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Images of blazing wildfires, cracked dry farmland or satellite shots of melting ice may get people thinking about the environment, but they have not become full-fledged activists as a result. Although consumers might reduce, reuse and recycle, for the most part they look to larger entities to make real change. And consumers are increasingly looking for transparency in those practices.
Timberland's Betsy Blaisdell, senior manager of environmental stewardship, says the company has long been known for best practices in transparency and accountability, having published an annual corporate social responsibility (CSR) report for more than a decade.
"We think being a responsible business means both acting responsibly—managing the company’s impact and also communicating responsibly—being open and honest about the brand’s actions, and accountable for these actions," Blaisdell says.
A recent Stylus report says brands realize there is growing consumer demand for deeper levels of transparency and background information.
Consumers have mixed feelings, though, about the environment and their apparel choices. More than two-thirds (68%) would be bothered if they found out an apparel item they purchased was not produced in an environmentally friendly way, according to the Cotton Incorporated 2012 Environment Survey. But only 27% seek environmentally friendly clothing for themselves, down significantly from 34% in 2008.
"There is indeed a continued disconnect between what consumers say they want and what they do," says Simon Ferrigno, consultant to Sustainable & Organic Farming Systems and author of "An Insider's Guide to Cotton & Sustainability." "Partly, this may be a factor of product labeling, cost, availability or even placement within the store. But retailers do often feel it comes down to people being bargain hunters and preferring to buy more goods rather than more [eco-conscious choices]."
However, Ferrigno says, many retailers are afraid of potential consumer action and this drives the current sustainability agenda. "In other words, it is a risk-reduction agenda. For some, it's become part of the growth and survival strategy, a way to stand out from the crowd, or to differentiate from large volume and cheaper rivals."
Currently, 98% of consumers say fit, comfort (96%), quality (94%), price (93%) and durability (92%) are important to their apparel purchase decisions, according to the Environment Survey. Environmental friendliness (47%) is last on the list.
Again, though, most consumers do care about the environment. For example, the Environment Survey finds 76% say they conserve home energy and recycle, 71% purchase appliances that conserve energy and 66% limit their home water usage.
Most tellingly, 68% of consumers are happy to be environmentally friendly—as long as it saves them money, the Environment Survey shows. And due to the current economy, 60% say they are less likely to pay more for "green" apparel or home textiles.
Still, if consumers purchase apparel and then find out it was produced in a non-environmentally friendly way, most consumers (41%) would blame the manufacturer. Fifteen percent of consumers would hold the brand accountable, an increase of 9 percentage points since 2009.
Companies looking to be more candid about their eco-consciousness can benefit from tools such as life cycle inventories and life cycle assessments. Cotton Incorporated recently completed Cotton’s Life Cycle Inventory and Life Cycle Assessment, to help shape strategic initiatives for the cotton industry.
The cotton life cycle research also serves as a current and comprehensive benchmark for the environmental impact of cotton textile production, manufacture and disposal. To benefit the industry at large, the data sets are being populated into the most widely-used, public life cycle inventory databases, so that sourcing and sustainability professionals can access it to better assess the sustainability of their cotton products.
"The cotton sector has seen dramatic reductions in the use of pesticides and insecticides, as well as the growth of sustainable cotton initiatives, including Fairtrade, Better Cotton Initiative and the Sustainable Cotton Project," Ferrigno says. "The sustainability question is important to sector survival."
Dr. Jay Golden, director of the Duke Center for Sustainability & Commerce, and associate professor at the Pratt School of Engineering, says the apparel industry is taking the right approach.
"Of the different product sectors, apparel is moving at a faster pace in addressing many of these issues via collaborations that are positively driven to affect positive change, and with developing these tools and metrics. I applaud the industry on its pace and I'm looking forward to how it comes out in the near future."
Gap Inc., employs a full-time staff of 70 people in its social and environmental responsibility department. Its corporate web site reveals information about supply chain, environmental and employee goals and progress. Readers can build reports and go through a data dashboard for Gap's latest social responsibility statistics.
Last August, Timberland introduced an interactive communications portal on its website that provides an integrated experience to engage and inform users about the brand's CSR goals and priorities. Online, consumers can learn about the company's sustainable store design, Green Index®, product philosophy and more.
"It’s important that we set the bar high and continue to innovate with regard to environmental sustainability," Blaisdell says. "We report our successes and failures in an interactive format that allows people to engage and ask questions."
Golden says transparency is key. "To communicate, 'We have this goal so we can have this kind of impact,' you build consumer trust, and that's important."
This article is one in a series that appears weekly on WWD.com. The data contained are based on findings from the Cotton Incorporated Lifestyle Monitor™ Survey, a consumer attitudinal study, as well as upon other of the company’s industrial indicators, including its Retail Monitor and Supply Chain Insights analyses. Additional relevant information can be found at CottonLifestyleMonitor.com.