May 16, 2024
by Karl Smith
Consumers Think Sustainability Is Annoying. There’s Only One Answer.
by Karl Smith
May 16, 2024

With greenwashing claims consistently (and often correctly) flung at fashion brands left right and center, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Earth-friendlier messaging was the skeleton key to easy sales. After all, why else would brands that categorically do not care about their impact on the environment – and whose negative impact, with even the most cursory of research efforts, is as clear cut as it comes – put themselves in the spotlight?

Surely the pro-planet headline must be enough to move units and stop consumers from digging any deeper?

Well, no – not so surely at all.

In fact, a recent article in the Business of Fashion pointed not only to evidence that directly contradicts this idea, but also to a broader and more worrying trend: the notion that consumers find sustainability-led messaging performative, hypocritical, and – at the most basic level – flat-out annoying.

The BoF article itself mostly covers recent campaigns by Patagonia and Vestiaire Collective, both of which focus on over-consumption and its obvious detrimental effect on the Earth, and also on the negative response to those campaigns – not just from casual observers but from fans of the brand and regular users of the pre-loved platform.

On Patagonia’s end, this is with regard to a new 45-minute video called “The Shitthropocene” – a play on the term “Anthropocene,” which refers to the age in which humans have had the biggest impact on the Earth’s environment, essentially implying that we are now in the era where “shit” (or “stuff”) is the driving force – a satirical exploration of our consumption habits from the deep past to the present day. (It’s also a nod to the recent coinage “enshittification” – a term used to describe the way in which everything is simply getting worse.) For Vestiaire, it’s the large-scale fast fashion purge and the impactful visuals that came with it which seem to have wound up the keyboard warriors.

When it comes to the latter, this isn’t exactly surprising. Yes, the recent messaging has focused on circularity and waste, but – at the end of the day – it is first and foremost a forum for the selling and purchasing of secondhand clothing. With that in mind, it shouldn’t really be a shock that – of the Paris-based company’s circa-11,000,000 worldwide users – the majority of its customers are only there to buy and sell secondhand clothes with no regard for (or perhaps even knowledge of) that message.

In terms of Patagonia, though, it’s a little more of a slap in the face. Looking after the planet is a core element of the brand’s DNA – not some popular cause the label has latched onto in the last couple of years. To hear that fans of the brand are only interested in performance and aesthetics, not in the narrative which underpins it all is dispiriting to say the least. BoF actually quotes one so-called fan as saying that they “[F]ound this latest film a little but performative, and very much the brand trying to virtue signal,” further adding that the campaign was “disappointing” as a customer.

What’s perhaps most interesting about this, though, and also most concerning, is that these consumers aren’t actually arguing against the point; this isn’t a reactionary, political or ideological response – it isn’t denialism in the traditional sense – because, for the most part, they don’t disagree that there’s a problem. What they disagree with, it seems, is that they’re still being told about it and, by virtue of that, that they’re being told what to do about it.

To which, of course, there is only one reasonable response: grow up.

This crisis is – these crises are – bigger and more important than some residual teenage impulse to become surly and petulant when someone who knows better suggests that perhaps you ought to do what they say based on that knowledge.

What it comes down to, though, as most things do for your average consumer, is cold hard cash – or lack of it. As BoF rightly states, consumers have repeatedly shown a preference for Earth-friendlier and ethical products even when the price is higher. But these surveys exist in a hypothetical world and consumption, unfortunately, happens very much in the real world. As a result, purchasing habits will always be financially driven because finance is what drives consumption. Ethics may stand in the may, but they are hurdles to jump rather than impassable obstructions.

Money, though, is a brick wall: the only way to pass through is to take it apart or knock it down wholesale. And, of course, what that means in practice is bringing down the price of Earth-friendlier products – something that can only happen if a meaningful number of people make the switch and contribute to the Earth-friendlier micro-economy. Which, again, it’s becoming clear that they won’t necessarily do without being pushed.

Change won’t happen without change. It’s a serious Catch-22. Or a Catch-92, where that number points to the 92,000,000 tonnes of clothing-related waste produced each year

So, what’s the answer? Are brands and services with genuine progressive messaging supposed to stop pushing that message because their current consumer base “already gets it”? More, importantly – if it’s true that they “get it” but aren’t changing their behaviours – are those organizations with a genuine interest in an Earth-friendlier future for the fashion industry just supposed to quit reaching out to a wider audience? Are they supposed to just wait for the current cohort to figure it out first? That just doesn’t make sense.

Moreover, if a brand like Patagonia put an end to its progressive messaging – stopped producing new educational materials to engage possible converts to its cause – then there’d be an even bigger backlash, this time accompanied by screams of complacency and even betrayal. There’s simply no winning.

The fact is, while consumers are still complaining with one hand about being bashed over the head with a message that they claim to agree with whilst using the other to buy low-cost, high-impact products, it’s clear that the message is more important than ever. More brands, not less, need to speak up and take the risk of a little pushback; we need more 45-minute videos, not less, and more clear-cut visualizations of over-consumption’s impact on the planet to hammer the point home.

If this annoys consumers, well, who cares? Maybe if they listened and shifted course then there’d be room for the message to change – for the thumping to be a little less brutal. But, as it stands, with things changing nowhere near fast enough, there’s no room for subtlety.

With so much on the line, that’s just another word for complacency.