Can Fast Fashion Really be Sustainable?

ZaraLast Thursday marked the one-year anniversary of Bangladesh’s tragic Rana Plaza factory collapse, where 1,129 garment workers were killed.

“If a positive can be found, it’s that Rana Plaza has been a turning point — the 21st Century equivalent of New York’s 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, which killed 146 but led to a unionized, safe garment industry,” Dolly Jones wrote on Vogue earlier this month.

This tragedy resulted indeed in significant steps taken by individual companies and European and American coalitions, aiming to improve the safety of the garment workers in Bangladesh and ensure clothing supply chains are more ethical and transparent.

Still, even with all of these efforts to build what H&M describes as “sustainable fashion future,” one question is still hanging out there: Can fast fashion really be sustainable?

To answer this question let’s try first to define what fast fashion is and why exactly it is unsustainable. “The phrase ‘fast fashion’ refers to low-cost clothing collections that mimic current luxury fashion trends,” the authors of the paper “Fast Fashion, Sustainability, and the Ethical Appeal of Luxury Brands” explain. “Trends run their course with lightning speed, with today’s latest styles swiftly trumping yesterday’s, which have already been consigned to the trash bin.”

The speed of fast fashion (chains like Zara can design, manufacture and get clothing onto store shelves in a month, according to NPR), the cheap prices and the poor quality of many items have gained it the nickname “McFashion.” Other terms used to describe this trend are even less compelling, including “landfill fashion” to “throwaway fashion” and “cheap crap.”

Fast fashion companies tend to see it differently of course. From their point of view this trend is about making fashion accessible and affordable for more people. “We want to surprise the customers,” Margareta van den Bosch, H&M’s style adviser told NPR. “We want to have something exciting. And if it’s all the time hanging the same things there, it is not so exciting, I think.”

What fast fashion companies would probably not dispute is that their affordable prices require them to manufacture in countries where the wages are low and sell high volumes of items, utilizing planned obsolescence tactics (well, they’ll probably argue about this part) to be profitable. And this is where the problem lies.

High volumes requires a greater use of raw materials, energy, water and other resources and contributes to climate change – the U.K.-based organization WRAP estimated that “the processes from raw material to garment supply contribute around one-third of the waste footprint, three-quarters of the carbon impact and most of the water footprint of clothing.” According to WRAP’s research, extending the average life of clothes by just three months of active use per item would lead to a 5 percent to 10 percent reduction in each of the carbon, water and waste footprints.

In addition, keeping prices low requires fast fashion companies to manufacture in countries with low wages, where contractors and subcontractors need to meet requirements for low costs, many times on the account of workers’ safety and working conditions, just like we saw in Bangladesh.

Finally, let’s not forget the cultural impact fast fashion has on consumers – it has promoted the trend of disposable fashion, where customers buy items and because they’re so cheap they use them just once or twice before discarding them. This is not always the case – I’m writing this article wearing my beloved Zara shirt that I bought in 2004. Still, reading that a research by the American Apparel and Footwear associations found that “Americans annually purchase an average of eight pairs of shoes and 68 pieces of clothing,” I get the feeling that my Zara shirt is the exception, not the rule.

So, given these unsustainable impacts you can see that making fast fashion sustainable seems almost impossible. After all, when thinking about companies built on sustainable principles like Patagonia, Zady and Honest by, it seems like sustainability is everything fast fashion isn’t. As Rose Marcario, Patagonia’s new CEO explained it in an interview with the Guardian:

“If you build things that last, [customers] need to buy less of them and you deplete fewer natural resources. We think that’s a good thing…we are facing an ecological disaster – and if we continue this idea of fast fashion and throwing away products, not recycling and not taking care of environment, we are not going to have a planet to live on.”

Still, fast fashion companies claim Patagonia’s way is not the only way to be sustainable. They also offer a vision that is supposed to improve their practices and create a more sustainable business model. It is based on elements such as ensuring fair living wage and better working conditions for garment workers, and creating a closed-loop systems, where customers are encouraged to bring back unwanted clothes, which will later be used as textile materials in new products.

These are not perfect solutions, especially when it comes to creating closed-loop systems, which require customers’ collaboration and further technological advancements to become a viable solution. As the Guardian’s Oliver Baich wrote “closed-loop textile recycling currently remains exactly that: a promise.”

In my point of view the problem with the closed-loop solution is not just its feasibility, but also that it’s basically about being less bad, or “making the old, destructive system a bit less so,” as Michael Braungart and William McDonough describe such efforts in “Cradle to Cradle.” And “doing less bad is not the same as doing more good,” they add.

So what is “doing good” in the case of the fast fashion industry? This is a mindset shift from economics that is wasteful and based on selling a large number of low-quality products to economics that is mindful and based on selling less yet better products. The challenge as Oliver Baich wrote is to move from creating happy shoppers to creating happy non-shoppers, ones that use their garments more frequently, share clothes and buy less.

If and when fast fashion will be able to make this change, then it will become sustainable. Until then, all we have are attempts with little impact to slow it a bit.

Image credit: Thinkretail, Flickr Creative Commons

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor of Strategic Design and Management at Parsons The New School of Design. You can follow Raz on Twitter.

Raz Godelnik

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor of Strategic Design and Management at the School of Design Strategies at Parsons The New School for Design. His research interests include the convergence of innovation, sustainability, business and design strategies, the sharing economy and sustainable business models such as B Corporations. He is the co-founder of two green startups (Hemper Jeans and Eco-Libris) and a contributor writer to Triple Pundit.