How much is green worth to you?
Gwendolyn Hustvedt, assistant professor of fashion merchandising at Texas State, is working to find out. The Southern Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program awarded Hustvedt a $140,000 grant to explore how much consumers value local, organic and eco-friendly products.
Hustvedt’s research looks at consumers’ willingness to pay for products that are kind to the environment. “We’re at a wonderful moment in time where consumers care about agriculture and where their products come from,” she says. “I want to help harness consumer concern for sustainable agriculture to benefit farmers and ranchers.”
The Bottom Line
Hustvedt’s research combines clothing, a silent auction and a room full of college students. “It’s as close as we can get in experimental economics to real shopping without going to a store,” she says.
In one experiment, students were given money and asked to bid on various socks. At first, they had no information about where the socks were produced or what they were made of. Then labels were added, detailing which socks were made with local, organic or non-genetically modified (GMO) cotton. “Looking at the changing bids, we saw that Texas State students were willing to pay about 50 cents more for socks made with Texas cotton,” Hustvedt says.
Her research has also shown that demographics play a role in consumers’ preferences. Hispanic consumers tend to be less interested in organic labels and more interested in information about labor concerns such as working conditions and wages. “Research like this highlights the thirst consumers have for information,” Hustvedt says.
Making Subjects Connect
Hustvedt believes marketing, science and clothing production are all intertwined, a philosophy she passes on to her students at Texas State. In her freshman textiles class, she introduces students to principles in textile science, polymer chemistry, production and dye chemistry.
“Textiles is a gateway science class,” Hustvedt says. “I like to teach science to people who don’t like it by making it relevant to their lives.”
The professor uses examples like bad hair days and wrinkled clothing to illustrate principles of polymer chemistry. “Cross-linking molecules are chemicals that will bond with two ‘bored’ protein molecules that make up a polymer, in your hair for example, and hook them together. This keeps them from bonding with extra water molecules or from moving into a wrinkle or curl,” Hustvedt says. “We can also use cross-linking molecules in durable-press finishes on textiles, which means that we don’t have to iron our clothes as often.”
Hustvedt’s background, which includes working in product development, an apprenticeship with a master tailor, and seven years of owning a tailor shop, gives her a clear perspective on how interdisciplinary the field should be.
Her résumé boasts a complementary mix of degrees, including a bachelor’s in biochemistry, master’s in textile science and doctorate in human ecology/consumer behavior.
“Students can take my class and then move on to beginning chemistry and be able to relate it to something with meaning in their lives,” Hustvedt says. “I like to think students leave my class with a better understanding of scientific principles.”
Hustvedt’s commitment to social responsibility and green marketing is a common thread in her research and classroom teaching. Although it’s not always what aspiring fashion designers want to hear, the assistant professor teaches students about the harsh consequences of ever-changing fashions.
“Simply changing a color or style without enough notice means someone in a factory somewhere else in the world has to extend their already 12-hour day to an 18-hour day,” Hustvedt says. “Students need to know this — they need to know that [as professionals] they are responsible for checking if the factory actually pays the overtime.”
On a recent trip to the Dominican Republic, Hustvedt got a firsthand look at the dirty working conditions factory workers can endure while distressing blue jeans. “I tell my students that they need to be aware that denim distressing creates pollution twice — once when they over-dye in the first location and a second time when the jeans are distressed,” Hustvedt says. “It’s a great look, but when I look at those jeans all I see is dye that’s running off everywhere and polluting the water supply.”
Hustvedt says her students — as future clothing designers, buyers and product developers — have the ability to make positive changes, both in the environment and in working conditions, through their professional decisions.
“By stepping out of fashion trends and looking at quality, they can help stop that cycle,” she says. “And value-based labeling can help consumers act out their values in the marketplace.”
When it comes to making purchases that support your values, “We can be stuck in paralysis because the global supply chain is non-transparent,” Hustvedt says. But consumers have options.
“One solution is to cut down, buy used and recycle,” she says, a mantra that applies to anything from buying clothes at secondhand stores to shopping for furniture in the classified ads. Another important step is for consumers to ask questions and do research. A good place to start is a company’s Web site. Some have annual social responsibility reports — with varying levels of transparency — while others don’t even bother.
To help make your clothing choices more sustainable, the former tailor offers this advice: Focus on timeless pieces, fit and good quality material. “Don’t do more clothes, do better at really defining what you’re looking for,” Hustvedt says. She likens this type of thoughtful shopping to the practice of good nutrition. “It is the difference between someone who plans a menu and someone who goes into the cupboard and starts stuffing their face.”
Consumers have the power, Hustvedt says, to tell manufacturers what they value by what they choose to spend their money on. “Our consumer decisions to be sustainable may seem small, but every one reinforces the power of consumers,” Hustvedt says. “I really want to help my students understand how they fit in as consumers in a global system.
“It’s one of my big goals to turn out students who say ‘What is the social and environmental impact of the decisions I make?’”