In the early stages of the T2C project, before we began defining and designing the fibres and materials circular fashion and textile industries require, we first set about better understanding the current modes of consumer behaviour and how it differs across countries and demographics.
Wencke Gwozdz, Kristian Steensen Nielsen and Tina Müller of T2C partner Copenhagen Business School conducted research shedding light onto the area and reported their findings in a paper that can be found on our 'Publications and progress' page. Here Tina summarises some of their findings and the possible implications.
Within the Trash-2-Cash project, our team based at Copenhagen Business School is looking at the consumer end of clothing consumption. At first glance, our passion is straightforward: to make the world a more sustainable place. We thereby focus on a very specific area: the (un)sustainability of fashion consumption. Our goal is to make the act of getting dressed a much more environmentally benign and socially just process. And we see what consumers can contribute to accomplish this.
At a second glance, however, things usually get a little more complicated. What does it mean to consume - that is purchase, wear, maintain and discard - clothing items in a sustainable way? Can there ever be truly sustainable solutions within the currently predominant system we call ‘fast fashion’, or do we have to look further then the next quick organic cotton fix? How can we find sustainable clothing alternatives that fit consumer needs, and who do we actually mean when we speak about ‘the consumer’?
To base our ideas on solid foundations, we firstly started out by taking stock – the result being the paper ‘An Environmental Perspective on Clothing Consumption: Consumer Segments and Their Behavioral Patterns of Clothing Consumption’, which I would like to introduce in what follows. The main purpose of this study was to assess clothing consumer behaviour in each consumption phase (purchase, use and maintenance, and disposal).
While I, in the following, will put an emphasis on the purchase phase, a more in-depth discussion of the other phases and some numbers on alternative business models can be found in the paper.
We asked 4,617 members of the public…
For our research, we asked 4,617 consumers from Germany, Poland, Sweden and the U.S. (close to representative on age, gender, region, and education) many questions about their clothing consumption. We then used some of these answers to group the heterogeneous lot into more homogenous groups. The results are five groups, with people most similar in their purchase behaviour grouped together and each group being as distinct as possible from each other.
In summary, the groups can be broken down as follows: two groups of consumers who buy less than average (4.38 and 4.25 items in the past three months) and represent more than half of the sample (2785 consumers), and two groups who buy more than average (8.39 and 10.90 items in the past three months; 1099 consumers). The major difference between the groups buying a similar number of items is the amount spent for those items: for the two below average item groups, the second group spends 35% more on their items. For the two above average item groups, the second group spends 97% more on their items. Additionally, we can find these purchase patterns reflected in the type of brands consumers chose (budget, casual or premium). A fifth group, consisting of just 100 participants, buys large amounts of items (13.63) with high spending from mainly casual and premium brands.
When we look at the demographics of these segments, we find that it matters which country you are from. While the low spending group is dominated by Polish consumers, surely due to their comparatively low income and resulting diminished purchase power, there is a higher percentage of Germans and Americans in e.g. the high item, highest spending group. Female consumers predominate the first low item low spending group (60%) and male consumers prevail in the last, high item highest spending group (57%). Otherwise there are no gender differences between the groups.
It is interesting to make a comparison between the group buying a lower than average number of items with moderate spending (group 2) and the group buying a higher than average number of items but have the same median income (group 3). While the first group is spending 78.38€ on average, the latter is spending more than triple the amount (244.45€) – despite the same median monthly net income. Surprisingly we do not find any age differences across groups.
One size fits all?
If we now go back to our original goals and questions, we can take away from this research that there is no one single consumer when it comes to fashion. Therefore, there cannot be one single royal road to sustainable fashion consumption.
Clothing from regenerated fibres for example, which will be more expensive at least in the beginning, could be a possible alternative for the low or high number of items but high spending groups (groups 2, 3 and 5). For the group with low number of items bought for little money spent, however, the promotion of low cost acquisition alternatives (e.g. second hand, clothing libraries) could be more promising to reduce their environmental impact.
In general, any attempt to foster different sustainable clothing alternatives has to be a) aimed at a specific target group and b) finely matched to their reality and needs in order to have a chance of success.
For the specific context of Trash-2-Cash, we zoom in further from all those broader questions and focus on one of the most discussed solutions to the unsustainability of the fashion industry up to date: closing the loop and making new clothing items out of old and used ones (or other forms of ‘trash’). Our main aim is to analyse the potential clothing from regenerated fibres has with consumers and to answer the question of how we can increase consumers’ acceptance of such clothing products.