Faster Fashion Cycle Accelerates

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.

Opposing Trends

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.

Bottom Line

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.


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  1. Neil Pyper

    Thanks – some great insights on an issue I had never given a huge amount of thought to. I teach international business and will use this in class discussion!

  2. Colonel Smithers

    Thank you, J-LS.

    Mauritius, where my parents come from, has relied on textiles as one of its “four (economic) pillars” since independence from Blighty in 1968 and diversification from sugar cane. The other pillars are tourism, financial services and agriculture / cane (not sugar) industry.

    The island has about 1.25m residents, but a similar number of tourists. Tourism and textiles put a lot of pressure on the environment in terms of water use and environmental degradation, including the pollution of water courses and the lagoon by textile factories (including indigo in their processes). There are some, but not many, people conscious of the problems / externalities and trade offs, but the concerns are rarely aired. If they are, it is by unscrupulous politicians and trade unionists on the make and on the take.

    Most islanders focus on “bread and butter” issues, not this sort of thing. As we say in Creole, “Pas casse la tete.”

    1. Dead Dog

      Thank you Colonel, my own scant knowledge of your island has been enhanced 100+ per cent from your comments in this place.

      I think that our need for fast fashion would disappear if Zara and their ilk had to pass on externality costs. When water becomes more scarce, perhaps the industry will be forced to change. Natural fibres might be something we rarely see in the future?

      1. Thuto Bhunu

        Social media has also added to the pressure on consumers to constantly upgrade their wardrobes. The constant chase for “likes” means people don’t want to post pictures of themselves wearing the same clothes on more than one occasion. When going to an event, eg a wedding, I simply press items from my wardrobe, but the social media generation wouldn’t be caught dead doing that, buying a new item to go with the picture that will be posted is a must, lest one’s digital reputation suffer irrepairable damage…

  3. Altandmain

    This trend needs to die.

    Buy less clothes and buy long lasting clothes should be where our society goes. Good quality materials, good quality workmanship, etc.

    There’s a good chance that the good quality stuff will save money in the long run.

    1. lyman alpha blob

      Your prescription is spot on but the problem seems to be that industry thinks that nobody wants good quality stuff. Hollowing out the middle class hasn’t helped either – we now have all kinds of stores and online retailers selling cheap crap with a few selling high end better quality merchandise that’s priced beyond the means of most people.

      Several years ago the downtown area where I live had some men’s clothing stores with pretty good quality merchandise but they all disappeared – my guess is they were put out of business by the expanding megamalls selling the cheap stuff. I would gladly pay a couple hundred bucks for a pair of shoes that lasts for a few years but they are very difficult to find. There was a link a few days ago regarding what to look for in quality clothing and I always look for shoes that still use real stitching to connect the shoe to the sole. I look but don’t find – almost everything now is glued together and has fake molded plastic ‘stitching’ on the sole and my experience has been that shoes like this fall apart after a few months.

      I have a feeling this trend is going to continue though until there is a concerted effort to restore the middle class so people start getting paid enough to afford better quality merchandise. I have to believe that most people would not buy so much cheap crap if they could afford better.

      1. Dead Dog

        Get some RM Williams boots. About $400 Aussie and you can buy online –

        Had mine over 10 years, but don’t wear often now, and there is a guy here who still wears a pair he bought 65 years ago.

        Still a market for quality

        1. perpetualWAR

          Right. $400 for a pair of boots when people don’t have money to put food on the table. *rolling eyes*

        2. perpetualWAR

          When everything is so effed up, it’s hard to get outraged at clothing. Just another scam. Just another way we are killing our planet. I am outrage weary.

        3. animalogic

          I find Mack boots good: had a pair for 12 or so years, when they finally wore out they still the same laces they came out the box with.
          Incidentally, second hand clothes are a good option. Places like the Salvation Army (the “salvos”) & St Vincent’s (Vinny’s) have a good selection of clothes & household goods at reasonable prices.

    2. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      We modern people consume clothes like we modern people consume marriages.

      Both are not expected to last long, and for either, quality seems to be lacking (or as good as they could be).

      “Who or what has been with you the longest? What or who will be there with you, at the very end, when you check out?”

      Your athlete’s foot? How many years has it been now?

    3. Larry

      I do buy good quality stuff that generally lasts me quite a long time. I certainly don’t use fast fashion for myself personally. However, I have two children who grow at a rapid rate. They also regularly make messes of themselves/destroy their clothing through play etc. It is not very practical to buy high quality children’s clothing that will only be used for one season for me. It is much more cost effective to shop at Old Navy let’s say (not even considered fast fashion) and be able to discard something soiled beyond recovery than it is to even look for something high quality for the kids. I’m not sure what percentage of clothing is bought for children, but in my household the kids go through much more clothing than me.

      1. marym

        Back when even the low-priced children’s clothes that a family of modest means would buy were made to last, people bought clothes a size too big, for the kids to “grow into” over a season or two, and handed clothes down to a younger sibling, or family or friend’s child to continue wearing. Jerri-Lynn would know more, but my guess is this was a combination of the quality of the textiles and that of the workmanship.

      2. KGC

        A: Goodwill, eBay and (if you have them) friends and relatives with slightly older children. My daughter-in-law has done this for years, and her daughter/my granddaughter now says she prefers these clothes to new-in-store because they look better.

      3. wilroncanada

        There is tremendous pressure on both men and women to “conform” to fashion modernity? But particularly women. My wife constantly complains about the terrible quality of women’s underwear compared to men’s. Crap elastic is the main problem, and blended fabrics instead of plain cotton.

        Today we were showing my m-i-l some pictures my wife had digitized from old slides. In one, she was holding our youngest daughter, now 39, just after returning from the hospital. She was wearing a top which she still wears.

        I’m easy on clothes. I wore some 60s doubleknits for more than 30 years. I get frustrated also at shoe quality. I can’t find anything with stitched soles, though the ones I am trying to replace ( the molded kind) have lasted about 8 years.

  4. Corbin Dallas

    Thank you, this is amazing!

    As usual, capitalism murders us all while we struggle in its wake.

  5. Sutter Cane

    After observing the collapse of music retail due to the internet, and the subsequent flowering of a smaller niche of vinyl shops after the collapse of bigger CD chains like Tower, I see a similar situation playing out with clothing, but with an even starker division between the high and low end. The majority of the public could care less and will buy low-quality crap online, while select retailers focus on more expensive niche products and customer service for a better “experience” for those who care.

    It’ll either be custom-tailored 2000k suits at Nordstrom, or t-shirts, cargo shorts, and Crocs for everybody else, no place for retailers like JC Penny and Macy’s who catered to middle class customers that no longer exist.

    1. Jim Haygood

      How much greener the world would be, if we all just wore baggy, featureless Hillary suits. ;-)

      1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

        Good quality Mao suits.

        We need to reduce or eliminate Fashion Inequality or Style Inequality.

        “My taste is as elegant as yours, Ms. Designer Handbag.”

      2. different clue

        The world would be just as greener if we wore well-fitting non-baggy featureful High Style suits which lasted for a hundred years with proper care.

  6. Chris Oates

    What are the relative market shares? I assume most people would want long-lasting clothes for most purposes, with the occasional fast fashion piece to stay in style.

  7. Antoine LeBear

    What needs to die is the affirmation of the self through clothes. If you cannot wear the same piece of cloth more than 7 times, you have a mental issue that needs to be solved, or the society need to stop demanding that your garment reflects your inner self, or your projected ego.
    Because people buying fast fashion are concerned about the planet (millenials care about those issues, believe it or not), they just do not understand that fast fashion is such a destroyer of the environment, and if you point that to them they will answer that society demands they change clothes often, otherwise they’re socially dead. Priorities need to change.

    1. a different chris

      And to give “them” a bit of a break, it’s like a lot of things. If you tell them they should buy clothes that last 20x as long they will nod vigorously, but when they find out they cost 10x as much and they really don’t have that kind of money at the moment well you’ve made them feel bad for nothing.

      I mean are they supposed to go naked whilst saving for better clothes? (note my other post, about used clothes but you gotta find them).

    2. animalogic

      “If you cannot wear the same piece of cloth more than 7 times, you have a mental issue that needs to be solved, or the society need to stop demanding that your garment reflects your inner self, or your projected ego.”
      Great point !

  8. a different chris

    >the ability to buy clothes and discard them when fashions or fancies change.

    I have no clue about fashion and my fancies don’t seem to ever change (if a dullard like me even has “fancies”?). I discard things when I stain them beyond all repair. Which is depressingly often, That is the drawback of a 35 pound T-shirt for me, but I will buy one if I see it next time I am in Jolly Olde England.*

    90+ percent of my clothes are used, anyway. And if you eliminate the T-shirts they force on me for every event that I participate in (slogging along in the middle of the crowd, not sure what I’m supposed to be proud of) it’s probably like 98%.

    *The airplane flight of course taking another sad chunk out of the Earth’s biosphere

    1. sharonsj

      I have not bought a new piece of clothing in over seven years except for underwear. I buy at thrift shops and yard sales. Just picked up a never-worn jogging suit with the tags still attached at the local thrift store for $2. The only people I know who buy on line are upper middle class earners too busy to shop, and the only people I know who follow fashion trends are under the age of 25. The rest of us folks don’t give a crap.

    1. Foppe

      slow food is mostly a hype / experience being sold — it has little to do with “sustainability”, nor authenticity. Those who buy slow aren’t the audience of fast food chains, anyway — it’s a business model that revolves around telling yuppies that they are they’re superior for “making” the time to cook slowly.

      I think what we need most is to understand what people who shop at Zara-H&M-Etc. get out of buying clothes there: is it authenticity? distinctness? self-care? a desire to fit in? Until we understand that, there’s no way out of the trap that is formed by the (falsely dichotomous) discussion about fashion vs. style.

      1. different clue

        Someone has disinformed you about slow food. Slow food refers to real food being eaten slowly in social settings. It can be cooked fairly fast if necessary. But it is made from real-food raw materials. It is not corporate shitfood worked up into fastfood-TVdinner type products.

        It began in Italy as a defense movement against the corporate shitfood McDonalds-type intrusion.

        1. jrs

          the slow food movement is mostly about being aware of the supply chain of one’s food etc. (one just has to look at the websites for this, either: slow food or slow food usa. It’s pretty obvious it’s much more political than just an epicurean lifestyle – sorry if it’s not as political as world socialist website or something).

          But I too when I see a recipe, that obviously will take a lot of time, think it’s a slow food type recipe, because that’s also part of it, taking time to appreciate making and eating food. But let’s face it, very few can do that on a weeknight, but they can do the best they can to buy food sourced as ethically as they can and prepare it. Making the time is accurate, the scare quotes in the original quote are silly. While it is true noone can make time if they are working 3 jobs, time spent for food preparation is sacrificed from doing other things even when working 1 job. Life is not easy for anyone who works for a living at least not in this U.S. of A.

          1. Foppe

            Mostly agreed, though it has more to do with habituation than with time and money as such (assuming one can at least get frozen vegetables at ones local supermarket) — eating out / take-away is far less time & cost-efficient than is generally thought.
            I batch cook + freeze a lot of sauces on my days off, then take them out on a daily basis, with starches that I cook on the day. InstantPot can also help with this.

        2. Foppe

          I cook using fresh (or frozen veg) ingredients only, but I’ve never felt the need to sell that as a “slow” experience, as this movement does. Never even mind that Slow Food USA (etc.) is a corporate entity.

  9. optimader

    I bought a new pair of blue jeans and cargo shorts.. FAST!
    In and out of Costco in minutes.

    My couture accessories were eggs and milk!

  10. Catullus

    It comes down to sexuality, really. Uncomfortable to say but it is what it is…

    I’ve read in various places over the years that women are drawn to dress differently frequently so to excite potential mates. Dressing the same feels like that the potential mates get bored with them. So gotta change it up frequently. Now these clothes get so cheap, this tendency goes into overdrive.

    It is the hidden costs of cheap fashion that remains hidden. If it was not hidden, it wouldn’t be as popular, I think. Perhaps a tax on flimsy clothes? That will cause an outcry. I have trouble coming up with solutions.

    Smarter women these days do things the “French” way which means buy very high quality pieces that work well with other pieces. Change one or two pieces but reuse one piece to create a new outfit. When done with a piece, it is still worth decent money – others will buy it. Much more sustainable than cheap fashion.

    But… people don’t have the money in the first place. You gotta have the money up front. I’m a good example myself – I don’t make good income. I was fortunate enough to have wealthy parents and grandparents… was able to avoid any debt at all and always had sufficient cash on hand to buy things lumpily. Most people are not like me. They simply don’t have the money in the first place – if a pair of good boots costs $200, they don’t have the money, period. I can buy that $200 boots even though it’s bit much for me but I have the cash on hand then I can use up the boots over years. Most just don’t have the money and its “safer” to buy the cheap $50 boots even though it costs more in the long run. Terry Pratchett talked about this in a humorous way in his books. One other example is buying single rolls of toilet paper when the 12 pack is significantly cheaper per piece.

    So… I think with declining real wages, there’ll be more cheap fashion despite it costing more in the long run.

    I said women earlier because it is mostly women that buy cheap fashion but I am starting to see it a bit with men. Still, men’s fashion are more consistent so men are more likely to spend more then use up the clothes.

    1. Sutter Cane

      As a man, it seems that fast fashion is coming for me whether I want it or not. I work in a boring office where “business casual” attire is the norm. Fine with me, I can alternate a few variations of the same chinos/Oxford shirt combo every week and not have to think about it. However, I find in recent years pants and shirts falling apart quickly, even if the only “wear and tear” they are subjected to is to sit in a cubicle in them once or twice a week, and the more expensive pieces don’t seem to hold up any longer than the cheap ones from Ross or Marshalls.

  11. optimader

    Unisex kilts.. surrender your sock dagger to the stewardess when traveling by commercial carrier.

    1. AbateMagicThinking but Not money

      I can cope with discussions about sartorial requisites, chickens (methods for sustaining egg laying) and microwave oven half-lives , but way things are going on NC we are going to be reading about bagpipes. I moved around the world to Australia partly in the hope that bagpipes and kilts would not be part of the cultural scene – and found myself sorely disappointed. I have a taste for the surreal, but the vision and sounds of a fully decked out. pipe marching-band droning away under the scorching Queensland midday is too, too much.

      nb I like the Northumbrian smallpipe as played by Kathryn Tickell

  12. Catullus

    Sutter Cane – It’s starting to look like that to me, too. It’s tough – that might be the downside of capitalism: The requirement to make constant sales, constant growth makes planned obsolescence a must. But planned obsolescence pauperizes people!

    Artisan stuff is where it is at these days. Artisan made boots, clothes, etc. But… $$$. Cashflow is important to many people these days so buy cheap and replace often is easier than digesting a very expensive item.

    Perpetual monthly payments seems to be the thing late stage Capitalism is shooting for. Cars are very reliable right now but I’m starting to see excessive repair costs for these cars just out of warranty now. New cars are much more reliable than older cars (when the older cars were new) but thing is, not expected to be fixed. Older cars were designed to be fixed more in the first place.

    Planned Obsolescence = Serfdom.

    I’m a capitalist myself. But I am disgusted at the current affairs of state and can see why people hate capitalism. I am offended at the constant treadmill. A certain amount of treadmill is inevitable but the current affair of states just are excessive.

    The best solution to everything? Bring the hidden costs out of the shadows into the sunlight. I do not know how to do this, tho. People don’t think about what happens in the end-life when buying clothes or anything else. There, hidden costs abounds. If people had to pay much more for trash, they might start thinking about it. Or toss them on the side of the road which happens to local towns when they raise dump fees (people go to town transfer stations, i.e. dump where I live, no trash pickup). It’s hard.

  13. Matt

    As far as the cost aspect of sustainable fashion goes, aren’t people who interested in fashion already paying those kind of high prices? Looking at the Free People website (that’s hip and trendy, isn’t it?), the cheapest woman’s top I saw was about $58.

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