Globalization and the hope for a better future
One of the promises of globalization has always been the hope for a better future.
For those living in consumer economies, globalization has meant greater availability of goods at more affordable prices. For other less privileged living in developing nations, globalization was supposed to offer a chance for a better life through job creation.
Although a noble promise all around, in practice this idea has proved more difficult to accomplish. The human cost of catering to consumers’ needs while fulfilling the insatiable corporate drive to maximize profits has ultimately framed globalization as the symbol of exploitation.
‘Fast Fashion’ as a disruptor of the fashion industry
Fashion is one of many industries that have gone through massive disruption in response to globalization.
Recently, a lot of attention has been focused on the concept of fast fashion in particular. Fast fashion relies heavily on cheap labor and resources in order to function and thrive. Most, if not all, brands in this space have been revered by investors as profit making machines, and adored by consumers for helping to democratize runway fashion.
Although the success of this model has garnered much positive news coverage, it has also attracted some scrutiny from labor and environmental activists.
One of the most outspoken individuals in this area has been Livia Firth who said: “fast fashion businesses have created this perfect system that’s practically based on exploitation and slave labor.” The question is whether fast fashion can be both ethical and financially sustainable. And more importantly, do consumers really care?
“Fast fashion businesses have created this perfect system that’s practically based on exploitation and slave labor” — Livia Firth
Is ‘ethical fashion’ a myth?
This question has been the topic of much debate by not only the activists and industry practitioners, but also by the academia. Catrin Joergens wrote about it in her 2006 paper titled “ethical fashion: myth or future trend?” Joergens conducted focus group research in UK and Germany to understand if and how the business practices of fashion brands impact people’s purchasing decisions.
The findings from Joergens’ study suggested that consumers’ personal fashion needs often trump any potential concerns they may have about ethical business practices of the brands they purchase from. Furthermore, in an article published by Huffington Post in 2015, author Michael Hobbes reached similar conclusions through his review of the history of fast fashion and the economics of it.
Hobbes argued that consumers’ demand for cheap and undifferentiated clothes will continue to grow as the middle class expands and emerging markets join the global marketplace.
Social responsibility: an in-vogue concept
Our team’s research addressed some of these same issues, exploring the relationship between social ethics and consumers’ personal demands when it comes to fast fashion. Results indicated that overall consumers are not as socially conscious as initially hypothesized. Interestingly, the specific aspects of social responsibility that people seemed to adhere to aligned with such attributes as “I like to have the latest trends,” and “I believe brand names are synonymous with quality.”
This observation suggests that the concept of social responsibility today might be more of an in-vogue trend rather than indicative of a deeper altruistic value.
Further supporting this conclusion was the observed lack of familiarity with the concept of fast fashion (even among women), as well as a general disinterest in actively seeking information about business practices of the brands consumers regularly engage with. Results also suggest that learning about the socially questionable practices of certain fast fashion brands would not necessarily impact consumers’ future buying behaviors.
Social responsibility as a byproduct of knowledge
However, there was a relationship between active knowledge seeking about business policies of companies and social responsibility. Whether this implies that people who learn about business practices of brands are more likely to become socially responsible or if socially responsible people actively seek out information about the brands they use it is not clear.
A possible explanation for the results might be the age distribution of the sample. The findings might have been different if the average age of our participants skewed more towards the millennial cohort rather than older age groups. Furthermore, research on the concept of social responsibility might yield deeper and more nuanced insights if analyzed within the context of a larger psychographic segmentation study.
In conclusion, the findings do offer some practical insight for different stakeholders and they do corroborate some of the findings from past research:
- For activists who are concerned about improving working conditions and fair business practices, the results support the importance of information sharing and education.
- For fast fashion businesses, findings suggest that the value proposition of their industry (i.e., latest runway fashion available in stores at affordable prices) is too strong of an offer to be immediately impacted by any negative publicity.
- For new fashion brands who are trying to carve out a more socially responsible persona as part of their brand positioning, further research is needed to help identify and understand their key audiences, including their needs, and economic value.