In the ‘fast fashion’ cycle, new styles swiftly replace the old, and brands continuously redefine desires to compete for consumer attention. The alluring abundance and choice offered by high street brands democratises fashion, which enables us to wear the latest looks at affordable prices. On the other hand, its a bastardisation where technical quality and ethical production conditions are overlooked as low prices dominate market competition. The realities for fashion’s future look to amend some of the alarming realities in textile and apparel industries. Namely by breaking information barriers, paying fairer prices and revising the current high street business model. We spoke to Vanessa Friedman, former Financial Times Fashion Editor who has recently been appointed Fashion Director, and Chief Fashion Critic at The New York Times, and Ingun Grimstad Klepp, an ethnologist from Norway’s National Institute for Consumer Research (SIFO), whose work focuses on production of textiles, sustainability and consumer behaviour in fashion. We discuss developments reforming the industry, and what this means for the modern day consumer.
Fast fashion phenomenon
Fast fashion is the low-cost clothing based on current, high-cost luxury fashion trends. It is a fast-response system that encourages disposability and entices consumption with ‘new season looks’ every few weeks. H&M, for example, release about 18 collections a year, that’s a new look every 3 weeks. The demand for cheaper clothing squeezes margins upon garment workers in a production mechanism that is all too familiar; lower manufacturing and labor costs mean lower costs overall, and the lower prices subsequently propel higher volumes of production. In 2010, global textile fibre demand increased by 4.6 million tons to 69.7 million tons. These are concerning figures bearing in mind the unrealistic minimum wage of labor workers involved in this process of the chain. Low wages, increased production demand and suppression of workers rights are just some of the conditions which led to the sweatshop disaster in Rana Plaza, Bangladesh. The collapse of the building saw 1,138 lives perish, and left over 2 000 injured, revealing some eye-opening realities of human rights abuse. Alongside this is also the grave concern for environmental costs, as fashion is one of the worlds largest polluters; of chemical waste, landfill and exorbitant rates of Co2 emissions. Nearly 10 000 synthetic chemicals are flushed into fresh water reserves, contributing to nearly 20 percent of overall global industrial water pollution. SCENARIO asked what are the main challenges in evolving fast fashion to a sustainable industry.
“[In relation to consumers] we don’t have access to knowledge about textiles and clothing both from a social and technical perspective. Marketing is based on images and dreams, not on facts. This is all problematic in changing the focus from quantity to quality and durability.” says Ingun Klepp.
Some choose clothing for fit, others to fit in, some for expression of taste and others for expression of personality. For consumers looking to identify garments on features of quality, choices are still limited. To date, there are no systems of communication for consumers to choose garments based on fibre makeup, production, or characteristics of durability such as colour hold or fibre peel. Whilst this may not be a deciding factor for one’s fashion purchases, the lack of labelling has several implications for the continuation of the current cycle.
The obstruction of basic information leaves fashion behind other industries that are becoming increasingly transparent. “On food the use of GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms) is increasingly labelled, on textile its not even marked- its not even something you are obliged to tell the consumers.” As Klepp and Friedman explain (respectively), a driver for this unawareness is the lack of mandatory information standards.
“Today, the lack of power is very present. The lack of power comes from lack of knowledge. This is problematic, as there is no universal system to communicate properties of ‘sustainable’ or ‘recycled’, that would give consumers an idea of what they’re actually purchasing.”
“Nowhere have I ever seen a group come out and say: We define a recycled garment as one that has 20 percent recycled fibres. There are no minimum universal standards, and I think there should be. I feel very strongly that there needs to be some sustainability for dummies.”
Slowing down fast fashion cycle faces many obstacles, particularly when a common reality for consumers is that purchasing a new t-shirt is often cheaper than repairing an existing one, or even taking it to the dry cleaner. Friedman argues change “is more challenging on the high street level, as you don’t want to leave behind an entire sector or a population who are making decisions based on economics and not values because that is simply the reality of their lives. You don’t want to price them out of clothes.”
The Millennials, also identified under the acronym “Generation IWWIWWIWI” (I Want What I Want When I Want It), will be 75 percent of the global workforce by 2025. This generation born roughly between 1980 and 2000 is interesting in this context because of their characteristic virtual savviness and global connectivity. This innate skill in communication has already demonstrated an immense power to raise awareness and network on global causes, such as the KONY 2012 movie. Joseph Kony, is a leader of a guerilla rebel group in Uganda responsible for kidnapping children to his army. The release of this film became one of the largest events in the history of the internet, before it he was virtually unknown to the public. Generation IWWIWWIWI’s virtual abilities build foundations for new purchasing patterns such as sharing networks like rent-a-dress, clothes swap events like resecond.com or finding online platforms of local designers such as Notjustalabel.com (An independent platform for emerging designers).
Generation IWWIWWIWI find an “online fix”, Friedman explains that social media has enabled users to build an identity through virtual associations with styles and brands. It’s like: “I want it, I look at a picture of it and then I Pin it to my board – and now I have it, and then I don’t want it anymore”. So actually in one way these two things feed each other. Once they satisfy their immediate desires, then we get to that more considered purchasing.
Future business models
The future business models can be divided into two categories. Life-cycle models have circular economic structures keeping products in continuous cycles, as oppose to the linear ‘take-make-dispose-waste’ culture. This is for instance seen in ‘take back management’, or closed loop systems with the purpose of upcycling, which means reinventing garments from old and worn textiles returned by customers. For instance, H&M has collected 5000 tons in 1,5 years with its with its Garment Collecting initiative. Or the use of byproducts of food processing in the form of Atlantic Leather, that turns fish skin waste into leather through the use of renewable energy, without compromising biodiversity.
Alternatively, Incentive models have an emphasis in business performances by selling products and services that incentivize businesses and consumers to use less resources or optimize usage. The invention of water recycle systems has, for example, already saved Levi’s denim production more than 770 millions of liters of water. In areas of social responsibility, Labor Link’s emerging software gives textile workers a free, anonymous communication channel from their mobile phones to report working conditions and participate in investigative surveys, which is estimated by Vodafone to benefit 18 million workers globally by 2020.
Transparency and traceability
The movement to standardise transparency is expected to propel awareness of consumption impacts. The aim of traceability is to provide information on the farming, production, packing, distribution, transportation, and sales processes. Whereas transparency looks to make that information accessible. By reducing the complexity of accessing information on product traceability, these approaches to information will facilitate future conscious consumption.
Transparency of the supply chain isn’t new, such as Free2Work, a barcode based app that informs what brands or products use forced and child labor, or iRecycle, that aggregates locations to return unused items ranging from cars, electronics to hazardous substances.
Bruno Pieters, former Artistic Director of Hugo Boss, launched Honest By in 2012. According to Friedman, it is the “most transparent fashion platform to this day”, that shares the full cost breakdown in addition to providing the complete traceability of a products life cycle from production to sales. As we can see, the movement to conscious consumption is expanding.
“I think we have reached the tipping point on the top end, in terms of expansion for more stores. What we will see as a response to that is that the way you grow your revenue stream is not necessarily by selling more stuff but selling less stuff that is more expensive’’ says Friedman when asked how fashion will evolve in the next 10 years.
It is unrealistic to expect consumers to turn to expensive high end brands, merely to escape fast fashion. The intention for higher costs is ‘it tends to make people think more about what they are buying, why they are buying less and what they are getting for their money, and I think those questions are really important” says Friedman.
This foreseeable change in consumer behaviour will stem from a shift in values. “Increasingly market shares will be driven by the appeal to the heart and mind.’ says Friedman. That is, ‘the value systems that are delivered by brands and embodied by products, will be more important. It will become a certain deciding factor in purchasing”. As factors for choosing sustainable options become increasingly important, so too will consumer’s pursuit for value in technical quality, stylish design, and guarantee of reasonable production conditions. Klepp agrees that higher prices will have a positive impact. “Its crucial for the prices to go up to pay for garment workers up the value chain, but also in itself higher prices will slow rates of consumption.”
Aid of technology
The mother lode of transparency in fashion is yet to be unleashed. Jason Kibby from the Sustainable Apparel Coalition and keynote speaker at the 2014 Copenhagen Fashion Summit, predicts that the future of fashion is universal transparency. He sees free data on open platforms with barcodes that are encoded at all steps of the production chain, even when it reaches the hands of users. He sees rating apps and platforms where trusted 3rd parties, such as fair trade organisations, sustainable indexes or noted fashion analysts, could also rate products on environmental impacts, social responsibility and its cost mark up. This mega platform is already in its early stages, with ratings, indexes and various apps operating albeit in a limited and independent capacity.
We asked what is the key to modifying consumer habits? “It is crucial that this change is helped in the right direction through information; yet there are many stakeholders responsible to make the change,” says Klepp. The transparency movement will have several ramifications for stakeholders. Firstly, implementing a universal system for labelling garment properties would better indicate workers skills, and their inherent labor conditions. The future collaboration of technology and open data will enable consumers to make informed judgements. Furthermore, the communication of production standards would also be grounds for fairer competition in retail prices and fundamentally, with more informed consumption, brands will have a clearer idea of what the consumer really wants.
The empowered consumer
Beyond doubt, consumer education is key to supporting progress towards beneficial change. The growing consumer interest in sustainability is known as the LOHAS movement (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability), which is expanding in sectors such as urban design, food agriculture, medicine and energy usage. In the US alone LOHAS describes an estimated $290 billion market place for goods and services focused on health, environment, social justice and sustainable living. As more and more consumers shift behaviours, then brands will react to the demand.
“The thing that really drives the brand change is consumer change. Brands are wholly responsive to their public, their buyers and clients. If they sell it, as a high street brand, they immediately put more in. I think as consumers, all this can change if people slightly change the way they think of products and what they need.” says Friedman.
Similarly, a Cambridge University study found that any change for environmental and social benefit in the textile industry would be driven by consumers. As the largest impacts of the sector are driven by the volume of material, then the greatest beneficial change would occur if we purchased less and kept it for longer. By large, the role of the consumer is immense. Across the board, industry consensus claim that the most effective actions in reversing fast fashion rest in consumers hands: buying fewer and longer-lasting garments, buy more second-hand clothing, wash clothes less often at lower temperatures, and recycle clothes that have reached the end of their lives.
The future of slower fashion rests crucially in the consumer behaviours of the millennials and generation 00’s. Their inherent connectivity to global networks has heightened awareness of global issues that has immense opportunity to support greener consumer habits. This will be particularly critical for the projected emergent economies of the 21st century, both BRIC and the N11 nations, of which China, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Vietnam, Philippines, owe a significant portion of their GDP to the textile industry. As of 2014, Bangladesh is the world’s second largest apparel exporter, and in Pakistan, textiles account for 60 percent of exports. A foreseeable shift in consumer habits, would be a stronghold for the establishment of greener business models in these emerging economies, and ideally making “sweatshop” seem an archaic term.
Of course, with expected higher prices, consumption of sustainable goods may become a luxury of high income consumers. However, by aiming to standardise sustainability, we may look forward to a future in which these current decades of reckless fast fashion are a closed chapter. That scenario, rests upon your next purchase.
Image via Flickr