Sustainability is now a common terminology within societal discourse, infiltrating into consumers consciousness to prompt them to consider the consequences of their actions. Although businesses are beginning to acknowledge their responsibility for sustainability, critics feel that mainstream retailer efforts are insufficient to make any real difference. This is especially true of fashion retailers where sustainably produced garments are limited in volume and style. This highly competitive sector is reliant on low pricing and rapid style change to entice consumption. Low cost fashion is a consequence of the fast fashion business model to keep production costs low, and this is reflected in the quality of the materials used and the construction of the garment, both of which reduce longevity. Although some fashion retailers encourage customers to recycle unwanted clothing in store, ‘encouragement’ comes with a voucher to inspire further consumption, perpetrating the cycle of production. This acts in contrast to sustainability which requires the prolonged use of scare resources and minimising what is sent to landfill.
So, what are consumers to make of these sustainability mixed messages?
My research found that some consumers tend to bypass retailers and embrace second hand redistribution markets. The data was informed by 28 professionally working mums who lived in Edinburgh and had children who were under the age of 12, although some also had older children. The broad approach to the research was to inquire how the participants acquired fashion for themselves and their children. It is important to note the difference between accessing fashion for themselves and their children was due, in part, to their children’s continued growth. As growth needs necessitated constant consumption, price was an important consideration. Yet the participants expressed discomfort with low pricing, amid allegations of exploitation in the supply chain. Price also had implications for quality, of both the fabric and the garment construction. Whilst the participants were prepared to pay a higher price for the fashion they purchased for themselves to ensure a better fit and appearance, as their children regularly outgrew clothing they were more price conscious. As such, used clothing satisfied transitory needs.
The sharing of used clothing falls within anti-consumption theories to resist dominant market structures, and support new business models. New business models that encourage collaborative consumption have disrupted other industry sectors, such as the impact of Airbnb in the hospitality industry and Uber changing consumer’s transportation habits. Disruptive business models have repositioned consumer perceptions of value, often offering higher levels of control and responsibility within the experience, especially as many initiatives are consumer led. Due to the regularity of routines, to both replenish children’s clothing to meet growth needs and dispose of clothing that no longer fitted, consideration for what would pertain to the best outcomes were considered and this included who could make good use of the garments. Disposal routes included: sharing, exchanging (trading), donating, recycling and ridding (to landfill), however it should be noted that no participant admitted to sending garments to landfill! Sharing, exchanging and donating was facilitated within redistribution channels that included both formal structures, such as local sales run by national organisations including the National Child Trust, and passing used clothing between friends and family.
Previous research had identified that redistribution markets and collaborative consumption events transcend utilitarian needs encourage community cohesiveness, and this was evident in my research. There was much pride experienced in participating in community driven redistribution events. And there was also a desire to help other mothers less well-off through donating clothes their children had outgrown, both within the UK and overseas. Redistribution markets also offered the participants the opportunity to sell clothes the children had outgrown but were still in good condition, although this was dependant on higher quality garments that had cost more, but this meant that the participants could recoup some money back. Therefore, participating in redistribution networks satisfied utilitarian needs as well as fitting with ideologies for making the most of resources and supporting other mothers. Intentions to embrace sustainability were evident in the use of related terminology, whereby re-using clothing was considered as ‘recycling’ and led to altruistic feelings.
Overall, the research found that participating in redistribution markets was an active role, which involved consideration of who would benefit from donations. In contrast, purchasing from fashion retailers or supermarkets was passive amid frustrations that the sustainability agenda. The participants believed that responsibility for sustainability lay with the retailer who made supply chain decisions, whereas through consumption, the participants assumed personal responsibility for the garment, and made sure that disposal, whether to redistribution markets or recycling, adhered to their preferences for sustainability. My research suggests opportunities for innovative business models that further advance the sustainability agenda through providing new pathways for acquiring and donating used children’s clothing in such a way to acknowledge both societal and environmental issues.
Read the original research article: Ritch, E. (2019). ‘From a mother to another’: creative experiences of sharing used children’s clothing. Journal of Marketing Management. https://doi.org/10.1080/0267257X.2019.1602555
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