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Environmentally Sustainable Textile Consumption—What Characterizes the Political Textile Consumers?

Abstract

The textile and clothing industry is considered as one of the most polluting industries in the world. Still, the regulation of environmental hazards connected to the industry is very limited, and much responsibility is placed on the shoulders of consumers. One of the few ways that ordinary consumers can seek to influence the textile and clothing industry is through their own consumption practices and their wallet. This article departs from the discourse on sustainable consumption and the role of the consumer as an agent for change, and the article investigates the characteristics of the consumers who practice deliberate environmentally sustainable consumption of textiles and clothing. This is done through the lens of political consumption. Based on a cross-national survey conducted in five Western European countries, factors that have been found to predict general political consumption in previous research are tested on the field of textiles and clothing. The findings demonstrate both similarities and some discrepancies with previous studies of political consumption as well as significant country variations.

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Notes

  1. When talking about the textile and clothing industry in this article, I am referring to the range of activities from the cultivation and transformation of fibres to yarns and fabrics and, from these, to clothing used by the consumer.

    Furthermore, textiles are broadly defined as any materials, as a fibre or yarn, that are used in or suitable for weaving, while clothing is broadly defined as anything that covers, adorns, and accessorizes the body.

  2. Textile and clothing consumption encompasses acquiring, storing, using, maintaining, and discarding textile and clothing products (Winakor 1969). However, as the purpose of this article is to investigate political textile consumption, I am limiting the focus to the consumer behaviours related to the acquisition of textiles and clothing.

  3. The National Consumers League (NCL), founded in New York in 1891, was among the first to talk about “the power of the pocketbook” as a way to force governments to intervene though legislation and regulation (Dubuisson-Quellier 2013:24).

  4. Other examples include the Nordic Swan where 352 (3.3 %) out of 10,432 certified products are textile products. Only 22 of these textile products are categorized as clothing (Nordic Swan 2015). The Blue Angel has certified mattresses and textile floor coverings, but so far, no apparel products have been certified (Blue Angel 2015).

  5. According to Meyer (2001). consumers’ general textile decision processes follow a specific order. First of all, the consumer judges the visual appearance (colour, shape, and style) of the products. Then, they judge the products’ touch and, thereafter, the fit, wearing comfort, and price (in relation to performance). These aspects are found to outweigh other aspects, and sustainable aspects of clothes only add value in cases where the product in question already fulfils these requirements (Butler and Francis 1997; Meyer 2001; Niinimäki 2010). Clothing consumption is also characterized by being an important arena for symbolic consumption and function as a social marker (e.g., Ekström and Salomonsen 2014).

  6. The exact sample sizes are the following: Germany, 1045; France, 1027; UK, 1039; Norway, 1004; and Sweden, 1089.

  7. Twenty-four percent of the sample reported having boycotted a brand or a store, and 20 % reported having engaged in a political purchase. Among those who engaged in at least one act, 40 %engaged in both acts. Thirty-six percent engaged in political purchasing only, and 24 %engaged in boycotting only. The correlation between the two variables is strong and statistically significant (Pearson’s R = 0.547, p < 0.001).

  8. In a regressing without Sweden, gender was not found to be statistically significant.

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Acknowledgments

I would like to thank the participants in the project on sustainable regulation, of which this article is a result of, for their valuable comments. The project is financed by the Norwegian Research Council (NRC). I would also like to thank two anonymous reviewers for their highly relevant and helpful comments.

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Correspondence to Marthe Hårvik Austgulen.

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Austgulen is currently working as a seconded national expert to the European Commission. This contribution expresses exclusively the personal opinion of its author and does not, in any case, bind the European Commission.

Appendix

Appendix

Variable operationalization

Variable Operationalization
Dependent variable
 Political consumption Measured at nominal level based on two questions: “Have you during the past 12 months done the following: (1) bought clothes or textiles with special labels to support the sale of these products, such as Fair Trade or eco-labels, and (2) avoided buying certain clothing brands or shopping in certain stores because of ethical concerns.” 0 = has not engaged in boycott or buycott of textiles or clothing during the last 12 months and 1 = has engaged in at least one of the two forms of political consumerism. Respondents that used the categories “not relevant” and “do not know” are also included in the reference category, as these responses indicate that they do not have a reflected relationship to political consumption of textiles and clothes.
Socio-demographic variables
 Gender Measured at nominal level: 0 = male, 1 = female.
 Age Measured at ordinal level with four categories: 0 = 18–29, 1 = 30–44, 2 = 45–59, and 3 = 60–83 years.
 Education Measured at nominal level: 0 = education level lower than university or university college level and 1 = education level at university or university college level.
 Economic situation Measured at ordinal level based on the question “How would you describe your household’s economy for the past 12 months?” 0 = very poor and 4 = very good.
Values
 Political orientation Measured at nominal level based on the question “Which party did you vote for in the last parliamentary election?” The answers are recoded as dummy variables according to the alignment of political parties in the five countries based on the categorization of the European Parliament. The categorization of the Norwegian political parties is based on Aardal et al. (2011). Three dummy variables are constructed: one for respondents who voted for left parties and green partiesa, one for the respondents who voted for other parties, and one for respondents who did not vote, who prefer not to say, or who did not remember. The latter group is used as reference group in the analyses.
 Perception of consumer responsibility Measured at ordinal level based on the responses to the statement “I think that I have a responsibility as a consumer to buy products that are as environmentally friendly as possible.” 0 = strongly disagree and 4 = strongly agree.
 Perception of consumer influence Measured at ordinal level based on the question “When it comes to the assortment of clothing in the stores, to what extent do you think that your voice as a consumer counts?” 0 = strongly disagree and 4 = strongly agree.
Knowledge and availability
 Familiarity with labels Measured as an index of the respondents’ familiarity with four global sustainability labelsb (the EU-Flower, GOTS, Fair Trade, and Oeko-Tex 100c). The variable is constructed as a scale from 0 to 4 where a score of “0” indicates that the respondent does not know any of the labels, while a score of “4” indicates that the respondents are aware of all of themd. The respondents who report to not know any of the labels are used as reference category in the analysis.
 Perception of availability Measured at ordinal level based on the question “I know where to go if I want to buy eco-labelled clothes and textiles.” 0 = strongly disagree and 4 = strongly agree.
Own behaviour
 Information seeking Measured as an additive index (α = 0.788) combining responses to three questions: “How often do you check the following when you buy clothing and textiles?” (1) The wash tag, (2) which material the product is made of/fibre content, and (3) where the product is made (origin). The scale ranges from answering “never” to all questions (0) to “always” to all questions (12), and the respondents who answered never to all questions are used as reference category in the analysis.
 Consumption level Measured at ratio level based on the question “During the past month, approximately how many garments have you bought for yourself or for anyone in your household (excluding underwear and socks)?” The respondents who did not buy any textiles or clothing during the past month are used as reference category in the analysis. Unrealistic reports such as 100 garments or moree have been treated as outliers, and the continuous scale ranges from 0 to 50 garments in a month. This variable had quite a few missing observations (549 of 5204). To avoid reducing the amount of observations in the regression analyses, these respondents who did not answer this question have been assigned mean values.
  1. aNorway: Rødt (R), Sosialistisk Venstreparti (SV), Arbeiderpartiet (Ap), Miljøpartiet de Grønne (MGP), Senterpartiet (Sp). Sweden: Vänsterpartiet (V), Socialdemokraterna (S) and Miljöpartiet de Gröna (MP), UK: Sinn Féin (SF), Labour Party (LAB), Green Party of England and Wales (GP), Scottish National Party (SNP), Playd Cymru–Party of Wales (PC), France: Parti Communite Français (PCF), Parti Radical de Gauche (PRG), Parti Socialiste (PS), Les Verts (LV), Germany: Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD), Die Grünen. Unfortunately, “Die Linke” was not included as an alternative in the German questionnaire, so the respondents who voted for this party are counted under the category “other parties”
  2. bIn order to be able to construct a measure that could be used in all countries, the index is restricted to global labels. However, familiarity with the relevant national labels is found to be high in all countries studied (Austgulen 2013)
  3. cOeko-Tex 100 is a health label, not a sustainability label, but it was included since it is a label that is very frequently found on textiles and clothing
  4. dA score of 4 does, however, not say that the associations of the respondents are correct. However, the overall findings show that a majority of the respondents who did associate the labels with anything were on the right track
  5. eSixteen respondents said that they had bought 100 garments or more

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Austgulen, M.H. Environmentally Sustainable Textile Consumption—What Characterizes the Political Textile Consumers?. J Consum Policy 39, 441–466 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10603-015-9305-5

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Keywords

  • Sustainable consumption
  • Political consumption
  • Textiles
  • Clothing
  • Environmental regulation
  • Consumerism