If it seems like consumers are very often price-driven when it comes to their clothing purchases, they are. But some in the apparel industry say consumers, as well as manufacturers, would do well to focus as much on the fiber content and care labels as they do on cost, whether the clothes are being sold online or in-store.

"We need to educate society on where the price they pay goes...so that everyone better understands what the impact is on them when we are not paying the 'true cost' of something."

-Timo Rissanen,
Associate Dean, School of Constructed Environments at the Parsons School of Design

Timo Rissanen, associate dean for the School of Constructed Environments at the Parsons School of Design, says consumers should be made aware of what they’re buying, especially when the quality of the cloth matters. Low-grade fibers or apparel made without much fiber in the cloth leads to poor quality. In clothes, this translates into garments that lose shape, don’t last very long and are quickly destined for the donation box or landfill.

“We need to educate society on where the price they pay goes,” Rissanen says, “so that everyone better understands what the impact is on them when we are not paying the ‘true cost’ of something.”

In the U.S., federal law requires “most textile and wool products to have a label listing the fiber content, country of origin, and the identity of the manufacturer or another business responsible for marketing or handling the item.”

The problem in finding fiber content and care details is both online and in-store. Some garments will have “pages” of fiber content labels, teeming with information in tiny typeface and in various languages. It would seem, then, that it would be easier to read garment information when shopping online. But this isn’t consistently listed in online retailers’ details or specifications links. However, clearly providing this information can make a difference in whether shoppers ultimately buy a product.

Nearly two-thirds of consumers (63 percent) say fiber content is important in their apparel purchase decisions, according to the Cotton Incorporated Lifestyle Monitor™ Survey. In general, most consumers who check labels say they’re looking for cotton (82 percent). That’s likely because 81 percent of consumers say cotton is their favorite fiber or fabric to wear.

Consumers feel that when a product is made of cotton compared to other fibers, it’s the most comfortable (86 percent), sustainable (86 percent), softest (83 percent), highest quality (78 percent), and more versatile (63 percent), according to Monitor™ research. Shoppers also make a point of looking for cotton fiber when shopping for apparel gifts during the holidays. Besides comfort (34 percent), gift givers like that cotton is easy care (12 percent).

That factors into why consumers read the fiber content labels. A good portion says they want to see what a garment is made of or to look for a particular a fiber (28 percent), according to the Monitor™ research. This is followed by laundering instructions (24 percent), gauging quality and durability (18 percent), assessing its comfort/how it feels (11 percent), and judging if it will shrink (10 percent).

It’s worth noting that as much as Americans like to buy clothes, they’re not very interested in putting in a lot of time or effort taking care of them. In a study by Kelton Global in partnership with LG, the electronics and appliance maker, it was discovered that most Americans (80 percent) overload their washers past capacity. Not only is this rough on the garments, but 22 percent reported their clothes weren’t even properly cleaned. The Kelton study also found that most people (53 percent) risked ruining their clothes by mixing clothes they knew should be separated, just to avoid doing another load of laundry.

In a separate Nielsen study, researchers found that even though Americans have some of the highest self-reported use of washing machines and dryers (82 percent), they’re more likely to do laundry only once a week or less. This compares to global regions like Asia-Pacific, where 45 percent report doing laundry every day.

This laundry aversion might factor into why more than 4 in 10 shoppers (42 percent) say they always/usually check the labels before they make their purchase. Additionally, the majority of consumers (52 percent) say knowing fiber content when shopping online for clothes would ultimately influence their decision to make a purchase.

That’s why it’s important for manufacturers and retailers to provide fiber content details for consumers who are browsing or shopping online. Even though the large majority of consumers still prefer to buy clothes in-store (72 percent), most shoppers prefer to research clothes online (61 percent), according to Monitor™ research. And nearly a quarter of cyber shoppers (22 percent) say that compared to last year, they’re more concerned about not being able to know the fiber content of the clothes.

Consumers are also becoming aware that microplastics from synthetic clothes are polluting water, from oceans and rivers to the tap water. These particles come from polyester, nylon, acrylic, and other synthetic fibers. Researchers at Plymouth University in the UK (2016 study) found that more than 700,000 of these plastic microfibers leach out with every load of laundry. Researchers are concerned about microplastic particles being consumed by marine life and thus enter the food chain.

Rissanen says designers and consumers should not individually have to figure out what is good or bad for the environment.

“At the root of all of such choices presently is our economic system: it tolerates and even encourages injustice and inequality,” he says. “Ethics ultimately resides in actions, not words, and we ought to demand ethical leadership in business and politics alike, including in fashion.