Last Sunday marked the third anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh, which killed over 1,100 garment industry workers. The largest industrial accident in garment industry history, the tragedy has inspired renewed interest and activism around creating a more ethical and sustainable fashion industry. Last week, Assemblyfor CEO Joanna Mikulski spoke at an event on ending child labor in the fashion industry sponsored by Fashion Revolution, a non-profit founded after the disaster that wants to create an industry that “values people, the environment, creativity and profits in equal measure.”

It’s a significant challenge. The appeal of cheap clothing is easy to understand. The latest trends, once only available to a small, wealthy slice of the population, are now right there in the mall at affordable prices days after hitting the runway. The fast fashion industry is growing rapidly, and increasing demand and rising competition are leading companies to urge suppliers to deliver clothes faster and at even lower cost. The consequence is an ever more complex supply chain, where labor standards are lax and even companies who want to do the right thing have a hard time controlling how their clothes are produced.

No single actor is going to be able to tackle the challenge of creating a more ethical fashion industry alone. This is an issue where building bridges between a range of stakeholders, including governments, companies, civil society, and consumers, is critical. But for now, I’d like to focus on consumers and strategies that might help change their behavior.  

3 Ideas on Making Consumers Allies in a More Ethical and Sustainable Fashion Industry

1.     Make the tension between a person’s values and their actions more tangible. No one would be happy to discover that their cheap t-shirt was manufactured with the help of a young girl or boy working in dangerous, even life-threatening, conditions. Or that the factory producing it dumped hazardous chemicals into a river that the local community relies on for drinking water.  

Many simply aren’t aware of the human and environmental cost of cheap clothes, and increasing their knowledge of the problem can help change their purchasing decisions. Yet, among the shiny, colorful rows of cool, extraordinarily cheap clothing, it’s easy even for those who do know to ignore the reality of how those clothes were produced. This doesn’t make them bad people – it’s a function of how our brains work. When the benefit (cute t-shirt for 5.99€!) is close and the cost is distant (children we can’t see working in a dangerous factory), we’re programmed to act in favor of our immediate gain.

To get past this cognitive dissonance, advocates for a more ethical fashion industry need to make the costs more apparent for consumers— and do so in a way that doesn’t just appeal to logic, but makes people feel the consequences of their purchases. Fashion Revolution sought to make this happen through its 2€ t-shirt experiment in Berlin’s Alexanderplatz, a major shopping area. You can watch the video here.

2.     Make it easier for people to buy from brands with sustainable and fair labor practices. A key finding from behavioral science is that it’s difficult (but not impossible) to change hearts and minds. Changing the environment— in this case, reducing the barriers that keep people from buying in alignment with their values— is often a more efficient way to change behavior. Even in Berlin, which has a well-developed community around ethical fashion, consumers often have to actively seek out information and opportunities to buy products that were fairly, safely and sustainably produced. On Alexanderplatz, fast fashion brands, including a few with bad track records, have prominent locations while transparent information on how specific brands produce clothing is difficult, if not impossible, to come by. Initiatives like Fair Wear are trying to change that, but more needs to be done to give consumers information on sustainability and labor practices when and where they make purchasing decisions.

3.     Leverage the power of social proof. There’s a classic behavior change study conducted by Robert Cialdini (an intellectual hero of mine!) that explores how to get people to reduce their energy consumption. Households are presented with different messages on why they should strive to be more energy efficient, roughly—

1.     Do it to save the environment;

2.     Do it for the future generations (i.e., your children);

3.     It will save you money; and,

4.     Your neighbors are doing it.

Guess which one is most effective in getting people to turn their lights off?

Number 4.

Consumers who care about this issue can often feel powerless in the face of the magnitude of the problem, but taking part in campaigns like Fashion Revolution’s #WhoMadeMyClothes initiative can be more powerful than they think— both in the pressure it can put on brands and the signals it sends to their peers. The challenge now is to build the reach of these campaigns and show growing momentum throughout the year across a range of mediums.

But, efforts to change consumer behavior are unlikely to be enough. And so, a final note for advocates on building bridges—

Companies that make commitments to fair labor practices and sustainability can often get more heat for their failures than those that don’t. Advocates should absolutely hold these companies accountable for their actions and commitments, but they should reserve their real ire and negative attention for companies which are flagrantly acting in bad faith. If good deeds get punished the most, the community will never be able to build the cross-sector coalitions necessary to bring about real change.

For more on creating a social sustainable business that supports children and families, check out WithoutViolence’s publication, “Why Should Your Business Be Investing in Parents and Children?”