|Fast fashion is known to be a notoriously unsustainable practice of producing inexpensive clothing as a response to rapidly changing trends / Photo by: martinkay78 via 123RF|
People are now more socially conscious when it comes to shopping for and consuming goods. When a company is found to engage in offensive practices, customers will be quick to call them out and—worst case scenario—cancel the brand altogether.
These choices are not only based on what is socially appropriate but also if they are the most sustainable option. So it's odd to see how fast fashion seems to be thriving today, as it goes against the idea of making sustainable choices.
The Consumer Paradox
Fast fashion is known to be a notoriously unsustainable practice of producing inexpensive clothing as a response to rapidly changing trends. This practice forces companies to sacrifice the quality of the materials and production sustainability to capitalize on the shifting industry.
And even with an increased focus on sustainability, consumers still have little awareness of fast fashion and its impact. Add that to the fact that value is still the most significant factor for shoppers in regards to clothing and you'll get the so-called consumer paradox.
In fact, a survey from market research company GlobalWebIndex shows that people from the US and UK held the fashion industry at a lower standard of having better corporate social responsibility policies compared to industries like food, pharmaceutical, and energy.
Out of nearly 5,000 respondents surveyed, 33% believe the fashion industry should be held more accountable when it comes to CSR compared to the 52% for food, 50% for pharmaceutical, and 49% for energy.
This low turnout could be due to consumers not willing to "sacrifice a good deal" even if they are aware of the effects of fast fashion, according to market research company eMarketer.
It adds that consumers have a greater focus on fashion's value compared to those of other industries. A study from the National Retail Federation (NRF) and the IBM Institute shows more respondents saying they were mostly value-driven (46%) when it comes to buying clothes and shoes than those who said they were purpose-driven (35%).
The same survey found younger generations seem to have more sustainable shopping habits, with 70% of millennials and 69% of Gen Z respondents saying they either rented or wanted to rent products rather than buy them.
A significant number of the two generations (77% of millennials and 78% of Gen Z) also said they either purchased or wanted to purchase pre-owned, repaired, or renewed products.
"These numbers aren't specific to fashion, however, nor do they necessarily mean that younger generations will abandon fast fashion entirely," eMarketer clarified, noting than Gen Z have a particular "affinity for a new wave of fast-fashion retailers."
Younger cohorts and sustainable consumers have also taken a liking to companies whose business models "bring together the benefits of both value and ethics" through rental apparel or peer-to-peer selling.
The Problem With Fast Fashion
Fashion comes and goes as quickly as trends do these days, but not without leaving artifacts of their former glory behind. Fast fashion brands don't design their clothing to last for a long time, making them mere traces of what the New York Times calls "a consumptive era."
These traces will last longer than they were used, considering over 60% of fabric fibers are synthetics and about 85% of textile waste end up in landfills or are incinerated. If they do end up in landfills or any bodies of water, these synthetic clothing will not decay and may become a part of modern humans' fossil records.
With clothes made up of synthetic fabrics, chemicals, and non-sustainable dyes, it's no wonder that fast fashion is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and growing landfill waste. That's a big price to pay for such inexpensive clothing.
Moreover, the textile industry—where fast fashion operates—is among the darkest yet often unrecognized corners of the global economy. Textiles were not only the defining product of the Industrial Revolution, but they were also a key component in developing the current globalized capitalist system.
That system was built on abuses mainly on slave laborers in the American South and child laborers in England and the US. The same abuse is seen until today, with immigrant workers being victims of wage theft, exploitation, and working conditions that go from grim to inhumane.
"Fashion is an industry that has depended on the toil of the powerless and the voiceless, and on keeping them that way," the New York Times says.
With these issues at hand, the question now is this: Can fashion—more importantly, fast fashion—exist in a world that seeks to be more sustainable and socially conscious? The Los Angeles Times says the answer is complicated.
A Plague on All Levels
The solution, it seems, lies in a brand's business model. Journalist and author Dana Thoma told the LA Times that a business model based on volume is not part of the sustainable movement "in any industry."
"Zero waste is the goal, and you’re not hitting the zero waste targets if you’re overproducing," she explained.
The environmental problems from fashion are rooted in the manufacturing process and overproduction—"and they plague all levels of the industry," the LA Times notes.
As customers begin to recognize these problems, they have increasingly expressed and become more interested in buying sustainable goods. This consumer demand will then drive sustainability among brands and companies.
"Definitely, we’re seeing a rise in conscious consumerism," said Sam Blumenthal, spokesperson of online marketplace ThredUp Inc. ThredUp Inc, along with other online marketplaces, has grown popular in recent years as shoppers turn to secondhand dealers for unwanted but still fashionable apparel.
"A couple of years ago, people just didn’t realize how bad their clothing was for the planet. People are starting to understand that fashion is one of the most polluting industries in the world."
And brands are starting to realize this as well, with some taking steps to reduce their environmental footprint. For instance, H&M pledges to offset more greenhouse gas emissions through new techniques that will absorb greenhouse gases.
But the industry won't be going away, which begs the question, how can we make it sustainable? One way to do so is changing the entire system—from the manufacturing to the distribution down to the materials.