Academic journal article Human Ecology

THE HIGH COSTS OF CHEAP FASHION: Graduate Student Studies the Market for Ethical Clothing

Academic journal article Human Ecology

THE HIGH COSTS OF CHEAP FASHION: Graduate Student Studies the Market for Ethical Clothing

Article excerpt

Clothing manufacturing and the fashion industry at-large have significant, devastating impacts on the environment, workers, and communities around garment factories, according the experts. However, the movement to buy ethical fashion lags far behind other sustainable consumerism trends. After years of studying waste in the fashion industry, Sarah Portway, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in Fiber Science and Apparel Design, has turned her focus to the consumer-behavior side of the equation to ask why consumers are not "buying their values" when it comes to fashion.

As part of her dissertation research, Portway conducted a case study by interviewing 40 people three times over the course of six months. The participants were selected from the Human Ecology community, mostly graduate students and professionals, making the study sample one of highly-educated and relatively affluent individuals with a bias towards sustainability.

Portway asked the interviewees questions aimed at identifying their commitment to sustainability, what it means to them and how it impacts their consumer choices. Over the course of the three interviews, she infused their conversations with her enthusiasm for sustainable fashion and concerns for the human and environmental costs of clothing manufacturing. Participants were introduced to the website,, a tool for researching ethical clothing options, and asked whether or not they had used the site since the last interview.

Desirability bias alone should have skewed some of her participants toward saying ethical clothing was important to them in an attempt to make themselves look better to their interviewer, Portway explained.

After discussing sustainability behaviors in general for the initial twenty minutes of every interview--where many said they spent slightly more money to buy organic or local food--Portway switched subjects and asked participants "What do you look for when you shop for clothing?" She was surprised when only five participants mentioned any sustainability criteria given the line of questioning up to that point.

The combination of consumer demand for low-cost clothing and the absence of adequate environmental and labor protection laws in certain parts of the world has resulted not only in a loss of manufacturing jobs in the United States, but also environmental and labor abuses in the name of western consumers. …

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