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In study of organic apparel, everyone has their price

PULLMAN, Wash. – Dr. Joan Ellis holds up two white cotton tees printed with state college logos. The t-shirts appear identical, but one is sourced from conventional cotton and the other from organic. Would that difference, Ellis and her colleagues wondered, change the price consumers are willing to pay for the shirts?

Joan Ellis
Joan Ellis

As consumers become increasingly conscious of how their purchases influence labor practices and use natural resources, they drive product choices that show concern for people and the planet. And some are willing to pay more. In fact, about 25 percent more for the organic apparel, said Ellis, associate professor of Apparel, Merchandising, Design and Textiles, referencing a pilot study funded by the Washington State University Agricultural Research Center and recently published in the International Journal of Fashion Marketing and Management.

“If the consumer is not willing to pay, then everything upstream—the growing, processing, distribution and selling—has no ramifications. You have to start with identifying the consumer,” Ellis said. “If the consumer won’t buy it, everything else is moot.”

The research team is particularly interested in understanding the relationship between what a person says they’re willing to pay versus what they’ll actually pay at market. Consumers’ intentions often don’t match their purchase behaviors, Ellis said, and everyone has their price. The pilot study was one of the first to use a type of experimental auction methodology to evoke the true price a person will pay for a product.

The team—Ellis and graduate student Emily Hunt from AMDT with Professor Vicki McCracken and former Ph.D student Nate Skuza from the School of Economic Sciences– used a sample of two large university classes. They found students who pay for their own clothing had a lower willingness to pay for both organic and conventional tees than students whose parents, for example, buy their clothing. Meanwhile, students who believe organics are of a higher quality were willing to pay more for both organic and conventional cotton tees. Students who had a history of purchasing organic products were also willing to pay more for the organic than the conventional variety.

Ellis said the pilot study opens up opportunities for continued research into organic apparel and consumer behavior. For example, they hope to look at the influence of social media and social norms, willingness to pay for organic high fashion versus organic low fashion, apparel versus textiles like bedding, or willingness to pay based on consumer interest in fashion.

Vicki McCracken
Vicki McCracken

“The pilot study’s traction definitely shows an interest in consumer behavior and marketing implications for organic apparel,” she said. “It validated what we knew about interest out in the market and the potential to push forward on this particular topic.”

This news release is based on the article by Joan L. Ellis, Vicki A. McCracken, Nathan Skuza, (2012) “Insights into willingness to pay for organic cotton apparel” in the Journal of Fashion Marketing and Management, Vol. 16 Iss: 3, pp.290 – 305.




Seminar series focuses on cotton sustainability 

Washington State University will host a series of six seminars during the 2013 academic year focused on the sustainability of cotton. Students and the community are invited to learn about cotton fibers and textiles from the agricultural level to the retail end, said Joan Ellis, associate professor for Apparel, Merchandising, Design and Textiles.

The project culminates with a faculty-led visit to the Cotton Inc. headquarters in Cary, North Carolina this spring. The trip will provide 15 WSU students interested in the future of the textile and apparel industry with the opportunity to meet researchers in the field. They will also observe the testing, production and processing of cotton textiles.

Monthly seminars begin in February and continue through March, April, September, October, and November. The seminars are funded through a Cotton Inc. grant won by Dr. Karen Leonas. Upcoming dates will be available at

Media Contacts

Joan Ellis, Department of Apparel Merchandising Design and Textiles, 509-335-8399