Fast Fashion: Can It Be Sustainable?

Tamsin Lejeune, CEO of Common Objective, shares her thinking on fast fashion - an overview of the issues, the "elephant in the room", and an evaluation of positive steps that can be taken to achieve meaningful change in a divided industry.
Key Takeaways

- fast fashion results in large volumes of production, this has an impact and is the 'elephant in the room'

- the majority of work in garment factories supplying fast fashion retailers is repetitive, tedious, low-skilled, and the opposite of fulfilling

- businesses should acknowledge this and:

  • operate in three dimensions (social, environmental, financial)
  • follow circular fashion principles
  • share and build social impact

For ten years prior to launching Common Objective (CO) Tamsin Lejeune was the founder and director of the Ethical Fashion Forum.  This is an edited version of a piece which first appeared on the Ethical Fashion Forum SOURCE in October 2016.

In the last 50 years, the way we produce and consume fashion has dramatically changed. Fast fashion retailers have made the case that they have democratised the fashion experience – no longer reserved for the elite, fashion is available and accessible to all. Everyone can afford to wear the latest trends, and to regularly experience the short-lived high of a new fashion purchase, and the pleasure of wearing something new.

For large fashion retailers “fashion democracy” has happily coincided with burgeoning sales, revenues, and profits. This has become the model that dominates high streets. On the surface it seems to suit everyone – certainly those who have buying power and thus influence in a market-driven business model.

A divided industry

In my ten years of growing the Ethical Fashion Forum and now CO, I have seen a movement gather pace against fast fashion as the status quo. This has coincided, particularly in the last five years, with several of the most established high street retailers outwardly and publicly committing to sustainability targets and goals, and investing in innovation to solve sustainability challenges.

Especially for those independent brands for whom sustainability is part of their DNA, this development is an uneasy one. Competition with the high street, and consumer perceptions of what fashion “should” cost, are already probably the biggest challenges they face. Now they face competition on their sustainability values too – from companies with the ability to allocate larger budgets towards the communication of their sustainability commitments.

In many ways, we have reached a stand-off between these two fashion industry camps – a stand-off that drives heated debate in every fashion industry forum, and much frustration. Yet, the challenges of sustainability are common to all of us, to every fashion consumer and to every business owner. Fast fashion is not going any where fast, so how can we unite the most creative minds of this industry, the pioneering thinkers and actors, towards positive solutions that unite rather than divide us?

What is “fast fashion”?

Initially “fast fashion” was about increasing the speed of production, reducing the time it takes to go from fashion design to final product on shelves. Rather than two collections annually, this made it possible to have new product in store in multiple drops throughout the year. The ultimate goal being to sell more product and decrease the trend cycle – and to have something new that consumers need to get in their wardrobes every few weeks in order to be in line with latest trends.

This went hand in hand with reduced prices; it is psychologically easier to make a purchase at a lower price point. There is evidence that consumers will spend more over a year with regular low cost “fashion fixes” than on more exclusive pieces that they fall in love with and will treasure. With a higher cost item, it is so much easier to see what is going out of the bank. In addition, there is that trait many of us have of feeling guilty about indulging – spending on ourselves (or at least, admitting to it). As a result, we’ve developed a “bargain boast” culture – where we boast about how great a bargain we got, and how little we paid. 

Now fast fashion is less about fast production – regular drops, rather than seasonal collections have become the standard on the high street – and more about sales – how much product can be shifted, and how quickly. Shifting product quickly means producing a lot of stuff at as low a price as possible, which puts pressure on suppliers to make huge volumes at a low price to tight deadlines. 

We've developed a 'bargain boast' culture - where we boast about how great a bargain we got, and how little we paid.

Sustainable fast fashion?

Can fast fashion be sustainable? At CO we define sustainable fashion as an approach to fashion that maximises benefits to people, and minimises impact on the environment as well as being commercially successful.

We believe that the social and environmental aspects of sustainability are inherently linked; one does not come without the other.

Let’s start with the environment. The single most effective thing we could do tomorrow to reduce the impact of the fashion industry on the environment would be to buy a lot less. Every garment has an environmental footprint at every stage in its production. That is why there is an inherent contradiction between the fast fashion business model – a model driven by selling lots of stuff fast – and the concept of environmental sustainability.

I’ve seen as much passion and dedication from individuals working within fast fashion retailers, championing more sustainable practices, as amongst smaller business pioneers. The difference being that the fast fashion insiders have, in many ways, a tougher challenge because the commercial drivers of the businesses they work within are in conflict with reducing environmental impact

For me, this conflict represents the heart of the problem we need to address as an industry – it is the “elephant in the room”. It cannot be resolved by any business working alone, and it will not be resolved through stand-off. If all parties truly acknowledge this elephant in the room, here lies an opportunity for constructive debate.

When it comes to benefits to people, the case for fast fashion may have a defence. Take Bangladesh as an example – a primary production hub for fast fashion retailers globally. In the last 30 years we have seen huge gains, especially for women in Bangladesh, who have been able to exit a cycle of poverty for themselves and their families, largely through the mass manufacture of clothing. By 2013 about 4 million people, mostly women, worked in Bangladesh’s $19 billion-a-year, export-oriented, ready-made garment (RMG) industry. Several pioneering fast fashion retailers have developed exemplary initiatives in their supply chains to improve working conditions, support communities, and empower their workers, in Bangladesh and beyond.

Despite this, from the observer standpoint, we see more column inches and campaign focus from large retailers on the environmental message, even though there is an inherent contradiction in it. I see great value in more promotional space being given by large retailers to the benefits to people through more sustainable and conscious fashion.

Quality of life, fulfilling work, and society values

The production of textiles and clothes can be highly creative, highly skilled, and offered opportunities for fulfilling and meaningful work.

‘Maximising benefits to people’ through sustainable fashion business has strategic implications that go beyond whether a factory is clean and safe, and even whether workers are paid a living wage.

From the silk route in China to the sought-after textiles and embroidery of Thailand, Indonesia, and India, for thousands of years this industry and its products have inspired wonder and driven global trade. The process of consuming textiles and fashion, right into the 1960s and 70s, was also a creative one – people would often sew their own clothes, or pay a seamstress to create something unique to them that would be treasured and passed on (supplying the growing market for vintage fashion today).

In contrast, the majority of work in garment factories supplying fast fashion retailers is repetitive, tedious, low-skilled, low paid and the opposite of fulfilling.

The process of buying fashion consumes hundreds of hours, and often, most Saturdays (and Sundays) especially for teenagers and young people, wherever they have disposable income and access to a high street (or computer). All this, so we can have wardrobes full of cheap clothes, most of which ends in landfill? If we were to step back and strategically plan our industry to maximise benefits for people on both sides of the supply chain, I am sure we would come up with something very different.

Fast fashion culture

Shifting a lot of fashion product fast – and making high margins as a result – means it makes sense to invest a lot of money in advertising, which pervades every part of our media from print, to billboard, TV, and alongside everything we browse online. As members of a consumer society, we are presented with two big messages: what we need to aspire to look like, and that we can all afford to do so. So go shopping!

As the mother of two girls I see the effects of this first hand. At nine years old my daughter is already concerned about body image; despite her perfect proportions, she does not conform with what she is told to aspire to. Already, her thoughts are occupied with what she could and should wear, with when she can next go shopping. She has brilliant intelligence and spirit, and her creativity from the age of nine could be addressing much more fulfilling and meaningful tasks than what to wear.

We as a society – and as a business community – can change this.

Is "closed loop" the antidote to fast fashion?

Closed Loop – or a “circular production model” – is an exciting and innovative concept, and one which illustrates the opportunities for collaboration between small and larger business in the fashion sector. A circular production model means that the end product is entirely recycled and transformed back into the original fibres and other components so that it can be recreated again, as good as new. The vision of a circular model is that it will be almost entirely zero waste, massively reducing the environmental footprint of a mass production model.

Can a circular model then “fix” the environmental challenges with fast fashion – the elephant in the room – and let us get on with business as usual? There is no question that this is a fundamental component to a more sustainable industry. However, I would argue that this is not an antidote. A circular model, within a fast fashion context, addresses the symptoms of the problem – waste and burgeoning energy consumption – rather than the cause (our addiction to buying and selling vast quantities of low cost products).

Circular Fashion, launched by Swedish Consultancy firm Green Strategy, sets out an excellent synopsis of Key Principles associated with a Circular Fashion Model. At the top of this list are “Design with a Purpose” and “Design for Longevity” – both principles which do not sit easily with our low-cost, fashion-fix culture.

Positive steps towards a more sustainable industry

I’ve sat through countless industry events and round tables where the challenges of our industry are discussed. In the last five years, the “elephant in the room” is being increasingly exposed. However, I am sure that if you have been to an industry forum on fashion and sustainability, you will share my frustration. There is far more discussion of problems than focus on solutions.

Yet, it is the solutions that need the full focus of the great thinkers in our industry – from both sides of the fast fashion divide. If we are to address the root of the problems with our industry – and go beyond treating the symptoms – we need to see more leadership.

John Kenneth Galbraith defined great leadership as “The willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time.” If climate change is the greatest anxiety of our time, confronting it will require a radical change in the way we produce and consume fashion.

Doing fast fashion better

We have seen leadership amongst fast fashion retailers which can, and is, significantly increasing benefits to people and reducing impact on the environment. Doing fast fashion better is a fundamental first step towards change.

I see four ways in which meaningful impact can be achieved:

1. Acknowledging the elephant in the room

I have been a part of too many industry forums where percentage reduction in water or energy use are discussed in the same breath as expansion plans to open three new stores during the same period – and increase production and sales to match. A combined strategy which results in a considerably increased environmental footprint overall, rendering the percentage reductions almost pointless. For me, doing fast fashion better means sharing the full picture – evaluating sustainability proposals, and planning and reporting on impact in the context of a growth model. It’s time to stop ignoring the elephant.

2. Operating in three dimensions

Too often, professionals within fashion businesses are incentivised against improving social or environmental standards. Their commercial Key Performance Indicators are in opposition to the recommendations of the corporate social responsibility (CSR) department and CSR does not have representation at board level. 

Wherever we see sustainability targets being taken seriously in high street fashion, sustainability management sits alongside financial management and this approach filters across the business so that each department is empowered rather than being frustrated by its impact targets. I would like to see this leadership and commitment strengthened through more fashion businesses following the leadership of Patagonia and registering as B Corporations

3. Following circular fashion principles

Say no more.

4. Sharing and building social impact

From an observer’s perspective, we hear more about the environmental initiatives of large fashion retailers, even though this doesn’t sit easily within a fast fashion model. I would like to see and hear much more from leading retailers on what fashion, made well, can do for people behind the product. I would like to see more real commitment to paying living wages and empowering workers

I would like to see advertising budgets raising awareness about the value of skills and craftsmanship, and how consumers can positively influence the well-being of the people behind fashion by buying well.

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Tamsin Lejeune

CEO & Founder at Common Objective