Green hypocrisy: the cognitive dissonance of fashion consumption

Incongruent, hypocritical and lying. When faced with fashion purchases, consumers collapse into a behavioural drift based on the concept of cognitive dissonance. This is explained by a study by ModaEspaña carried out in collaboration with Kantar

by Massimiliano Viti


Those who know that smoking is bad for their health but continue to do so justify their behaviour by thinking that ‘smoking helps you concentrate and is pleasant’. Or they exhibit the alibi of ‘it is not proven that smoking is that bad for you’. Or hides behind catchphrases such as ‘You only live once’ and ‘If you stop smoking, you eat more and gain weight’. Inconsistent or contradictory behaviour that, in 1957, the American psychologist and sociologist Leon Festinger called cognitive dissonance. Why do we write about it? Simple: this discourse also applies – unfortunately – to fashion consumption patterns. Here’s why.

Green hypocrisy

Many people, when buying a fashion product in particular, claim to be environmentally and sustainability conscious. But then, at the time of purchase, they relegate these supposed convictions to a corner and choose solely on the basis of price. This is also why some Chinese super fast fashion giants like Shein or Temu are growing. All studies carried out in the past (Bain, ThredUp and Vinted) have amply demonstrated this phenomenon, which, however, does not seem to be losing strength. On the contrary.

The cognitive dissonance of fashion consumption

At the end of May 2024, ModaEspaña presented a study carried out in collaboration with Kantar entitled ‘Perception, attitude and awareness of the fashion consumer towards the environment’. Rosa Pilar López, director of the fashion and beauty division of Kantar’s Worldpanel, used precisely cognitive dissonance to explain consumer behaviour. The one who is aware of sustainability is a Shein customer. The novelty of the study is that it is not only young people who behave this way.

Hypocritical and incongruent

The consumer is described as ‘hypocritical, inconsistent and a liar‘. Because – at least 1 in 3 – they are concerned about sustainability, they ask for information and explanations about unethical behaviour, but, in the end, what do they do? They buy based on price, which is the most important factor in purchasing decisions for more than 80% of consumers.

Lying consumer

37% of consumers demand more information on how clothes are made, but only 13% say they actually look for it. Probably because they are not sure, they are finding the truth. One in 5, in fact, believes that claims about sustainability and low environmental impact are merely strategies to attract buyers and sell at a higher price. Marketing, in other words. Greenwashing. This is why Brussels intervened on this issue and banned the indication of generic terms about product sustainability in the absence of concrete evidence.

The company started with SH

Ángel Asensio, president of Moda España, called the consumer ‘hypocritical’ and explained that when he goes to universities, students show interest and concern for sustainability in fashion. But when asked where they shop, they all answer: ‘In the company that starts with SH‘.

A positive aspect

One positive aspect that emerges from the study, however, is that consumers now look for more durable garments, even if they cost more, because they have less environmental impact. Thus, they seem to be willing to spend a little more not for a ‘trivial idea of sustainability’, but for the quality of the product. A meagre consolation, in light of the cognitive dissonance that commands all purchasing behaviour.

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