The issue of sustainability has taken center stage in the fashion industry in recent years. In 2018, many brands took practical steps to address the impact of their business. It has been a huge concern as of late due to the rise of fast fashion, our modern throwaway culture, and the detrimental impacts that the industry has on the environment and on people.
This short video highlights some of the problems of fast fashion, referring to clothes that are reproduced cheaply and at a rapid pace by retailers in response to changing trends. People are buying more but wearing these clothes less frequently. Most of these garments end up incinerated, in landfills or in places like India where they process the materials for re-exporting.
It is not enough to just donate bags of unwanted clothes to second-hand shops or charities. The industry is simply producing too much, with consumers buying and throwing away clothes faster than ever. In the video, two businesses – Rent the Runway, and Patagonia – entered the industry looking at things from a different angle, with the philosophies of sharing (so that clothes have longer lifespans) and mending what can be repaired (rather than merely throwing them away).
Existing issues in the fashion industry
Firstly, for a positive change to happen in such a large industry, conversations need to take place to understand what the problems are, who are affected, and what can be done to address them. A non-profit organisation, Global Fashion Agenda, aims to rally industry leaders together for a collaborative change towards sustainability. The organisation has published annual reports to get the conversation going. This year’s CEO Agenda 2019 report has focused on crucial sustainability priorities and guidance on which areas to focus efforts on.
The report highlights critical environmental, social, and ethical challenges to be addressed. In brief, there are short pieces in the report which expand on:
- Labour issues in the supply chain and creating a safe working environment with fair wages for factory workers
- Environmental issues such as the impact on climate change, and increasing efficiency and quality of raw materials
Trends shaping the future of the fashion industry
Industry players are listening to the calls for cleaner practices as they pledged to reduce emissions in the UN Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Change last year in December. With new technologies, innovative business models, and consumer trends, the fashion industry may be heading down a more sustainable path, albeit being a tad slow to change.
There is a shift towards using more sustainable materials as the scarcity problem of water is affecting water-intensive fibres like cotton. Thus, companies are developing alternative materials that are less resource-dependent, longer lasting, and more recyclable.
Another positive trend is designers trying to design for longevity, with the aim to increase the lifespan of a piece of clothing with higher quality materials and longer lasting designs that people want to use. In relation to longer lifespan of garments, major retailers are starting to respond to the changing culture towards a circular economy rather than a linear one. H&M, Zara, and Marks & Spencer, for instance, are holding collection points of old clothings to recycle those fabrics for production, cutting down the need to make new fabric.
As consumers, we get to play our part too by being more conscious of how we shop, and how we dispose of our old clothes. The circular economy and new innovative business models need the support of consumers to change their habits as well.
Questions for further personal evaluation:
- Why do you think the fashion industry is slow to change? What are the challenges faced despite the positive trends?
- Do you believe that the current trends are positive signs that things will improve? Why, or why not?
- ‘lucrative’: producing a great deal of profit
- ‘imperative’: of vital importance; crucial
- ‘inertia’: a tendency to do nothing or to remain unchanged
Here are more related articles for further reading:
- The Fashion Law: An opinion piece which suggests that ethical fashion consumption may be just a dream because of the human ego.
“First, it is important to explain that marketing tools such as the questionnaires and surveys used to predict the growth of ethical consumption are problematic. They are good for identifying purchasing intentions but poor predictors of actual behavior.
Surveys tend to illicit a response that presents the participant in a positive light: non-ethical shoppers tend to state they are ethical to protect their external image. And surveys are reliant on the participant being truthful and knowledgeable about their behavior. How truthful we are is debatable and research shows we are not as knowledgeable as we think we are about the drivers for our behavior.
Our behavior is far more selfish than we might like to believe. Rational models of consumption are based on the idea that individuals make choices that balance costs and benefits. An ethical consumer will make rational judgements about purchases on the best outcome in terms of costs and benefits for them and the environment.
But consumption, and in particular fashion consumption, is quite irrational. Purchase decisions are more likely to be driven by desires linked to pleasure and excitement. Fashion is a social activity for setting our status (the egoistical drivers) but it is also an activity that is driven by emotional desires such as the fantasy, excitement and aspirations of living a better, more fulfilling life.”
- Fashion Revolution: A transparency index that measures how much information clothing brands disclose about their policies, practices, and impacts.
“Lack of transparency costs lives. It is impossible for companies to make sure human rights are respected, working conditions are adequate and the environment is safeguarded without knowing where their products are made. That’s why transparency is essential.
Transparency requires that companies know who makes their clothes – from who stitched them right through to who dyed the fabric and who farmed the cotton — and under what conditions. Crucially, it requires brands to share this information publicly.
If we know the facilities where our clothes are being made, if we have access to information about the factories, mills and farms where brands are sourcing then the public can help hold the industry to account for their claims.”