Ethical Consumerism and Fashion: An Introspective Study

    Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


    Fashion is the second most polluting industry in the world and accounts for 8.1% of annual global climate impacts (Quantis, 2018, UN, 2019). There are ethical concerns relating to environmental harm and worker exploitation at the fibre production and garment assembly stages, overconsumption and unsustainable laundry practices at the product use stage, and low levels of repurposing and recycling at the disposal stage (Environmental Justice Foundation, 2012, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017, UNEP, 2020).

    ‘Ethical Consumerism’ (EC) emerged as an area of academic and popular discourse in the 1990s, although its origins can be traced back to earlier research into social and environmental aspects of consumption (Harrison et al., 2005). Economic and market researchers have focused on identifying consumer segments that would derive utility from – and that would be willing to pay more for –ethically enhanced products (e.g. Dickson, 2001, De Pelsmacker et al., 2005a). Psychological approaches have used Ajzen’s (1991) Theory of Planned Behaviour to test behavioural intention to purchase ‘ethical’ products such as environmentally friendly and sweatshop free clothing. Interpretivist researchers have drawn on Consumer Culture Theory (Arnould and Thompson, 2005) and explored broader influences on past behaviour. A reliance on survey methods in the economic and psychological literature, and on interview-based methods in interpretive studies, has meant the results have often been abstracted from the situational context (Belk, 1975). Insufficient attention has been paid to the role of information (Shaw and Clarke, 1999), to factors that moderate the translation of intent into actual behaviour (Carrington et al., 2010, Hassan et al., 2016), to the product use and disposition stages (Wiederhold and Martinez, 2018)and to how intentions and behaviours evolve overtime (McNeill and Moore, 2015, Hiller and Woodall, 2019).

    The overarching aim of the study was “to gain a holistic understanding of what factors affect the development of ethical behavioural intentions and their translation into actual ethical fashion consumption behaviours over time. ”Adopting a Critical Realist philosophical stance (Bhaskar, 1989), a syncretic combination of researcher and guided introspections (Wallendorf and Brucks, 1993) and narrative and inventory based wardrobe studies (Klepp and Bjerck, 2014) were used to explore how the intentions and behaviours of a sample of 12 ethically-minded consumer researchers – including myself – evolved over time. A hermeneutic analysis of our consumption narratives (Thompson, 1997) and wardrobes revealed that our behaviours were influenced by cognitive, informational, socio-cultural,situational and structural aspects at the acquisition, consumption, possession and disposition stages.

    The study contributes to knowledge by analysing the actual behaviours and practices of a sample of ethically minded consumers over a period of decades. A new, holistic Theory of Actual Behaviour is proposed to help bridge the psychology-culture divide in the field. It makes a methodological contribution by demonstrating how introspective methods can be used to study (ethical) consumption behaviours. And a series of recommendations are made for policymakers and practitioners to enable, encourage and catalyse ethical fashion consumption behaviours.
    Date of Award2022
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorElizabeth Parkes (Supervisor) & Jonathan Deacon (Supervisor)


    • Ethical Consumerism
    • Fashion
    • Theory of Planned Behaviour
    • Consumer Culture Theory
    • Introspective Methods

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