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The Rise and (Hopeful) Demise of Fast Fashion

Americans can’t stop buying clothes: the average consumer today purchases almost three times as many garments as their mid-century doppelganger. Naturally, consumers are also far less likely to consistently wear the clothes they have bought. Today, only 20 percent of clothes are worn regularly. We live in an age characterized by what industry leaders call “fast fashion,” where retailers like Zara and H&M can respond to consumers’ insatiable desire for the trendiest clothes at the lowest prices. As they’ve sought to provide customers with as many options in as little time as possible, global apparel companies have made careless consumption more affordable than ever. Whereas the consumer price index on all goods has risen by 70 percent since the 1990s, the price of apparel has decreased by 6 percent. Though our pocketbooks may not internalize the hidden costs of fast fashion, our planet certainly does. Our dopamine-fueled shopping addiction is destroying the environment and trapping millions of workers in intergenerational cycles of poverty. 

As a result of the race to the bottom on costs and quality, the apparel industry today now ranks among the top ten most polluting industries in the world, accounting for 10 percent of global carbon emissions. During the 1960s, 95 percent of all clothing worn in the US was made in America. Today, a mere 2 percent of Americans’ clothes are made within domestic borders. Though the American energy grid remains far from ideal, with 28 percent of all our energy coming from coal alone, it’s certainly more sustainable compared to those in the countries where the industry has outsourced production. 60 percent of the Chinese grid is powered by coal, as is 72 percent of the Indian grid.

To maintain their razor-thin profit margins, many manufacturers have turned to polyester and other synthetic fibers as cheaper alternatives to cotton. Unlike cotton, polyester is not biodegradable. That means that every article of polyester that has ever been created still exists on this planet and is unlikely to disappear anytime soon. This is particularly worrisome considering the careless nature with which consumers now treat their clothes. The average American throws away 81 pounds of clothes every year. What’s more, producing polyester and other cheap synthetic fiber is far more energy-intensive than producing cotton and other more durable fabrics. When washed, polyesters release an array of microplastics into the environment, which finds its way into our oceans and freshwater reserves. In one study from the National University of Ireland, researchers found that 73 percent of deep-sea fish in the Northwest Atlantic Ocean had been contaminated with microplastics. 

Then, there’s the human impact of fast fashion. The global garment industry is massive, employing either formally or informally 1 in 6 people around the world. Around 80 percent of them are women, the vast majority of whom don’t earn a living wage and work under precarious conditions. The pressure exerted by global supply chains on emerging markets to attract and retain multinational corporations with easy regulatory environments renders many developing nation-state’s either unwilling or unable to enforce sovereign labor safety, compensation, or freedom of association laws. Such was the case in 2013 with the infamous collapse of the Rana Plaza, a garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh whose downstream buyers included the likes of Gucci, Prada, and the Children’s Place. Even though the building had been evacuated earlier in the day after city officials deemed its structural integrity compromised, managers demanded that workers return to their stations or else they wouldn’t receive a month’s pay. The collapse killed 1,134 workers. 

Fortunately, some in the fashion industry are also beginning to recognize that globally disaggregated production networks are not as profitable as they once were. Speculative overproduction isn’t just wasteful; it’s expensive. 10 to 15 percent of the 150 billion garments made every year go straight to landfills pre-consumer. The cost of formal labor around the world when accounted for variances in productivity, though still far from equal, is slowly converging. In 2005, labor costs in China were one-tenth of those in the US; today, they are around one-third. Also, as brand names lose their influence as trendsetters in the industry to Instagram influencers, speed to market, and in-season responsiveness is more important than ever. Before the rise of fast fashion, a six-month fashion cycle was considered fast. Today, however, leading brands such as H&M race to respond to the latest consumer preferences first, sometimes taking a new article of clothing from the sketch pad to the rack in as few as three weeks. 

Since shipping inventory from East Asia to Western markets takes an average 30 days, it’s no surprise that some companies are considering nearshoring or relocating their centers of production closer to where their products are actually bought and sold. In a recent McKinsey survey of industry executives, 79 percent of respondents believed that a “step change in nearshoring for speed is highly/somewhat likely by 2025.” If this proves true, the industry’s carbon footprint would undoubtedly decrease as a result of shorter transport routes. Furthermore, nearshoring promises to diminish the gross amount of presently wasted apparel by permitting manufacturers to meet consumer demand in real-time. This would abate firms’ current incentives to err on the side of surplus and discard any excess product in landfills. 

Yet, even if nearshoring were to grow prevalent, it remains to be seen whether consumers’ preference for excess over necessity will disappear anytime soon. Nonetheless, there may remain a reason to be optimistic. Take, for instance, Patagonia, the outdoor-apparel company known for its commitment to environmentally responsible business practices. In 2010, Patagonia launched the Product Lifecycle Initiative, a program aimed at lengthening the life cycle of its products through a circular model to reduce the company’s contributions to landfill waste. As part of the initiative, Patagonia encouraged its customers to limit their consumption to the essentials, encouraging deliberate, minimalist purchasing behavior. On Black Friday in 2011, the company ran a full-page advertisement in the New York Times with the headline, “DON’T BUY THIS JACKET,” the ad, which featured a picture of the company’s R2 Jacket, wrote, “as is true of all the things we can make and you can buy, this jacket comes with an environmental cost higher than its price.” 

That being said, the Patagonia business model remains far from replicable to others in the industry. As a privately-owned, B Corps certified enterprise, Patagonia is legally required to consider the impact of its corporate strategy on its workers, customers, suppliers, community, and environment. Consequently, Patagonia’s CEO is not beholden to the short-term profit logic espoused by shareholder activists, a logic that in recent years has come to so pervasively influence corporate decision-making in publicly-traded companies. So, while Patagonia’s planet-over-profit corporate ethos is certainly admirable, it’s still considerably removed from the fiduciary realities facing most CEOs under scrutiny from their board of directors and institutional investors. 

The Patagonia consumer base also remains considerably niche. When it comes to purchasing a $170 fleece jacket, few can realistically afford the premium price that’s paid for ethical and sustainable sourcing. Virtue signaling is an activity reserved for the rich and elite among us. As Patagonia’s enigmatic founder Yvon Chouinard explains in his 2016 memoir Let My People Go Surfing, “It’s okay to be eccentric, as long as you are rich; otherwise, you’re just crazy.”Ultimately, industry executives are not solely responsible for having built the environmentally unsustainable and inhumane state of fashion we are confronted with today. The cure for the ills of fast fashion isn’t a secret or even all that complicated: consumers need to buy less stuff. Of course, this remedy is far easier said than done. In his best-selling, The Condition of Postmodernity, geographer and social theorist David Harvey coined the phrase “time-space compression” to describe how globalization renders spatial barriers, and the normative values contained within them, obsolete. With this dissolution of national constraints on capital comes a heightened responsibility to extend our moral sphere of consideration to those at the other end of our economic transactions, even if they reside thousands of miles away in countries we’d struggle to identify on a map. Doing so in the face of unfathomably low prices, however, requires a level of restraint that few Americans have proven to possess.

Photo: Image via Mike Mozart (Flickr)