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.
The fashion industry conceals more than a couple of dirty little secrets, particularly its “fast fashion” sector. Its labor practices are notorious, and it’s also one of the top polluting industries– not only for its production processes, but especially when we consider the problem of disposal of products after an increasingly-truncated useful life.
I’ve discussed these issues at further length in these two posts: The High Hidden Costs of Fast Fashion (in September 2016 ) and Fast Fashion: A Few Thoughts Sparked by Recent News (February 2017).
Sustainable Fashion Advances?
The Guardian published a piece today, From cotton fields to high street racks, fashion bids to be 100% sustainable, that addresses a modest initiative to produce textiles that flout prevailing fashion industry environmental trends:
It is not a brand synonymous with style, but WWF, the world’s biggest conservation organisation, is teaming up with a London-based online fashion community to produce what it claims will be the world’s first 100% sustainable clothing range.
Big-name stores including Selfridges and Harrods are being lined up to sell the range in the UK, but WWF wants to make this a global project. It is determined to prove to the fashion industry that it is possible to design and produce clothes with zero impact on the environment.
“It’s hugely challenging,” says Alfredo Orobio, founder of the online community AwaytoMars that is working with WWF. “Everything from the buttons, zippers, labels, tags and packaging to the fabric and production process itself – all of it has to be sustainable.”
This is certainly a worthwhile goal, but the obstacles to meeting it are formidable.
Costs: Initial Outlay
Among these challenges, perhaps the most serious is the costs consumers must pay– both the initial cost to buy a garment, and the additional, largely hidden environmental costs– to overcome prevailing non-sustainable practices.
“Cheap fast fashion is a huge obstacle to a more sustainable industry,” says Tom Cridland, who started his own green fashion brand three years ago with a £6,000 government startup loan. “Theoretically, a 100% sustainable fashion collection is not impossible but we need more brands to promote buying less but buying better.”
Cridland’s unique selling point is the 30-year guarantee he attaches to his T-shirts, jackets and trousers. The notion that we can buy an item of clothing and keep it for much longer is taking off, he says, with sales now over £1m a year.
Although many consumers may sympathize with Cridlan’s sustainability objective– and may indeed, welcome better-made, durable goods into their wardrobes– Most of them would not be willing to pony up to buy these and other sustainably produced goods, the price of which currently falls well outside their pocketbooks. Again, over to The Guardian:
One of the key barriers to consumer take-up is that the expense involved in turning every part of the life cycle of a garment green means the cost of sustainable clothing is out of the reach of most. Current prices at AwayToMars, for example, range from £50 for a T-shirt to £390 for a wool jacket. Cridland’s signature 30-year jacket costs £190 while a T-shirt is £35.
Of course Cridland and the sustainable fashion movement argue that you end up spending more in the long term with a fast-fashion route, but others say that is part of the attraction – the ability to buy clothes and discard them when fashions or fancies change.
Longer-Term, Significant Environmental Costs
Another big problem is that the average consumer doesn’t understand how polluting the fashion industry is, not only in terms of inputs– with production of synthetic fibres in particular imposing significant carbon costs. As the Guardian notes:
Manufacturing polyester, for example, which is already present in 60% of clothing, produces almost three times more carbon dioxide than organic cotton, and it can take decades to degrade – as well as polluting marine environments with plastic microfibres. And around 21 million tons of polyester was used in clothing last year, up 157% from 2000.
An equally significant concern is the cost of disposing of fast fashion after the consumer tires of wearing these ephemeral, shoddily produced goods. As I discussed in my September and January posts, currently, most fast fashion ends up in landfills, with the average item worn only 7 times. These garments are so poorly made that charities can’t even give them away, and some emerging east African states have balked at accepting them secondhand. In fact, the deluge of discarded fast fashion has harmed the domestic textile production of these countries.
Cotton is Not Necessarily King
I do want to raise one significant quibble with The Guardian piece, which discusses the advantages of natural fibers– such as cotton– as compared to synthetic alternatives. While cotton, particularly organic cotton– is certainly a better choice for the environment than is polyester– its extensive cultivation has also been environmentally disastrous in areas such as Uzbekistan’s Aral Sea. Growing the varieties of cotton beloved by the global textile industry consumes massive amounts of water. Water issues, as regular readers are well aware, are destined to be a considerable source of conflict in future, particularly as the planet warms up. So a global shift in production of textiles from current synthetic norms to cotton would be far from a panacea.
Now through my research into artisanal textile production in India, I know of projects such as the Kala Cotton Initiative, launched by the NGO Khamir, which promotes sustainable production of a traditional form of cotton, with the goal of preserving agricultural and artisan livelihoods in the Kachchh district of India:
Kala cotton is indigenous to Kachchh and by default organic, as the farmers do not use any pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. It is a purely rain fed crop that has a high tolerance for both disease and pests, and requires minimal investment. It is both resilient and resurgent in the face of stressful land conditions.
Yet even though this initiative is a worthwhile endeavor, its tiny size would fall far short of supplying even a minuscule amount of the global demand for cotton– even if consumers could be re-educated to buy cloth made from this short staple cotton that lacks the sheen and finesse found in the more popular long-staple varieties. I should also point out that cotton is only one of many fibers consumers have a taste for, and that other problems bedevil sustainable production of other natural fibers such as wool.
The takeaway from the Guardian article is that some small progress is being made to offset the impact of fast fashion. Unfortunately, what we have here appears to be at most the launch of a tiny flotilla of life boats into the path of oncoming fleets of dreadnoughts.
To understand where we stand, let’s turn to a couple of articles I posted in Sunday’s Links. Bloomberg reports in America’s Retailers Are Closing Stores Faster Than Ever on challenging operating conditions for US retailers. Against that backdrop, the fast fashion section — e.g. H & M, Zara– unfortunately, continues to outperform and has even drawn producers– such as Adidas— into the fast fashion business.
I find two points to be even more worrying here than the outperformance of these fast fashion producers (and the associated aping of their successful retail strategies by producers such as Adidas and others).
First, as Quartz, reports in A new generation of even faster fashion is leaving H&M and Zara in the dust, demand for even faster fashion is accelerating in the markets that have pioneered the fast fashion trend. So, not only are those employing fast fashion strategies not on the ropes, the fastist fashion companies are reaping the biggest rewards. Allow me to quote at length from the Quartz article here:
Zara and H&M are the world’s two largest fashion retailers. Not by coincidence, they’re also the pioneers of fast fashion. Zara is able to take a coat from design to the sales floor in 25 days (paywall), and it can replenish items even more quickly.
In the past couple of decades, the two companies have steadily trounced much of their competition, outdoing them on price and speed to claim an ever-larger share of shoppers’ spending. But both are being beat at their own game by even faster competitors.
British fashion retailers ASOS and Boohoo are able to conceive, design, produce, and have clothing ready for shoppers on the sales floor quicker than Zara and H&M, according to a research note Goldman Sachs sent investors last month, and the two millennial-focused, social-media savvy brands are enjoying the rewards. On April 4, ASOS lifted its sales forecast for the year, expecting sales to grow between 30% and 35%. Boohoo also recently raised (pdf) its earnings forecast, predicting sales growth of around 50% for the year. Unbeknownst to many, its shares rose more in 2016 than those of any other Western European consumer-related company with a market capitalization of more than $500 million.
Goldman Sachs charted the correlation between supply-chain lead times and like-for-like (LFL) sales growth, and the results show just how much speed matters. It allows brands to respond to the market quickly, which means they can adjust their inventory to match trends as they happen, and it keeps them from having to produce a large amount of stock in advance that then risks not selling and being discounted.
And equally– or perhaps even more worrying, for those of concerned about sustainability, H & M has targeted emerging markets, such as India, for its flagship fast fashion strategy, as The Economic Times reports in this article from last week, India among top potential markets for H&M, plans to open stores in smaller towns:
India is among the top potential markets for Swedish fashion company Hennes & Mauritz, which plans to open stores in smaller towns as growth continues in the country.
“In terms of potential, it (India) is definitely in the top three markets, with more than a billion people living and the country growing,” H&M Group CEO Karl-Johan Persson said.
The Swedish retailer has 14 stores in Indian cities including Mumbai, New Delhi and Chennai and is scheduled to open one in Hyderabad. The company, which plans to invest 100 million in India in the first five years, opened its store in Mohali, near Chandigarh. It hasn’t set a time frame for entering smaller cities in India.
In my September post, I quoted Dr. Jenny Balfour-Paul, the world’s leading expert on the practical and intellectual aspects of indigo, as saying, “The planet can’t afford fast fashion.” That remains true, regardless of who is consuming the product.