Fast fashion: What are we losing to speed?

My baptism into the apparel industry has been fast and unremitting, but if there’s anything I’ve learned in the last two weeks with Asmara International, speed is the name of the game. Without it, you won’t survive.

Fashion hasn’t always required this level of agility though. There used to be a rudimentary arc to fashion trends only a few decades back. Every season, fashion forecasting houses would publish their predictions for styles and fabrics coming through the pipeline, and without fail, a majority of designers and brands would stay within the dictated lines to create styles that would hit stores a few years (!!!) later. This fashion formula kept the turnover of clothing at even-keeled, seasonal pace.

Those days are long gone.



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Spaced out seasons have now dissolved into a constant stream of clothes hitting store floors every day. Spanish retailer Zara is one extreme example of this. Its highly responsive, vertically-integrated business model can have a style designed and in shops in just two weeks which allows the fast-fashion powerhouse to drop over 10,000 new designs per year.

Americans’ closets have expanded with the industry’s ballooning stock too. On average, we buy 60 pieces of new clothing per year. That’s about five times as much clothing as we purchased in 1980. But despite the increase, Americans are spending a smaller percentage of their income on clothing – only 3% in 2013 compared to 12% in 1950. We’ve traded quality and style for low prices and trends, but retailers aren’t complaining. The shorter life cycle of their products still yield higher profit margins from continuous sales.

The cost of a quick turnaround

The combination of digital media and garment production speeds has effectively shifted consumer mentality to view clothing as a disposable, quick-fix. Shifts in the industry in the last twenty years have made fashion accessible to a larger population, but the environmental and human costs of these shifts are staggering.

Of all those involved in designing, making, and selling our clothes, no player in the value chain feels the pressure for speed more than garment manufacturers. The stakes for manufacturers are high when an order of 500,000 units can be cancelled for being shipped a few hours late. The importance placed on meeting customers’ shipping deadlines sometimes means a compromise on worker safety. It was the pressure to continue production that ultimately caused the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh which killed over 1,100 garment workers in 2013.

The demand from brands to release new products 52 weeks a year has come at a huge environmental cost too. The apparel industry has become the second largest polluting industry in the world, lagging only behind big oil. Those, “Made in China,” labels that are sewn onto many of your clothes? Three decades as the world’s largest garment exporter have left 70% of the country’s rivers polluted, and according to the World Health Organization, water pollution is responsible for 75% of China’s diseases.

There is an undeniably ugly side to a fashion system that hinges on senseless speed, and the fast fashion industry has been increasingly slammed by its own leaders and the media. For the record, I don’t think fast fashion is inherently evil. Eradicating it wouldn’t solve all of the apparel industry’s social and environmental challenges anyways. For the most part, and with the help of digital, speed is here to stay. The question is how the fashion industry can produce quickly and sustainably.

Incremental progress on social and environmental issues is being made along brands’ supply chains, but no major brand has radically changed their business model which I’m convinced doesn’t have to succeed at the cost of our planet and people. Moreover, there are some serious questions that we as consumers, designers, and producers have skirted or not adequately addressed.

Consumers can demand better business practices from brands. Brands can better support their manufacturers to protect garment workers and invest in new ways to collect data to track manufacturers’ performance across different environmental and social indicators. Designers can educate themselves on the impacts of their designs – from fabric and dye selection to product durability and consumer care instructions. We all have a role to play in building a fashion system that doesn’t degrade our environment and upholds everyone in the supply chain, farmer to consumer.

As I begin my career in supply chain management in the apparel industry, I will continue to explore and write about how consumers, fashion designers, and apparel professionals can take action to drive sustainable apparel production forward – and what we have to gain from it. Follow me on Twitter for my latest updates: @nicholuu.

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