What Will it Take to Reform Fast Fashion?
Apparel brands that want to survive the next decade should respond with real, transparent action, not just wait for legislation to force them to act.
The “Fast Fashion” Report
As it stands, sustainability in the fashion industry is somewhat of a black box—nobody really knows the extent of what’s going on. But what we do know is that it’s not good.
Earlier this year, the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) released their report “Fixing fashion: clothing consumption and sustainability.” The report was based on an inquiry and compiled a large amount of research and evidence on the fast fashion industry in the UK, which concluded with various recommendations to try and tackle social and environmental injustice.
The response from the government was disappointing to say the least. Despite the UK being committed to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which state that we should “ensure sustainable consumption and production,” the government refused to adopt all key recommendations.
On the one hand, it’s somewhat shocking that they’ve failed to take on a single recommendation, especially considering some recommendations are simply common sense, such as not incinerating perfectly good products and materials. On the other hand, it’s not surprising at all; we can only imagine the vested interests and lobbying that has gone on behind the scenes, perpetuating the fast fashion industry in the UK and its damaging global consequences.
Is There any Hope for Fast Fashion to Become Sustainable?
So, with the UK government neither enforcing legally binding policy nor providing incentives for a reformed industry, we look to the large corporations to make a difference. As the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) highlights, companies are ultimately responsible for taking action to reduce any negative social and environmental consequences they inflict, not just in the UK but globally.
Some companies are showing true leadership in the textile and apparel sectors, for example Patagonia. Patagonia clearly acknowledges that its products ARE impacting the environment, while remaining transparent with their process for improvement. Such transparency, from a brand willing to admit the bad in its processes and products, positively contributes to the conversation and pushes others to also address their product sustainability.
Patagonia’s 2011 “don’t buy this jacket” campaign is already 8 years old. We need to reinvigorate such efforts to shed light on consumerism, particularly in the UK, where we purchase more clothes on average per person than anywhere else in Europe. We are still clouded by the incessant need to consume and buy more things, things that we could likely, on reflection, live without.
It’s time for companies to be honest with where they are at, and it’s time for them to set targets and move toward achieving them. As with Patagonia, genuinely sustainable companies will have to inform consumers that sometimes the best thing they can do for the environment and human rights is to not buy a new product, but instead make do with or repair what they already have. They should encourage critical reflection and help consumers ask the question as to whether or not we actually need the products we buy to begin with, encouraging the shift to slow fashion.
Major companies, such as Missguided, are marketing bikinis at the absurd price of £1, claiming their products are sourced to the same high standards as all their other products. This is hard to believe, considering they don’t mention a single environmentally related initiative on their website.
Responsible companies can look at their business models and start investing in large-scale alternatives, such as services instead of products. Options include opening tailor shops for the free repair (as a first-time customer) of one of their apparel products, encouraging product longevity and not facilitating the craze of 52 “micro-seasons” instead of the more traditional 2-4 seasons. They might also look to the design stage to ensure their production methods are generating products that are more easily repairable or designed for disassembly to enable components of products to be reused in new products. They could integrate textiles that are more durable and sustainable to begin with, thereby increasing longevity, reducing waste and making planned obsolescence a thing of the past.
With the annual assessment of the sustainability of the fashion industry (see The Pulse of the Fashion Industry 2019 Update) determining the speed of progress as having slowed in the past year and estimating that by 2030, the global apparel and footwear industry will likely see 81% growth, the focus on levels of consumption in countries in the Global North, such as in the UK, couldn’t be more pertinent.
Measure to Track REAL Progress
We see companies running campaigns based on the steps they are taking toward sustainability, but how can we ensure this is not just a fad? We need to track and measure data, setting hard industry benchmarks that, if superseded, lead companies to halt their own production. We should be looking at public disclosure of environmental information and pushing for an increase in Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs). At this stage, we need measurements and comparisons that the average person can understand and ultimately use to make better purchasing decisions, such as the upcoming Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) labelling scheme.
With a view to looking beyond just climate change, companies also need to dive deep into their supply chains, take a life cycle perspective on their products (cradle-to-grave/ cradle-to-cradle) and measure the impact their products are inflicting via other metrics, such as waste, water consumption and other local ecological factors, like eutrophication and acidification. And most importantly, they need to start doing this before the product makes it to the shelf—it’s not something to measure afterward for a report that’ll be stuffed away in a drawer somewhere.
All large fashion companies should design circularly and incorporate material analysis into the design phase to ensure they are addressing all significant environment impacts.
Tools such as the HIGG Materials Sustainability Index, developed by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, are a start in providing platforms openly accessible to designers. Nike recently released its circular design guide, which provides a hub of knowledge around considerations to take when making decisions about materials, processes, design and more. However, we need a stronger and wider base of high-quality data so that brands can make informed decisions on sustainable raw materials and production.
Yet despite access to environmental data and advice, are we really seeing a true appetite for change? The lack of transparency required from companies allows them to do as they please in their environmental efforts, because at the end of the day participation is voluntary. Hopefully, as people become more conscious, and responsive governments force companies to change, there will be a reduction in space for them to hide their environmentally destructive and socially unethical practices.
It’s Time for More Ambitious Targets
The Paris Agreement was signed in 2015, and since then we’ve seen a poor turnout from companies and governments in setting targets that will put them on the path to properly align their emissions with maintaining global heating below 1.5° C above preindustrial levels. Many debate whether the fast fashion business model even has the capacity to operate as a just industry. It seems likely that attempting to combat climate change and ecological degradation while allowing fast fashion to flourish as usual will get us nowhere.
If we want companies to change, we should be pushing large fashion companies to set Science Based Targets. Just recently PUMA SE and Burberry set their targets, following other big players such as ASICS Corporation and Levi Strauss & Co., which set them last year. However, these companies make up only a handful of responsible companies—most apparel companies have yet to officially set targets.
Within the UK, the government’s SCAP (Sustainable Clothing Action Plan) commitments are coming to an end in 2020, which means it’s time to mount the pressure as they likely look to set new commitments. There is huge opportunity for more ambitious targets, more signatories and a wider scope of considerations. Rather than predominantly focusing on water and energy consumption, there may be greater focus on waste and circular design, perhaps aided by the development of tax incentives for greater environmental consideration in the design of products and extended producer responsibility (EPR). Also, with that, we need greater focus on transitioning to better materials, less toxic and less harmful chemical processes and understanding microplastic shedding.
Economics still forms and frames most of our values. We know that at some point (arguably the time has already passed) —if we are going to survive as a species—the environmental, social and governance of sustainability will need to supersede economics as our principal value and priority.
If we have learned anything from the UK government’s response to the EAC’s report on fixing fast fashion, it is that we cannot wait around anymore for governments to implement legislation and provide appropriate incentives—the most responsible apparel companies need to step up their game and use their marketing power to force disruptive market change.
The pressure is mounting for businesses to align themselves with the science, be transparent about their improvement processes and start transitioning to alternative business models. In the next few years, fast fashion will most likely see its first death pangs. So, industry leaders can’t afford to wait. They need to take greater initiative now and do the right thing for their businesses and, ultimately, all life on the planet.