Fast fashion has gone from beloved to belittled in recent years as some consumers catch on to its eco impact. But despite the current popularity of picking on the business model, many in the consuming public still don’t quite understand what fast fashion is. Which means they can hardly be expected to adjust their shopping habits to avoid it, even if it is a trending m.o.
On Monday, on the heels of the United Nations’ latest — and bleak — report on the climate crisis and tweets from climate activist Greta Thunberg aimed squarely at fashion for its complicity, rising search queries on Google included: “is yesstyle fast fashion,” “is zara fast fashion,” “is h&m fast fashion” and “why is fast fashion bad.”
Certainly, it’s within reason to question whether Yesstyle, the e-commerce platform that’s relatively new to the U.S. and rounds up low-cost fashion from Asia, constitutes fast fashion. But if consumers are still questioning whether Zara and H&M fall into the fast-fashion category, how far has the industry really come in communicating the serious need for greater sustainability? And communicating that fashion’s environmental impacts extend beyond fast fashion?
“The consumer doesn’t have reliable measures and self-assessments by companies through their own compliance standards is not enough, so there needs to be more of an industry effort and commitment to make that understandable,” said John Thorbeck, chairman of consultancy Chainge Capital, which is working with six fashion ventures committed to a zero-inventory, zero-waste business model. “Fast fashion has never really had a singular definition and even the difference between Zara and H&M is significant. But I think the problem is accelerated when you have bad actors such as Boohoo, Fashion Nova, Shein, and a host of others….This idea that fast fashion is, all the same, is really not true. I think the ones who are being called out are the ones that are still competing on price and volume.”
But that mode of play has a timestamp for brands that want to see themselves in the future.
“The days of long lead times, labor arbitrage and ludicrous waste are over,” Thorbeck said. “These are the high-cost obstacles to sustainability.”
At its simplest, fast fashion prizes producing trendy — often runway-inspired — low-cost clothing at a breakneck clip consistently throughout the year. Merriam-Webster gives one definition for fast fashion as “an approach to the design, creation, and marketing of clothing fashions that emphasizes making fashion trends quickly and cheaply available to consumers.” Shoppers with limited cash or those just keen for a deal for some time now have been able to get a new top for the cost of a coffee, and purveyors continue to push out products with weekly drops that can reach 5,000 pieces.
At its more complex, fast fashion’s “bad actors” can rely on an exploitative setup to get garments produced so quickly, and the often throwaway-quality clothing some companies produce and at un-buyable quantity has made them stock for landfill.
If fashion, broadly, is a key accomplice in the Humans v. The Earth trial, fast fashion has been considered the leading perpetrator in that category of culprits. This despite the fact that big-box retailers sell clothing that, at times, can be even cheaper than fast fashion’s prices and in even larger quantities (which points to the same sometimes exploitative supply-chain relationship and environmental impact, just not the same drop frequency), and those stores have faced less ire. Regardless, no amount of sustainability claims from either mass-market type of retailer, at least according to Thunberg, has been enough to absolve the industry of its continued climate-damaging wrongdoings.
As the activist said Monday over a series of three tweets attached to her feature as Vogue Scandinavia’s inaugural cover star: “The fashion industry is a huge contributor to the climate and ecological emergency, not to mention its impact on the countless workers and communities who are being exploited around the world in order for some to enjoy fast fashion that many treats as disposables.
“Many make it look as if the fashion industry is starting to take responsibility, spending fantasy amounts on campaigns portraying themselves as ‘sustainable,’ ‘ethical,’ ‘green,’ ‘climate neutral’ or ‘fair.’ But let’s be clear: This is almost never anything but pure greenwash.
“You cannot mass produce fashion or consume ‘sustainably’ as the world is shaped today. That is one of the many reasons why we will need a system change.”
Adding to the evidence of that need, a June report from RSA, the U.K.’s Royal Society for Arts, Manufacturing and Commerce, revealed “colossal amounts of plastic going into the clothes we wear.”
“While many fashion websites are keen to market environmentally friendly clothing, the vast majority of items listed on these sites contain new plastics, with half being entirely made from petrochemically derived polymers such as polyester, acrylic, elastane, and nylon,” a statement timed with the report’s release noted. “These use large amounts of energy and create environmental damage in their production, and can take thousands of years to break down.”
If you ask the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which has been working to improve general knowledge of the impacts of fashion in its current form so consumers can start to rethink their consumption habits, getting shoppers to shop less doesn’t get to the core of the industry’s heavy environmental footprint.
“To meet the challenge of climate change, we need to transform the fashion industry into one that addresses the root causes of it, by designing products to be used more, made to be made again, and made from safe and recycled or renewable inputs. A circular economy for fashion that designs out production and manufacturing waste is crucial to reaching the 1.5-degree pathway [the internationally agreed-upon threshold for limiting temperature rise] for the textile industry,” said Juliet Lennon, program manager for the foundation’s Make Fashion Circular initiative. “Less than 1 percent of materials used to make clothes are recycled back into clothing after use, while vast amounts quickly end up in landfills or incinerators, having a huge impact on the climate and biodiversity.”
Thorbeck sees two paths out of this position for fashion to play its part in curbing what it can of the climate crisis.
“There are two forces for change and those two forces are the financial community, which now requires over 50 percent of its funds to have metrics for ESG impact, so that’s the investor community, and then what you have among consumers is a demonstrable change in behavior demanding that sustainability be the narrative for brands,” he said.
Whether that change has reached a significantly impactful cohort of consumers remains to be seen, though Gen Z is certainly the group leading the charge on putting their dollars where the sustainability is.
What has become increasingly clear is that fashion really has no time for greenwashing and no time for limited net-zero 2030 goals if the “code red” of the U.N’.s climate change report says anything about the direction in which things are headed.
“The alarm bells are deafening, and the evidence is irrefutable: greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel burning and deforestation are choking our planet and putting billions of people at immediate risk,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said in a statement Monday. “Global heating is affecting every region on Earth, with many of the changes becoming irreversible.”
As Thorbeck added, “The fact that [the U.N. was] doing a summary report of 14,000 studies makes it an overwhelming trend that no company can afford to ignore. That’s what makes 2021 such a pivotal year — if in fact there’s a way to address the U.N. goals of 2030, then it has to start now.
“Essentially, what the U.N. report does is take away all excuses.”