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The Impact of the Unconscious Consumer

To us, this is highly important as we are working in the field of sustainability and quantify success by the positive impact we make rather than the money we earn.

We constantly ask ourselves: how much measurable impact do we actually make?

That is why it is crucial to take impact not only as the result of our actions but to approach it strategically, right from the beginning.

This first post is about our insights on how to create strategic impact in the fashion industry.

It was end of last year, in the midst of arising blockchain hype, when we finally seemed to have found a solution to a problem we were discussing for a while: the opaque and extremely fragmented supply chain of the garment industry.

This, we figured, was the major problem next to wide a range of negative environmental and social side effects the industry is facing, like wastage, environmental pollution, compromized labor standards and dwindling natural resources.

Additionally, due to the lack of transparency, the consumer does not know how, by whom and under which conditions a garment has been made. Unfortunately, most of the times, this information is nowhere to be found, even if we ask for it.

As one of the most polluting industries, it raises the question what actually is the core of the problem?

We soon learned that the problem we invested so much time in was again just another side effect. Thanks to thoroughly applying the problem tree analysis we came to realize that the real problem is rooted somewhere else, entirely.

Before we get to it, let’s take a look at some of the current movements and projects that try to bring transparency to supply chains. It gives you an impression of how many people actually invest time and money in finding solutions dedicated to this issue.

  • On the one hand we have a number of initiatives and NGOs solely committed to enforce transparency in supply chains through collaborative work. Their work is constituted on collaborations with governments and local suppliers/producers who implement safe working conditions, social and environmental standards as well as sustainable business practices. For them, this is a way to strengthen their locational advantage which can lead to an improved trade and investment environment, the attraction of new buyers and ultimately to social stability. It is indeed common knowledge that better standards will enforce transparency as there simply is “nothing to hide”. But this is only part of the truth.
  • On the other hand there are technologies evolving that can actively help to display transparency through tracking mechanisms, like blockchain. Blockchain offers a compelling solution to all kinds of industries relying on complex supply chains, especially in the food industry and in the production of consumer goods and textiles. In these cases, the technology brings distinctive advantages to capture transactional processes.

→ Take for example the globally scattered supply chain of a t-shirt: it starts with the cotton farmer, from where the manufacturing process takes at least another 7 steps (spinning, knitting, finishing, cutting, sewing, printing, dyeing) before it can be shipped to a warehouse and from where it will reach its final destination, the shop. From farmer to shop, hundreds of people have a hand in its production, leaving production to one major challenge: tracking the transactions. Enabling traceability is crucial to transparency and this is where blockchain comes in.

The technological infrastructure of a blockchain allows to secure data without the need of a central control unit or any other trusted third party. Also, the data and the transactions of data (information about transactions) you transmit into the blockchain are immutably and permanently stored as well as open to everyone who seeks insight at any given time. These are the features of the technology that make it so interesting and the reasons why many startups in the space are emerging to address this issue.

(Just to be clear: A blockchain does NOT guarantee that claims and information submitted to the blockchain are true and also, the technology itself cannot hedge against manufacturers hiring subcontractors who do not comply with implemented production or labour standards. This is important to understand. It is not a cure-all, it is only a very good tracking tool that empowers those who are already willing to integrate transparency into their supply chains.)

As we said before, the fundamental problem worth tackling to make meaningful impact is a different one:

It is the unconscious consumer, who is not aware of where and how his/her garment is produced, that can make the biggest impact: when turned into a conscious consumer.

But, how so?

We calculated what the impact of converting an unconscious consumer to a conscious consumer would be and why it is so important to focus on that first and foremost, if we really want to build up leverage:

Now imagine: the average consumer turns into a conscious consumer who buys less and therefore is willing to spend more money for higher quality (= higher garment life cycle) made from sustainable fibers and by people in good work environments with fair wages, etc.?

The difference even one person makes throughout a lifetime would add up quickly, creating a lot of measurable impact, which is all the more pressing since resource consumption is foreseen to triple by 2050 if we continue with business-as-usual.

This is not an option since the growing world population is inevitable. And here we did not even mention the difference it would make by consuming consciously in other areas such as housing, travels and food as well.

(To make a quick ‘impact’ comparison: The impact of current blockchain solutions that offer fashion brands to track their manufacturing process is hardly making any impact, because the solutions are targeted at fashion companies that are already operating sustainably and committed to social and environmental standards)

Having taken a look at the fashion industry, the problems are indeed vast and complex and it is easy to get lost.

It is the typical chicken and egg situation.

Understanding the big picture now, it urges the question: Which problem is worth being engaged with first?

For us, the answer is clear: if it’s your objective to initiate change in the fashion industry, the consumer is where it all starts. This means, we have to acknowledge that putting effort into it will most likely bring the highest “return on impact”, of our time and our work.

Actually, we learned long ago that it is the consumer that has the power over supply and demand. It is us, the consumers, who decide whether or not we buy fast fashion and it is us who ask our vendor “Who made my clothes?”. And still even though we know that, we seemed to have forgotten about this.

Of course, all the initiatives, organizations and tech-startups engaged in bringing transparency to supply chains are doing important work along the way to an ambitious goal (thank you!).

We can’t and don’t want to go without them. But we need to admit that all the work is losing A LOT of momentumbecause there is not yet enough done to address the core problem, the unconscious consumer.

So what now? How do we convert the unconscious consumer into a conscious one? We are on this but we would also love to hear from you how you (would) tackle it!

In the next post, we will continue to shed light on to the fashion industry and discuss its contradicting roles within the Sustainable Development Goals 2030.