‘A Mixed Bag’: Why Consumer Demand for Sustainability is Stagnant

It’s going to take creativity within the apparel supply chain in order to slow down the proliferation of textile waste and push back against greenwashing.

Even in a world where more brands are looking to accomplish both tasks, barriers exist all the way down to the consumer level, according to two textiles experts at Sourcing Journal’s Sustainability Summit in New York.

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“As more brands get called out on greenwashing claims, whether it was intentional or not, that confuses the consumer, and in the end increases the problem of consumers not choosing the sustainable option,” said Constanza Gomez, CEO and co-founder at textile sortation and identification software firm Sortile. “Because, in some sense, they don’t know if it’s truly sustainable. All of these basically just create more barriers, at least from a psychological standpoint and behavioral standpoint, to increase, more sustainable materials being included in the supply chain.”

Mustafain Munir, president of Bangladesh-based textile recycling mill Cyclo Recycled Fibers, called demand for sustainable apparel “a bit of a mixed bag,” observing that there is a gap between what consumers’ own perception of their purchasing habits compared to their actual purchasing habits.

“When it comes down to brass tacks at the store, are you purchasing something that is more sustainable? Or are you not purchasing something that you like better?” said Munir during the event. “The numbers show that it’s the latter, that people are purchasing what is cheap, what they like, rather than what is more sustainable if they’re not having to pay more money for it.”

For example, one Bain & Co. study from 2023 indicated that nearly half of all developed-market consumers believe that living sustainably is too expensive, even though those consumers said they were willing to pay an 11 percent premium for products with a minimized environmental impact.

Consistent demand for sustainable apparel is required for brands to stand up processes to make quality recycled fibers, Gomez said.

“If you have demand one month, then nothing for three, then just one month again, then nothing for two, a lot of the collectors and sorters need consistent business and outlets for what they’re sorting for,” Gomez said. “That’s really difficult to manage, especially given cyclicality of the textiles industry.”

Apparel can take knowledge from other industries in scaling up textile recycling, especially given the time and costs involved.

Gomez highlighted industries including solar and renewable energy, as well as the electric vehicles (EVs) market, that have price parity—meaning they offer sustainable solutions are likely to cost as much as less substantial options. But she noted that even in those cases, it took decades for this parity to materialize amid years of private investment and government incentives, such as in EV automaker Tesla.

“The textile industry has not had anything like that to date,” Gomez said. “The Americas Act is something that could potentially bring some of that money into the industry. But I think it’s still in its infancy today and the potential to actually get more funding for the industry is going to be necessary for us to get to that price parity.”

The Americas Trade and Investment Act, or Americas Act, as it is often referred, is a bipartisan trade bill introduced in the U.S. Senate in March that includes more than $14 billion in federal incentives for businesses involved in the circular fashion space.

Munir stressed the importance of product quality, which he argued assisted Tesla in generating more subsidies.

“I did not join the business under the intention or pressure that it would be successful because only of force in terms of regulation incentives,” Munir said. “I wanted to make a product that people liked. If you’re not making a product that people like buying, it’s a non-starter.”

On the other hand, the addition of more legislation makes the production process and the incorporation of sustainable materials more of a challenge, Munir said.

While he expressed that the movement of sourcing out of China into countries like his own Bangladesh as a positive, he warned: “If you do a ‘guilty until proven innocent’ type model, it’s going to be difficult when you’re dealing with recycled fibers or dealing with things that come from all over the region.”

Cyclo’s U.S. growth has stagnated, Munir said, “largely because of the risks associated with using buying recycled cotton for the fact that it could have Uyghur cotton in it.”