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Can Fast Fashion Really be Sustainable?

International fashion giant H&M recently opened their first South African outlet at Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront, following on from fellow international retail brands such as Cotton On, Zara, Topshop and River Island.

hmInternational fashion giant H&M recently opened their first South African outlet at Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront, following on from fellow international retail brands such as Cotton On, Zara, Topshop and River Island. They are all eager to tap into the South African consumers appetite for instant cheap fashion. These international retailers’ success is built on a business model based around the latest trends at wallet-friendly prices, a term called ‘fast fashion’.

Fast fashion is the term used by retailers to describe the process of translating the latest catwalk fashion trends into mass produced items, ready for consumption in retail outlets as quickly as possible. Worldwide, retailers are under increasing pressure to get the season’s latest trends into stores to appease an increasingly impatient consumer base demanding the ‘in thing’ now. The key requirement here is that big supply chains work efficiently to deliver affordable clothing to the masses. Fast fashion has become synonymous with disposable fashion, as the clothing is generally lower quality to fit into lower price category. Fast fashion has come in for criticism for being unsustainable as clothes can be of poor quality, often lasting for only one or two seasons before they are replaced with more cheap clothes, increasing pollution in production and resource use. The workers often endure abysmal working conditions, and unsafe working environments. This has lead to several factory disasters, such as the Rana Plaza building collapse in April 2013, which housed five Bangladeshi clothing manufacturers over eight storeys, causing 1 134 deaths and nearly 2 400 injuries, many of which were severe.

Clever marketing drives this through the notion that fashion can be attained quickly at low prices, and that clothes are disposable, thus creating repeat customers, more foot traffic at stores and increased revenues. Traditional fashion seasons follow the summer, autumn, winter, spring cycle, but fast fashion follows 4-6 week cycles (and often even quicker), compressing more buying seasons into the same space of time.

Generally, clothing can have detrimental environmental effects especially when sustainability interventions are not considered. Fast fashion, however, is specifically exacerbating environmental harm to aquatic, terrestrial and atmospheric ecosystems.

– More resources are required to be grown (natural fibres) or produced (synthetic textiles) creating increased emissions and use of harmful pesticides.

– Increased raw materials, fabric and finished products are transported across the globe, from farm to mill, to dying house, to factory, to warehouse, to retail shop. Transport may take the form of road, sea and/or air, producing increased carbon emissions.

– Increased carbon emissions from electricity and fossil fuels used to power heavy machinery used to produce more textiles and clothing.

– Increased demand for clothing leads to more effluents from factories, such as dyes and chemicals, often polluting local drinking water and eco systems.

Fast fashion’s textiles industry has caused enormous environmental damage in recent years, and looks set to continue for as long as consumers demand cheap and quick clothing.

In the age of increasing consumer consciousness, and with companies taking sustainability and its impacts more seriously, how are these fast fashion companies responding?

Topshop has released a line called Reclaim To Wear, which uses recycled textiles, and H&M launched its first sustainable line, the Conscious Collection, in order to introduce sustainable materials into its line. According to Textile Exchange’s Organic Cotton Report 2015, H&M was the second largest user of certified organic cotton worldwide. But are these efforts enough when the vast majority of their clothing is environmentally and socially unsustainable?

One reaction to fast fashion is the slow fashion movement. Slow fashion, as an alternative to mass-produced clothing, is based on the principles of the slow food movement, often seeking out artisanal producers and small clothing companies. These companies often use natural materials, which may include Fairtrade certified or organic materials, and generally also focus on locally produced supply chains. Slow fashion encourages education about the garment industry’s connection and impact on the environment and depleting resources, and seeks to produce superior quality clothing that lasts longer. The main criticism of such clothes is that they can be expensive. Supporters will argue that the social and environmental costs have been included in the selling price, and the superior quality and long lasting lifespan of the garment will actually save consumers money, as it negates the frequent replacement of items.

Technological advances have had a positive impact on experimentation with fabrics and materials, and have expanded the choice of sustainable textiles available. Organic cotton has seen a massive uptake by a number of large brands, creating a large market and reducing the cost of a product in the process. Bamboo and hemp is seen as an even more sustainable textile option than organic cotton, as they require less water and land to grow, and actually absorb greenhouse gases in the growth lifecycle. However, perhaps the most sustainable option is recycled, reclaimed, surplus, and vintage fabric, as the raw material requires no agriculture and no manufacturing to produce.

The Higg Index is a recent and exciting initiative in sustainable fashion, as an apparel and footwear industry self-assessment standard for gauging environmental and social sustainability throughout the supply chain. Launched in 2012, it was developed by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, a non-profit organization founded by a group of fashion companies, the United States government Environmental Protection Agency, and other non-profit entities. This self-assessment tool empowers brands, retailers, and facilities of all sizes, at every stage in their sustainability journey, to measure their environmental, social, and labour impacts, and helps to identify areas for improvement.

We will need to look to the future to see if fast fashion can merge with a more sustainable target, in order to form a better industry that places more focus on social and environmental indicators.

Written by: Adam Green

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