Is Fast Fashion Selling under the Guise of Green?

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Is Fast Fashion Selling under the Guise of Green?

By Margaret Bishop - 01/03/2017
Buy More, Save More! Shop the new collection. Finally, a legitimate reason to shop more. You don’t have to rush but you do have to hurry. Each and every day I receive an onslaught of e-mails from fashion brands and retailers imploring me to buy today’s new styles, to buy more, and to buy now. Tomorrow they will urge me to do it all over again.

1.8 million people in the United States,1 myself included, owe our jobs to fashion. We (and our livelihoods) depend on a steady, ever-changing stream of new styles, new colors, new purchases. Change is fashion’s raison d’être. Today, popular and affordably-priced “fast fashion” brands bring that change, in the form of new styles and new colors, at unprecedented speed, and they beseech consumers to keep up with the unrelenting pace.

Sell Stuff. Buy Stuff. Companies must be responsive to their customers. With more frequent collections, and deep discounting at retail going into its second or third decade, fashion brands have trained consumers to buy more often but to buy on sale, even when the merchandise has just arrived on the e-commerce site or the selling floor. As consumers, we want more options and great deals so brands produce more collections and they sell them for less.

While consumers want low prices, shareholders want profit. With unrelenting pressure to grow profits year over year, brands and retailers must make their numbers by selling a greater volume at a lower margin. To survive, brands must sell more stuff. So they make more stuff. Then they must create a compelling desire in consumers to buy the latest new stuff. Make more stuff. Promote more stuff. Sell more stuff. Buy more stuff. Brands are happy. Consumers are happy. It’s all good, right?

Too Much Stuff. Robin Lewis, CEO of The Robin Report and co-author of The New Rules of Retail (now in its 2nd edition), says America is overstored and overstuffed. To paraphrase Lewis, we have far more stores in America than our population can support. And as consumers, we have far more stuff than our closets can hold. Yet to survive, the stores must convince the consumers to keep buying more. Elizabeth Cline, author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, reports that Americans, on average, purchase 64 garments every year. That equals more than one new garment per week. We can’t wear out our garments as fast as we replace them. So what do we do with all that stuff?

Discard and Donate. According to Jessica Schreiber, founder of FABSCRAP and a former employee of New York City’s Department of Sanitation, New York City residents discard 200,000 tons of clothing and textiles every year. That includes industry samples, fabric scraps, and prototypes, as well as New Yorkers’ clothing cast-offs. It is the equivalent of more than 72 Olympic-size swimming pools full of water. Two hundred thousand tons every year is a lot of textile trash.

We also donate used clothes to charity in the largely erroneous belief that it helps the poor. Much of what we donate goes straight to the landfill because it is torn, stained or out of season. Much of the remainder get shipped to Africa, Haiti and other places where it is either sold in the markets — undermining local garment production and killing local jobs — or it is thrown on the garbage heap because it is wrong for the climate (e.g. heavy winter coats in Haiti) or culturally inappropriate. In our misinformed, misguided generosity, we are generating and exporting massive amounts of apparel trash. Buy stuff. Buy more stuff. Discard or donate that stuff, much of it to the great detriment of others.

Fast Fashion Goes “Green.” Both anecdotal reports and documented statistics indicate that increasingly, consumers are acting to reduce their environmental impact. The U. S. Department of Agriculture reports that consumer demand for organically produced food has shown continued double-digit growth since at least 2005.2Fast fashion has taken note. Zara, H&M, and other fast-fashion brands and retailers have begun launching “conscious” clothes, and buy back/recycle promotions. As I write this article, the Zady brand is launching an “eco” collection. Aware that the Millennials and their younger siblings are less brand loyal, but more concerned about environmental impact, fast fashion brands are encouraging consumers to buy new “eco” collections, and to donate used clothing to be recycled or to be donated to charity for redistribution to the poor. Bring in old clothing and some brands will give you a coupon worth 15 percent off your entire purchase in their store. Others will give you a $20 credit against your next purchase of new clothes. Donate stuff so you can buy more stuff and feel good while you’re doing it. But green is not always green.

Recycling is not so easy. Fabrics comprised of fiber blends are difficult to recycle; garments sewn with thread of a different fiber type are problematic. Recyclers cannot shred fabrics containing elastane (also known as spandex or Lycra“) because the elastane melts. Check your garment labels — how many apparel fabrics today contain only one type of fiber and no elastane? Very few. Some brand efforts, such as increased use of biodegradable fibers and fabrics, attention to dyehouse effluent treatment, chemical-free ozone bleaching, and increased use of recycled content in packaging, are important, positive steps. But many consumer-facing sustainability promotions are nothing more than greenwashed marketing ploys designed to generate sales. Increasingly, fast-fashion brands and retailers are encouraging us to buy their garments under the guise of green.

The Only True Solution. Building bigger closets just gives a few carpenters jobs. Giving used clothes to charity to reduce the clutter and assuage our guilt is not a responsible fix. No brand or retailer wants to be the first to raise prices and encourage consumers to buy less but pay more. However, our current fast-fashion retail model is a fast race to the landfill. Brands and retailers need a new model, one that is predicated on Buy Fewer, not on Buy More. We have a problem and we need a responsible and profitable fix.

Sell the Experience, Not the Stuff. Millennials and their younger siblings comprise the most important share of today’s clothing market in the United States. They are also the consumers who popularized the sharing economy. They are happy to buy access rather than ownership. They embrace the new because they are not vested in the old. And they want experiences as much, if not more, than they want stuff. Therein lies the answer. What if that new business model for fast-fashion brands were to encourage their consumers to buy better but buy less, and to buy an experience, rather than buying so much stuff? What if brands redirected half their product development effort to creating and selling unforgettable consumer experiences with their clothes rather than just creating and selling more inexpensive, throwaway clothes? It would reduce overall consumption of the planets’ dwindling resources, reduce the use of fossil fuels that power the transport that delivers the stuff, while generating profit the brands and retailers need. It would create less garbage to pollute the earth and fewer hand-me-downs to displace small factories and tailor shops.  It would rekindle the joy in doing something rather than the drug of having something. I challenge today’s brands and retailers to rethink their strategies, to promote a memorable experience rather than promoting a lot of stuff. I challenge fast fashion brands to honestly go green. 

Margaret Bishop is a global consultant to the apparel and textile industry and an Adjunct Associate Professor in the Department of Textile Development and Marketing at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. She is also a member of the International Advisory Group at WRAP. She may be contacted at [email protected]

1 Global Fashion Industry Statistics – International Apparel. Fashion Industry Statistics USA. October 2016. Fashionunited.com/global-fashion-industry-statistics.

2 Organic Market Overview. 2016. http://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/natural-resources-environment/organic-agriculture/organic-market-overview.aspx.