Innovating the apparel industry in the United States: Designers and small brands purchasing sustainable textiles

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Ingram, Jennifer
Major Professor
Ellen McKinney
Committee Member
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Apparel, Events and Hospitality Management

The Department of Apparel, Education Studies, and Hospitality Management provides an interdisciplinary look into areas of aesthetics, leadership, event planning, entrepreneurship, and multi-channel retailing. It consists of four majors: Apparel, Merchandising, and Design; Event Management; Family and Consumer Education and Studies; and Hospitality Management.

The Department of Apparel, Education Studies, and Hospitality Management was founded in 2001 from the merging of the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences Education and Studies; the Department of Textiles and Clothing, and the Department of Hotel, Restaurant and Institutional Management.

Dates of Existence
2001 - present

Related Units

  • College of Human Sciences (parent college)
  • Department of Family and Consumer Sciences Education and Studies (predecessor)
  • Department of Hotel, Restaurant, and Institutional Management (predecessor)
  • Department of Textiles and Clothing (predecessor)
  • Trend Magazine (student organization)

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The purpose of this study was to explore the purchasing practices of designers and small apparel brands in the United States regarding sustainable textiles. In this study, sustainable textiles was defined as textiles composed of fibers that reduce negative environmental and social impact. Small apparel brands was defined as businesses of five or fewer full-time employees that produce small or large batch units or apparel to sell to stores or on a website to consumers. Due to the magnitude of environmental and social problems attributed to the apparel industry, both academic and industry literature have stressed the need to integrate sustainability into the entire product development pipeline, starting with textile selection. The purchasing of sustainable textiles by small apparel brands can be viewed as an innovative business practice. Rogers’ (2003) diffusion of innovation (DOI)- decision process provides a framework to understand the knowledge, persuasion, decision, implementation, and confirmation of designers and small apparel brands purchasing of sustainable textiles. The innovation-decision perspective explains how and why new ideas spread, and the factors that influence purchase decisions concerning new and alternative materials such as sustainable textiles.

Numerous publications call for designers to function as change agents (innovators) regarding sustainability and convey that small businesses can potentially implement such practices quickly. Various studies have attempted to explain why small apparel brands do not purchase sustainable textiles, but few explain why some brands do purchase such materials. Other research has addressed large United States apparel brands that have engaged in sustainable textiles, but small apparel brands have been largely ignored. Thus, a gap exists in the literature concerning what innovative sustainable textiles are being used by small apparel brands and designers, sectors that constitute a majority of the United States apparel industry.

This qualitative study used a semi-structured interview methodology to gather responses from 14 designers or employees of small apparel brands in the United States and have purchased sustainable textiles. Participants were solicited by contacting the brands directly, posting an invitation in Facebook sustainable fashion groups, and by contacting designers directly through professional networks such as LinkedIn and the International Textile and Apparel Association. Data were analyzed using MAXQDA qualitative data analysis software.

The findings show that designers and small apparel brands do indeed function as change agents by integrating many different types of natural and manufactured sustainable textiles into materials selected for garment design and production. Most purchased these textiles because they strive to make an environmental and social impact by making sustainable textile selection as a priority. Knowledge and relative advantage of sustainable textiles and processes were key factors that positively influenced purchasing decisions. On the contrary, the factors that negatively influenced purchasing were complexity, trialability, and observability. Findings show that through independent research, designers and small apparel brands purchase textiles composed of sustainable fibers, or made through sustainable processes, online and directly from mills at tradeshows.

This research increases not only awareness knowledge, principle knowledge, and how-to knowledge, but develops a list of sustainability terms and textiles used by designers and small apparel brands. Further research can include developing a data base for sourcing with pricing and minimum order quantities, providing a labeling system for products, and creating infrastructure for biodegrading and recycling textiles. Additional research may include further refinement of a working definition for sustainable textiles and adding environmental and social responsibility to the DOI sub-dimensions of relevant advantage within the perceived characteristics of the diffusions of innovation-decision process. This research also contributes to the fashion industry by providing practical methods for students, sewers, educators, designers, and small apparel brands to adopt sustainable textiles.

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Thu Aug 01 00:00:00 UTC 2019