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How Humanitarian Law is Serving as a Feeder to Sustainable Fashion

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Much like Wall Street funnels aspiring fashion designers, who spend several years in finance building their skills and amassing funds before starting a business, there’s an emerging trend of lawyers and human rights advocates making the switch to fashion.

Here’s a look at three stories.

From social good to affordable menswear
At 14 years old, Jason Grullón. and his mother, who sold fabric in the Dominican Republic, went on a shopping trip while in America. He had his eyes on a pair of Lucky jeans, having long been enticed by the interesting styles, which were unlike anything he had seen at home. But the jeans were pricey, and when he asked his mother for the pants, she turned to him and said, “I can’t buy you jeans that only cost seven dollars to make.”

The moment stuck with him, even when he went to Germany to pursue a law degree, with the intention to use it to support social impact programs back home in Latin America. Near the end of his schooling, he went on a tour of emerging startups in Berlin, when something clicked: He wanted to create a company embedded in social good, and he wanted that company to specialize in affordable menswear.

With this concept in mind, he founded Virtu, a menswear company focused on sustainable production.

Finding justice in fashion
Rebecca Ballard, founder of Maven Women, went straight to law school after completing her undergraduate degree. “You don’t always know what you want to do with your life, but I was interested in law because of social justice,” she said. “Law is and can be an amazing tool for justice in this country. And it really helps with understanding people, the way they work and their logic.”

Ballard worked at a number of nonprofits in Washington, D.C. doing advocacy work before she moved to Asia to practice litigation. In Hong Kong, she cut her teeth in nonprofit management and law, before returning to the states to do pro bono work on modern-day slavery and human trafficking. Being a lawyer, she realized, required a particular type of wardrobe. This suit-laden uniform was not only unattainable for many women, but it was also lacking in sustainable options — which led her to think about creating her own.

She ran the idea by her then-boyfriend, now-husband, who was an analyst at McKinsey. Relying on his business mind and her legal background, she started Maven Women.

“There was this idea that if people are going to be interested in socially conscious apparel, it will be hippie-inspired,” Ballard said. “If that’s the world you live in, that’s fantastic. But we need more options. I was trying to create something for the women who work in more traditional fields like law.”

Ballard said she uses the skills she gained as a lawyer every day on the job. It has helped her with the basics — like being punctual and thorough — plus her background writing law reviews has driven her to write for sustainable journals about her experience working in the fashion industry.

Likewise, Grullón said his law sensibility allows him to be savvy in making business decisions that avoid any trouble in the long run, especially when working across international barriers.

“We as lawyers have a very different approach to problems,” he said. “We don’t over-stress, we’re solution-oriented — that’s key for a startup, because when you’re building a company, it’s going to be full of issues.”

An intimate look at the supply chain
Maxine Bedat, founder of Zady, spent the years before founding her fashion company doing human rights law in international war crimes tribunals. During these work trips she was able to visit markets and witness clothing being made, an experience that changed the way she thought about fashion production.

“I got to see how clothing and products were sold and marketed,” she said during a panel at SXSW. “It gave me the experience to see how things were actually made and the sources of those things, and I fell in love with that.”

Working in human rights law allowed Bedat the opportunity to see new parts of the world and learn perspectives from community members along the way. That helped serve as a foundation for Zady, which the company describes as “a lifestyle destination for conscious consumers.” It operates on a concept called The New Standard, which focuses on the eco-friendly sourcing of materials like cotton, linen, wool and alpaca.

Kathleen Wright, founder of Piece & Co., a sustainable fabric sourcing company, typically visits the communities where her company’s fabrics are made once a quarter, most recently taking a trip to South Africa. Piece & Co. had recently placed an order of fabric from a group of garment makers for 1,500 yards of fabric, which allowed the market to hire several more workers. “That’s the gold standard for us: to provide steady work so that women can plan for their futures and stop working hand-to-mouth,” she said.

While Wright does not have a law degree (she graduated from business school at University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign), she worked at a nonprofit that provides micro-finance loans to aspiring artisans prior to starting Piece & Co., an experience that helped her better understand how to make grassroots change. However, her impact at the nonprofit felt nominal, and she wanted to find a way to better improve the lives of impoverished communities.

“I felt like, if I was going to make a difference, I needed to lead with the fashion industry, working from the ground up in the developing world,” she said. “At the end of the day, there are so many people who want to do right, that want to source better. They needed a way to do that.”

Helping support a value-driven culture
One of the largest barriers for sustainable fashion companies is getting consumers to wrap their heads around a higher price point. Ballard said that if they have a better understanding of how supply chains operate, and knew the stories of the people making their clothes, they would be increasingly discerning with their selections and willing to spend more.

“We have a completely warped idea about what clothes should cost in this country,” Ballard said. “There’s no way you can buy a new pair of pants for 10 dollars without hurting someone. If you’re paying that for brand new materials, they’re almost certainly going to be synthetic from sweatshops.”

Pair this with the fact that, according to a Nielsen study, 75 percent of millennials would be willing to pay extra for sustainable offerings, and there is a solid case for demand.

“Young people are really driven by their values,” Bedat said. “I don’t want that to run counter to their purchasing decisions. We want to be comfortable and stylish and perceived the right way, so you don’t want to have to sacrifice one or the other.

Grullón uses this concept to inspire shoppers, operating on three main tenets of social impact: better salary, traceability, and a 50/50 business model, in which the company reinvests half of its profits into long-term development projects in the communities of its partners.

“The idea was always to have a connection to how a product’s made and how that’s impacting the person’s life,” he said.

*This story first appeared on Glossy

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‘Made in America’ Versus Fast Fashion

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Denim Jean Production In China
Workers manufacture blue jeans in Congshin textile factory on February 9, 2012, in Xintang, Guangdong province, China. Photo: Lucas Schifres/Getty Images

Earlier this month, online retailer Nasty Gal shocked fans by filing for bankruptcy. The e-commerce darling, which sold original designs, vintage pieces and items from other brands, became a social media hit thanks to innovative branding. Fellow millennial favorite American Apparel’s demise was not quite so surprising, having long been simmering in the pot despite the brand’s popularity. While both companies cited a number of reasons including legal troubles and mismanagement for their financial crashes, a major, troubling factor was also key—they kept most of their manufacturing within the United States.

The higher wages and management costs of the “Made in USA” label, although ethical, come at a very expensive price. Midrange brands trying to maintain that status have met with obstacles that fast-fashion competitors can sidestep by offering similar designs with minimum financial hassle.

The global fashion market is now an almost $3 trillion annual industry. While one may think that high-end designers with their expensive price tags are the prime contributors, most of the profits can be attributed to the fast fashion industry. TJX companies, a discount and off-price retailer, for example, generated nearly $31 billion in revenue in its 2015 fiscal year alone. It comes as no surprise then that one in every six people alive in the world today work in some part of the global fashion industry. This makes it the most labor-dependent industry on earth, majority of which is outsourced into the developing world, particularly in Asia, where Western household names dominate. According to Workers Rights Consortium, an independent labor rights organization that monitors the working conditions in factories around the globe, H&M is the largest clothing manufacturer in Bangladesh.

Mumbai factory
Mumbai factory. Photo: Nicholas Adams/Getty Images

Until the 1960s, America was still making 95 percent of its clothes. In 2015, only 3 percent was produced in the United States and a staggering 97 percent was outsourced. Most fast-fashion retailers see much sense in offshoring their manufacturing practices to countries like Bangladesh, India, Cambodia, China and Vietnam because of their low wages, lax local labor laws and agreements of free trade.

“The cheaper the price, the more the profit” rhetoric also stems from the fact that most Americans don’t really care about how the clothes are made as long they’re cheap. Indeed, a 2013 Gallup poll stated that over 55 percent of American consumers make absolutely no effort into finding out where the clothes were created when shopping. New brands are aware of that and hence paranoid about taking the financial risk of local manufacturing. “The entire industry is asking for cheaper prices. Brands will publicly state that that’s not the case, but, off the record, if you ask any factory its biggest issue right now, I don’t care what country they’re in, they’re going to say ‘intense pressure from their clients to lower the price,’ ” Edward Hertzman, founder of Sourcing Journal Online, a trade publication covering the apparel & textile supply chain, told Business of Fashion.

With something new coming into the stores every week, instead of two seasons, brands now have 52 seasons a year. In order to support this mass production efficiently while maintaining their low prices, they see sweatshops and fashion factories in third world nations as a viable and profitable option. “When the Western retailers lower their prices, we are forced to comply and lower our prices and this directly affects what our workers make,” a disgruntled garment factory owner in Bangladesh told Observer on the condition of anonymity.

Currently, over 4 million people work within these sweatshops and an average worker in Bangladesh, makes about $67 a month, which comes up to only a little over $2 a day. Today, they are amongst the lowest paid garment workers in the world. Additionally, over 85 percent of these workers are primarily women who have no health benefits or any form of financial security. Unionization is illegal and working conditions only get intolerable. But these low wages and unsafe working conditions are all excused by most large companies under the assumption that they ultimately “provide jobs” to those who need one. Unfortunately, even tragedies such as the Rana Plaza sweatshop collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh, that killed over 1,000 workers, has done little to change their point of view.

“Opportunities were missed to reinvent the supply chain and I cannot say with any confidence that there will not be a repeat of Rana Plaza in terms of scale. Hundreds of people have lost their lives, been injured or had their health compromised by producing garments since Rana Plaza and the garment industry remains dangerous, polluting and energy intensive when it need not be any of these things. Retailers were allowed to control and lead negotiations in the aftermath and were not selfless enough in the way that they approached them,” British author and journalist on 2015 fast-fashion documentary The True Cost Lucy Siegle said in an interview.

But how hard is it for a multitrillion dollar industry to ensure fair living wages of its workers and guarantee the most basic of human rights?

“So many of us have been told the sweatshop story based on a false zero sum ratio. It’s explained as either improve conditions or take away jobs. We can build better systems to keep these jobs while also implementing conditions that respect the most basic human dignity of the workers and longterm health of this planet we all call home,” said Andrew Morgan, post production — he was director of  The True Cost. “I can think of no other industry today that so clearly forces us to face the implications of globalization, human rights, women’s rights, and the environmental collision course we’re on,” he added.

The risks of the flawed supply chain are ultimately carried by those most vulnerable and at the bottom, who have no alternative but to be a part of it. They are the ones paying the price for the cheap clothing we buy. However, the industry is slowly but surely changing, starting at the top. There has been an apparent, albeit slow, shift in the effort to change these manufacturing practices. Kering, the company behind top designers including Stella McCartney have paved a new path in the fashion world, to sustainability. Earlier this year, Burberry announced plans to invest £50 million to expand and move most of its production to the North of England. People Tree, Brooks Brothers and Zady are brands catching up with category leader Reformation in the sustainable style race.

Olaf Schmidt, vice president of textiles and textile technologies at Messe Frankfurt, one of the world’s largest trade fair companies, organizes the Ethical Fashion Show in Berlin and praises the fact that sustainability is now becoming a cornerstone for a growing number of shoppers. “Consumers now have a broad range of contemporary fashion brands rooted in sustainability to choose from. For instance, at our trade fairs, more than 160 labels exhibit their collections every season and work in a sustainable and transparent manner.”

Because the biggest step towards sustainability and humanitarian-inspired shopping can only be taken by the consumer. The “Made In USA” label may come at a higher price, but it definitely is the more ethical one.

*This story first appeared on Observer

H&M, Zara Grapple With Sustainability Trend This Holiday Season

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Photographer: Akos Stiller/Bloomberg

Apparel chains such as H&M, Zara and Forever 21 conquered the retail world by promising fast fashion: cheap, trendy and disposable.

Yet there’s a growing number of consumers this holiday season who want just the opposite. Data shows that shoppers — especially millennials, the target market for fast-fashion companies — are increasingly looking for clothes made of higher-quality materials or they’re keeping their existing clothes longer. Some are even seeking apparel that’s been reused or recycled.

More than 14 percent of U.S. consumers looked for apparel and accessories made from natural materials in 2016, up from 12.9 percent last year, according to a Euromonitor International survey. Shoppers looking for clothes that were reused or recycled rose 2 percent this year. And more millennials looked for “sustainably produced” apparel and accessories than any other age group.

This shift to so-called sustainable clothing is threatening the underpinnings of a fashion industry that wants consumers to rapidly change styles and move on to the next hot trends.

“Certainly fast-fashion companies are doing a booming business, but there’s also an increased interest in vintage, learning how to sew and weave, and in repair and mending,” said Susan Brown, a fashion expert who serves as associate curator of textiles at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum. “There’s the Brooklynization of the world — interest in higher-quality, handmade things that have a narrative story.”

Holiday Trend

The challenge may come earlier than big retail chains expect. Consumers are more willing to shop at niche, smaller companies this season, according to Deloitte LLP. Some of these retailers tout sustainable premiums for longer-lasting, higher-quality products — think, Zady or Everlane.

Zady’s Wrap Coat. Source: Zady

“People want to buy trends less and less,” said Jennifer Baumgartner, a clinical psychologist and author of “You Are What You Wear: What your Clothes Reveal About You.” “It seems they’d rather buy items that are classic and will last a long time. The movement is happening, and it’s been gaining ground in the public eye.”

She said it’s going to be difficult for the fast-fashion concept to use high-quality, eco-friendly fabric and not create “mass waste.”

But fast-fashion companies are trying to respond. In 2013, H&M launched a worldwide garment-collecting initiative encouraging consumers to reuse and recycle their clothes. The chain also sells a “conscious collection,” a clothing line created entirely from sustainable materials. Zara launched its first sustainable line, Join Life, in September. The collection consists of simpler designs and clothing made from recycled wool, organic cotton and Tencel — a fabric that includes regenerated wood.

Small Amount

But these pieces make up just 1.5 percent of Zara’s assortment and 3.5 percent of H&M’s, said Emily Bezzant, head analyst at the fashion-tracking firm Edited. And the very nature of high-turnover fast-fashion companies strikes many as unsustainable, she said.

“Generally, fast fashion and sustainability are not a match made in heaven,” Bezzant said. She said the biggest challenge for retailers will be to make sustainable products affordable and accessible to millennials.

There’s been some progress toward that end. H&M’s Conscious Collection has an affordable median price of $17.99. At Zara’s Join Life line, a basic strappy top cost $9.90 — the same as their main line, Bezzant said. Lowering prices for sustainable collections would help these businesses stay relevant, as most consumers shop at H&M and Zara because of the cheap price tags.

‘Too Poor’

Still, some in the industry are pushing the notion that millennials will save money by spending a bit more on longer-lasting items. Consumers are starting to realize when they are “too poor to buy cheap ,” said Maxine Bedat, chief executive officer of Zady, a clothing site known as the “Whole Foods of Fashion.”

“The issue that we’re facing as a society is that 150 billion new articles of clothing are produced globally every single year,” Bedat said. “The challenge is to produce clothing at the design side of things that people want to wear more than seven times.”

Christina Kim, a designer who displayed her work at a Cooper Hewitt exhibit on sustainable fashion, said it’s actually been more economical for her to use recycled scraps to make her clothing. Kim founded Los Angeles-based Dosa after moving from Seoul. Her idea started in West Bengal, where she began collecting old saris to incorporate into new designs.

Kim tracked her expenses in both regular and recycled production. She found that when using recycled fabric, she was able to spend less on materials — but had to shell out significantly more for labor. With traditional clothing production, 40 percent of her expenses went to materials, 53 percent to labor, and 7 percent to shipping and other duties. With a recycled production, Kim spent 14 percent on materials, 81 percent on labor, and 5 percent on shipping and duties.

The big companies are taking steps in a similar direction. H&M, for instance, has started minimizing waste during textile production.

“Any leftover material or post-manufacturing waste is recycled into new materials such as recycled wool or recycled cotton,” said H&M spokeswoman Anna Eriksson.

“The customer interest in sustainability is growing,” she said. “We believe sustainability is the only way forward if we want to continue to exist as a fashion company.”

*This story first appeared on Bloomberg

I Don’t Shop Fast Fashion. Here’s Why …

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Image: Zara

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.]

* This story first appeared on The Fashion Law

Fast Fashion

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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.

Origins

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).

*This story first appeared on The Fashion Law

10 Questions with Zady’s Maxine Bédat

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Maxine Bédat is a lawyer and one of the co-founders of Zady, an e-commerce platform and lifestyle destination for conscious consumers. Zady is amongst the first online retailers to seamlessly integrate affordable ethically-made garments and accessories, rich media content and social media to provide customers with a dynamic shopping experience.

 

1. For those who are not familiar with Zady’s “New Standard” what is it?

The New Standard is the only fully integrated research-backed approach to apparel design and production. To put it simply, it brings all the science and research together to guide us, or any other brand, on how to design clothes and what materials to use to create a clothing system that is sustainable.  

2. How difficult is it really to produce garments in accordance with your standards of transparency, etc.?

It’s not rocket science. Sure it requires asking questions and doing due diligence to receive confirmations of responses. And it requires designing and making clothing that has design integrity, meaning it’s clothing that is designed and created to be worn for generations, not just one season. But this can be done.  

3. So, why not just create a collection of cheap, trendy fast fashion garments?

I got started in all of this as a consumer. I grew up on that cheap, trendy fast fashion. But a few years of that and there was a moment, my closet was exploding with clothing, and I still couldn’t find anything to wear. That was the start of it for me. I began by really taking the time to learn what I like, what is my style, not what is the style that is imposed on me. And that was the beginning of exploring fashion and the industry.

4. With all of the different elements at play – whether it be human rights abuses, pollution, etc. – what is one question everyone should ask themselves before purchasing a garment?

Do I want this? I know it is stupidly simple, but there are so many messages being pushed at us by these companies. Just buy this $15 skirt and you will be happy and sexy. The apparel industry is the largest employer of women globally, and yet 98% of them are not receiving a living wage. On the other side of the supply chain, women are the ones being pushed messages of inadequacy just to push to new product. If we just ask ourselves the simple question, “Do I want this?”, we can actually change the world. 

5. Do you have any advice for people who want to start shopping more consciously?

Start by looking inside the garment. Take note of the material. Is the piece synthetic or is it natural? Natural materials will biodegrade, synthetics, like polyester are made plastic. Look at the construction of the garment, is it going to last in the wash or is it falling apart already. Then think of your purchases in terms of cost per wear. That helps not to be seduced by cheap clothes with cheap price tags.

6. What individuals/brands do you think are really making an impact in fashion right now (for whatever reason)?

Emma Watson because she is really thinking about these issues. Patagonia and Eileen Fisher because they are making sincere efforts at making their supply chains sustainable, and they are not misleading.

7. What was the last thing that really fascinated you?

I have to say I’m quite consumed with the election. I’m just trying to understand where we are in the world, and what it means. I like to believe as MLK said that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.  We as citizens, as consumers are the only ones to make that a reality.

8. In fashion, I wish there was less …Production for production’s sake.

9. In fashion, I wish there was more …Good design.

10. Right now, I am a big fan of … People who are speaking up and seeing that we all have agency to either solve our challenges or stay silent and be a part of the problem.

* This story first appeared on The Fashion Law