The world is going through an unprecedented transition. Consumer behavior is rapidly shifting, and transparency and accountability are becoming fundamental parts of companies’ license to operate. Driven by this new world order, we are seeing an increasing demand for more sustainably sourced fashion.
However, these trends still largely remain geographically and demographically confined to a rather small part of the global population that is willing – and able – to pay over 80 euros for a pair of sustainably sourced jeans. But what if it didn’t need to cost so much? Will the low-cost fast fashion business model ever be truly viable in terms of its long-term environmental and social sustainability?
First, let’s take a look at a few statistics
It is estimated that the fashion industry generates anywhere between 5-10% of the total industrial carbon footprint, making it one of the most carbon-intensive industries in the world. On the bright side, last year, a range of Swedish apparel and textiles brands launched an initiative for climate action, aiming to become the “first climate positive apparel and textiles industry in the world well before 2050”.
It takes a staggering 2,700 liters of water to produce an average T-shirt. This is equivalent to all the drinking water that you or I could comfortably live off of for over two years. A pair of jeans is more than double this, at over 7,000 liters. To put these numbers into perspective, it takes around 15,000 liters of water to produce a kilo of beef, over 150,000 liters to produce a small car and some 235,000 liters to produce a ton of steel. We should, however, highlight H&M’s leading efforts to move away from conventional cotton to recycled cotton, organic cotton, or cotton sourced through the Better Cotton Initiative (and they are not the only ones). These efforts enable lower water inputs as cotton farming is the most water-intensive element across garment supply chains.
Furthermore, the fashion industry is among the largest polluters of freshwater resources in the world, almost exclusively due to textile dyeing. On the bright side, companies are increasingly committing to the ‘Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals’ pledge to improve and expand the use of non-toxic, sustainable chemistry in the textile and footwear supply chain.
Social issues remain prevalent throughout the value chain
The fashion industry is notorious for low labor standards across its global supply chains, with long working hours and poverty-wages. Some fast fashion brands have been also put under scrutiny for inadequate labor standards in their distribution centers and shops in the ‘West’. This is, of course, not a fast-fashion problem alone, as general or food retailers, among others – be it online or brick-and-mortar – are struggling with similar human capital challenges.
Social issues like these have proven to be even harder to tackle than the environmental ones. For example, the payment of a living wage seems to be all but aspirational for brands with major manufacturing in emerging economies such as Cambodia, Bangladesh, Myanmar or Ethiopia. A question indeed remains, who pays for the production of the 29 euros circular jeans? Is it the buying company, the factory owner, or the workers sewing your garments? If you guessed the latter, you’re probably correct (of course, you may get a different answer depending on who you ask).
Even the best-intending brands remain confined to industry economics
There are companies with enlightened leadership that are acknowledging the negative impacts of environmental and social factors on the industry’s long-term viability, as well as on society at large. They are also embracing the requests of progressive consumers, shareholders, NGOs, and other stakeholders. And, indeed, a plethora of sustainability-focused multi-stakeholder initiatives, innovative sustainability consultancies, and ‘impact’-driven organizations have entered the market over the past two-or-so decades, aiming to influence this transition.
Yet, even the best-intending brands remain confined to industry economics. Even the most genuine efforts cannot fully upend the way the industry operates. Did you know that between 1997-2017, the cost of mainstream apparel has dramatically decreased (especially so when accounting for inflation)? See figure representing the prices of US consumer goods, services, and wages over this twenty year period.
This has made ‘fashion’ affordable to all socio-economic demographics in the ‘West’, but arguably prices crossed the threshold of ‘affordability’ a long time ago. This consistent downward price momentum has put the ‘West’ into a state of mass, almost senseless consumption, far beyond consumers’ actual needs. The staggeringly low price of fast fashion impacts, not only environmental sustainability and workers’ wellbeing, but also the quality and longevity of the garments. Each fast fashion garment is typically made to be worn only a handful of times.
Online retailers lag behind
Despite recently plunging profit margins, the fast fashion business model is here to stay. These fundamental questions about the sustainability and, ultimately, the viability of the fast fashion business model become even more relevant as consumers increasingly turn to online retailers that – more often than not – carry even lower sustainability credentials than the high-street bands we typically tend to criticize.
We are nowhere near being able to talk about a ‘net positive impact’ as an aspirational goal for the industry.
Cheaper does not need to mean unsustainable
Cheaper does not always mean unsustainable, although it does remain the case that very low shelf prices put the most pressure on people at the bottom of the value chain. Also, expensive certainly does not mean sustainable. Premium and luxury brands tend to be very opaque about their manufacturing and sourcing practices, and it may even be that some of the ‘luxury’ clothing is produced in exactly the same factory as what we consider ‘fast fashion’.
The sustainability formula
In my view, if we truly want to improve the global fashion industry, it comes down to the following formula:
Consumers (meaning all of us)
- Become better at recognizing which products are more sustainable than others. This, however, remains challenging, as the sustainability standard can still differ widely within the offering of a single brand.
- Clearly state preference for products with high environmental and social standards.
- Make it easier for consumers to recognize products that are more sustainable by adopting clearly recognizable sustainability certification and pursuing honest sustainability marketing on the basis of externally verified performance.
- Investors, governments and NGOs should use their influence to make ‘sustainable fashion’ mainstream.
- Law- and policy-makers should drive minimum legal standards up so that even the least-willing brands are forced to upgrade their practices and that garment retail pricing integrates both social and environmental costs.
What kind of consumer do you want to be?
In a world functioning within the laws of supply and demand, each of these stakeholder groups has a unique set of levers to pull to initiate pressures for transformation. How can we support fashion brands in becoming more sustainable without going out of business – that is, without disrupting the millions of livelihoods of workers that depend on it?
These questions effectively come down to defining what version of the future we want to live in and aligning our behavior with our beliefs in this transitioning world. We each have a role to play in encouraging and stimulating positive change within the fashion industry.