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March 1, 2011 / Speaking Sustainability

The Apparel Index — are clothes like cosmetics?

The Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s announcement of a database of information about the environmental impacts of the manufacturers, products and components in clothing will be a great boon to designers. But, like personal care products, this might just be a category where a sustainability label could subtly shift consumer decisions.

Daniel Goleman makes an eloquent case in Ecological Intelligence that giving consumers full information about the environmental impact of their purchases would be a powerful influence to steer buyers toward more sustainable products. But I have my doubts. After all, consumers ignore the mileage of SUVs and, even worse, the detailed information about fat content and calories on nutrition labels.

On the other hand, cosmetics and other personal care products have boomed on claims of being natural, not tested on animals, organic and other sustainability-related claims without any labels.

So what gives?

Like apparel, personal care products are all about making the user feel beautiful, confident, sexy, etc. So they work on a different level of purchase decision than the ego-driven automotive purchase or the cravings that drive food choices.

Brands like Aveda and The Body Shop succeeded especially because they linked using a responsible product with feeling even more beautiful, confident and sexy. Or maybe the availability of these products undercut the desired feelings of other products — after all, how could anyone feel beautiful with the image of a tortured animal or a clearcut rainforest in their mind?

Apparel appeals to the same emotions. Knowing that workers had had their power taken away took away the ability to feel more athletic and powerful wearing a pair of Nikes. Wearing clothes that pollute rivers or leave ugly piles of waste in a landfill may undercut the feelings of beauty they are meant to inspire.

The Apparel Index — when and if it ever comes to clothes labels — will be a good test of the Ecological Intelligence hypothesis.

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