Encouraging socially responsible fashion consumption : an investigation of the effects of a sustainability index garment label on consumers’ brand attitudes and evaluations

UNCG Author/Contributor (non-UNCG co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Leeanna (Annie) Williams (Creator)
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG )
Web Site: http://library.uncg.edu/
Nancy Hodges

Abstract: Previous research has noted the unsustainable nature of the apparel industry, including increased carbon emissions (Berg et al., 2020; Chrobot et al., 2018), excessive landfill waste (United States, n.d.), and social inequity (Ross & Morgan, 2015). To promote a more sustainable apparel industry, socially responsible fashion consumption (SRFC) should be encouraged (Berg et al., 2020). However, past studies note that an intention-behavior gap exists, as consumers do not actually engage in SRFC despite their intentions to do so (James & Montgomery, 2017a). Several barriers have been found to exist that influence the intention-behavior gap and thereby prevent consumers from engaging in socially responsible fashion consumption, including a lack of consumer knowledge regarding the sustainability of apparel (Connell, 2010; Harris et al., 2016; Hill & Lee, 2012; James & Montgomery, 2017a; McNeill & Moore, 2015), hesitancy to be transparent about supply chains on the part of brands (James & Montgomery, 2017a; Williams & Hodges, 2022a) and human values (Stern, 2000). One potential solution to mitigate these barriers is the use of apparel labeling. While previous research has focused on the use of ecological and social labels on apparel (Baker, 2002; Hilowitz, 1997; Koszewska, 2011) and their effect on consumers’ attitudes toward the brand and purchase intention of the product (Dickson, 2001; Hyllegard, et al., 2012; Ma et al., 2017), there is a knowledge gap concerning consumers’ preferred mode of apparel sustainability communication, and how that mode affects their behavior. Thus, to address these gaps, the purpose of this dissertation was two-fold: (1) to explore consumers’ preferred mode of apparel sustainability communication, and (2) to investigate the effect of this mode on their behavior, including their attitudes toward the brand, brand equity, and brand resonance. To address the first part of the purpose, this dissertation implemented a qualitative research design to collect data from a total of 22 individuals (14 females and 8 males) who participated in six homogenous mini-focus groups. Signaling Theory (Spence, 1973) was used as a lens for interpretation of the data. Analysis of the data yielded six themes used to interpret the data: Many Birds, One Seed; Show Me a Picture; Catch My Attention; Earn My Trust; It’s All Relative; and Increasing Sustainability. The theme of Many Birds, One Seed reflected that apparel sustainability communication must simultaneously meet consumers’ varying interests in and understanding of sustainability. Show Me a Picture illustrated that participants’ preferred brands to use visuals to quickly communicate the sustainability of apparel (i.e., an index comprised of graphics and/or icons). Catch My Attention reflected that sustainability information should be easy to understand, quick to interpret, and placed in a noticeable location. Earn My Trust indicated that the index should communicate that a third-party was responsible for determining an apparel item’s sustainability so as to gain consumer trust. Interpretation of these four themes indicated that consumers’ preferred mode of apparel sustainability communication was a two-sided apparel sustainability index label characterized by color coding, icons, a logo, and a QR code. The last two themes provided insight into how an apparel sustainability index might affect consumer behavior. It’s All Relative demonstrated that while higher sustainability rankings positively influenced participants’ attitudes and purchase intention, participants were more affected by negative sustainability rankings than positive ones. Increasing Sustainability reflected that an apparel sustainability index label should communicate to consumers how to increase an apparel item’s sustainability during the use, maintenance, and disposal stages. Based on the mini-focus group data, an apparel sustainability index was then created by a professional graphic design company. To address the second purpose of the dissertation, a 2x2 between-subjects experimental research design was utilized to determine the effect of the apparel sustainability index’s sustainability value and the apparel sustainability index’s visibility placement on consumers’ brand attitudes, brand equity, and brand resonance evaluations. The moderating effect of consumer knowledge and human values on consumers’ attitudes toward their preferred brand was also investigated. An online, structured questionnaire was developed to measure the aforementioned variables. With IRB approval, a total of 243 usable responses were retained using the Prolific platform. A series of ANOVAs and MANOVAs indicated that the sustainability value of an apparel sustainability index label positively affects consumers’ attitudes, dimensions of brand equity (i.e., brand loyalty, perceived quality, brand associations, and brand awareness) as well as dimensions of brand resonance (i.e., behavioral loyalty, attitudinal attachment, and active engagement). The visibility of the apparel sustainability index positively influenced consumers’ brand equity evaluations (i.e., brand associations and brand awareness), as well as brand resonance evaluations (i.e., community engagement and active engagement). An interaction effect was found whereby a visible apparel sustainability index with a high value positively affected consumers’ attitudes toward their preferred brand, brand loyalty, behavioral loyalty, and community engagement evaluations. Consumers’ SRFC social knowledge as well as their biospheric and altruistic values were found to moderate the relationship between the apparel sustainability index’s value and placement on consumers’ attitudes toward their preferred brand. Lastly, a series of regression analyses revealed a positive relationship between consumers’ attitudes toward their preferred brand and brand equity, and a positive relationship between brand equity and brand resonance. The results of this dissertation provide several important contributions, including the creation of an apparel sustainability index label. Results from this dissertation also demonstrate that the apparel sustainability index label results in positive consumer attitudes, brand equity, and brand resonance evaluations for those brands with sustainable apparel. In doing so, results operationalize Signaling Theory in a novel way, indicating that the apparel sustainability index label is a form of a signal, which results in a separation equilibrium in the market, thereby enabling consumers to distinguish between sustainable and unsustainable brands. This dissertation offers additional theoretical contributions, in that results suggest a typology of signals exists based on the effect of the signal’s visibility on consumer behavior, that feedback to signals can take the form of consumer attitudes, brand equity, and brand resonance, and that knowledge is not a homogenous variable, but rather a multi-dimensional one. This dissertation also offers solutions for mitigating the SRFC intention-behavior gap. That is, the apparel sustainability index label gives consumers the requisite knowledge regarding the sustainability of apparel items, a noted SRFC barrier. Similarly, results incentivize brands with sustainable apparel to be transparent about their supply chains, another noted barrier to SRFC, in order to benefit from more positive consumer attitudes, brand equity, and brand resonance. By reducing the barriers to SRFC, the SRFC intention-behavior gap can be narrowed, and thus more sustainable consumption can be encouraged. This dissertation also highlights the interdependent relationship of consumers and brands with regards to promoting sustainability, and thus the need to appeal to both stakeholder groups to promote sustainability. Moreover, results encourage brands to adopt more sustainable production methods. That is, due to the separation equilibrium that results from the use of the apparel sustainability index label, unsustainable brands will resort to greening their supply chains to complete with more sustainable brands. In doing so, the apparel industry will ultimately reduce its carbon footprint as it adopts more socially responsible production practices.

Additional Information

Language: English
Date: 2023
Apparel, Brand Equity, Brand Resonance, Signal Theory, Signaling Theory, Socially Responsible Fashion Consumption, Sustainability
Clothing trade $x Sustainable methods
Clothing and dress $x Labeling
Consumers $x Attitudes

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