In the discussions around climate impacts and business, a missing link is often the consumer. Yet if we really want to push the needle in these issues, we need to bring the end consumer into the conversation. It is no good if we keep doing surveys which tell us that consumers will pay more for environmentally produced products, for the fact is that consumers often say one thing while doing something else entirely.
Instead, we need to find a way to "lock-in" carbon impacts for products, providing a direct link between the environmental impact of a product and prices consumers pay for it.
How could this work? This is a question many have grappled with in the apparel and textile industry, with little success. But in Sweden, a food business might potentially offer a solution.
In a global first, a Swedish food brand Felix recently launched its own grocery store where products are priced on their climate impact: the more the carbon dioxide emissions, the higher the price.
In the store, customers pay with carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e) and all products are priced based on their climate impact. By using a climate-based currency, Felix highlights what the true cost of food really is, and that the change in our pocket is equal to the change needed for a sustainable world.
Why can't we do the same with clothing? In terms of climate impact, apparel production is responsible for a significant amount of the world's greenhouse gas emissions. Some estimates say it is the second most polluting industry in the world.
Yet despite consumers' growing awareness about these negative environmental impacts and a desire to make better choices, it can be difficult to know which clothing purchases are best for the environment.
Consumers need clearer guidance here and I am not just talking about labels on clothing. As an industry we need to bring more transparency to these issues, clarifying the connection between the clothing products we produce and purchase and their climate impact.
Imagine, then, walking into a fashion outlet and being told a pair of jeans would cost USD 50 while an alternative pair would cost USD 30. Which pair would you buy? The sad reality is that consumers tend to still go for the cheaper one, even if it can be shown that the more expensive option has an eco-friendly label of some sort.
But now imagine that the situation was the other way round: the cheapest jeans are also the ones that are better for the environment. The option of which to purchase would be obvious: this is how pricing could be used to directly impact green purchasing decisions.
I know what you are thinking: surely it costs more to make more sustainable jeans because, for instance, they might be made of organic cotton or use finishing techniques that are less environmentally damaging? Therefore, it would usually be the sustainable pair that is more expensive?
While this may be the case, the idea with this kind of pricing is that it is structured in such a way that any surcharge on the expensive jeans is actually used to pay for the environmental impact associated with what would be the less green option. In effect, consumers would be paying a pollution levy or something similar.
This may sound like a far-fetched idea and it would certainly take a huge amount of coordination as well as requiring a quite different mindset among end consumers.
I sincerely believe, however, that these are the types of hard conversations which our industry needs to start having if we are to move towards where we need to be. If the option that is the worse for the environment continues to be the cheapest one, how are things ever going to change? Seriously? People will simply vote with their feet and our industry challenges will never be met. At some point, the society has to start paying for the choices we make.
Imagine on the other hand a society where the costs associated with unsustainable production were passed along down the supply chain and eventually found their way into the prices paid by end consumers. All of a sudden, we have a situation where consumers are being empowered to make the right decision for themselves and the planet at the same time.
The food store in Sweden is the first I know of to trial an initiative such as this. Other industries may follow but, more generally, more and more sectors are considering how they can "price in" environmental costs to positively influence buying habits.
The long-term ideal, of course, is that consumers learn and become educated and shift purchasing practices accordingly. But they cannot do that alone. We as manufacturers, as well as our retail partners have to lead them along that journey, gently guiding them towards purchasing options which make sense for them as individuals financially, while also ticking all the right boxes when it comes to the planet.
Mostafiz Uddin is the Managing Director of Denim Expert Limited. He is also the Founder and CEO of Bangladesh Denim Expo and Bangladesh Apparel Exchange (BAE). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org