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Cleaning Out the Closet: Getting Rid of Fast Fashion

In early October, Forever 21, a kingpin in the world of fast fashion, declared bankruptcy. It will close up to 350 of its 800 stores across the U.S. and cease operations in 40 countries. Forever 21 is the latest in a string of retail giants to suffer plummeting profits in recent years, all of whom used the same model: marketing cheaply made, of-the-minute fashion at the lowest possible prices. H&M is shuttering 180 storefronts, TopShop will close all U.S. stores, and Dressbarn went out of business earlier this year. The face of fast fashion is rapidly changing. Reforming it entirely, though, will require a concerted effort by government and consumers.

Some reports have suggested that the demise of these flagship fast-fashion stores is the result of shifting consumer tendencies. They argue that this generation’s consumers, deeply socially conscious and aware of the environmental consequences of this type of shopping, are aging out of disposable fashion. But while it may be true that Gen Z and Millennials are more aware of the broader implications of their consumer habits, it is too early to conclude that we have abandoned fast fashion for good.

While the empty box stores in malls tell one story, the rise of fast fashion online tells a different one altogether. The recent emergence of online brands like SHEIN and Fashion Nova signals that fast fashion is perhaps not dying a slow death at the hands of socially conscious consumers, but rather merely switching spheres – from malls to online retail. Amidst the epidemic of empty storefronts, online fast fashion retail is growing at a rate far exceeding mid, premium, and luxury brands, accounting for 66 percent of all online fashion traffic this past year. This is not an industry on its last legs. The demand for trend-led and affordable clothing is still very much alive; only the vehicle of fast fashion is transforming.

Though the fate of Forever 21 and its industry counterparts might not spell the end for fast fashion, it is understandable why many hoped that it might. Fast fashion has long been guilty of staggering environmental offenses: The fashion industry accounts for 20 percent of all global wastewater and 10 percent of global carbon emissions. Americans dispose of millions of tons of clothing each year, which largely end up in landfills. The typical pair of jeans takes 2,000 gallons of water to produce and textile dying is a leading polluter of water globally. The U.N. Environment Programme says that by 2050 fashion will account for a quarter of the world’s carbon budget. Just as troubling are the worker abuses: most fast fashion realtors outsource their manufacturing to countries with very few labor protections, where garment workers work egregiously long hours in unsafe conditions for meager wages. And although we might hope that these well-documented offenses took on a powerful new resonance with a young generation of socially conscious consumers and altered the market permanently – it is not yet a reality.

But while fast fashion may not be defeated, we do appear to be at a moment of reshaping; alternatives to this harmful industry have gained traction and retailers have become responsive to the emergent consumer appetite for sustainability and transparency. Indeed, some of the largest fast fashion offenders have quickly pivoted: now embarking on expansive cleanup campaigns, adopting the language of sustainability, and creating clothing lines centered around organic and sustainable options. Inditex, Zara’s parent company, has announced plans to switch to only organic, sustainable, or recycled linens by 2025; H&M created its ‘Conscious Collection’ for Spring 2019 and will offer discounts to shoppers who bring in clothing to recycle; and several fast-fashion companies have pledged to boycott cotton that is linked to forced labor. To more robustly answer the consumer call for ethical labor and environmental practices in fashion, new brands like Reformation, Everlane, and Allbirds have molded their entire image around sustainability and transparency. Reformation, for instance, boasts “Being naked is the #1 most sustainable option. We’re #2.” This catchy slogan is accompanied by quarterly sustainability reports detailing the company’s shortcomings, the environmental footprint of each garment, and a website where the consumer can purchase carbon offsets.

Unfortunately, many of these sustainability shifts appear to be hollow – examples of what the environmental industry has termed “greenwashing.” Banner campaigns that advertise the use of “sustainable fabrics” are belied by the great volume of water these fabrics require to manufacture. Fast fashion giant Zara, now widely publicizing its newfound sustainability efforts, has made no mention of labor concerns. Even among the most nominally eco-friendly actors in fashion, as company production has scaled up to meet consumer demand, sustainability has taken a hit. Once, roughly half of the clothing at Reformation was made from recycled fabrics of other fashion houses, now, just fifteen percent of the garments are. The high sticker prices at these companies, previously absolving the consumer of all guilt, are no longer a guarantee of wholly sustainable practices. With no mechanism in place to keep any of these brands accountable, it is nearly impossible to discern whether these new initiatives are contributing to more environmentally friendly practices or whether they are undergone solely for appearance’s sake with no significant impact. Companies, even if aware of an abstract consumer desire for eco-friendly practices, will not put an end to fast fashion of their own accord.

Adequately addressing this issue will take a joint effort between government regulation and consumer behavior. On the governmental side, we would do well to look at a proposal considered by the UK parliament. Per the recommendations of this report, the government could require companies to disclose findings from reviews across their supply chains. Additionally, the government could help to facilitate a new economic model that would allow for scalable, profitable, and sustainable fashion by providing tax incentives to companies mitigating their environmental impact and penalizing those that produce the most environmental harm. Other proposals have suggested that the government could further assist in the fight against fast fashion by imposing import taxes or annual caps on the quantity of garments imported from countries with poor occupational safety and few environmental regulations. Such governmental actions are a necessary component in defeating fast fashion, but they are not the only thing we can do.

While the burden of sustainable practices should by no means be entirely offloaded onto the consumer, the impact of these regulations will be stronger if married with limited and environmentally intentioned shopping. Though it is far less glamorous than buying a $200 dress in the name of being sustainable, a surefire way to lessen our carbon impact through fashion is to buy less stuff. The UN Environment Programme reports that the number of times a garment is worn has declined by 36 percent in the last fifteen years. If we are to be the generation that makes fast fashion obsolete – as some have already posited – the answer lies not in blindly swearing allegiance to brands that pay lip service to sustainability, but in reforming our consumer culture. Through shopping secondhand, mending clothing instead of purchasing new items, and wearing more of what we already own, consumers can help to bring about the real death of fast fashion.

Though an empty Forever 21 store does not spell the end of fast fashion, government policies that require transparency and provide economic incentives for sustainability, paired with a determined consumer effort to reform our gluttonous overconsumption of clothes, will.

Photo: Image via Mike Mozart (Flickr)