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Psychology of sustainable fashion purchasing gap

Sustainable fashion is now a concept embedded in the psyche of mainstream consumers, with an overall agreement on its importance and need for immediate action. However, while many consumers agree on the logic and urgency of sustainable practices, behaviours don’t always measure up with intentions. In the Sustainable Fashion Forum, Brittany Sierra writes about the phenomenon of the attitude-behaviour gap amongst fashion consumers, whereby different factors are driving consumers to ignore core intentions at the time of a purchase.

Sierra interviews Katherine White, Professor of Marketing and Behavioural Science at the University of British Columbia on how marketers can attempt to close this gap using some key behavioural science principles.

As originally described in the Nobel Prize winning book, “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman, White explains how human decisions are based on two systems in the brain. System 1 uses automatic and quick thought that is driven by instinct and little effort, while System 2 is used for decisions requiring more reflective, careful and logical thinking. Sustainability is speaking to System 2 – generating deeper thoughts and opinions, but when it comes to the time of purchasing, System 1 triggers auto-pilot actions towards familiar behaviours. The issue is that humans are all different and there isn’t one solution that will influence the psyche of every consumer. However, marketers must better understand the unique and nuanced context of different consumer groups to devise targeted messaging that encourages sustainable actions.

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Some tools are discussed and outlined in the SHIFT framework. The acronym represents five different psychological factors that can be leveraged within targeted marketing campaigns:

Social Influence

People are likely to follow the behaviour of others that represent the social norm, therefore expanding the movement will bring sustainability to a place where the majority follows.

Habit Formation

Habits drive long term sustainable action, therefore finding ways to make sustainable purchasing easier than unsustainable purchasing is one approach to get habits shaped faster.

Individual Self

With self-image being a major fixation for many, offering sustainable options that appeal to how people view themselves (and are seen by others) can motivate sustainable behaviours.

Feelings and Cognition

Using rational arguments that appeal to cognition, including the subtle use of guilt or fear can be used to trigger behavioural change.


Consumers are more likely to act with purpose if they can see a clear path to a result, so marketers can reduce abstractness and enhance conceptualization through examples and imagery.


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