Fast vs. Slow : Finding Middle Ground in Sustainability

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By Catherine Salfino

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In a world where demanding consumers want everything faster, the term fast fashion has taken on a less than desirable connotation: big conglomerates using unfair labor practices to sell inexpensive, poorly made product. Contrast that with independent makers who champion the idea of producing smaller batches of apparel from better materials, using fairly treated skilled laborers. While plenty of fashion is still made fast and cheap, more of the big players are switching to the middle lane, looking for better materials, fair labor, and increased quality. And this is something consumers appreciate.

Kathleen Fasanella, founder of Apparel Technical Services and author of The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Sewn Product Manufacturing, says in the past, fast fashion simply referred to efficiently produced apparel.

“It wasn’t a value proposition of presumed defective or lower ‘quality’ items as it is now,” she says. “Fast fashion can use better quality materials, better craftsmanship, and fair labor. We cannot assume they’re not doing it now — I know people who are. However, this raises the contradiction in thinking that anything produced quickly as being ‘fast’ fashion. We must decide if ‘fast’ means speedy crap or just speedy. Conversely, a lot of people are doing things slowly because they’re inexperienced and inefficient; not because they’re better.”

Whether it’s made fast or slowly, consumers are becoming more aware of sustainably produced apparel. Although slightly less than 4 in 10 consumers (38%) say they actually put effort into finding environmentally friendly clothing for themselves, and that is up from 33% who did so in 2013, according to the Cotton Incorporated 2014 Environment Survey. However, nearly 7 of 10 shoppers (69%) would be bothered if they found out an apparel item they purchased was not environmentally friendly.

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Additionally, if consumers purchased an apparel item that was not produced in an eco-sensitive way, Cotton Incorporated’s 2014 Environment Survey research shows 4 in 10 (39%) would blame the manufacturer, followed by the brand (15%), and themselves (12%).

That’s why some of the big names in fashion — be they fast or traditional — have taken a pro-active approach to improve their environmental footprint.

Levi’s has implemented sustainability measures for decades. Its most recent programs include the 2013 introduction of the Dockers Wellthread collection of socially and environmentally sustainable apparel, as well as its Water<Less jeans, which use less water in the finishing process.

Meanwhile, fast fashion maker H&M has teamed with Solidaridad to improve environmental conditions in the supply chain. Together they developed a cleaner production program in China titled “Better Mill Initiative,” which supports cleaner dyeing and printing during wet textile processing. Zara’s parent company Inditex has a Green Code to improve environmental policies during production. Its “zero discharge pledge” serves as a guide on the use of chemicals for manufacturing. And retailing giant Walmart even has its own sustainability index that covers more than 700 product categories.

Of course, even with these programs, work remains to be done within the industry. The Rainforest Action Network (RAN) has called on 15 major retailers and brands, including Forever 21, Abercrombie & Fitch, Ralph Lauren, and Michael Kors, to help stop the destruction of forests. Around the world, RAN states, forests are cut down to cultivate monocrop tree plantations, whose dissolving pulp is used in a toxic slurry to create manmade fabrics like viscose and rayon.

Unlike viscose and rayon, cotton is a renewable, natural fiber that does not undergo chemical processing to becoming a fabric. On the contrary, an independent research report from Field to Market, the Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, shows the environmental impact of producing a pound of U.S. cotton has fallen substantially over the past three decades. Through modern seed technology, conservation tillage practices, advanced scientific research, and machinery and equipment practices, there’s been a 75% decline in irrigation water used per pound of cotton produced. Furthermore, monitoring by land grant universities in the U.S. found a 50% reduction in pesticide applications has occurred at the same time USDA data shows. Fiber production has doubled without expanding acreage.

Such advances help maintain the positive sentiment consumers have toward cotton. More than 9 in 10 consumers (92%) continue to say they find cotton to be safe for the environment. In fact, consumers rate cotton and other natural fibers like wool and silk (81%) significantly higher in environmental safety than manmade fibers like polyester (60%), and rayon (59%). Additionally, 77% say the claim of 100 percent cotton would be influential to their apparel purchases, followed by Made in the USA (68%), natural (61%), and sustainable (57%).

This natural textile has benefitted from the work and research of Cotton Incorporated, which represents U.S. cotton growers and importers. Cotton Incorporated also collaborates on research with other organizations like the Better Cotton Initiative, whose aim is to make cotton more sustainable by reducing water inputs and promoting more sustainable growing techniques, as well as The Sustainability Consortium and the Sustainable Apparel Coalition.

Of course, cotton works for both fast and slow fashion. When eco-conscious online brand Zady recently introduced its .02 The T-Shirt, it released an infographic pointing out that cotton apparel can last a lifetime yet, once disposed of, can decompose in less than a year. This, as opposed to synthetic fibers, which Zady says can take 200 years to break down.

Rather than choosing fast over or slow or vice versa, Fasanella says all producers should be more efficient in all aspects.

“There’s room for everyone.”

**This article first appeared on Cotton Incorporated Lifestyle Monitor here.

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