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Modelling mainstream consumer understanding of the ethical fashion message

Blanco-Velo, Joanna (2017) Modelling mainstream consumer understanding of the ethical fashion message. Doctoral thesis (PhD), Manchester Metropolitan University.

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Abstract

The academic literature that explores consumer behaviour in relation to ethical fashion has, to date, emphasised the behaviour of the highly motivated ethical consumer. A number of ethical fashion studies have examined the behaviour of the mainstream consumer but of these, very few were conducted in the UK or emphasised mainstream consumer interpretation of the ethical fashion message. In the drive towards mainstreaming sustainable product consumption, global information programmes imply that consumer education leads to consumer action. The research presented in this thesis questions the value of mediated consumer information in the development of product literacy and ethical fashion involvement in mainstream fashion markets. The underlying argument that frames the study is that the complex nature of both the sustainability discourse and the contemporary fashion system is a barrier to the mainstreaming of ethical fashion consumption. A grounded theory approach was adopted to guide the research that was conducted in two stages. In stage one, the qualitative content analysis of mainstream print media exposed the complexities inherent within the communication of ethical fashion to mainstream consumers during 2006 to 2008; the peak of ethical fashion promotion in the UK. Emergent theory was tested with mainstream consumers. The analysis of focus group discussion exposed mainstream consumer interpretation of both the lexicon of ethical fashion and the prevailing media frames. Consumer interpretations were compared to the results of the analysis of mainstream retailer texts. Through the constant comparative method, stage one of the research led to the development of a preliminary theoretical model. In stage two of the research, the content analysis of print media and retailer texts from 2012 considered temporal change in ethical fashion communication and informed the refinement of the emergent grounded theory. The findings of this research provide evidence that the vocabulary and framing of ethical fashion functions as a barrier to ethical product literacy and results in low mainstream consumer involvement. Findings exposed the lack of consistency in stakeholder use and interpretation of the ethical fashion message. The resulting theory models the implications of incidentally encountered knowledge for the successful communication, interpretation of and involvement with ethical fashion by mainstream fashion consumers. The resulting theoretical model presents mainstream consumer understanding of ethical fashion as a complex and dynamic phenomenon. This thesis contributes to the emerging body of literature that analyses the complexity of the language of ethical fashion for mainstream consumers. A contribution is also made to the understanding of product literacy and its role in supporting mainstream consumer involvement with ethical fashion products.

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