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Fashioning Behaviour Change

18 August, 2015 - Source: Dragon Rouge

Behaviour change is changing.

For decades, marketers have voraciously studied theories of behaviour and change to cajole consumers and citizens into making better life choices. It’s an extremely seductive idea: that small nips and tucks in behaviour can result in large increases in happiness.

The UK government’s “nudge unit” has penetrated almost every area of government policy, from organ donation to pensions to unemployment. Unilever’s application of this sort of thinking has culminated in Project Sunlight, an initiative to motivate millions of people to adopt more sustainable lifestyles. But for all the enthusiasm with which governments and consumer businesses like Unilever have embraced behaviour change, there’s little evidence of behaviour change models being applied to the world of fashion.

One of the reasons for this is probably that a “nudge” doesn’t seem particularly helpful in the context of making better fashion choices. The average UK household owns around £4,000 worth of clothes, of which 30% has not been worn for at least a year. The total cost of this unused clothing is estimated by the charity WRAP to be around £30 billion.

The bottom line is that we are terrible at buying clothes and struggle with managing our wardrobes. WRAP estimates that each year around £140 million of clothes go to landfill. This is a level of waste that we wouldn’t accept in any other area of our lives, with the sad exception of food (the average UK household throws away £470 of food and drink each year). Choice architecture might encourage people to tick a different box on an election ballot; it might make it easier for people to find salad rather than chips at a buffet; but changing the way people shop for clothes, store them, wear them and get rid of them is a bigger problem.

How we shop and care for the clothes we buy is influenced by a complex set of internal and external forces: lifestyle, career, exposure to social media, cultural heritage, financial status, mood, values, optimism about the future, time of year, weather and body confidence are just a handful. Behaviour change is undoubtedly required when it comes to fashion, but we’re not talking about a nudge, so much as a shove.

Yet it feels as if the fashion and retail industry is experiencing something of a behaviour change renaissance. Instead of rolling out the same old tired clichés about fast fashion and designed obsolescence, big-hitters such as Kering, Hermès, H&M and M&S are switched on to the issue of fashion waste. Patagonia’s “DON’T BUY THIS JACKET” campaign and Worn-Wear initiative is probably the most prominent example of behaviour change thinking at work in fashion, but not every brand is so happy to confront the behaviour of its acolytes. Patagonia’s founder, Yvon Chouinard, describes his approach in beautifully succinct terms: “If you're not pissing off 50 percent of the people, you're not trying hard enough”.

So – other than for environmental reasons - why should less pugnacious brands be interested in changing behaviour?

Because it’s going to be fashionable.

Look at what’s happening with cars: BMW’s sexiest launch of the past few years wasn’t an M-Series or an SUV; it was the launch of BMWi – a sustainable mobility project that shows the world where BMW sees the future of its brand. It paints an aspirational, desirable picture of a smarter, more sustainable way to live. The same is likely to happen to fashion: we may not own clothes in the future, in the same way that many people currently do not own the car they drive or the movies they watch at home. We may rent them. We may subscribe to a clothing service in the same way that we subscribe to Netflix for movies or Birchbox for beauty products. Amazon Prime might send me tomorrow’s outfit in the post, based on an algorithm that understands all of the variables that influence how I dress. Apple Genius might suggest items of clothing that complement clothes in my wardrobe. An unloved smart jacket might sell itself on Ebay if I neglect to wear it for over a year. The possibilities for innovation are staggering.

Business model innovation is the hot topic in fashion at the moment and the advent of the Internet of Things, wearable tech and the circular economy suggest that we are about to witness significant and permanent disruption to fashion retail. If you’re not already thinking beyond the traditional retail model, then the chances are you’re going to be left behind. The future is still up for grabs – fashion doesn’t yet have an equivalent to Uber, Airbnb, or Netflix – but it’s only a matter of time before a disruptor comes along – either from within or outside the fashion world – and changes the way we behave for good.

Nick Liddell, Director 

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