Written by: Matthew Unsworth
Oscar Wilde once described fashion as “a form of ugliness so absolutely unbearable that we have to change it every six months’. The reality today is somewhat speedier; so-called ‘fast fashion’ retailers shun even quarterly releases, instead refreshing their product ranges all year round. As a consequence, couture consumption has become bigger, cheaper and easier… but at what cost to the environment?
The Environmental Audit Committee of the House of Commons is asking that exact question (having written to, inter alia, ASOS and Boohoo). This article will review why the fast fashion industry comes into conflict with sustainability and what steps, if any, retailers are taking to decrease their environmental impact.
What is ‘Fast Fashion’?
When we talk of fast fashion, we’re not interested in athletics apparel. The speed element refers to two broad areas: speed of introduction of new collections and speed of sales. Rapid introduction of new lines allows retailers to tap into trends while they are still current and a high sales speed prevents working capital lying stagnant, tied up in stock.
We mustn’t generalise too far: fast fashion retailers are multifarious. Primark, H&M and Zara all operate out of (predominately) city centre stores, while ASOS and Boohoo are exclusively online. Equally, each comes in at a different price point. A pair of women’s jeans could be picked up for £8-11 in Primark, while for Zara’s offering, £29.99-39.99 is a more realistic estimate.
Nevertheless, there is a common thread: an exhortation to the consumer to buy more and buy often. For Primark, this quite simply means processing a high number of over-brimming shopping baskets each day. For the likes of ASOS and Boohoo, the focus is more on tapping into the Instagram age of selfies and shopping haul videos to elicit a desire to purchase. ASOS, which boasts 7.7 million Instagram followers, uses a purpose team of ‘insiders’ who post glossy images wearing the retailer’s latest items, captioned with the relevant product codes. The company’s #️AsSeenOnMe hashtag broadens outfit sharing to all digitally connected customers.
In a sense, it can also be remarked that fast fashion is to do with low-risk purchases. At Primark for example, the low risk means that prices affordable enough that purchasers are willing to take a chance that their garment(s) of choice won’t last very long. For online retailers, it means free delivery over £25 (ASOS) and free returns (ASOS and Boohoo) so that the consumer bears no financial penalty by choosing to order clothes, see how they look/fit and then return them.
What are the consequences for the environment?
One of the biggest criticisms levelled at the fast fashion industry concerns the overconsumption and, ultimately, waste to which it gives rise. Relatively low individual item costs and slimmer gross profit margins than more premium brands (think Superdry, Jack Wills and Ted Baker, all of whose margins are c.20% higher) mean that hefty sales volumes are hugely important. It is this mass sales drive, however, which has no doubt fuelled the growth in UK consumption of new clothing per head to 26.7 kg, and in total items of clothing sent to landfill to 235 million per annum (according to data submitted to the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee).
It is also true that more clothes means generating more raw materials. Cotton is a good example: its use is ubiquitous yet it is one of the most pesticide-intensive and water-consumptive crops. If cotton is produced unsustainably and in bulk, the environmental consequences can be crippling (as illustrated by the current state of the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan).
A peripheral issue also worth mentioning is the extra pollution which may well accrue from a (qualified) free delivery and free returns policy. A report by Ernst & Young found that online shoppers today return almost a quarter of all items ordered. In light of this, it is hardly surprising that transportation of goods accounted for an eye-watering 92.3% of ASOS’s carbon footprint in 2016.
What is being done?
A great deal of different initiatives have been adopted by various retailers to combat their environmental impact, the most significant of which are outlined below.
Note, though, that what is not being done is reducing the quantity of goods sold, which means that concerns over waste in the industry persist. H&M’s clothing recycling programme is a useful illustration of the sustainability paradox. Customers can drop off worn clothes for a voucher redeemable against future purchases. Indeed, worn clothes are reused or recycled but at the cost of encouraging more overconsumption
1. Special Collections:
A number of retailers across the fast fashion sector now release special collections which adhere to higher environmental sustainability standards. Perhaps the best-known example is H&M’s ‘Conscious Collection’, all the component pieces thereof containing at least 50% sustainable materials (such as recycled polyester and organic cotton). Along similar lines are ASOS’s ‘Eco Edit’ and Topshop’s ‘Reclaim to Wear’ collection (composed entirely of clothes made from the previous season’s fabric offcuts).
Even though these collections take a step in the right direction, however, they are, proportionately, tiny. ASOS reported sales of almost £2 billion in 2017, yet its ambition is for the ‘Eco Edit’ to realise only £30 million by 2020. Equally, H&M’s ‘conscious’ products made from recycled fibres are comparatively so few in number that the company as a whole uses only 0.5% recycled materials as of 2017.
2. Strategies Supplementary to Main Business Model:
If fast fashion retailers ultimately cannot (or, for now, will not) reduce sales volume, they can still seek to increase the environmental sustainability of how they sell. ASOS, for example, achieved a decrease in its building emissions of 8% in the period 2015-16. Meanwhile Primark maintains building management systems in the majority of its stores to monitor efficiency.
Viewed cynically, these measures will also allow retailers to save on operating costs. Thus the motive behind them is unlikely to be pure environmental goodwill. Nevertheless, that should not detract from the fact that efficiency strategies are an indispensable feather in the social responsibility cap of not just any fashion retailer, but any modern company.
3. Charitable Donations:
Some fast fashion retailers commit a certain amount of stock to charitable causes. Boohoo donated 80,000 units to local charities in 2017, raising approximately £110,000 through sales in charity shops, while Primark has donated its unsold clothing to Newlife, a charity which raises money for equipment required to treat terminally ill children, since 2010.
Although this does not actually reduce the total quantity of clothing produced, it guards against waste; the donated clothing will be sold off in charity shops at a cut price, the proceeds benefitting those in need, rather than ending up in landfill.
Is Sustainability Easier for the Higher End of the Fashion Market?
To an extent, more expensive labels will find becoming sustainable easier, and this is due to a number of factors.
Firstly, sustainable production methods can be costlier, either because they are more work-intensive or because they have high R&D costs. The Gant Beacons Project, for example, involves producing shirts from plastics fished from the sea with the help of Mediterranean fisherman. These shirts retail for £110. There will almost certainly be a degree of value inflation, here, but even so, there is still likely to be a high minimum price Gant would have to charge for these shirts just to recoup its costs. If the brand’s customers were not already accustomed to reasonably high prices, it is doubtful the scheme would be viable.
Next, due to the prices it is possible to charge at the premium end of the fashion market, flying the flag of sustainability is not only feasible, but highly profitable. LA-based footwear brand Rafa, which claims to use 100% ecologically friendly materials and sustainable production processes, regularly charges US $400-650 for a pair of boots. Closer to home, The Maiyet Collective, a concept store, has recently launched a stone’s throw from London’s Bond Street, showcasing the luxury ethical wares of 60 brands.
Finally, the price tags commanded by products of luxe brands instil the consumer with higher expectations. Burberry’s former practice of burning its unsold stock was viewed by some to be an integral pillar of protecting brand exclusivity, preventing products filtering down to discount retailers. However, it eventually succumbed to public pressure. It is unlikely that the customers of fast fashion brands could exercise so great a persuasive power. After all, by and large, they are getting a bargain; what more do they want?
Efforts are being made to minimise the environmental impact of the fast fashion industry. However, the vast majority of the aforementioned initiatives concern selling clothes more sustainably, not necessarily selling more sustainable clothes or, for that matter, simply selling fewer clothes. Unlike with luxury brands, there seems to be no incentive for fast fashion retailers to throw their weight behind a Vivienne Westwood-esque attitude of ‘Buy less; choose well; make it last.’ Fast fashion depends on volume, and absent any recommendation for radical legislative change from the Environmental Audit Committee or, crucially, any shift in the attitudes of today’s consumers, that fact is unlikely to change.