The belief that socio-environmental dynamics play a decisive role in influencing individuals’ behavior is widely shared [1
]. In this regard, the concept of sustainability has gradually taken on a leading role, particularly because of its potential ability to influence consumers’ view and, consequently, their buying choices [4
]. This attitude towards sustainability seems to have captured the interest of scholars and professionals belonging to several sectors [8
]. Among these sectors, the fashion industry has paid particular attention, with an increasingly heated debate around the economic impact of “sustainable products” on fashion companies [12
In fact, some authors [13
] believe that in the current—increasingly unpredictable and mutable—competitive environment, sustainability represents one of the most effective levers for attracting fashion customers. Moreover, it is not only effective on customers who are particularly active in environmental protection, but also those who simply prefer products realized through the adoption sustainable practices, all other variables being equal [14
This study, by means of an empirical analysis, pursues two research questions:
Is it possible to imagine a theoretical model for the fashion world which is able to show whether “importance”, “expectations”, and “social influence” effectively affect consumers’ willingness to reward a sustainable fashion brand via their purchasing behavior?
How much are consumers willing to pay in order to get a sustainable item of clothing?
In order to answer these two research questions, this paper is structured into five parts. Initially, the theoretical background of the work is presented in order to justify the construction of the conceptual model hypothesized. Subsequently, after describing this construction and the assumptions underlying it, we describe our methodology, present the results of our analysis, and discuss the emerging empirical evidence. Conclusions, theoretical and practical implications, limitations of the work, and ideas for future research are then discussed.
3. Research Model and Hypothesis Development
The paper, starting from the contribution of Creyer and Ross [92
], tries to test the hypothesis verified by the two authors in another context. It also proposes a possible extension, in order to present a conceptual model able to describe the different variables influencing consumers’ willingness to reward sustainable brands through their purchasing behavior. Note that, rather than considering the concept of ethics, this paper focuses on sustainability, which, although strictly linked to the former, has a somewhat different meaning. The variables originally considered in the aforementioned paper are:
Importance of the ethicality of a firm’s behavior (importance).
Expectations regarding the ethicality of corporate behavior in today’s society (expectations).
Willingness to reward or punish an ethical firm via purchasing behavior (willingness to reward or punish).
Starting from these variables and adding another variable (represented by social influence on fashion brand sustainability), the paper aims to identify the determinants of willingness to reward a sustainable fashion brand. However, as noted above, the present paper also attempts to present an extension, considering a further variable in the multiple linear regression. As the existing body of studies aimed at empirically assessing the real determinants of consumers’ behavior is quite poor and fragmentary, the proposed theoretical model tries to identify the factors able to influence consumers’ purchasing choices, verifying in detail the extent to which willingness to reward is affected by importance, expectations, and social expectations (defined as above).
A schematic depicting this analysis is shown in Figure 1
The roots of the proposed multiple linear regression model lie in theoretical studies concerning the purchasing behavior of fashion consumers [93
]. Each variable has been chosen for study on the basis of a literature review.
Hypotheses Underlying the Model
The importance of perceived sustainability as a driver guiding consumers purchasing choices represents a widely-debated issue in the literature [23
]. Several scholars [20
] have shown the existence of a strong positive correlation between perceived ethical importance of sustainable practices and consumers behavior. Accordingly, other studies [1
] point out that in recent years, the importance attached to sustainable practices on the part of consumers is conditioning the market and marketing strategies [102
], especially because companies seeking new sustainability practices with which to gain competitive advantages over their current and potential competitors [103
]. This trend seems to have fostered the development of an apparent virtuous circle: the increasing importance addressed to sustainable products and brands has stimulated companies to focus more attention on the adoption of sustainable practices, which have in turn attracted the interest of more consumers [103
]. This importance is proposed to stem from circumstances in which consumers are not able to objectively assess desired products before purchasing. In such situations, they base their purchasing choices on other variables, such as brand sustainability [105
Other academics [104
] demonstrate the exact opposite, highlighting that in most cases, although consumers may claim to value sustainable behavior, this is not associated with consistent shopping behavior. According to Weatherell et al. [106
] and Carrigan et al. [56
], this attitude is probably justifiable by considering that, in addition to sustainability, there are many other elements which consumers tend to take into account, such as, price, value for money, and comfort. Verbeke [107
], instead, associates this result with the fact that few consumers have a concrete understanding of the real benefits arising from the adoption of sustainable practices, and instead receive their information via appropriate marketing strategies. In the light of this vivid, this paper considers the following hypothesis (which we refer to as H1): Perceived ethical importance of fashion brand sustainability positively influences people’s willingness to reward a sustainable fashion brand via their purchasing behavior.
According to Kakeu and Byron [108
], expectations are one of the factors that can predict individuals’ behavior, playing a decisive role in guiding consumers’ purchasing choices. Likewise, Chang and Sanfey [109
] state that that this effect is explained by the fact that expectations act as facilitators of people’s decision-making processes. Consistently, other studies [110
] show that expectations play a primary role in orienting consumers’ purchasing intent. With regard to fashion, many scholars and practitioners believe that every consumer’s behavior is strongly oriented toward products about which they have previously formulated high expectations [113
]. In other words, it seems that the higher the expectations about the intrinsic or extrinsic characteristics of a fashion good, the greater the likelihood that the product will be bought by the consumer. Accordingly, it is difficult conceive of a consumer deciding to buy a garment concerning which they hold low expectations. However, not all scholars agree with this conceptual approach. LaTour and Peat [114
], for instance, believe that a consumer might be induced to buy a certain good while considering its quality poor; this may occur in a number of circumstances, for instance when little time is available for making a purchase, when there is an urgent need to obtain a fashion product with certain functionalities, or when one is curious to compare an item with another product with better perceived quality. Indeed, according to the two authors, a consumer who buys a product for which they have low expectations is more likely to be satisfied with the purchase, considering the low initial expectations. On this basis, we make the following hypothesis (referred to as H2): Expectations about fashion brand sustainability positively influence people’s willingness to reward a sustainable fashion brand with their purchasing behavior.
According to Hiller Connell and Kozar [115
], there is a possibility that a consumer’s purchasing decisions are influenced by other people with whom they usually interact. In this regard, Lee [31
] argues that consumers, and in particular young people, tend to be inclined to slightly modify or even totally change their behavior because of pressures arising from their membership group. Bartels and Hoogendam [116
] show that social influence perceived by consumers attentive to environmental issues triggers the adoption of sustainable purchasing behavior. Berns et al. [117
] and Loureiro et al. [118
] state that individuals are strongly conditioned by society in choosing what to wear, insofar as it allows them to assert their professional position or demonstrate their social status, classify or differentiate themselves from others, or impress. Very often, buying and owning a socially-accepted product helps make consumers an integral part of their membership group: individuals who adopt a similar purchasing behavior by orienting themselves towards products bought by other people close to them might feel they have elements in common and this sensation could increase the sense of identity and belonging to a particular social group. Some authors [118
] believe that social influence is capable of affecting consumers in the purchase of hedonic or luxury products, while others [81
] believe that the pressure exercised by a social group on its members affects their purchasing behavior regardless of the kind of product. Therefore, we propose the following third hypothesis (H3): Social influence on fashion brand sustainability positively affects people’s willingness to reward a sustainable fashion brand via their purchasing behavior.
In summary, we have the following hypotheses:
Perceived ethical importance of fashion brand sustainability positively influences people’s willingness to reward a sustainable fashion brand via their purchasing behavior.
Expectations about fashion brand sustainability positively influence people’s willingness to reward a sustainable fashion brand with their purchasing behavior.
Social influence on fashion brand sustainability positively affects people’s willingness to reward a sustainable fashion brand via their purchasing behavior.
The findings emerging from the administration of questionnaires were processed with the program IBM SPSS Statistics 23, by means of which, in accordance with the suggestions described in the study conducted by Rieke et al. [122
], the authors have firstly identified the factors best able to explain the selected constructs by carrying out, as suggested by Churchill [123
], a Principal Component Analysis (PCA). Subsequently, as recommended by Jolliffe [124
], the reliability of each measurement scale resulting after realizing PCA has been verified.
The checking of the scales validity and reliability was performed by means of an iterative process, which finally provided all values higher than the minimum acceptance threshold, with particular regard to the KMO test (>.5 [125
]), Bartlett’s test of sphericity (Sign. < .005 [126
]), the explained variance of the phenomenon (>.50 [125
]) and Cronbach’s Alpha (>.70 [125
]) (Table 1
Subsequently, in order to examine the explanatory power of the model, a multiple linear regression analysis was conducted. With few exceptions, which will be discussed, below, in line with the argumentations proposed by Hu et al. [128
], the regression analysis presents acceptable values with reference to both the Adjusted R-square and coefficients, such as the standardized Beta and the collinearity statistics (VIF and Tolerance), as shown in Table 2
, Table 3
and Table 4
, in fact, shows that the independent variables of the model (expectations, importance and social influence) are cumulatively able to explain more than 65% of the dependent variables (customers’ willingness to reward the adoption of sustainable practices through their purchasing behavior), in consistency with the results emerging from other studies aimed at responding to a similar research question [47
However, Table 4
deserves further examination, since not all of the variables exhibit suitable values. In fact, while expectations and social influence satisfy the acceptance thresholds, importance, on the contrary, presents positive values only for the collinearity statistics and not also for the standardized Beta nor for significance, indicating that it may not be a particularly decisive predictor of customers’ willingness to reward sustainability through purchasing behavior.
In this multiple linear regression (see Figure 2
), importance seems to exert a totally negligible influence on consumers’ willingness to reward sustainable fashion brands, contrary to the initial model proposed by Creyer and Ross [92
]. This result, though not fully generalizable, suggests that consumers are often unable to prioritize to their own thoughts in adopting a specific purchasing behavior [130
]. In other words, hypothesis H1 was rejected by our analysis.
Moreover, the analysis appears to confirm the hypothesis H2, highlighting the significant influence exercised by consumers’ expectations about sustainability on their willingness to reward brands that adopt friendly environmental practices. This result is perfectly in line with the arguments raised by Kakeu and Byron [108
], who argue that expectations play a decisive role in influencing consumers towards more conscious and deliberate purchasing decisions (see also Umbach [110
The hypothesis H3 is also confirmed. In fact, social influence appears to be the variable with the greatest impact on consumers’ purchasing choices. In line with the viewpoint presented by Bartels and Hoogendam [116
], consumer buying decisions appear to be significantly influenced by the opinions of people with whom they maintain relations. This was previously foreseen byBerns et al. [117
]: “in particular, a consumer’s tendency to purchase a product is influenced by the choices made by his associative reference group”. More specifically, the authors believe that young people’s behavior is affected by perceptions of popularity in their group of reference. Likewise, Lee [31
] highlights that in some cases, a consumer can be so concerned with what people think about a specific topic that they can neglect their own personal taste by making purchases on the basis of the interest shown towards that product by the community.
Besides multiple-choice questions and those related to gender (masculine or feminine), the questionnaire also included some open-ended questions, as previously mentioned, which were aimed at allowing for a better understanding of the perception of sustainability with reference to fashion brands.
In particular, respondents were asked how much they would have been willing to pay to have an item of clothing made through the adoption of sustainable practices by companies operating in the fashion sector. The responses highlighted the customers’ tendency to consider aspects that go beyond the mere use of a product, looking toward a more sustainable dimension of socio-economic development, as depicted in Figure 3
In more detail, the responses were as follows (see Table 5
). 10 people (about 4% of the sample) pointed out that they would not be willing to pay any premium price to get a sustainable item of clothing, since they care about other features of products. Another 10 people (about 4% of the sample) declared that they pay enough attention to sustainability to be willing to support a 50% increase in price. Nineteen people (about 7% of the sample) said they would be willing to pay 40% more for apparel with a sustainable brand, while 22 (about 8% of the sample) revealed that the highest price increase they would support for a sustainable item of clothing is 30% on the base price. Forty-three people (about 16% of the sample) stated their willingness to pay a 10% increased price for a sustainable fashion product. One-hundred and sixty-five people (about 61% of the sample) pointed out that they would pay no more than 20% than the basic price to get a sustainable item of clothing. No one declared a willingness to support a premium price increase of more than 50% for buying a fashion good produced though sustainable practices.
7. Theoretical and Practical Implications
In the light of the considerations so far expressed, which highlight the relevance of social and environmental aspects for consumers’ purchasing behavior, this study could be considered a useful instrument for both scholars and managers interested and/or engaged in fashion sector.
In fact, the paper offers both theoretical and practical implications, emphasizing that, on one hand, expectations [113
] and social influence [115
] seem to play a significant role in influencing consumers’ willingness to buy sustainable items of clothing, while, on the other, the selling price continues to represent a significant factor, at least up to a certain threshold, beyond which, in fact, an adverse effect on brand appeal could occur.
This statement should lead, concerning theoretical implications, marketing scholars to investigate new scenarios in the fashion industry, potentially capable of driving consumers’ interest toward aspects different from the “classic” ones (such as product quality, image, value for money, etc.). In this regard, this work could contribute to giving an impulse to the development of the scientific debate about a particularly salient topic in the social and politic context.
In particular, the results emerging from the analysis stress the need to deepen the various aspects leading to the growing interest in the theme of enterprise sustainability and, consequently, to the constant increase in dedicated investments. Among them, the sensitivity of businesses, the need for adaptation to regulatory developments (which have been more and more strict in recent years), the need to enhance the quality of products, and the simultaneous reduction of costs needed for their production, the improvement of image and reputation in the eyes of consumers (increasingly sensitive to environmental evolution and new market opportunities), etc.
To this end, greater attention of scholars in every sector (especially business management) seems indispensable to showing companies the future evolution of the global and local agenda with regard to sustainability issues.
A significant challenge for scholars interested in the theme of sustainability is the pursuit of three specific medium- and long-term objectives: intercepting new market trends; exploring and, possibly, predicting how sustainable practices can turn into effective purchasing behavior; and, ultimately, making the concept of sustainability a concrete resource for companies.
In other words, future research could be directed to the qualitative and quantitative identification of the competitive advantage that a company would be able to get if it started undertaking actions and carrying out sustainable interventions.
regarding practical implications, this work invites managers of fashion companies to reflect on the fact that, in order to maximize business volume, it is necessary to focus both on current issues (such as environmental sustainability) and on the maximum increase capable of attracting and retaining customers attentive to certain aspects, since the variable “price” seems to keep on playing a not insignificant role in consumers’ purchasing choices.
This means that the consideration of the results emerging from the present analysis allows us to more quickly and effectively understand the social variables (such as sustainability, social influence, price, etc.) in order to facilitate better business management and improve the economic and financial performances of companies.
Business managers should be well aware that most companies that have undertaken sustainable initiatives have greatly benefited in terms of regulatory compliance, brand reputation enhancement, customer relationship betterment, improvement and/or consolidation of the market position, etc.
In this regard, corporate ownership (especially with reference to medium-sized companies, but not only) could assess the idea of introducing, in addition to the traditional managerial figures, a Chief Sustainability Officer, investing in this position the responsibility of taking advantage of the adoption of sustainable practices.
This choice could be justified by the fact that, in the main industrialized countries, the concept of sustainability is progressively gaining importance for consumers and, consequently, for companies. In fact, many business realities are increasingly aware of the existence of a causal link between business sustainability and performance: to date, many managers do not wonder whether it is advantageous to define and implement sustainable market policies but, rather, they attempt to identify, among different available alternatives, the best ways to direct consumers’ attention to sustainability with real benefits for company.
A business oriented towards or, at least, focused on the theme of sustainability can ensure a competitive position with stable returns over time, although some actions do not bring direct benefits in terms of profitability but contribute, in the medium and long term, to the formation of intangible capital, especially in terms of expertise and image. However, this approach requires a lot of time, so it will be possible to see the first fruits and avoid the strategic and operational risks that could compromise the relationship with the various categories of stakeholders (customers, employees, distributors, suppliers, local communities, environment, etc.).
8. Conclusions: Final Remarks, Limits and Future Research
As previously indicated, this study attempted to respond to two distinct but related research questions:
Is it possible to imagine a theoretical model for the fashion world that is able to show whether “importance”, “expectations”, and “social influence” effectively affect consumers’ willingness to reward a sustainable fashion brand via their purchasing behavior?
How much are consumers willing to pay in order to get a sustainable item of clothing?
To achieve the research objectives, paper questionnaires were administered to 271 students enrolled in Master’s degree courses at the Department of Business Management at the University of Salerno. The data from the questionnaires was analyzed using the program IBM SPSS Statistics 23, which allowed for the construction of a multiple linear regression model based on four constructs: Importance, expectation, social influence, and willingness to reward.
With regard to the first research question, the analysis showed that consumers attach little relevance to the importance accorded to brand sustainability, orientating themselves most on the basis of their expectations and, above all, on the opinions of society or, more specifically, of their own group (relatives, friends, co-workers, acquaintances, and so on).
As for the second research question, the analysis found that consumers claim to be absolutely committed to promoting environmental protection by means of purchasing choices more focused on the adoption of sustainable practices. The majority of the questionnaire respondents expressed a willingness to pay a 20% increase in price in order to buy a product made and offered on the market by a sustainable fashion brand.
However, the findings emerging from this analysis were subject to two limitations. The first concerned the use of the questionnaire for the understanding of the respondents’ opinions. Indeed, although the questionnaire offered several advantages (such as the efficient dispersal of poor economic and temporal resources for its administration), it did not allow for responses of great depth, as the questions only asked the respondents to provide numbers representative of their general agreement level with various statements. The second limitation was related to the use of a small reference sample, composed of 271 people with a relatively high level of education. For future research, it could be appropriate to repeat the analysis by using a different technique (for instance, an economic experiment) and including more people, with various levels of education.