College students’ perceptions on ethical fashion & what can be done

As a young woman who is going to graduate from university, start work, and eventually have more purchasing power and the ownership of choice that comes with it, I am certain that some part of my decision making will include the questions: How much of my disposable income is going to go into buying clothes, handbags, shoes, jewelry, etc.? Where will I shop given that I am going to spend more of my own money instead of my parents'?

More and more young women (and men) like me will help to define the future consumption patterns of the fashion industry at a time I believe the fashion industry is beginning to transform. By transform, I mean becoming more conscious as an industry, and trying to reverse its status as the second dirtiest industry in the world, after big oil. Today, I am learning of more and more brands that have ethical and sustainable goals as crucial parts of their business model, and their numbers are undeniably growing. As my knowledge grows, so does my desire to become a more conscious consumer. The reality is however, that shopping ethically is not a natural behavior...yet.

Recently, I conducted a survey to understand what Duke university students think about the fashion industry and their role as consumers. The top three factors students consider when were price, design/style and durability.  Only 3% of students picked production methods, including whether the product was made ethically, free from exploitation of workers, and made with sustainable practices that are friendly to the environment.

When I asked them all of the brands that they had heard of, ethical and sustainable brands were largely unknown except for Patagonia and Toms.  I learned that

  • H&M, Forever 21, American Eagle, and Urban Outfitters have an immensely loyal customer base amongst college students.
  • A number of students do shop at relatively more expensive brands which include Madewell, Express, Banana Republic, Lululemon, Coach, and Anthropologie.
  • 59% of the students had heard of “ethical fashion”. 
  • For the ones that did know, when I asked them what they knew about ethical fashion, three types of answers stood out to me:
    • "They exist, they're a little harder to find and sometimes style is sacrificed, price can be much higher"
    • "I know that it exists that's about it" and many other answers similar to this such as "Just that they exist" and "I know they're a thing but nothing past that"
    • "They're not all that ethical"

The results of my survey were not surprising, as I had assumed that the answers would closely resemble the aforementioned actual results. But I still think they are useful to show the ethical fashion industry that there are major areas of growth and opportunity that they can latch onto. And though the survey was directed toward college students, I believe that the lessons gleamed from it are relevant across age groups.

For one, I think that there is immense opportunity to educate people about what sustainable   fashion actually is. ethical fashion. A lot of people know that it exists, but that's about it. When I told my own parents that I am aiming to become a more conscious consumer, they were confused. My dad asked me, “What do you mean?” and once I told him more about it, I was surprised to hear his response: “Okay, I want to try that, too!” Secondly, there is a perception that ethical brands are not stylish or super expensive and unaffordable for the general population. While this is might have been true a decade ago, I don't think it's the case today. I learned of many ethical brands that have amazing clothes and whose price ranges are not far off from some of the favorite brands mentioned by the survey respondents such as Madewell, Lululemon, or Banana Republic.  It also seems that there are people who are skeptical about whether ethical fashion is actually ethical. Ethical brands need to find a transparent, honest, and meaningful way in telling their stories such that people will feel safe and comfortable in aligning with their missions. 

As it stands, ethical and sustainable fashion have a long way to go. From this survey, as well as conversations with friends, family, and professors, my understanding is that most people are still unaware. But that’s not necessarily bad news; it means that there is still so much room for improvement and opportunity to change habits! It definitely starts small, but we will undeniably see the industry grow. Just two years ago I did not even think about shopping ethically. Today, I’ve made small steps to change that. And recently, one of my good friends told me she was purchasing her first ethical item from a brand I had referred her to! I have hope, and you should too!

Sophia Jamal is a senior at Duke University majoring in Public Policy Studies and pursuing a certificate in Innovation and Entrepreneurship. She is passionate about using business for social good, and is inspired by many women who are championing the social entrepreneurship space.


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