by Qian Qing Liow
Sustainability has become a hot-button issue in the 21st century, as there is a greater awareness of the economic, environmental and social impacts of production and delivery of goods and services across all industries. Sustainability affects everything from social to environmental aspects, influencing businesses to use sustainable fabrics for clothes, paying higher wages for workers. In addition, consumers can slowly deviate from fast fashion and supporting brands that are eco-friendly which contribute lesser carbon emissions to the environment.
We are all too familiar with fast fashion and its problems. In addition, concepts like greenwashing and fashion plagiarism are terms frequently used. Despite these terms which surface into businesses, I believe that there is still hope for eco-friendly and sustainable brands to thrive. However, can we truly stir away from fast fashion?
Fast Fashion and Its Problems
The fashion industry is the second-largest consumer of water and produces 20 per cent of global wastewater, according to the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE). One of these problems include great environmental costs at every stage of the fast fashion supply chain, starting from agriculture and petrochemical production to manufacturing, logistics and retail. These costs include the usage of toxic chemicals which leads to water pollution and other negative environmental effects.
The production of inexpensive clothes to suit the latest trends seems to be an easy way to fulfil our short-term desire for a repertoire of outfits to choose from. An unintended consequence of fast fashion is the increasing amount of textile waste (that is, fabric material deemed unusable), indicating that people buy more clothes and do not keep them long enough.
A YouGov Omnibus research found that 24 per cent of Australians had disposed of an item of clothing after wearing it just once, citing reasons such as a change in taste, damages and faults in clothing items or simply feeling bored from wearing the same pieces in their wardrobes.
Social media has allowed the ordinary person to publicise their life in outfits, paving the way for fast fashion brands to bloom. Not only does the public nature of social media affect people’s fashion choices, it also allows their dressing habits to be scrutinised. A 2017 survey from London sustainability firm, Hubbub, concluded that 41 per cent of people aged 18 to 25 felt pressured to wear a different outfit when they head out.
Influencer culture contributes greatly to the symbiotic relationship between social media and these fast fashion brands where these brands can be turned into an instant trend due to influencer culture. Along with it, haul culture — an online trend where content creators show off the clothes they buy — helps normalise the idea of purchasing and owning an excessive amount of clothing items, exacerbating the overconsumption of fast fashion as these items are usually extremely cheap. It is unhealthy because the pressure to look good will increase, that goes the same for excessive shopping even if an item is not necessarily needed.
By outsourcing their supply chains and underpaying factory workers, fast fashion brands like Zara and H&M can generate a constant flow of new clothing items that are manufactured, worn, and eventually discarded. Zara, for example, introduces over 20 collections a year with a design-to-retail cycle of around five weeks. Online retailers go at an even faster speed.
A figure showing the key processes of the fast fashion supply chain and their environmental effects. | Photo Credit: Nature Reviews Earth & Environment (https://www.nature.com/articles/s43017-020-0039-9)
The rate at which apparel is produced is unsustainable for the environment. Terry Nguyen, the writer of “Fast Fashion, Explained”, noted that while there is no official research to fully encompass the fashion industry’s environmental impact, the industry is resource-intensive on a global scale, and it is difficult to definitively quantify its impact. The nature of production cycles allows fast fashion brands to shift the blame to middleman factories to “conveniently distance their brand from wrongdoing”, Nguyen added.
The exploitation of labour in fashion is evident. In 2013, the Rana Plaza garment factory, which produced clothes for global chains like Primark in Dhaka, Bangladesh, collapsed. The incident killed 1,134 workers, with thousands more injured. The factory’s collapse was attributed to the large number of workers and machinery in the building.
Shein: The Infamous Brand
SHEIN, a global fashion company from China, began 2021 with a 13% market share of the fast fashion industry in the United States, with sales having an exponential rise of 160%. It serves 220 countries in the globe and is mainly targeted at Gen Z shoppers. With its frequent sales and discounts the e-commerce brand superseded Amazon as the “most installed shopping app” by 11 May 2021. In addition, SHEIN tracks data and inventory in real time, cutting the typical process of design and production from 3 weeks to 5-7 days and adding an immense amount of items ranging from 500 to 2000 on their website daily.
However, SHEIN has been accused of stealing design ideas from independent, small businesses. One such term that has been coined to describe this phenomenon is fashion plagiarism.
Elyon Adede, creative director of Nigerian Crochet brand, Elxiay, tweeted that she “spent hours designing and brainstorming her design and it takes days to crochet each sweater. She is disheartened to see her hard work “reduced to a machine-made copy.” The same happened when designer Mariama Diallo said both Shein and WeWoreWhat, another fast fashion brand, stole designs from her brand, Sincerely Ria. The Independent also reported that Emma Warren, founder of Emma Warren Design, had her design stolen from Shein.
Can We Truly Boycott Fast Fashion?
Sustainable fashion blogger and labour rights activist Aditi Mayer, writer of “Sustainable Fashion has a diversity problem” commented that “the sustainable fashion movement was homogeneously led by well-off white women, where the presence of women of color was often tied to their labor”.
“For us, sustainability wasn’t just a consumer choice, it was a lifestyle: thrifting (before it became fetishized), hand-me-downs, tailoring, and mending skills are norms to prolong the life of our clothing.” Aditi also mentioned that the sustainable fashion movement has been “rebranded, reintroduced, and recontextualised as a consumer act, one that is often limited to those who can afford it”, leading her to wonder: “Who gets to represent the movement of sustainability?”
In a survey conducted by Harvard Business Review, 65 per cent of consumers said they would want to purchase brands that advocate sustainability, yet only about 26 per cent actually did. There appears to be a mismatch between consumers’ desire to use sustainable products and what they can realistically afford. Cost is thus a huge factor. From a sociological perspective, recognising that ethical and sustainable products are often more expensive and may not be affordable for the average consumer is important. If ethical consumption is not viable for the average consumer, what else can we do?
An alternative would be thrifting or secondhand shopping, as buying secondhand items is relatively cheaper than most ethically-sourced fashion items. For instance, thredUP, a major online thrift store, sells products at prices as low as US$3. There are also affordable Singaporean brands like Gen Woo, Steps of Grace and Zhai Eco Collection if an individual has a budget. In addition, on-selling or giving away apparel to a willing recipient is also better than purchasing brand-new items from fast fashion brands. Lastly, Refash is a place which embraces second-hand clothing, where both buyers and sellers can find affordable prices from top brands.
Fast fashion brands going “sustainable” is likely to increase customer loyalty and consumers’ demand for clothing, but committing to their mission statement to remain a credible source for sustainability may be a problem.
Consumer behaviour expert Michael Solomon summarised the phenomenon beautifully: “It’s not just about clothing, it’s about a disposable society.”
In addition, it is not enough to just “elicit the cosmetic role of ‘inclusion’, but also to diversify the modalities through which we understand what sustainability looks like.” This is a “conversation tied to class, gender, and race”, not just the “considerations of human labour, the environment” and the interrogation of exercising true agency, said Aditi Mayer. Other demographics include disability and location.
We cannot boycott fast fashion for good, but we can start by only buying what is necessary. By moderating our purchases, it is possible to live a reasonably ethical life in a consumer society. It is also important to realise the inherent value of clothes instead of just mindlessly purchasing and throwing them out. Producers, retailers and consumers all have a vital role to play for a sustainable industry to thrive.
Qian Qing is a fresh graduate from SIM University of London and loves listening to music, crafting and sleeping. in addition, a sun lover and dislikes gloomy clouds.