"Feel Good Fashion"

MBA 583: Consumer Behaviour
By: Richelle
October 1, 2013

Ethical shopping has become increasingly popular in the last decade due to an increase in consumer empowerment fostered by the Internet and greater access to information that has allowed consumers to choose companies that give back to society. This can be seen in websites such as “Shop Ethical! Your Ethical Consumer guide!” and news stories presenting unethical brands. This increase in access to information online may be the motivation for the increase focus on social responsibility in the corporate world, aimed at attracting customers and gaining a competitive advantage all while doing something good for society. Companies attempt to portray the message that it is not just what you are buying it is what you are buying into. Consumers are continually focusing their interest on ethical products and the purchasing of ethical products, but what is their motive for this behavior? Is it strictly altruistic or is this behavior also the result of egotistic motives focused on deriving personal benefit? Ethics is about acting beyond ones own self interest, but this very definition conflicts with the notion of ethical products and spending. For example, when consumers buy ethical clothing the clothing item ultimately produces some individual benefit for both the consumer and the firm.

What is this trend about?

Canadian and American consumers are among the most active and empowered ethical consumers in the world as identified by GlobeScan’s ethical Consumerist Index (2011). This is because customers are becoming increasingly informed about companies and their procedures impacting purchasing habits (GlobeScan, 2011). Feel good fashion is a derivative of ethical consumerism referring to the “Me benefit” associated with ethical clothing purchases (Redfern, 2012). The “me benefit” refers to the individual benefits that a consumer receives from purchasing ethical clothing brands and this can be one of the motivations affecting ethical buying behavior (Redfern, 2012). Ming Law et al. (2004) describe fashion consumer’s needs as threefold: physical, psychological, and socially constructed. First, clothing serves a functional purpose of covering our bodies, to some consumers shopping is based simply on functional needs, but to others shopping for clothing can also satisfy both psychological and social needs. Many fashion consumers may be motivated to buy based on the feeling that purchasing a piece of clothing gives them or the potential feelings that the item can provide in the future. This future gratification refers to social acceptance received from peers family and society after buying into a certain fashion trend. For example, buying and wearing a brand that society views as socially responsible may portray the image that the consumer is a moral and ethical person, as our clothes are seen as a representation of ourselves, helping the consumer achieve feelings of acceptance and pride (Varul & Wilson-Kovacs, 2008). These psychological reactions and needs associated with clothing consumption have the potential to increase when consumers are given the choice to support social responsibility while buying the things they need and want.

The “me benefit” in ethical purchasing is related to the means end theory in that consumers use means (products) to achieve ends (hedonistic feelings) (Gutman, 1982; Jägel, Keeling, Reppel, & Gruber, 2012). The ends associated with ethical clothing consumption can be referred to as that “warm fuzzy” feeling a person gets when doing something good for others or the feeling of social acceptance they get from others who see they have bought ethically (Gutman, 1982; Jägel et al., 2012). Hedonistic feelings and acceptance can be one of the motives for ethical consumption and the need to achieve these feelings may also be a derivative of other actions associated with guilt, due to unethical purchases or ones own behavior. Buying ethical items to rationalize our consumer behavior can be referred to as a feel good guilt trip associated with ethical buying (Fischer, 2014). This feel good guilt trip refers to the consumers attempt to rationalize “guilty” buying or behavior (such as buying an expensive new shirt or buying from another company that is not socially responsible) by purchasing ethical brands (Jägel et al., 2012; Fischer, 2014). Some would relate this to a “Win Win” situation as consumers are able to achieve individual outcomes through buying the items they want, relieving guilt, and achieving self actualizing feeling, while also giving something back to society or being socially responsible (Jägel et al., 2012).

What economic, social, cultural, and technological factors underlie this consumer trend?

There are a variety of underlying factors such as economic, social, cultural, and technological factors that influence ethical consumerism and in particular “Feel good fashion”. First, the economy and economic changes can play a major role in consumer spending which can have an affect on consumer’s willingness to buy ethical goods. This is particularly important considering that ethical products typically cost more making it easy for companies to copy the product and sell it at a lower cost by eliminating the charity aspect. For example, the shoe company Aldo has recently come out with an almost identical slip on shoe to that sold by TOMS (Grinspan, 2011). TOMS is a company based off of philanthropy identified by their “Buy one Give one” business model, which has a negative impact on their sales cost of $48 (Grinspan, 2011). Comparatively, Aldo’s version is almost identical but without the charity aspect allowing them to have a lower price then TOMS, $40 (Grinspan, 2011). Therefore, the economic situation of consumers may force them to weigh the cost of the product to the benefits desired such as hedonistic feelings and social acceptance. Alternatively, there has been evidence that even in economically turbulent times ethical spending is likely as consumers view it as a “Win Win” situation as both needs can be met simultaneously with little effort making up for the extra cost (Jägel et al., 2012).

The economic situation of consumers in Canada has positively increased since the economic downturn ending in 2009 (Industry Canada, 2011). Job growth and improving labour markets have improved consumer incomes and wealth on the whole, which affects the level of discretionary spending (Industry Canada, 2011). This economic effect combined with lower tax rates could underlie the increasing focus on ethical consumerism as consumers now have the money to achieve hedonistic and individualistic needs.

Second, society and social factors also can play a role in ethical spending and the “Feel good fashion” consumer trend. One of the underlying aspects of this is the social recognition and acceptance achieved from buying conscientiously. This is mainly because capitalist society has a way of convincing us that the things that we buy make us who we are, meaning that our clothing is a reflection of ourselves (Caron, 2013). Therefore, we are driven to buy ethical clothing and products in order to show others and ourselves that we have good morals and values in hope that this behavior will result in social acceptance. For example, most people know what TOM’s shoes represent and society affects our purchase of these shoes, as we want others as we walk down the street to think or know that we are a moral and ethical person by the shoes that we are wearing. This relates to the individualistic aspect of the consumer trend “Feel good fashion” because social acceptance for many is a need which when fulfilled provides a person with satisfaction and hedonistic feelings.

Thirdly, culture can play a significant role in consumer behaviors and resultant spending. Culture refers to the social values, beliefs, and customs shared by society (McGregor, 2000). North Americans have an egocentric value orientation, which focuses on individualism contradicting the notion of ethical spending and doing something for others (Soyez, 2012). This contradiction helps us to understand the “Feel Good fashion” consumer trend as the trend is driven by individualistic motives such as saving ones time, obtaining hedonistic feelings, and social acceptance that drive our spending behavior and play a role in motivating us to buy ethically.

Technology has revolutionized the retail industry by allowing consumers to purchase products from anywhere at any time increasing the convenience of shopping. Most ethical clothing companies are located online; catering to people’s individualistic needs providing consumers with an easy way to be altruistic in their consumption practices while obtaining individual benefits. Technology has also played an important role in the “Feel good fashion” trend by providing companies with the ability to provide information to consumers across the world over the Internet and social media. This innovation has allowed consumers to be more knowledgeable with the ability to research products to find the best product to meet individual and altruistic needs.

What new business models are serving this consumer trend and what business models are at risk?

The “Feel good fashion” trend supports the “Buy one give one” model of corporate social responsibility in the fashion industry that describes companies that donate something for every item of clothing sold. The company that has brought this model to the forefront is TOMS shoes that donates a pair of shoes to a child in need for every pair of shoes sold. Another company operating under this model is Roma Boots, which sells stylish rain boots donating a pair of rain boots to children living in cold wet climates for every pair sold. This business model is also used to promote environmentalism as used by companies such as Ten Tree Apparel, which plants 10 trees for every item of clothing sold. The “Buy one Give one” model of social responsibility allows consumers to purchase the goods that they want, that are stylish and popular, all while doing something good for society. This allows consumers to achieve the desired “Win Win” situation mentioned above as the purchasing of these products provides consumers with multiple benefits such as: functional benefits, individual benefits, and social benefits. The social benefits being the philanthropic action of donating or participating in something that provides a benefit to the greater good such as planting ten trees or giving a child a pair of shoes. This also provides consumers with individual benefits as philanthropic actions can promote feelings of self-gratification and social acceptance. Additionally, the consumer is able to buy something that they want or need.

The business models that are at risk due to the increasing prominence of ethical consumerism and “Feel Good Fashion” are business models that do not incorporate social responsibility or allow consumers to contribute to society while purchasing the things that they need or want. Evidence of this can be seen by the shift towards social responsibility in strategic planning that many existing companies have participated in. The “Feel Good fashion” trend is an extension of ethical consumerism and adds an extra layer of complexity to the impact it can have on certain business models. “Feel good fashion” involves the feelings that consumers get from buying ethical products and feeling as though they have contributed in some way, but these feelings may be stronger if the consumer understands exactly how they have contributed. This may be why the “Buy one Give one” model is successful as it allows consumers to know how their contribution has helped (i.e. the shoes you have bought have provided one child with a pair of shoes) allowing for greater internalization. Therefore, business models that do not allow consumers to see exactly how they are contributing may be at risk. For example, American Apparel is a company that sells clothing that is sweatshop free, which is socially responsible and ethical but this model does not allow consumers to know exactly how their actions have benefitted society, which could negatively affect the “feel good” feelings associated with ethical buying.

How the same consumer trend applies to another industry.

The “Feel good” consumer trend applies to any industry that uses social responsibility in their business model. Therefore, the trend can apply to virtually any industry that provides consumers with the option to buy products that help society in some way. An example of another industry that “Feel good” consumerism applies to is the energy industry in terms of sustainable energy. Consumers who purchase sustainable energy sources such as solar energy panels may be influenced to buy solar panels based on the fact that they feel as though they are doing something good for the environment which in turn makes them feel good about themselves and tells those who drive by their house that they are a moral and ethical person who is trying to make a difference in the world. Other individual benefits that could drive this decision could be long-term costs etc.

In brief, Ethical consumerism is on the rise and it is important to understand the underlying drivers of this macro consumer trend. To understand these underlying factors it is important to look to smaller causal trends such as “Feel Good Fashion” to understand some of the factors influencing consumer-buying behavior. In examination of the “Feel Good Fashion” trend it can be seen that individual benefits can play a role in ethical fashion consumption, but it is important to note that individual benefits are not the only aspect motivating ethical consumption. To fully understand ethical buying we must look to the internal and external factors affecting individual consumer motives, as consumers we are all different and resultantly we are all motivated by combinations of different things.


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