Eco-friendly. Green. Sustainable. You have probably seen these words, or their synonyms, used to market and promote many consumer products that you use daily. We have even seen them in the marketing campaigns of several well-known fashion brands such as Bayo, H&M, and Nike, as well as new and up-and-coming fashion labels.
Bayo’s #JourneytoZero discloses the company’s textile waste reduction efforts (https://bayo.com.ph/sustainability/). H&M has a Conscious Choice collection, which supposedly contains at least 50% of the more environmentally friendly materials (https://www2.hm.com/en_us/sustainability-at-hm/our-products/explained.html). Nike’s Move to Zero initiative includes its Recycling + Donation program, which encourages customers to drop off used athletic apparel and shoes at participating branches. Nike then sorts these items and either cleans and donates them, or sends them out to be recycled (https://www.nike.com/nl/en/sustainability/recycling-donation).
Perhaps, like me, you also have mixed emotions about these campaigns. On one hand, we applaud companies that take responsibility for their environmental impact. But on the other hand, we wonder how much impact these efforts really have on the planet. These sentiments constitute green skepticism — a person’s hesitance to believe in the environmental benefits of products labeled as eco-friendly or green.
Any skepticism is usually associated with a decrease in a consumer’s interest to purchase a product. As a sustainable fashion enthusiast, I was curious to know if this green skepticism prevents consumers from supporting sustainable fashion. So, I did what any nerdy aspiring researcher would do: look through the literature and do my own survey to better understand which factors lead to consumer skepticism towards sustainable fashion, and whether green skepticism negatively affects the intention to purchase sustainable fashion apparel. I created my survey on Google forms and requested several business ethics professors to share it with the post-millennial (Gen-Z) undergraduate students taking their ethics class. Here are the insights that I have gleaned from the over 300 responses I received, which sustainable fashion brands may also find helpful.
Previous incidents of greenwashing increase green skepticism. Greenwashing is defined by TerraChoice as “the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental performance and positive communication about environmental performance.” Consumers, particularly post-millennials in the Philippines, tend to be more doubtful of a fashion brand that has been previously criticized for deceptive or ambiguous marketing campaigns about its environmental and sustainability practices.
Perceptions that sustainability claims are self-serving increase green skepticism. According to a 2015 article published in the International Journal of Contemporary Hospitality Management on the consequences of greenwashing, consumers tend to believe that company’s sustainability claims and campaigns are motivated by selfish intentions of corporate profits rather than genuine concern for the environment. In my own study, I have also found that post-millennial consumers who tend to believe that companies have self-serving motives are also more skeptical about these companies’ sustainability campaigns.
However, green skepticism does not deter purchase intention. Perhaps the most interesting finding in my own research is that green skepticism does not necessarily affect purchase intention negatively. The numbers showed a positive relationship between the two, i.e., a consumer with a high level of green skepticism is still interested in purchasing sustainable fashion apparel. According to a 2017 article published in the Journal of Business Ethics on the causes and consequences of green skepticism, this is because green skepticism may in fact prompt consumers to seek more information about the sustainability claims of a brand, which may in turn lead to purchase intentions.
How then should green skepticism be viewed? What I took away from my readings and my own study is that green skepticism is not necessarily a bad thing. It may even be the stimulus to get consumers to learn more about sustainable fashion. Thus, green skepticism may pique consumer interest, but sustainable fashion companies should allay any distrust in their claims. Sustainable fashion companies must be mindful of how they craft and disseminate their sustainability efforts and claims. Their messages must be clear and transparent to dispel any doubt that they might only be masking self-serving intentions.
Liza Mae L. Fumar is a PhD in Business student of De La Salle University, where she also teaches Human Behavior in Organizations and Corporate Social Responsibility and Governance. Her research interests include consumer behavior and green consumption.