Could new labelling laws jump start fashion circularity?

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Potential new laws coming out of the EU could make it a requirement for a garment’s eco-credentials to be more transparent.

Advertising regulators around the world are cracking down on greenwashing, banning generic eco-terms and requiring more and more evidence to support green claims.

While there is still some uncertainty around how the fashion industry will achieve compliance, the expectation is that data will be made available to consumers via Digital Product Passports (DPPs), which will be accessed through QR codes.

This is potentially good news for overwhelmed conscious-minded consumers and the planet alike. If eco-labelling becomes law, there will need to be a shift to a standardised way of defining and measuring eco-credentials.

Some, like ‘Organic’ are already regulated terms in some industries, whereas others, like ‘natural’ are not. This ambiguity is confusing for consumers and leads to a lot of greenwashing.

But will QR codes on labels create behaviour change?

In a helpful overview of incoming regulation, Sustainability Voices claim that “new labelling laws will jump-start fashion circularity” – but is that true?

If sustainability data is delivered through a QR code, consumers can choose not to look.

It’s often too complex to summarise on a small garment label, and the Green Claims Code regulations require you to have data to back up your claims.

But the attitude/behaviour gap is strong. Especially in fashion consumption, because of the unique role fashion commands in people’s lives.

Some 65% of women and 56% of men feel their self-confidence is “strongly influenced” by the clothes they wear. Fashion consumers associate fashion with self-expression, and they want to consume the fashion they enjoy.

44% feel sustainable choices in other parts of their lives compensate for less sustainable choices in fashion, so shifting buyer behaviour in this category is particularly difficult.

Furthermore, when it comes to sustainable fashion, the most common sentiment is guilt, and half of consumers are not even sure what sustainability in the context of fashion means.

In theory, providing more data through a QR code should be a good way to demystify sustainable fashion, but all the data suggests that customers simply won’t engage.

Data from ecological certification company Oeko-Tex showed that while that 69% of Millennials say they look into claims of sustainability and eco-friendliness when researching clothing purchases, only 37% actually purchased clothes from brands with that focus.

Zalando’s Attitude Behaviour Gap report also found while 60% of survey respondents said that transparency is important to them, just 20% actively seek out information as part of the purchasing process.

Similarly, 58% of consumers believe they should understand the product, including the materials used. However, just 38% regularly check the label for information.

Behavioural science shows that price, quality and value for money are the highest purchasing influencers, and convenience is key.

The data is clear, if sustainability credentials are hidden behind a QR code and rely on the consumer to take action, they are unlikely to be seen. And even if they are, they will not influence a sale, especially in the fashion industry.

However, ending the greenwashing in fashion is still an important step in cleaning up corporate behaviour and making complex global supply chains better for people and the planet.

Standardised terms for sustainability credentials will help. Consumer education will be needed too. So is labelling the answer?

There is precedent for using labelling as a behaviour change tool in the food industry. A traffic light system was introduced to make nutritional information easier to understand at a glance, in an attempt to nudge consumers towards healthier choices.

But did it work?

The Food Standards regulator undertook a rapid evidence review to understand if, how and when people use food labels to make consumer choices.

In lab conditions, nutritional traffic light labels did influence hypothetical food choices, and people went for healthier options.

However, this rarely translated to real-world context, where primary economic factors (price, value for money and quality) took priority. Labels connected to these economic factors (such as price reductions and special offers) were found to be highly persuasive, but this left sustainability and nutritional information to complete for attention and limited on-pack space.

Sustainable labelling alone won’t make consumers buy better. But the requirement to have them will drive systemic change that will make better options a social norm.

Social norm nudges induce behaviour change by tapping into our desire to fit in with others.

Individually, we may not be heavily influenced by sustainability credentials on labels and packaging. But the requirement to provide these will change brand behaviour.

Consumers might not actually prioritise sustainability when it comes to purchasing, but the attitude behaviour gap clearly shows that they think this is important to them. And if they perceive it to be a priority, brands will want to reflect their values, whether it immediately drives sales or not.

But in a world where sustainability is standardised and regulated, brands won’t be able to mark their own homework. Consumers will have a deeper understanding of what true sustainability looks like, and there will be even more pressure on brands to deliver.

Corporations will only be able to compete on the eco credentials and reflect them in their branding by actually changing their materials and supply chains, and evidencing their claims.

This will move sustainability out of the marketing department, where greenwashing is rife, and into business operations. It’s the first step to making sustainability “business as usual” – i.e. a social norm. And social norms do change consumer behaviour.

As is the nature of business, once these standards are met, proactive brands will seek new ways to innovate and move ahead. That’s where we’re likely to see creative developments around circularity, which, if designed with behavioural science in mind, could lead to widespread adoption and change.