The Cotton Incorporated 2013 Environmental Survey reveals that more than 50% of U.S. consumers identify themselves to be “green”. And, although participation in basic household environmentalism has shown only incremental growth, higher income consumers constitute a markedly greater level of engagement. Survey data indicate that personal income and larger economic concerns are changing the ways in which consumers perceive and participate in environmental activities. Several factors, including a significant increase in consumers’ pursuing apparel made in the U.S.A, and apparel made from natural fibers, suggests that these are emerging as new forms of environmental engagement.
“It is clear that consumers are aware and concerned about the environment,” says Kim Kitchings, VP of Corporate Strategies and Program Metrics at Cotton Incorporated, adding that the majority (60%) of survey respondents say that they often think how their actions affect the environment. “What is less clear to them is the cost of making a difference.”
Kitchings points to five years of data showing that participation in relatively low- or no-cost household environmentalism, including recycling, conserving water, and investing in energy-efficient appliances, is consistently greater among consumers with higher incomes. The divide is also seen in the 34% of consumers who say they put effort into finding environmentally-friendly apparel; that figure jumps to 40% among consumers making $75,000 or more per year.
Although increased engagement in household environmentalism was marginal (one percentage point across all income levels), Environment Survey data show that more than half (51%) of respondents consider themselves to be “green,” up significantly from 2012 (46%) and 2011 (43%).
This self-perception may seem at odds with other insights from the survey, particularly those relating to personal finance and the environment. For example, 61% of respondents agree that, due to the current economic situation, they are less likely to pay more for environmentally-friendly clothing or textiles. Further, seven out of ten consumers say that they would be happy to be environmentally-friendly if it saved them money.
“You might think that consumers are shortsighted,” says Kitchings, “but other findings in the survey indicate that consumers are thinking long term — about making investments, as opposed to purchases.” And one of the hottest consumer interests right now appears to be the United States, by way of apparel made in the U.S.A.
“When asked about the influence of apparel labeling, a solid majority of respondents (68%) said that they would be more likely to purchase clothing identified as ‘Made in the U.S.A.,’” says Kitchings.
Apparel made in the U.S.A. and apparel made from natural fibers repeatedly rise to the top two spots in survey categories such as purchase intent, in which consumers stated they plan to purchase American-made apparel (64%) and clothing made of natural fibers (48%). In response to a multiple choice list of willingness-to-pay-more-for options, more than half of consumers surveyed (52%) chose apparel made in the U.S.A., and 41% chose apparel made with natural fibers, according to Environment Survey data.
“Most consumers say they are unwilling to pay more for environmentally-friendly apparel, yet are willing to pay more for apparel made in the U.S.A. or made from natural fibers,” says Kitchings. “This is an interesting distinction, because consumers actually perceive American-made apparel and clothing made of natural fibers to be better environmental choices. Plus, there is the added benefit of helping to boost the economy by purchasing garments made in the U.S.A.”
The recent survey shows that 50% of consumers feel that clothing or textiles imported from other countries are less environmentally-friendly than those made in America. Seventy-two percent of those surveyed perceive natural fibers as being more environmentally-friendly than synthetics, marking a consistent ranking over the past five years.
Shedding some light on this apparent contradiction are data indicating that consumers are largely unaware of what environmental marketing terms mean with respect to clothing and textiles. Less than half (43%) of respondents identified environmentally-friendly as meaning that the apparel did not harm the environment when it was made; nearly one quarter (23%) responded that they simply did not know what the term means.
“As far as environmental marketing of apparel and textiles is concerned, consumers are skeptical and tend to gravitate to what they already know, or can readily understand,” says Kitchings. The top five terms that consumers say would influence their apparel purchases are: 100% cotton (78%, up 6% over 2012); made in U.S.A (67%); natural (60%); sustainable (57%); and environmentally-friendly (53%).
“Although ‘sustainable’ emerged as a more influential term than ‘environmentally-friendly’ or ‘organic’ for the majority of respondents, most perceive sustainability in terms of product longevity,” Kitchings explains. In fact, nearly one third (31%) believed sustainable to mean “lasts a long time,” followed by a quarter (25%) identifying the term with durability.
Kitchings concedes that there is no all-encompassing definition for sustainability as a marketing term, but adds, “Regardless of what marketers may have intended, the data show what consumers perceive sustainability to mean. It’s more an indicator of what is important to them right now: long term value.”
Based on responses to the 2013 Environmental Survey, what most consumers value is clothing that is made in the U.S.A., made of natural fibers, and made to last.