Are We There Yet?
Six years ago, I remember being in class listening to the headmaster of the business school I attended back home for my bachelor talking wonders about the Fast Fashion business model and how innovative it was. I remember him giving this inspirational speech on how the concept of reducing the turnover ratio was going to bring amazing profits for the industry, and how we should take retailers like Zara as a good business example. Back then, everybody knew that Zara was the first one that was praised for its business model and later on, other retailers started adopting the same concept generating like my professor predicted, billions of profit. Nowadays, times have changed and Fast Fashion is seen as the most detrimental thing that has happened to the world and the industry, and as a result, Fashion Sustainability has become the most trending topic… But, are brands really starting to become more sustainable, or is the process more difficult than we thought?
It has been known for years that retail fashion brands use what is called a “globalized production” as part of their supply chain. This means that 97% of the fashion production is outsourced to emerging countries, and in addition, most of what is outsourced is delivered in stores in a period of 2 to 5 weeks. The fast fashion concept is no longer a new one to anyone who buys clothes from retailers. We all know that the way it works consists of cutting corners on manufacturing costs, accelerating the process, producing in high quantities and finally selling everything cheap to the final consumer. It all seemed easy and highly profitable until everyone got more aware of the environmental damage that the industry has been generating.
Fashion is now known as the second-most polluting industry in the world right after the oil industry, and a lot has been blamed to fast fashion. People buy more pieces of clothing a year than they used to before the model started and as a result, fashion is turning into a disposable industry and quality is being taken for granted by consumers. Moreover, the way fashion works has gone blind, because the process starts with the idea of a collection or a look followed by the design, and the factor of the production process is taken for granted hence why it’s outsourced to cheap labor with poor working conditions. The way people have been seeing fashion in the past decade is one fueled by consumption and artificial satisfaction, and so it makes sense that brands are fighting to shift that belief of the industry into one that qualifies fashion as more “conscious minded”.
Now, sustainable fashion has become a more concerning topic in the industry since the catastrophe of Rana Plaza in 2013 where more than 1,000 garment makers died. This event drew the world’s attention into what the management of huge fashion brands was doing for their manufacturers and there was a historic reaction to the human cost of cheap clothing. After the event, there was an Accord signed by more than 200 major brands on promoting a safer and healthier environment for garment workers in Bangladesh. Although it has been reported that the Accord has worked through the years ensuring factory safety measures, there’s still a long way to go in regard to workers receiving fair wages and additional human rights, and that’s not even half of what fashion sustainability aims to cover, so the job by brands is still not done.
To be sustainable in the fashion industry means challenging the whole value chain, integrating every actor of the process by incorporating a slower mechanism that is more manageable. This is when the confrontation between fashion sustainability and fast fashion comes into the picture. Some people in the industry have already qualified fashion sustainability as “slow fashion”, and so for retailers who in essence have a fast fashion business model approach, the idea of becoming 100% sustainable right away is contradictory. If we think about it in marketing terms, it’s the greenwashing effect and not only fashion brands have been using it so far. Brands know that consumers will pay that extra money for sustainable clothing that has been made under ethical conditions, but the trick here is that they also know that now consumers have become more impulsive than ever when it comes to their buying criteria and decisions, so it’s pretty easy to hide the truth.
In practice, advertisements work to stimulate people’s emotions to translate them into desires that might be under some circumstances subconscious, and for brands trying to present themselves as already sustainable, some marketing tricks may come in handy. Fashion sustainability is a long and slow process for a retailer brand to adapt to and it’s not coherent to already call a piece of clothing “eco-friendly”, “green” or “organic” when the company still holds a 60-day turnover and very low prices. People will buy everything and throw it away again following the fast fashion cycle.
One of the main reasons why fashion brands are not 100% sustainable yet is because of a financial barrier. The truth is, huge retailers are also under the impulsive and consumption-minded spell like their consumers and the idea of letting go of some profits in order to become a more sustainable company seems still like a risky decision for them. Becoming environmentally conscious is not an easy task, simply because everything from the raw materials, the reduction of carbon footprint to produce clothes with good quality and durability is very expensive. It makes sense that an optimization of costs model involves reducing the cost of supply materials at a minimum, and to take the plunge into doing the opposite for the purpose of following a new corporate social responsibility strategy seems risky. In reality, some people don’t buy into environmentally friendly clothing because of several reasons such as style, trends and mainly because real ethical clothing doesn’t follow fashion trends as fast as they expect them to. At the moment, fashion retailers are fighting to adopt more organic materials to reduce the environmental impact of garment production, we are especially seeing this in one big retailer such as H&M, but the whole fashion retail business model is still profit oriented and so seeing all sustainable clothes in a retail store will take a very long time.
Finally, there are still many gaps in the transformation process of retail fashion brands into sustainable ones. The truth is that fashion sustainability is still seen as a non-mainstream phenomenon that still hasn’t found its applicability in high street retailers of the world. For fashion sustainability to work, it all has to begin with more consumer awareness. It’s not enough to have legally binding Accords for workers and it is not enough to throw a Green Carpet Challenge event once a year. Fashion sustainability needs to begin to be seen as a trend that is here to stay and essentially something that we can adopt into our lives. It should no longer be a priority for retailers to differentiate themselves with meaningless marketing campaigns, but to become more aware of the global impact that they’re making and learn how to spread it more effectively.