Every year millions of garments are discarded as consumers ditch fast-fashion styles for a new wardrobe. At last the industry is acting – but more has to be done
Facebook users will be familiar with the On This Day feature. From time to time it greets you with a blast from your relatively recent past. Some find it unnerving, especially if it’s a picture with an ex, for example. But my eye is always drawn to the clothes. Whatever happened to that handbag? Do you still wear those jeans?
If it’s an image from more than three years ago, then the answer is probably “no”. According to a recent report from Wrap (the Waste and Resources Action Programme), the average piece of clothing in the UK lasts for 3.3 years before being discarded. Other research puts the lifespan of UK garments at 2.2 years. For a younger demographic, you can probably halve that. A UK-based fashion company tells its buyers to remember that a dress will stay in the owner’s wardrobe for only five weeks.
The way we get dressed now has virtually nothing in common with the behaviour of previous generations, for whom one garment could be worn for decades. Wrap estimates that we purchased 1.13m tonnes of new clothing last year in the UK. While an estimated £30bn-worth hangs about gathering dust – Tinie Tempah’s refrain “I have so many clothes, I keep some at my aunt’s house” was spot on – an unpalatable quantity goes in the bin. A survey commissioned by Sainsbury’s last spring found that 235m items ended up on landfill sites as people readied their wardrobes for summer. Surely we can do better than this?
Vivienne Westwood – never one to miss an opportunity to call her legion of fans to action – thinks we can. “It’s about quality, not quantity – not landfill,” she said recently at one of her own shows. Hot on her heels, Vetements, very much the “it” brand of our times, made its own statement last week. The label filled the windows of Saks Fifth Avenue in New York – one of the commercial hotspots of global fashion retail – not with its latest collection, but with waste garments en route to a recycling charity.
But it was Stella McCartney who really upped the ante, electing to shoot her latest collection on a Scottish landfill site. Models lay across the rusted husks of old cars and languished on top of household waste. From a sustainability perspective, Stella McCartney is the luxury Kering group’s top-performing brand. Much of this success is based on McCartney’s own personal resolve. It’s clear that the landfill backdrop is not just an interesting aesthetic to her.
Now there’s an obvious contradiction between selling fashion and instructing us to buy less, but what these designers are calling for is some sanity in an industry now rated as the fifth-most polluting on the planet.
The fashion industry has developed a pretty terrible reputation – not least for exploitation of human capital, outsourcing production to the world’s lowest-wage economies. Four years ago, 1,133 garment workers were killed in Dhaka, Bangladesh, while producing clothing for high-street brands and their subsidiaries. After that, many worried what was next.
For those in and around the industry, garment waste has long been rumoured to be the next big scandal. Globally, levels of production and consumption are forecast to increase as fashion waste becomes an environmental crisis to rival plastic pollution in oceans. This is a tale of over-production and supply, powered by the relentless “fast fashion” system of production that over the past three decades has revolutionised both the way we dress and the way clothing is produced – and not often for the better.
Much of the waste in the fashion industry is hidden along a chaotic supply chain and doesn’t make it into the environmental accounting that underpins a Wrap report. Perhaps the worst of it comes in the form of readymade garments, assembled and sewn but discarded because of an order mistake or an issue with the colour. According to industry insiders, this waste represents 3-5% of every factory’s inventory (and a large factory in Dhaka can produce 240m pieces a year).
There is no verified figure for the amount of clothing produced globally each year (predominantly in low-wage textile hotspots like Dhaka without waste management systems) but my own research puts it between 80bn and 100bn garments. That means a lot of hidden fashion waste.
Where it becomes highly visible is on the outskirts of big production areas, such as the garment districts of Dhaka. This is where the production waste leaves the factories and is absorbed by the air and earth in the local community. Waste from the cutting room (called jhut) often ends up in so-called go-downs. These makeshift sorting operations are the stuff of legend in Dhaka, with fires a regular occurrence. But what happens to all the rest?
“You don’t even want to know,” says Estonian designer and clothing waste researcher Reet Aus, who spends a lot of time following unwanted garments out of factory gates. “You see it by the side of the road being sold, or just dumped, but a lot is burned,” she says. “I know a brick factory near the garment district where the main fuel is garment waste. You can’t really see anything around there, the pollution is terrible. Remember that thanks to the chemicals and finishing agents, used textile waste is basically toxic waste.”
Meanwhile, the urge to buy grows stronger as clothes shopping takes on a quasi-addictive quality. And let’s be honest here, are the fast-fashion corporations with their extraordinary profits likely to do anything about consumption, the driver of waste and the driver of the industry’s impact? Their business model, after all, depends on it.
Increasingly these brands are signposting a way of allowing us to have our cake and eat it. They are buying into recycling schemes and investing in competitions to close the loop on textile fibres. The idea is that if they can collect waste garments and regenerate fibres to be used in new garments, the impact of fast fashion can be negated.
The trouble is, it’s hard to buy into. I have been critical of brands overclaiming in this area before, particularly when I looked at the numbers around H&M’s recycling week in 2016. In truth, there are quite a few technical barriers to closing the fashion loop – that is, regenerating fibre from an old, unloved outfit, spinning and making it into something else, all within a timeframe and quality that’s interesting to the consumer.
“Every fabric is different,” says Aus, “so one garment might contain a blend of different fabrics. On top of that, you have to strip out the zippers and buttons inherent in post-consumer fashion waste.” So while a consumer may believe that a loved jumper or sundress is going to be magically regenerated into a new item, in practice your old T-shirt is probably going into a well-worn recycling network.
She and her team have developed software to keep track of potential garment waste data during production, which she is trialling with a large manufacturer: Beximco in Bangladesh. By getting information about the volume and material of leftover textiles, she can design that material back into a product before it becomes waste. “I’d rather not produce waste in the first place,” she reasons. “Plus, this is a better system for large brands who find recycling and regeneration difficult. That is easier for smaller, more agile companies.” This means some of fashion’s big lessons about its waste may come from unlikely parts of the apparel world. For once, the smaller companies have a chance to steal.
Tom Kay, the founder of Cornish outdoor brand Finisterre, is addressing a waste problem highly relevant to his customer and doesn’t care that it might seem niche to the rest of us. “The average neoprene wetsuit only lasts two years,” he says. “We’ve redesigned with wider seam tape and better stitching but it still only lasts probably for three. It would be disastrous for these things to be dumped, but there’s nowhere for them to go. That’s why you see them piled up in people’s garages.”
Last week, he launched an intriguing job advert in partnership with Exeter University: a £26,000-a-year position, paid by Finisterre, to be filled by a materials scientist who shares his dream of making wetsuits from wetsuits. “We don’t know how it will go, but I’m excited,” he said.
■ Last year 1,130,000 tonnes of new clothing was purchased in the UK – an increase of 200,000 tonnes since 2012.
■ Fashion in the UK lasts an average of 3.3 years before a garment is discarded.
■ Extending the life of a garment by an extra nine months reduces its environmental impact by 20-30%.
■ Providing one tonne of clothing for direct re-use by giving it to a charity shop or selling it online can result in a net greenhouse gas saving of 11 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent.
As consumers, we have come to expect fast, cheap, trendy fashion. We have been trained to shop often and to consistently succumb to new trends, the latter of which, at the retail level, are nothing more than a marketing ploy to keep us in the sped-up shopping cycle. The prices of garments and accessories offered for sale by fast fashion retailers (think: $24 pants and $19 blouses) largely facilitate this pattern of consumption, and their ad campaigns actually make it look pretty appealing.
But fast fashion – the model of retail that typically prices garments and accessories much lower than the competition, operating in a manner that emphasizes low quality and high volume and which is pioneered by brands such as Forever 21, H&M, Topshop and Zara – is cheap for a reason, and because retailers are not paying the price it costs to manufacture clothing in a reasonably responsible manner, that means, logically, that someone else is. Before we go any further, it is worth noting that Zara’s owner Amancio Ortega is the 3rd-richest man in the world, with a net worth of $57 billion; Forever 21’s owners have a net worth of $4 billion; and Nasty Gal’s Sophia Amoruso has reportedly amassed upwards of $250 million. Garment workers in Bangladesh, who supply these exact retailers, make $73 a month, a jump from the $38 per month they were making before the Rana Plaza tragedy in April 2013 that killed 1,100 garment workers. That is the general divide upon which fast fashion thrives.
Accordingly, it is the laborers, many of whom are women and children, who pay the price, and not just in terms of low wages. (Note: that the previously cited $73/month figure remains below the average wages of textile workers in other Asian nations). Laborers also pay in terms of safety. Foreign companies that serve as suppliers to fast fashion retailers routinely bypass important quality control and manufacturing health/safety standards because these practices are costly to implement and monitor and that would cut into their bottom line. Hence, the toxic chemicals in clothes, the frequent employee hospitalizations, and the increasing number of fires and buildings collapsing.
In case you need more proof that your $20 top was made in less than desirable or ethical conditions, here you go. Garment manufacturers in far-flung locations, such as Bangladesh (the world’s second largest apparel manufacturer second only to China), Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam that serve as suppliers to H&M, Zara, Topshop, Nasty Gal, and even Nordstrom – just to name a few – are commonly cited [see: “List of Products Produced by Forced or Indentured Child Labor” U.S. Dept. of Labor (12/2014); “Fast Fashion Tied to Forced Child Labor” (12-2-2014)] as employers of child labor, and even forced child labor. And the conditions are egregious. Individuals working in these garment factories are constantly exposed to toxic chemicals, given limited access to soap, water and working toilets, go without proper medical supplies, and lack proper lighting and ventilation. Factory owners and operators often fail to adequately compensate workers and to observe overtime-working standards, and often abuse labors verbally, sexually and physically. That’s not fashion.
In our defense, it is easy to forget the human rights abuses, environmental damage, corrupt business practices and the violations of workers’ rights, or to shield ourselves from these things in the first place. Bangladesh is far away and those $24 printed wide legpants look great on the billboard, especially when your clothing budget is limited. Moreover, fast fashion is packaged so very neatly for us. It is very easy to ignore the very ugly reality that comes hand in hand with it. But that cannot continually be our excuse.
Many years ago, I wouldn’t have given fast fashion a second thought. I may have traipsed into Zara and stockpiled an array of season-specific clothing, which I would have worn for literally one season, grown tired of, moved on from, and discarded or pushed to the back of my closet. Then, I would have repeated the same consumption habit for the next season and the next. [As such, this is NOT an article for the purpose of shaming fast fashion shoppers. This is is me saying, I get it!]
However, somewhere along the line, I realized that the cost of fast fashion is just too high for me. Fashion is supposed to impart some sense of confidence or beauty or happiness, and I simply don’t feel any of those things knowing that I am wearing a garment that was made in conditions that I wouldn’t want for my mother or sister or myself. I also found that repeatedly purchasing a bunch of cheap clothing and constantly stripping and revamping my wardrobe (out of necessity because the clothes literally fall apart) simply isn’t fulfilling. I get a lot more joy from building a wardrobe of garments and accessories that I actually love, that I want to keep and that I can wear for years – because they haven’t fallen apart and because they aren’t so specifically tied to Spring/Summer 2013, for instance, that they are simply unappealing after Spring/Summer 2013.
I began paying attention and became aware of how fashion and fast fashion actually worked. I saw how much time and effort designers spend in their New York Garment District studios, for example, to create collections. I witnessed their creative process, how they create a collection of garments from nothing (both figuratively in terms of starting from scratch and pin-pointing their inspiration, building a mood board, choosing colors, etc.; and literally, money is often very tight for emerging designers and what they earn each season goes right back into their business so they can actually afford to manufacture the garments). I saw the garments go down the runway.
I also saw (and continue to see) how frequently fast fashion retailers blatantly copied those designs, delivered the copies to the market months before the original garments, and sold them for a tiny fraction of the wholesale price of the originals. While the designers I know and love, like Cushnie et Ochs, Prabal Gurung, Joseph Altuzarra, Proenza Schouler, and Pamela Love (just to name a few), spend countless hours working to create innovative new designs, sourcing beautiful, high quality materials, and employing garment workers in well-runfactories in New York City – ones that I have personally visited – fast fashion retailers simply cannot say the same. Not even close.
While our clothes are only ancillary to our other traits (the late great, Oscar de la Renta did say, after all: “To be welldressed you must be well naked”), they do speak for us to a certain extent. In fact, whether we like it or not, our clothing says a lot about us. It is one of the first things people notice about us, and so, in a way, it defines us. I decided I don’t want to be defined by fast fashion. I don’t want the clothing I wear to be connected to the pain and suffering of others. I don’t want it to fall apart after a few wears. I don’t want to look exactly like every other girl my age. And if nothing else, I think life is simply too short to wear fast fashion.
This is usually about the point when someone interrupts what sounds like the idealistic preaching of a fortunate fashion girl and says: “Well, not all of us can afford to wear Prada all the time.” And, guess what? That is a valid response. I am happy to tell you, THERE ARE ALTERNATIVES, aside from buying one Prada sweater instead of 20 fast fashion ones. There are probably more alternatives than ever before – and they come in at just about every price point. Second-hand shopping is a great one. There are also ethically manufactured, reasonably priced alternatives to fast fashion — and they are not weird or ugly or any less “fashiony” than fast fashion. Helpsy, Shop Ethica, Zady, and Accompany are sites dedicated to offering such alternatives. Mobile shopping site, Spring, provides an array of garments and accessories from emerging designers, including access to sample sale prices. Everlane, Reformation, Ryan Roche, M.PATMOS, and Libertine champion ethically made clothing. Orley, Wes Gordon, Jenni Kayne, Costello Tagliapietra, and Brandon Sun manufacture locally – some in New York, others in Los Angeles – and ethically. These are just a few of the many, many brands making clothing responsibly. Right now we have a lot of options – no matter your price range.
You can’t buy style. We all know this. And while retailers are continually making it easier for us to shop in a more responsible and ethical manner, you also cannot buy a willingness to try to shop smarter and remove yourself from the cycle of fast fashion, but it is something to strive for, to work towards. Starting small, simply thinking about where your clothes came from and then taking some active steps to build a wardrobe that places value on quality over quantity, is an excellent place to begin. [Also, major revisions in terms of retailers’ and suppliers’ Codes of Conduct is in order for widespread change to occur. More about that HERE.]
Fast fashion is the practice of rapidly translating high fashion design trends into low-priced garments and accessories by mass-market retailers at low costs. There are a number of elements that are key to the fast fashion process, namely: the price of the garments and accessories; the method and timeline of manufacturing; the trend-based nature and disposability of the clothes themselves.
The fast fashion model has developed from a product-driven concept based on a manufacturing model referred to as “quick response,” developed in the U.S. in the 1980s. This moved to a market-based model of “fast fashion” in the late 1990s and the early part of the 21st century. (Wiley). It has since come to occupy a very profitable position in the market.
The fashion apparel industry has significantly evolved, particularly over the past several decades. The evolution of manufacturing and consumption has resulted in the intake of “400 percent more clothing today than we did 30 years ago. That shift from mid-market to fast fashion has also tracked a shift from domestic production to cheaper overseas locations from Hong Kong, to mainland China and now to even lower cost centers including Vietnam and Bangladesh.” (CNBC).
“The changing dynamics of the fashion industry have forced retailers to desire low cost and flexibility in design, quality, and speed to market, key strategies to maintain a profitable position in the increasingly demanding market.” (ResearchGate). Fast fashion retailers both meet and fuel this demand by marketing “apparel that may not be made with the finest quality materials to last a life-time, but that is cooler and far more affordable.” (CNN).
Elements of Fast Fashion
i. Price: The widespread availability of low-cost garments and apparel is a distinguishing factor for fast fashion retailers. “The fast fashion business model is based on reducing the time cycles from production to consumption such that consumers engage in more cycles in any time period.” Spain-based Zara, the world’s largest fast fashion retailer, has prices similar to those of the Gap: coats for $200, sweaters for $70, T-shirts for $30, and denim for $69. This is markedly more expensive than H&M, the Swedish-based company, which offers most coats for $69 (though some go for as low as $29), sweaters for between $29 and $34, t-shirts for $5.99, and denim for $19.99. Forever 21, the Los Angeles-based brand, is priced comparatively to H&M. It’s new concept store, Forever 21 Red, however, offers even lower prices, such as camisoles starting at $1.80, jeans at $7.80, tees at $3.80, and leggings at $5.80.
Irish retailer Primark offers some of the lowest prices in the industry. Its first U.S. store features a selection of jeans for $7, t-shirts for $3.50 and tank tops for a mere $1.60, prices that are lower than all of its fast-fashion rivals, analysts say. The retailer boasts prices that are 40% less than H&M’s and 75% less than Gap Factory stores’, according to analysts at Goldman Sachs.
Costs are largely reduced by taking advantage of lower prices in markets in developing countries. “In 2004 developing countries accounted for nearly 75 percent of all clothing exports and the removal of several import quotas has allowed companies to take advantage of the even lower cost of resources.” (Bruce, Margaret, and Lucy Daly. “Buyer behavior for fast fashion.” Journal of Fashion Marketing and Management). Workers in Bangladesh, where 80 percent of the country’s exports are apparel, currently earn the lowest minimum wage in the world, taking home about $43 a month. Chinese factory workers make slightly more: $117 to $147 a month. In contrast, American garment workers earn about $9 an hour, taking home $1,660 a month. (http://bust.com).
ii. Manufacturing Timeline and Availability: A significant point of differentiation between fast fashion retailers and non-fast fashion brands is the rapid rate of manufacturing. “The fast fashion business model is based on reducing the time cycles from production to consumption such that consumers engage in more cycles in any time period.” (Hines, Tony. 2001. “Globalization: An introduction to fashion markets and fashion marketing.”)
While the fashion industry largely operates on a seasonal calendar, fast fashion retailers deliver new garments and accessories to their stores every four to six weeks, sometimes even more frequently. Inditex brand stores (including Zara), for instance, receive deliveries of new clothes twice a week. This is significantly quicker than Salvatore Ferragamo, for example, which has centralized inventory and established computer links to suppliers , cutting the design-to-delivery cycle by 20 percent, to 10 weeks – making it one of the most speed-forward houses in the upper echelon of fashion.
The rapid speeds of delivery for which fast fashion retailer are known are largely based on the location of their manufacturers. For Zara and other similarly situated brands, “The trendiest items are made closest to home, however, so that the production process, from start to finish, takes only two to three weeks.” (NY Times). While manufacturing in local markets – such as Spain for Zara or Los Angeles for Forever 21 – may be more costly than more far-flung locations, such Bangladesh or Cambodia (which offer significantly cheaper labor), these higher labor costs are offset by greater flexibility. Items are produced in lower quantities and so, no extra inventory is left lying around and subsequently offered up at sale prices.
In addition to the widespread availability of fast fashion garments due to the brands’ rapid manufacturing turnaround times, their garments and accessories are physically widely available due to volume of goods produced and the companies’ penetration of the market both by way of e-commerce stores and brick and mortar locations. In 2012, Inditex, for instance, was making “840 million garments a year with around 5,900 stores in 85 countries, though that number is always changing – Inditex has in recent years opened more than a store a day, or about 500 stores a year. Right now there are around 4,400 stores in Europe, and almost 2,000 in Spain alone.” (NY Times, 2012).
Forever 21 “operates over 600 stores throughout the U.S. and in Canada, Europe, Japan, Korea, and the Philippines.” (Forbes). “H&M manufactures at least 600 million items each year and operates more than 3,200 stores in 55 countries. If you include its subsidiary brands, such as COS, that number jumps above 3,500 stores, and the company is expanding its locations by 10% to 15% each year.” (Quartz).
iii. Trend-based: As indicated above, the vast majority of fast fashion retailers stock trend-based garments and accessories, particularly those derived from the most recent runway collections at any given time. Due to the speed of manufacturing, fast fashion retailers are able to get their garments and accessories, which are commonly line-for-line copies of designer goods, to stores long before the actual designer. “Fast fashion poses a threat since its logic is based on copying the designs of high-end producers and quickly diffusing them—sometimes even before the high-end goods, which are based on a complicated and high quality supply chain, are distributed. As such, it mines the overall investment in style by design departments of high end producers.” (US News).
This model of manufacturing and marketing thrives on constant change and the frequent availability of new products. The continuous release of new, trend-drive products essentially makes the inventory a highly cost effective marketing tool that drives consumer visits, increases brand awareness, and results in higher rates of consumer purchases. One soruce reports: “Fast fashion companies have also enjoyed higher profit margins in that their markdown percentage is only 15% compared to competitors’ 30% plus.” (Hines, Tony. 2001. “Globalization: An introduction to fashion markets and fashion marketing.”). To keep customers coming back, high street retailers routinely source new trends in the field, and purchase on a weekly basis to introduce new items and replenish stock (Tokatli and Kizilgun 2009).
“It’s not uncommon for shoppers to wear items once or twice before discarding them. Sometimes, it’s not even a choice because the garments are so poorly made that they fall apart after only a few wears.”
iv. Disposability: Disposability plays a key role in fast fashion. “Fast fashion has paved the way for outright disposable fashion. It’s not uncommon for shoppers to wear items once or twice before discarding them. Sometimes, it’s not even a choice because the garments are so poorly made that they fall apart after only a few wears.” (US News).
Labor Concerns Associated with Fast Fashion
A number of tragedies have been directly connected to the production of fast fashion and its lower manufacturing and labor costs. In order to offer low cost clothing, fast fashion retailers source garments and accessories from factories in countries where labor costs are extremely low. For years, this was largely in China. However, “factory workers in China are increasingly pressing for higher wages. Companies have responded by moving production into places where wages are even lower, like Bangladesh.” (NPR).
India, Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Turkey, among others, have become popular locations for the sourcing of fast fashion garments and accessories. However, such countries largely lack the sophisticated manufacturing infrastructure of China. Per Maxine Bédat, co-founder of Zady: “Low cost means low regulation. Governments in today’s textile producing countries have little oversight into what happens in their factories.” (CNBC).
This extends to labor conditions and wages. The health of laborers “is affected by the chemicals used to produce the cheap fabrics made into T-shirts that are snapped up for $5 in Western stores.” (BI). Moreover, “in the rush to fill the void, tragedy has sometimes ensued.” (NPR).
Most significantly, in April 2013, “the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, in which more than 1,100 garment workers died, showed the lengths to which manufacturers will subvert zoning, labor and safety requirements to score contracts and keep inventories full of on-trend fashions at bargain-basement prices.” (Al Jazeera).
On the heels of the Rana Plaza building collapse, safety problems are still extremely widespread: “A recent inspection of Bangladesh garment factories was conducted in connection with the Accord for Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a legally binding agreement between international trade unions IndustriALL and UNI Global, Bangladesh trade unions, and international brands and retailers. The round of inspections took place at 1,106 factories used by 150 Western brands, and resulted in the identification of 80,000 safety-related problems. Per the Accord for Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, safety hazards were found in every factory inspected, with nearly 20 factories being labeled as bearing a heightened risk of collapse, and 110 other factories were deemed to have notable structural issues.” (TFL).
For over two years beginning in 2011, Zara was under investigation for the use of slave labor and sweatshop conditions in factories in Argentina and Brazil. In 2011, the “Spanish high-street retailer [was] accused of allegedly accepting slave-labor working conditions supplanted by more than 30 of its outsourced plants running in Brazil.” (Forbes). Bolivian immigrant workers “were caught in slave-like conditions in garment production for the Galicia-based company, which is part of the Inditex group.” (Forbes).
Less than two years later, “immigrant workers, including children, were discovered by the workers’ rights group, La Alameda, producing clothes for Zara in ‘degrading’ sweatshop conditions, investigators claimed […] They were not registered and they were living in terrible conditions. They had no official documents and were held against their will, they were not allowed to leave their workplaces without permission.” (Telegraph).
In October 2014, textiles mills in the Tamil Nadu area of India have been accused of employing forced labor and have been linked to major fast fashion giants including H&M, Primark and C&A. According to “Flawed Fabrics,” a report from the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations and the India Committee of the Netherlands, which was compiled “through a mixture of desk research and interviews with workers,” an array of core labor rights are being violated. Girls and young women are “being lured from their home villages [at as young as age 15] by false promises” and are working under “appalling, prison-like conditions” in which the women are often bonded. (TFL).
In early 2014, at least four people were killed and more than 20 were injured when police outside Cambodia’s capital opened fire to break up a protest by striking garment workers. Wages in the garment-manufacturing sector in Cambodia remain low by international standards. In October 2015, Government officials in Cambodia announced that they will raise the minimum wage for clothing workers by 9.4% to $140 a month, hoping to ease tensions in the country’s main export industry. The new wages take effect at the beginning of 2016, but the increase falls short of the $160 a month wage proposed by unions. (TFL)
Environmental/Sustainability Concerns Associated with Fast Fashion
Fast fashion is, by its very nature, “a fast-response system that encourages disposability.” (Fletcher 2008). With brands like H&M “producing hundreds of millions of garments per year,” there is a growing public consensus that the mass production of so much cheap clothing is an enormous waste of resources such as fuel and water. (NPR). As an industry, “Fast fashion depletes the Earth’s resources and uses slave labor all over the world.” (Vogue).
In addition to a lack of regulation in terms of working and safety conditions and wages, environmental and related regulations stemming from the use of chemicals and pollutants are lax in low cost centers of manufacturing. As such, “textile companies just keep engines roaring, running largely on coal, while they systematically dump their chemicals untreated back into their local water. This has all added up to the apparel industry being the second most polluting industry in the world, behind only the oil sector.” (CNBC).
And the side effects do not stop there. The increase in production of garments and accessories has lead to an increase in waste: “Inevitably, much of this excess finds its way into landfills. In the US alone more than 10.5 million tons of clothes end up in landfills each year, and even natural fibers may not break down easily.” (Quartz).
An ambitious effort by a global apparel industry group to measure the social and environmental impact of making clothes and shoes has yet to deliver on its promise
From the cotton farm to the clothing factory to the fashion show, the global apparel industry has more than its share of social and environmental problems.
Behind the images of beauty and style is an often dirty business that relies onwater-intensive methods and toxic chemicals in its factories, most of them in poor countries and hidden from view. While garment work has provided a pathway out of poverty – now in China, but earlier in the US and UK – no worker should be exposed to the unsafe conditions that led to calamities like in Bangladesh, where in 2013 the collapse of the structurally unsafe Rana Plaza building killed more than 1,100 workers.
No company can solve such problems on its own. Yet an ambitious effort to bring the industry together to deliver sweeping changes has yet to deliver. The Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), a global alliance of retailers, brands, suppliers, advocacy groups, labor unions and academics, aims to create “an apparel, footwear and home textiles industry that produces no unnecessary environmental harm and has a positive impact on people and communities”.
Four years ago, I took a close look at the coalition’s promising beginning. Last month at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, an industry gathering focused on sustainability, I caught up with apparel industry executives and their critics to see how much progress the industry group has made – and opinions are mixed.
To its credit, the coalition, launched in 2009 by Walmart and Patagonia, has brought together 175 members whose companies account for more than 40% of the global apparel industry. They have been building what they expect to be the principal driver of change in the industry: a set of three online tools, known as theHigg Index, that measure the social and environmental impact of brands, manufacturing facilities and products. Companies are supposed to use the index to collect information from their own operations and their suppliers’, and all of it goes into a database that coalition members can use to evaluate suppliers. About 6,000 factories have provided information about their social and environmental impact.
But most coalition members have been slow to use the index, and there’s no evidence they are reducing – not merely reporting – their impact. A Higg tool designed to measure a product’s footprint – information such as the raw materials and energy used that might interest consumers – won’t be completed until next year. What’s more, none of the social and environmental data being collected is publicly available, at least for now. Companies aren’t even permitted to release their own Higg Index data.
Until the data becomes public, its value will be limited. Environmental and human rights groups that want to hold the industry accountable don’t have access to the information. Nor do investors, who worry about supply chain and reputation risks, have a reliable way to measure one company against another. Consumers who want to know how and where T-shirts or shoes are made will have to wait before they can use the data to learn whether those items are manufactured ethically. Right now, they get little information. Knowing, for example, that a shirt is composed of organic cotton or recycled polyester doesn’t say anything about the factory conditions where it was produced.
Linda Greer, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, says the coalition is moving too slowly to collect Higg data and isn’t doing enough to prod companies to remedy problems that turn up. “I am quite surprised at the lack of uptake,” she says. “There are too many companies, even with high profiles, that are not circulating the forms to their suppliers.”
Several big companies, led by H&M and Target, have embraced the Higg tools, as has Patagonia. Others have been slow to use them, but the coalition declined to identify the laggards. Several major industry players, including fast fashion retailer Forever 21, have declined to join the SAC at all.
Nike says it hasn’t used Higg widely, not because it doesn’t support SAC’s effort but because of what Hannah Jones, its chief sustainability officer, describes as “technical, boring IT reasons”. Nike monitors its supply chain using its own software, Jones says.
“The vast majority are using some of the tools,” says Jason Kibbey, the coalition’s chief executive. “The scale and depth with which they’re using them varies widely.”
Several reasons explain why the index hasn’t been widely used. For one thing, it’s still under development. Building the Higg Index is a complex undertaking, Kibbey says. The coalition has to balance competing demands – making tools accessible and relatively easy to use, yet powerful enough to capture an array of environmental and social impacts from farms, factories and stores.
Brands also are resistant to spending the time and energy to gathering data, especially from their suppliers. Making a piece of clothing involves multiple suppliers, including: farmers who grow the raw materials; dye-and-finishing mills where environmental impacts are greatest; and cut-and-sew factories where garments are produced. But brands don’t typically deal directly with all those suppliers, and many don’t bother to dig deep into their supply chains.
Several coalition members tell me they plan to make the index data public eventually. Kibbey says his members have not agreed when that information will become public.
In the meantime, individual brands have launched their own campaigns to address environmental and social challenges. Nike, for example, has invested in designing and making sneakers that use less material. H&M has improved the dirty process of dyeing textiles and nudged its customers to recycle their clothes. Patagonia discovered slave labor practices among its suppliers and took steps to root them out.
But those efforts, while worthwhile, aren’t enough to reduce the enormous resource requirements of the fashion business and the waste it generates. In the US alone, 10.5m tons of textiles go to landfills each year. There’s lots of talk in the industry about the circular economy, but real progress has been scant.
Will the coalition ever achieve its lofty goal? That seems to be a big uncertainty, even from its members. Rick Ridgeway, a longtime Patagonia executive who has guided the coalition from the start, says it best: “The hypothesis is that putting better data into the hands of decision makers in the apparel value chains is going to result in better decisions. But that’s a hypothesis.”
He goes on: “Now the rubber is going to meet the road. Are companies, year over year, going to improve? Are they going to lower their impact? Are they going to benefit the people in the supply chain? We don’t know. I’m optimistic, but until that happens, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition is an unproven experiment.”
A deadly collapse at the Rana Plaza factory just outside Dhaka, Bangladesh, killed almost 1,200 garment workers in a single morning in April 2013. The tragedy shone a bright light on the country’s widespread labor-rights enforcement failures.
Now, more than two years later, millions of workers continue to work in unsafe factories. Pressure to improve conditions in Bangladesh’s garment sector has largely come from outside the country—from consumers, international clothing brands, foreign governments, and development organizations. Yet finally a confluence of factors may force Bangladesh’s domestic factory owners to change.
Rise of low-cost competitors
Bangladesh lives off of its apparel manufacturing. As the world’s second largest garment producer after China, the industry comprises 18% of the nation’s GDP and 80% of its exports. But in the last year, Myanmar and Ethiopia have entered the low-wage garment market, and Vietnam will benefit from lower production costs under the newly-agreed-upon Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). These nations could easily chip away at Bangladesh’s market share, threatening its dominant position.
Deteriorating security, driven by Islamic extremism
With increasing demand for “eco-” and “slow” fashion, Bangladesh is perceived as an unsustainable sourcing destination
Adding to Bangladesh’s history of anti-union activity, since the 1990s the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) has lodged four separate complaints with the US government about failures to adhere to labor rights standards. Despite millions of dollars of investment after Rana Plaza, the perception remains that workers still face serious threats to their safety and dignity at work, deterring ethically-minded companies from manufacturing there.
This combination of domestic instability and external competition threatens the Bangladeshi garment industry and its broader economy unless factory owners push for meaningful reforms.
Making Bangladesh’s garment sector safe and sustainable for the long term will require significant effort in three areas:
An honest accounting of how many factories are producing for the export market. As it stands, no one is sure how many factories are manufacturing for export. The government says it has inspected “more than 80%” of 1,475 export-oriented factories. The Center for Business and Human Rights at NYU Stern estimates that the total number is closer to 7,000. Solutions to making factories safer must be based on a credible understanding of the problem’s scope.
An assessment of the true costs of upgrading, relocating, and overseeing an expanded number of factories, many of which are small enterprises. Remediation efforts to date have focused on large factories that tend to have direct relationships with foreign brands. But small factories are an essential part of the industry, and there are a lot of them. A group including international experts and local owners should assess the costs of the resources, support, and oversight that would be required to make these factories safe places to work for the approximately three million workers employed in them.
Dividing responsibility for these costs among foreign brands, leading local factories, governments, and development and aid organizations. No single actor can underwrite the significant costs of upgrading Bangladesh’s garment sector. Local and international participants should share the costs. Detroit provides a useful model, in which the public-private Blight Removal Taskforce successfully surveyed the city’s problem, developed a blueprint for addressing it, and raised public and private funds to meet the $800 million price tag of clearing blighted structures.
Bangladesh has the potential to be a good-news story about the possibility of globalization delivering benefits to low-wage workers, even in states with weak governance. Yet changes in the way the apparel supply chain works will have to come from within.
BoF editor-in-chief Imran Amed recaps the week in the business of fashion.
LONDON, United Kingdom — Exactly two years ago today, on the morning of April 24, 2013, the world woke up to the news of a devastating tragedy unfolding near Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Outside Rana Plaza, a building that housed a number of clothing factories making garments for globally recognised fashion companies including Benetton, Le Bon Marché, Mango, Matalan, Primark, Joe Fresh, Walmart and scores of other brands and retailers, garment workers had warned their managers that cracks in the building’s concrete structure made it critically unsafe. The workers were told their wages for an entire month would be docked if they refused to enter the building and work, threatening their very livelihoods. So they trudged up the stairs of the rickety eight-storey building and took their places behind sewing machines to churn out products destined for markets around the world.
One hour later, the building collapsed, thousands of workers were crushed in the aftermath and ultimately more than 1,000 people were killed. It was the worst garment factory disaster the world had ever seen and, yet, two years later, nobody has really been held accountable.
So, how did we get here? Facing a brutally competitive marketplace, characterised by intense pressure to generate profits and a desire for constant newness, the fashion industry is producing more and more products, faster and faster, at lower and lower costs. Many fashion companies have shifted production to markets like Bangladesh, with low labour costs and limited protections for workers’ rights. Meanwhile, most consumers continue to buy cheap products without thinking of the human costs of producing them. The Rana Plaza tragedy was a serious call to action. Governments, companies and consumers — we are all responsible.
To help to generate discussion about this critical issue, this afternoon in London we hosted a live #BoFVoices discussion, focusing on the human cost of fashion’s supply chain. The highlight of the event was a special preview screening of Andrew Morgan’s groundbreaking film, The True Cost (watch the trailer below) followed by a panel discussion with experts Livia Firth and Lucy Siegle.
Our aim was to raise and discuss one simple question: ‘How can we safeguard the people who make our clothing?’ which is the focus of a new discussion launching on BoF Voices next week.
Use the hashtags #BoFVoices and #FashRev to participate in the global conversation on Fashion Revolution Day and tune into BoF next week to watch the panel discussion and explore expert opinions on how the fashion industry can tackle this issue.
** This post first appeared on Business of Fashion here.
** This article by Michael Lavergne first appeared in the Sourcing Journal here.
In recent weeks I had the pleasure of being asked to address two equally important groups of Canadian fashion industry leaders; both the Master’s and aspiring undergraduate classes at Toronto’s Ryerson University School of Fashion. (Where New York is represented by Parsons and London claims Saint Martin, the Ryerson School represents the leading edge of industry education in Canada, and so receiving such an invitation was, for me, a humbling opportunity to influence young thinkers.)
I was specifically invited to speak about social sustainability issues in our industry and while preparing, the question came to mind, “What could I tell these emerging generations of industry hopefuls that could both open their minds to the challenges and leave them with a sense of hope for what lies ahead for the apparel trade?” Three themes came to mind.
Importantly, I wanted students to understand that the school’s efforts at embedding sustainable thinking and responsible industry practices into curriculum are in itself a significant step. Major gaps exist in industry education across North America but the past few years have seen a building momentum toward both recognizing and addressing ethical challenges in the garment trade.
The Rana Plaza tragedy nearly two years ago on April 24, 2013, brought that message home to many Canadian industry hopefuls and veterans alike when Joe Fresh, a leading Canadian brand was identified in the factory rubble. But at many institutions, the creative forces of fashion and those of business and entrepreneurship are still struggling to agree on what exactly the industry wants to become.
This set up my second point as I called my audience’s attention to the critical juncture our industry is at as a reflection of our larger society’s struggle to identify the role of business we want to see today. We are arguably the best educated, prepared, equipped and financed generation ever to tackle the human and environmental ills which the global apparel trade has wrought in its wake. In the battle of philosophies, either the ‘profit at all costs’ school will win out or the ‘forces for change’ camp will. Do today’s designers, merchants and entrepreneurs have the tools, training and skills for what is coming?
I concluded on a final point which I believe is key to the re-engineering of fashion trades as a set of local, sustainable systems: that it is wholly in the hands of each student to choose between the two paths ahead of them. They can choose to engage, challenge and energize fashion while shaping it to be an active participant in a sustainable world.
If not, the other road leads to conformity, mass efficiency, standardization, brand versus product and financial returns above all else. It was, I told students, for them to choose the future of the industry they wanted to be a part of. Luckily for us all, some exciting new outliers and efforts are now helping to point the way forward but it won’t be an easy path.
Today’s $1.1 trillion global apparel markets will reach $2 trillion by the year 2025 with Canada representing only 2 percent of the spending pie while China becomes the largest global consumer of apparel. We bought nearly 28 billion Canadian dollars ($22.45 billion) in fashion and apparel in 2014 with women’s wear accounting for half that total spend.
To feed the demand for fashion at more accessible prices, the two dozen Canadian and American retailers who control our market imported 10 billion Canadian dollars ($8 billion) worth of apparel in 2013, an increase of 2 billion Canadian dollars ($1.6 billion) over the previous five years while population growth was essentially flat.
China, Cambodia, Bangladesh and Vietnam account for 60 percent of the origin of those goods where monthly manufacturing wages range from $60–$165 per month…per month…for an average 65-hour work week.
Meanwhile, Canadian manufacturers shed nearly 100,000 apparel factory jobs over the past decade which supported another estimated 200,000 jobs in local communities while most consumers only celebrated reduced clothing bills while filing local landfills with discarded fast-fashion.
What was not abundantly clear to consumers was the price that more low-cost fashion would have on local manufacturing communities, on worker’s health and human rights, on the physical environment and ecosystems with which our industry intersects at so many points. With our educational institutes only recently bringing these issues into the classroom, one couldn’t expect the average shopper to know any better.
While organizations like Toronto-based Fashion Takes Action offers classroom experiences and awareness education in consumption, Fair Trade and sustainability, few other resources seem to have invested time or effort into public civics education for the world of today, the world of living wages, ethical consumption, individual rights and, above all, in an interconnected global society, the right to know.
Now the same communications innovations of the Internet age, which facilitate globalized manufacturing, have enabled citizens, interest groups, investors and the media to take a closer look at what those manufacturing supply chains look like in ever-greater detail. This was not what businesses bargained for when it pushed offshore beyond domestic stakeholder’s eyes into low-cost developing countries, and many have been understandably nervous with calls for change.
It has taken 20 years for marketplace stakeholders to gain even a glimpse into apparel supply chains still riddled with risk and uncertainty. Over the same time, our understanding of the fallout of toxins in supply chains on our health and well-being has evolved.
The outcry at the human toll from factory fires and accidents at sub-par facilities around the world has slowly but surely pushed industry leaders onto the bandwagon of change. This comes amidst renewed calls for greater levels of regulatory transparency into consumer product supply chains. The prospects look promising.
Across the country last month, Worldvision Canada sought to call attention to the fact that Canadians know little about the risks of child labour embedded in the clothes and food we consume on a daily basis. Many in the ethics field argue that this stems from our expectation that business and government have dealt effectively with these issues, managing risks and unsavory origins from the market. We expect that companies earn the public’s trust and a ‘license to operate’ in good faith simply by being here in our markets, administered by order and good government, beholden to the public and the law.
More often than not however, the law has been turned to serve the interests of those who are least interested in transparency to silence critics or withhold information from the marketplace. Organizations seek, on the one hand, to hold themselves up as examples of corporate responsibility while on the other applying legal force to shut out transparency, the sunlight which U.S. Justice Louise Brandeis called “the best of all disinfectants.” And the laws we respect here at home hold little if any power over the actions of homegrown firms as they operate overseas.
As we again approach April 24, it is rewarding to know that there are thousands of individuals working at brands, retailers, auditing firms, NGOs, unions and government bodies across the world to make creative consumer industries more responsible, or “less bad” in terminology borrowed from the cradle-to-cradle crowd. These are laudable efforts but for the most part we are tinkering with the current system.
A true Fashion Revolution is what is needed and what has been called for. This call has come most vocally to date from across the Atlantic. U.K. ethical industry pioneers like Carry Somers, Orsola de Castro and Safia Minney, journalist Lucy Siegle, activist Tansy Hoskins and designers from Katharine Hamnett to Vivienne Westwood have challenged industry, consumers and government alike to re-think and re-imagine the business of fashion.
An industry struggle to identify and align with outliers is now underway at many brands. Others in the media have already tilted toward applauding a wholesale industry conversion to a sustainable future as a sure thing. But having spent 20 years working at brands and retailers on the business side of sourcing and procurement I am somewhat more cynical. Cost and commercial considerations still rule 95 percent of all decisions and few brands have yet successfully embedded sustainability and ethical practices deep into their strategic business plans and buying practices.
The wealth of information coming to light with regards to how global apparel supply chains negatively impact people and the planet also confronts us with compelling moral questions. Near everything we consume as individuals is tied to the exploitation of other people, of nature, or of both.
Certainly some forms of it are near-benign or might be called voluntary, but far too much of what happens in the offshore apparel world remains out of sight and beyond the ability of most people to make an informed decision. If they were aware or not, the end result is the same. We have all been converted into fully culpable participants of globalized, systemic exploitation for the benefit of maintaining our standards of living and social safety nets while generating multibillion dollar profits for a small minority of the millions of industry stakeholders who bring us our clothing every day.
Deconstructing and re-engineering such a system requires more than simply the vision to do so, it requires extraordinary leadership. Who exactly might take up the cause of ethical, sustainable fashion in this country is anyone’s guess at the moment but few from industry institutions would seem to have their hands up. With any luck, we won’t have to look much further than the next generation of aspiring industry professionals like those from Ryerson, eager to challenge the status quo and to re-prioritize the intrinsic values which textiles and apparel can offer us.
Michael Lavergne is a Responsible Supply Chain professional with 20 years of multinational experience at organizations from Sara Lee/Champion to Joe Fresh and WRAP. His new book, “FIXING FASHION; Rethinking the way we make, market and buy our clothes,” is out in the U.S. and Canada this September with New Society Publishers.