Why are consumers so confused by sustainability?

Consumers say that one of the top deterrents from sustainable fashion is communication challenges. According to a survey by The Conference Board, consumers insufficiently knowing about, trusting, and understanding a brands’ sustainability claims are part of the communication problems plaguing the fashion industry. This leads to fewer consumers buying sustainable clothing. So, why are consumers so confused by sustainability, and what can been done to solve the issue?

First of all, there are too many terms to describe the fashion industry’s impact on the environment. Sustainability, environmental sustainability, responsibly produced, ethical, cruelty-free, and countless more iterations of the same concept. Each term means something different, and thus each term is necessary, the challenge is that the average consumer may not know how to distinguish them. Even conscious consumers, who theoretically know more about sustainable fashion than other shoppers, find themselves perplexed by the overwhelming terminology. Some organizations have tried to solve the issue by creating dictionaries — Condé Nast and Centre for Sustainable Fashion released a Sustainable Fashion Glossary earlier this year. Unfortunately, even that can’t keep up with the new terms popping up.

Lack of understanding is tough for consumers, but is a win for brands. Part of the reason shoppers find themselves inundated with unknown vocabulary is that brands keep making it up to get away with greenwashing. Brands are trying to trick consumers into believing they are buying sustainable clothes when, in reality, they are just buying responsible fashion (find out the difference between the two here). Stunts like this make consumers less trusting of brands’ claims and hurt the sustainable fashion movement. When consumers are already wary of sustainable clothing price, giving them more reasons to be skeptical is just further damaging. One way to curb greenwashing is education, which goes back to the need to understand sustainable fashion terminology. Another way to prevent brands and retailers from duping consumers is through official certification.

For too long, brands have been allowed to operate with little oversight or regulations, leading to unchecked pollution and human rights violations. Recently certifications have arrived to distinguish do-good brands from imposters; however, there remains little standardization. The perfect example is two certifications that both recognize carbon-neutral brands. One is the aptly name Carbon Neutral Certification by SCS Global Services. SCS stands for Scientific Certification Systems, and the company switched to that name in 1988, four years after it was founded. The Carbon Neutral Certification, much like the company backing it, has been around for a while and follows an established and detailed certification process. That didn’t stop Climate Neutral, an independent non-profit, from launching their own certification in 2019, though. The Climate Neutral Certificationhas received significantly more press and attention from fashion brands, but being a new certification, some information — mainly about the renewal process — is still missing. The frustration for consumers, and probably brand owners, is that two certifications do the same thing, but both have flaws. Why aren’t the two organizations working together to make one established and recognizable certification? Then this certification could become the standard for any brand looking to prove they are carbon-neutral, and consumers could stop wondering what the difference is between “carbon-neutral” and “climate neutral” — hint: there is no difference.

When consumers don’t understand sustainability, and all the terms, marketing techniques, and certifications that go with it, the environment pays the price. Brands get away with greenwashing, shoppers become frustrated and untrusting, and the fashion industry stays stalled out and unchanging.


Only by embracing simplicity can consumers and brands become untangled from the web of sustainability. Simplicity in terminology may result in a standardized dictionary available on all websites that discuss or sell sustainable fashion. That way, consumers can look up unfamiliar terms and trust that each brand showing the dictionary follows the same definitions. For marketing, simplicity may be the result of stricter regulations that eliminate greenwashing. And fewer, standardized certifications that come about due to open communication between nonprofits will eliminate unnecessary confusion. The sustainable fashion movement already has a hard time shaking the image that it is only for an exclusive group of consumers; why make it harder to appeal to the masses?