Fashion & Psychology

Understanding Consumer Emotions to Enhance Sustainability and Drive Fashion’s Circular Economy

As we are facing the reality of climate crisis and begin to understand the negative impact the fashion industry has on the environment, it is inevitable that fashion sustainability has become a core necessity rather than a “checkbox” for fashion brands. To put into perspective for example, the apparel and footwear industry alone is responsible for approximately 2 – 3 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions, which equates to roughly 10% of global CO2 output making it the second largest contributor after the oil industry. To mitigate global warming, it is suggested that we must cut emissions by 50% to keep temperatures within 1.5oC of what they were during pre-industrial levels.
Romija Stale CollectionCourtesy of Romija Stale

Granted, the significant growth in technologies, production scales, and consumer demand for constant newness and cheaper products in recent decades have made imposing slow fashion initiates more difficult. Added to this challenge is the fact that the global fashion supply chain system has yet to adequately develop consistent environmental management strategies in part due to the complexity the multiple stakeholders involved (i.e., fashion brands, garment workers, consumers and governments). Therefore, reaching fashion sustainability may require breaking the industry down into individual stakeholders and tackling each one separately. Here, we place the magnifying glass on fashion brands and designers – specifically addressing how understanding the emotion of consumers can attract them to partake in the “circular economy.”

The circular economy refers to a system where materials don’t become wasted but rather are repurposed to extend their life cycle and fashion brands and designers are crucial to influencing this process.  As such, many brands are placing their focus on eco-designs, which mitigate environmental harm during the product life cycle: from raw materials to production to disposal. While this is a good strategy for sustainability, we may also take a step further and consider integrating the minds of consumers into the design equation. Studies have shown that consumers agree to the practice of sustainability but rejected sustainable products that did not fit their tastes. Clearly sustainability isn’t just about what’s practical for the environment. At the end of the day, dead stock is still a major concern leading to excessive waste.


Shenhav Bar Collection Courtesy of Shenhav Bar

To tap into the minds of consumers, emotionally durable design (EDD) is an approach that specifically targets the connection between buyers and their sustainable lifestyle. The theory of EDD was first published in 2005 by Dr. Jonathan  Chapman, a professor and director of doctoral studies at Carnegie Mellon’s School of Design. It proposes the circular economy as a design approach to extend the life of a product by encouraging a more durable and resilient relationship between the product and the consumer. Simply put, the person who bought it wants to keep it and not discard it because of an emotional attachment. Therefore, fashion designers wield the power to evoke an intimate connection between their product and consumers that could spin the circular economy in the right direction. However, questions remain as to what factors should be prioritized when incorporating EDD in fashion and what triggers consumers to keep their products beyond just durability and practicality?

One of the major challenges with the EDD approach in sustainable fashion is the general unpredictable future of fashion design related to diversity, rapidly changing trends, and consumers. In a recent case study published in Frontiers in Psychology, conducted by Drs. Kam and Yoo (2022), the authors found that only a small number of brands have adopted EDD during the design process. This approach is sometimes overlooked because “consumer emotion” is unpredictable and hard to measure or anticipate. Therefore the authors created a more tangible EDD checklist, which designers could use as a practical tool when considering consumer emotion in their designs. The checklist includes: 1) collaboration with local artisans, 2) handcrafted touches, 3) handwoven material sourcing, 4) personal design concepts focusing on the consumer’s personality and taste, and 5) brand signature pieces tailored to sustain the consumer’s taste and aesthetics.


Tanja Vidic CollectionCourtesy of Tanja Vidic


Fashion-elicited emotion in consumers is a complex subject, and there are multiple studies in the field of Fashion Psychology that have investigated how clothing could impact beyond the individual and shape the fashion industry’s practices and our culture. Take the “dress for success” phenomenon for example, it illustrates how our society have ingrained this idea that the way people dress will affect their performance and directly reflect how they will be treated. Therefore, it is possible to reshape consumerism in a circular economy that focuses on conscious use rather than consumption to support sustainability practices. This could be achieved perhaps in part by leveraging education but more importantly the adoption of rational policies by governments. 

We all connect to fashion in a unique way (i.e., some see fashion to conform, some like dress to impress, and some use fashion to express individuality), so it is not surprising to hear varying interpretations of sustainable fashion from people in different industries. “I personally think of it as renewable materials like bamboo and hemp”, said Robert Berlin, a photojournalist and podcaster. In another perspective: “I either think of materials that are vegan and/or ethically sourced, or something about the waste generated in production,” said Dr. Karen Tang, MD, a well-respected gynecology expert and surgeon who has over half a million followers across her social media platforms. For digital media and content creator Katrina-Olson Mottahed, sustainable fashion “needs to be an end game that is also the beginning for the garment whether it’s recycling or upcycling.” 

Above are examples and evidence that fashion sustainability is practiced differently depending on one’s perception, exposure, and knowledge of the topic. This further illustrates there is not a single formula that dictates what triggers consumers to be an active participant in the circular fashion economy. Still, brands and designers should navigate how their products could connect with consumers in a meaningful way. Consider Patagonia’s approach to EDD: in addition to offering product repairs and “trade-in buy used” program, the company reinforces the connection with consumers by featuring their stories and photos on its Worn Wear website. Afterall, “We are consumers of meaning, not matter,” said Dr. Chapman in an interview, "The whole marketing approach needs to start with helping people see that we already view material things in this way," he added, "We are capable of forming attachments, repairing things and keeping stuff. We do it every day."


Juan de la Paz CollectionCourtesy of Juan de la Paz


From a consumer point of view, one of the challenges when opting for a sustainable lifestyle is the constant clash with greenwashing products, a term that refers to companies preying on our concerns about global warming to sell their products as eco-friendly when in fact they are not. As consumers we have the conscious choice to learn about and avoid greenwashing strategies. Another option is to choose classic pieces that we could wear longer so we buy less, over short-lived fashion like fad products. However, with the vast amount of information being pushed out every minute of the day we can’t place all the burden on consumers to decipher what’s fact and what’s misleading. Businesses and designers have the obligation to do their work to drive the sustainability narrative in the right direction, as do legislators. 

And when we discuss the obligation to influence consumers towards a more responsible consumption, an action item to consider is business remodeling. “When it comes to sustainability, we used to believe that education is key to change consumers’ behavior but that is only partially true ”, said Matteo Ward, co-founder of WRÅD and Fashion Revolution Italia. He’s recently produced a docu-series on fashion sustainability called JUNK which is aired on SKY. “What we need is to identify the barriers that prevent consumers to live sustainability – these barriers could be economics, visibility, and psychology”, Ward added. “The definition of sustainable fashion should involve creating clothes that extend the pleasure of use every single day. Designers should create a model that captures (consumers) emotional durability; we need to not speak to the brains but speak to the hearts”. Ward’s advice is backed by studies that showed creative marketing tools are generally more effective than the ones that are educational.

Unmade UnmadeCourtesy of Alena Stepanova

As mentioned, fashion sustainability is rather complex, hence there are multiple sustainable approaches that brands have employed, such as using eco-friendly materials, designing for functionality durability, using sustainable fashion technology and having a blueprint for reuse and remanufacturing. Sometimes we neglect to factor in consumers’ purchasing behavior during the designing process. If designers are willing to take the step to invest in fashion psychology, enhance consumer experiences by making emotional connections, and factor the EDD approach into their products, then there is an elevated chance of success in sustainability. Furthermore, this would help connect consumers, one of the essential stakeholders in the fashion industry, to making a circular fashion economy more in vogue.


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