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Fast-fashion: Clothing the Planet or Stripping it?

Ajay Immanuel Gonji

On 2 October 2015, Swedish global fashion company Hennes & Mauritz (H&M) opened its first India store in the national capital, New Delhi, recording opening-day sales of more than ₹1.75 crores, with an average billing of ₹27,000 per minute. Ever since, H&M India has established 47 stores across 24 Indian cities, growing at 43 per cent in 2019, even at a time when other fashion retailers were reporting slow growth and fewer footfalls at their stores. H&M’s rival, Zara, which operates under Spanish parent company Inditex, also entered the Indian market in 2010 and has since established 21 stores in the country. Taking advantage of India’s growing economy, its expanding middle class, and an age structure that is dominated by the younger age group, these fashion brands are thriving in the Indian market. Having pioneered and mastered the concept of ‘fast-fashion’, fashion brands like Zara and H&M have been at the helm of the apparel industry, globally, and especially in Europe. In this article, I wish to highlight some of the tenets of fast-fashion and assess its impacts on the environment.

What is Fast-fashion?

Fast-fashion refers to low-cost clothing collections that are inspired by the latest fashion trends.1 Fast-fashion is a sector of the apparel industry that originated in Europe to cater to the rapidly evolving preferences of primarily young women who wanted to follow luxury fashion trends but at a much lower cost.2 Soon, retailers like Zara, H&M, Mango, New Look, Top Shop, and several others began designing low-cost clothes inspired from fashion shows and catwalks, taking no more than three to five weeks to make these new ‘trendy’ clothes available in their stores.3 For this, fast-fashion companies had to compress production cycles so that more could be produced in a relatively short period of time, allowing shoppers to not only expand their wardrobes but also continuously refresh them.4 But how exactly did these companies carve out a niche for themselves in the clothing industry?

Forever 21 is a global fashion brand that popularised fast-fashion in the USA. Photo by Raysonho

The easing of restrictions on the global textile trade in the 1990’s allowed the clothing industry to develop a global supply chain where fashion companies could not only procure cheap raw material from different parts of the world but also take advantage of low-cost labour.5 Soon, the phenomena of sourcing manufacturing and other processes of the fashion apparel industry to offshore places became a trend, giving fashion companies a huge cost advantage.3 Swedish fast-fashion giant Gina Tricot, for instance, produces most of its clothes in Turkey, China, Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan where there are lower labour standards as compared to Sweden.5 With lower production costs overall, low price – high volume became the mantra of the fast-fashion industry.1 And this, coupled with people’s desire to keep up with the latest fashion trends in order to remain relevant led to overconsumption and overproduction, resulting in fast-fashion companies reporting high turnover and profit.5 Largely fuelled by the advent of fast-fashion and its rapid spread around the world in the last two decades, presently, the clothing industry is valued at more than $1.3 trillion and employs over 300 million people along the value chain.6

‘obsolescence and instant consumer gratification are the driving force of the fast-fashion industry’

Like the technology industry, where products constantly become obsolete as companies manufacture improved and upgraded versions almost every year, obsolescence and instant consumer gratification are the driving force of the fast-fashion industry, where the newness and floor-life of a particular design are usually not more than a few weeks.2 By manufacturing limited edition or ‘Here Today, Gone Tomorrow’ clothing, retailers are able to ensure scarcity, which in turn drives demand.1,3 Fast-fashion can be somewhat accurately encapsulated by the views of one Canadian student: “I want to see new things and styles that can help me create and recreate my wardrobe and who I am. But I don’t want to look like someone else – so the limited edition satisfies this need to be unique. When I see it on the catwalks or in magazines, I want it immediately”.1

Fast-fashion and Sustainability

The global fashion industry is known to be extremely energy-consuming and is the second-largest polluter after the oil industry.7 For instance, fashion is responsible for 20 to 35 per cent of microplastic pollution in oceans and outweighs the carbon footprint of international flights and shopping combined.7 The fast-fashion industry causes natural resource depletion right from the time of textile production, through the lifecycle of the garment, to the time it is either destroyed or recycled.2 Cotton, which accounts for 30 per cent of textile fibre production, is grown using large quantities of water, fertilizers and pesticides, and according to one estimate, 1 kilogram of fabric generates about 23 kilograms of greenhouse gases.4 Besides cotton, plastic fibres such as nylon and polyester account for about 50 per cent of all apparel products, and the production of plastic fibres not only uses large quantities of petroleum but also releases volatile organic compounds which cause serious environmental pollution.2 According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, of the 53 million tons of fibre produced by the global fashion industry each year, only less than 1 per cent is recycled and reused in the industry, while the remaining end up in landfills and bonfires.7

With the enormity of the damage caused to the planet by the fast-fashion industry, most fast-fashion brands not only publicly acknowledge this fact but also seem to be extremely concerned about it. While brands like Zara and H&M are the pioneers of fast-fashion, they are also some of the biggest advocates of sustainable fashion. For instance, Zara’s ‘Join Life’ sustainability campaign is about the company’s commitment to developing processes and raw materials that reduce environmental impacts. Similarly, one of the many environmental initiatives of the H&M Group is geared towards becoming ‘climate-positive’ and “making the most of all resources, cutting carbon emissions and turning waste into new resources”. While Zara has pledged to use 100 per cent sustainable fabrics by 2025, H&M aims to achieve this goal by 2030.7 Another fast-fashion brand called Reformation addresses sustainability with a catchy tag line – “Being naked is the #1 most sustainable option. We’re #2.” However, despite making some modest progress in the recent past, the fashion industry is far from taking its environmental responsibilities seriously.7

H&M store in Times Square, New York, USA. Photo by Marco Verch

Sustainability or Greenwashing?

As stated previously, high turnover and profit are central to the fast-fashion industry. By using clever marketing and advertisements, fast-fashion brands are able to convince buyers that they can attain their high-status lifestyle while also supporting the environment by engaging in eco-friendly and sustainable practices.5 For instance, in April 2016, H&M took part in World Recycle Week where it planned to capture 1,000 tons of unwanted clothes during the week by inviting customers to drop off old clothes in return for vouchers to use at H&M. Although buzzwords like ‘eco’, ‘sustainable’, ‘organic’, ‘recycle’ and ‘renewable’ are used extensively in the fashion industry, brands have often been accused of misleading consumers – a phenomenon referred to as greenwashing – by not providing adequate details about how garments are actually non-polluting to the environment. What also works to the advantage of these companies is that ‘sustainability’ is not a term young consumers typically associate with fashion, even if they are environmentally conscious, although this is changing.1 Between 2016 and 2019, internet searches for “sustainable fashion” shot up by three times, yet, as Nina Marenzi, founder and director of The Sustainable Angle concedes, “Nothing is black and white, unfortunately…It’s huge shades of green, really. That makes it very difficult because it lends itself very easily to greenwashing and misunderstanding…that can be quite confusing for the consumer”.7

Changing Clothes to Changing Lifestyles

The concept of fast-fashion is based on capitalism where overconsumption, overproduction and cheap labour allows firms to continuously generate profits.5 It is unlikely that this consumer-driven, profit-making industry will sincerely work towards reducing its impacts on the planet if consumer preferences and lifestyles do not change.2 Many of the so-called “sustainable” practices of the fast-fashion industry do not address the root of the problem: to make and consume less, instead are often promotional noise to evade meaningful action and regulatory compliance.7 However, with growing environmental consciousness, especially with movements like the Global Climate Strike led by 16-year-old Greta Thunberg which saw the participation of more than 7.6 million, Gen-Z (people born after 1996) – now the largest global customer cohort – has the potential to force change in the fast-fashion industry.7

For millennials like me, it is perhaps time to introspect.

References

  1. Joy, A., Sherry, J. F., Venkatesh, A., Wang, J., & Chan, R. (2012). Fast fashion, sustainability, and the ethical appeal of luxury brands. Fashion Theory – Journal of Dress Body and Culture, 16(3), 273–295. https://doi.org/10.2752/175174112X13340749707123
  2. Linden, Annie Radner, “An Analysis of the Fast Fashion Industry” (2016). Senior Projects Fall 2016. 30. https://digitalcommons.bard.edu/senproj_f2016/30
  3. Bhardwaj, V., & Fairhurst, A. (2010). Fast fashion: Response to changes in the fashion industry. International Review of Retail, Distribution and Consumer Research, 20(1), 165–173. https://doi.org/10.1080/09593960903498300
  4. Remy, N., Speelman, E., & Swartz, S. (2016). Style that’s sustainable: A new fast-fashion formula.
  5. Karlsson, M. T., & Ramasar, V. (2020). Selling women the green dream: the paradox of feminism and sustainability in fashion marketing. Journal of Political Ecology, 27, 335–359.
  6. Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2017), A new textiles economy: Redesigning fashion’s future. http://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/publications
  7. Beltrami, M., Kim, D., & Rolkens, F. (2019). The State of Fashion 2020. McKinsey&Company.

Featured Image by Saph Photography

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