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K-State research shows that consumers should understand sustainable goods

Consumers need to understand impact of choosing sustainable food, but may not understand the importance of sustainable clothing

Among sustainability enthusiasts, choosing organic food at the grocery store may come as second nature. But research by a Kansas State University professor is showing that such green choices don't necessarily transfer from the grocery shelf to the clothing rack.

"When you consider produce, it's easier for consumers to understand that the product is grown, harvested and transported to the grocery store with little or no change throughout the process," said Melody LeHew, associate professor of apparel and textiles at K-State. "What makes it more difficult for the consumer of apparel and textile products is that the process of production transforming fiber into a garment is so complex."

Among her research projects in sustainable apparel and textiles, LeHew is studying Kansans' attitudes toward sustainable consumption. She will present her work at K-State's Leading Kansas in Sustainability Conference, Jan. 23, at the K-State Student Union. Her presentation will be 10 a.m. to 10:30 a.m., in the Sunflower Room.

To explore consumer attitudes, LeHew organized a focus group of people who identified themselves as participating in movements like voluntary simplicity, slow food or ethical consumption. LeHew examined how people define sustainability, why people felt committed to these movements and asked them about barriers to becoming more sustainable.

In a preliminary analysis of data, she found that people who understand how buying local, organic produce or recycling a plastic bottle makes a difference had a harder time seeing a link between the clothing they buy and the environmental impact.

Although LeHew said many of the recycling-minded consumers felt strongly about reselling clothing or buying items secondhand, they didn't always make the connection between what they buy and how it impacts the ecosystem.

"One participant was very concerned about sustainability and was a strong supporter of recycling," LeHew said. "He emphasized that he only bought cotton shirts. In that person's mind, cotton--being a natural fiber--was the better choice."

LeHew said that's where an understanding of the process could help consumers see that a natural fiber may not always be the best choice.

"You have to realize that traditional cotton is grown using pesticides and is a water intensive crop, but that is not the only potentially harmful impact," LeHew said. "It might be grown in Texas and shipped overseas to be made into textiles, shipped elsewhere to make it into a T-shirt, and then brought back to the United States and distributed nationally to sell to the end user.

"The transportation that supports this channel of distribution uses high levels of energy. At each stage of the production process there are potential ecological impacts and all of these things, that the consumer has no idea about, add up.

"Ideally, consumers would not be required to understand all the stages of consumer goods production because of manufacturers' commitment to sustainability," she said.

Until then, LeHew said one thing that consumers can do is to look for clothes labeled as transitional cotton. It means that the fiber has been grown with organic methods, although the producer hasn't been doing it for the three years necessary to be certified organic.

"Right now, the demand for organic cotton exceeds the supply," LeHew said. "Companies want to use it, but they can't find enough. Recognizing this intermediary crop encourages growers to keep moving toward organic."

More than just the environment where fibers are grown, the environment in which clothing is manufactured is something for consumers to consider as well, LeHew said. This means considering things like a company's labor policies or working conditions.

"Sustainability is not just about the environmental aspects," she said. "It's about social and economic issues, too."

More information about the K-State sustainability conference and a schedule are available at: http://sustainability.k-state.edu/conferences/leadingkansas/.

1/26/09
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Date: 1/16/09



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