By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She now spends most of her time in Asia researching a book about textile artisans. She also writes regularly about legal, political economy, and regulatory topics for various consulting clients and publications, as well as writes occasional travel pieces for The National.
Bloomberg recently reported in Retailers Chasing Fast Fashion Stumble Under Heavy Buyout Debts that ““Euro fast fashion,” featuring trendy clothing that can move from catwalks to stores in mere weeks, has taken the U.S. by storm, and distressed specialty apparel retailers are among the biggest casualties.”
That’s an unfortunate development, since as I’ve posted before, in The High Hidden Costs of Fast Fashion:
The fashion industry conceals many dirty little secrets. Its labour practices have long been notorious, with many low-cost producers relying on sweatshop production and in some cases, child labor. These and other problems have only worsened with the rise of fast fashion– cheap, shoddy clothes intended not for the long haul, but to be worn for a short while, and then discarded in favour of the next new thing.
The reasons for fast fashion’s out-performance in the US market are due in part to missteps by specialty retailers– especially the high levels of debt they’ve assumed. But there’s no doubt that also due to fast fashion appeals to certain consumers, especially younger ones. According to Bloomberg:
Younger shoppers have gravitated to fast fashion brands not only because they’re more affordable but also because they’re able to quickly capture the latest looks and make them available in a fraction of the time traditional merchants need. Cheaper prices also mean customers of these brands, sometimes referred to as disposable fashion, have come to expect an ever-changing assortment.
And the fast fashion companies comply. A 2016 McKinsey article, Style that’s sustainable: A new fast-fashion formula, notes that each year, Zara introduces 24 new clothing collections, compared to H&M’s 12 to 16. When all European apparel companies are considered, the average number of clothing collections has more than doubled, from two each year in 2000 to approximately five each year in 2011.
Fast Fashion: Cheap at Whose Expense?
But this appeal brings with it considerable costs, two of which I’ll discuss in this post. One necessary condition for the low cost of “fast fashion” production is the poor pay workers receive. Most often, it’s people in developing countries who are paid low wages, and subject to appalling working conditions. Yet paltry wages in this sector are not just a problem for developing countries. A (UK) Channel 4’s Dispatches program, Undercover: Britain’s Cheap Clothes, broadcast earlier this month, revealed that UK fast fashion producers in Leicester were flouting minimum wage laws.
According to The Fashion Law:
Laborers in Britain responsible for making clothes for popular fast fashion retailers like River Island and New Look are being paid less than half the required minimum wage. An investigation by Britain’s Channel 4 television has revealed that Leicester-based manufacturers, Fashion Square Ltd and United Creations Ltd, which supply garments and accessories to River Island, New Look, Boohoo, and Missguided, among other retailers, paid their employees between 3 pounds ($3.74) and 3.5 pounds ($4.36) per hour. The hourly rate for the national living wage in Britain is 7.20 pounds ($8.97) for workers 25 years and older.
Channel 4 caught one textile boss on a secret camera admitting that his company is competing directly with Bangladeshi and Chinese companies to fill orders, and so must rein in its costs accordingly:
We don’t get paid much for our clothes, and we need to compete with China and Bangladesh. They can get it cheap there. How will they get it made cheaper here? If we pay everyone £10 or £6 then we will make a loss.
Burgeoning Environmental Costs
Another consequence of the rise of fast fashion is the considerable environmental costs it has imposed. Some of these occur at the production stage. Cotton– which McKinsey notes accounts for about 30 percent of all textile fiber consumption– typically requires copious amounts of water, pesticides, and fertilizer to produce. Synthetics require extraction and refining of oil– raising another set of concerns, according to Timeout for Fast Fashion, a 2016 Greenpeace report. That report also flags both the problematic use of hazardous chemicals in production processes (including dying) and high energy use (which in the countries with the largest textile sectors, typically comes from fossil fuels).
As I posted yesterday in Waste Not, Want Not: Right to Repair Laws on Agenda in Some States, one consequence of long sojourns spent outside the US is I’ve realized how wasteful so many basic American systems are. Perhaps I’ll express the point somewhat differently here — I mean, how excessive so many basic American systems are, and that excess translates into unnecessary waste. Some obvious examples: the cars (or more often pickup trucks and SUVs) are HUUUGE compared to those in Europe, not to mention India and Asia (where I often find myself using three-wheeler auto rickshaws to get about—many of these powered by CNG or LPG). The food is over-packaged. I could go on.
One fact jumped out at me: the average fast fashion item is worn seven times, and is then either abandoned to the back of one’s closet or discarded, according to a 2015 survey of women’s buying habits conducted by the UK children’s charity, Barnardo’s. In my earlier post, I quoted some statistics from a Newsweek cover story, Fast Fashion is Creating an Environmental Crisis, “In less than 20 years, the volume of clothing Americans toss each year has doubled from 7 million to 14 million tons, or an astounding 80 pounds per person. ”
I discuss some of these back-end environmental consequences at greater length in my earlier post. Much of this fashion waste ends up in landfills, 350,000 tonnes each year in the UK alone. Although there have been some efforts made to encourage recycling, this is both difficult and expensive to do at the fiber level (and the quality does not match that of virgin fiber, which is still preferred for quality production). Instead, recycling is done at the garment level, with the end product often being rags or insulation. But there’s a limit to how many rags, or units of insulation, are necessary. What about sending garments to developing countries? Their leaders say: Enough! Many fast fashion products are shoddy and not hard-wearing. The volume available has overwhelmed demand, and further, destroyed domestic textile production, so much so that some East African states have called for a ban on second-hand clothing to protect domestic producers.
The environmental problems are only expected to worsen as more residents of developing countries join the middle class. According to McKinsey:
While sales growth has been robust around the world, emerging economies have seen especially large rises in clothing sales, as more people in them have joined the middle class. In five large developing countries—Brazil, China, India, Mexico, and Russia—apparel sales grew eight times faster than in Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States [over the 2000-2014 period].
Even after this increase, the average developing-country resident purchases a fraction of the clothing that his or her developed-world counterpart buys each year. Overall clothing sales could rise significantly if developing-country consumers choose to buy more clothing as their purchasing power increases.
Technology Fairy Rides to the Rescue?
There are some new specialty products specifically designed to address the textile waste disposal issue, such as a new Adidas shoe made of biodegradable artificial spider silk that will decompose in the sink once you’re finished with it. As reported in a recent Treehugger piece, Adidas’ new shoes will dissolve in your sink:
Adidas has invented a running shoe that will decompose in the sink. Once you’ve worn it out (the company recommends two years of use), you can immerse the shoes in water, add a digestion enzyme called proteinase, and let it work for 36 hours. It will cause the protein-based yarn to break down, and you’ll be able to drain the liquefied shoes down the sink – everything except the foam sole, which will still require disposal.
Now as a recovering science geek– I was an MIT undergrad after all, and also the first kid on my block to have a chemistry set– on first reading of this article, I found the concept of self-dissolving running shoes to be pretty cool. But after further thought, I noticed that the article’s a bit vague on how completely the shoes dissolve, and what, exactly, ends up going into your local sewer system once the “dissolving” is completed. Bottom line is that it doesn’t look to me that massive ramping up of such a product– or its progeny– is going to offset the huge and growing environmental costs of fast fashion anytime soon.
So I return to my starting point: it’s sad to see that fast fashion is flourishing in the US, and that in this as in so many other areas, we’re hurtling away from thinking about what a sustainable system for textile production, sales, and disposal would look like– one that doesn’t rely so heavily on cut-rate labor, nor impose such considerable front-end and back-end environmental costs.