

Participants said that working hands on to learn skills and repurpose garments gave them the courage and inspiration to tackle repairs and modifications and to shop more sustainably as making sustainable choices rather than buying the latest fashion became normalised.

Just as the habits of ‘throwaway culture’ - a response to wartime austerity and make-do-and-mend – had to be marketed as a lifestyle choice from the mid twentieth century, we can learn the pleasures and benefits of pro-environmental living today.

Outcomes from the wardrobe audits and interviews were recently published in a new book, The Routledge Companion to Fashion Studies and Resolution, a film documenting the research, was screened earlier this year at IFFTI, a prestigious global fashion conference hosted by Pearl Academy India.

Findings revealed three major drivers for successful behaviour change: connection with a like-minded community to reinforce behaviour, affectual engagement with the materiality of garments to realise change, and personal investment – clothing behaviour change aligned with changes in other aspects of life and identity (employment, family circumstances etc.).  

We have considered the value of the project in a wider political, social, and environmental context, while participants reflected on their own clothing behaviours, and the degree to which and how they have changed.

What became clear was the importance of memory in participants’ relationship with their clothing. This influenced a set of personalised strategies to increase the longevity of clothing and reduce environmental impact, from re-making garments to constructing a system based on wartime coupons to limit purchase.

A new set of priorities emerged – to care for clothes, respect and value them, pay attention to how garments could connect us to others, and other versions of ourselves. The personal becomes political and the wardrobe a quietly activist space for social, economic, and political agency and change.

Participant's system for limiting clothes based on based on wartime coupons to limit purchase

Embracing slow fashion

S4S’s contribution to the 2019 Environmental Audit Committee Report recommended that making, repair, and repurposing hubs be established in shops, galleries, schools, and community spaces to normalise such activities, even integrating them with shopping to reinvigorate the high street.

These hubs would provide opportunities for people to embrace slow fashion, share knowledge, understand quality and value their clothing, learn new skills for the care, preservation and repurposing of clothes, develop sustainable business opportunities, and be active in their communities. 

Governments in developed economies tend to rely on technological innovation, but if change is to be transformational it has also to be about social innovation, behaviour change, and how we live our lives.

The pandemic has shown us we can adapt and innovate quickly, but also that we need to act collectively for systemic change.

The Prime Minister has said that pro-environmental change should not equate to wearing a ‘hair shirt’.

Sustainable behaviour is not about giving things up but rather about making the most of what we have, connecting with others, imagining, and making new and more caring versions of ourselves.

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