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When you ask consumers around the world what keeps them up at night, you might be surprised at the answer. Terrorism takes the #1 spot, illness and disease come next, and climate change ranks third.  That’s right, third. In fact, climate change concerns beat out worries about political leadership, health care, and other pretty troubling topics. More than 80% of global consumers consider climate change to be real and very serious. More than 70% think that climate change is attributable to human activity, and 63% believe that the actions of an individual can help reverse climate change.  Encouragingly, 70% of surveyed consumers state that they are committed to living a more sustainable and environmentally responsible lifestyle.

Those findings are the result of the global survey, “The Key To Confidence: Consumers and Textile Sustainability” conducted by OEKO-TEX® to determine how consumers are feeling about sustainability and other issues that affect the textile industry. The findings from this first-of-its-kind market research study clearly indicate that consumers are very interested in making more responsible decisions about the clothing and home textiles they buy.

That really should not be so surprising. The textile industry has been expecting it ever since all those organic food stickers started showing up in the grocery store a decade ago. As usually occurs, concerns about pesticides, dyes, and additives start with consumables like food and personal care products then flow through to other product categories. What did surprise researchers in the OEKO-TEX® study is the narrow 20 percentage point gap between food and textiles, which is closer than predicted.

% of consumers who are concerned about harmful substances in

Food

59%

Personal care products

49%

Clothing

40%

Home textiles

39%

So, what does that mean? Consumers are already well aware of hazardous substances in food. Transferring that awareness to other products like clothing and home textiles is much easier now that consumers are receptive to the concept. Also, social media and the vast number of other media outlets make getting the word out so much easier. That suggests that consumers who are already concerned will start actively seeking out more sustainable textiles while even those people who have not yet expressed concerns will start to look at their clothing and home textiles a little differently.

Perspective Shapes Sustainability Attitudes

Consumers evaluate sustainability through two lenses. First, how does it affect my family and me and, second, how does it affect the world at large? Some consumers, depending on their level of awareness and their life stage, may come down a little more heavily on one side or the other, but textile sustainability hits home with most in both regards. People, particularly parents, are concerned about harmful substances in their textile products and how they might be detrimental to their family’s health. People, especially Millennials, are also concerned about the industry’s impact on the environment as well as the working conditions within the industry.

Experience with and exposure to the textile industry shape those perceptions. The people in OEKO-TEX’s survey who live in textile producing regions were much more likely to be concerned about harmful substances in textiles as well as the environmental and social effects the industry can have. Those who are not as familiar with how clothing and home textiles are produced were less concerned. However, consumers do not have to live in a textile producing region in order to be sensitized to textile sustainability issues.

Documentaries, social media postings, outspoken activists, and news coverage about the apparel and home textile industries are getting a lot of play these days and do a good job of educating people wherever they reside. And, as observed in the OEKO-TEX® study, the more people know, the more they care. In fact, once study respondents who live outside textile producing regions were exposed to the facts, their concerns about harmful substances, environmental footprint, and working conditions escalated to be on par with those who were familiar with the industry on a first-hand basis.

Doing the Right Thing

When it comes to textile sustainability, consumers want to do the right thing. They want to buy clothing and home textiles that are not harmful to their family. They want those textiles to be produced with respect for the environment and the people employed in textile factories. They count on brands, retailers, and certifiers to help them make easy, responsible purchase decisions.     

Brands and retailers can respond to this demand with straightforward and plentiful information. According to the OEKO-TEX® study, consumers want to know what their brands and retailers are doing with respect to textile sustainability, even if the brand or retailer isn’t perfectly “green” yet. Advances in chemical management, initiatives that guard water, earth, and air, programs to protect workers’ rights, and transparent supply chains that stand up to third party scrutiny should be publicized. Consumers are looking for this information on products, in stores, on websites, in mainstream media, and in social media.

Independent certifications are a very useful tool as well, according to “The Key To Confidence” study. More than half of the consumer who purchase eco-friendly clothing check for certification labels to validate sustainability claims. For those who don’t bother to verify claims, a third said they trusted the brand and a third said they take a product certification label at face value. Brands and certifiers together can give consumers easy, time-saving shortcuts to making the responsible purchase decisions they want to make.

Brands and retailers who provide verifiable sustainability information in an accessible way will win consumers interested in making more responsible decisions. And as researchers have found in other sustainability studies, once people learn how to live more sustainably, they rarely go back. That means that textile sustainability isn’t just a fashion-of-the-day trend but a long-term shift in the way brands, retailers, and consumers think about textiles.  

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