Fast fashion and the role that retailers have to play in tackling it

The fashion industry has never been without its critics, but today it seems to be drowning in them. PETA’s iconic ‘I’d rather go naked than wear fur’ billboard campaign of the early nineties, when the likes of Kim Basinger, Pamela Anderson and Christy Turlington were persuaded to get their kit off for the sake of minks and foxes, seems almost quaint compared to today’s souped-up campaigning. 

Think screaming headlines from Oxfam and Christian Aid about poverty wages, invasions of Arcadia stores by placard-waving anti-capitalist activists, detailed scientific reports from Greenpeace exposing environmental contamination by toxic chemicals from textile plants and even from garments themselves when worn, not to mention demands from massed climate protesters that the entire fashion sector basically dismantle itself for the sake of the planet. 

Animal rights, once the bane of high-end shops and designers, is now the least of the industry’s problems, even if its adherents sometimes seem noisier than ever. Today fashion is facing a perfect storm of accusations that if not of hurricane proportions, is certainly large enough to give brands a good soaking. 

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What’s more, this crisis is largely of the industry’s own making. Fashion’s success over the past fifty years at bringing the once luxury of choice to the widest population, making garments of every shape, style and price highly affordable and available to all in well-off economies, has come at a high price.  

Global supply chains in which centralised brand decisions are wholly detached from the manufacturing process, production shifted to ultra-low cost countries where corners are cut on safety and environmental protection, and a culture of hyper competition, where brands feel obliged to operate in a state of perpetual change and shoppers feel compelled to continually update their wardrobes.

The result is widespread sub-standard labour conditions, serious environmental damage from poorly regulated processing of textiles and raw materials, and a business model designed to produce large amounts of waste from discarded disposable garments. There are enough challenges here to keep civil society going for decades.

 Indeed, many of these problems have been the focus of NGO campaigns for years. Clean Clothes Campaign, the leading initiative fighting for higher workplace standards in garment factories, was founded thirty years ago this year. 

On many of these problems, progress has been painfully slow. Things only seem to move forward meaningfully after a real tragedy such as the Rana Plaza factory disaster in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 2013 which killed over a thousand workers, mostly women. 

The rising alarm over climate change, brought to life by Greta Thunberg and groups like Extinction Rebellion and the Fridays for Future school strike movement, has only served to heighten attention on any economic activity which appears to be cavalier about its environmental cost. 

Fashion is far from being alone as a target; aviation, car making, meat production and the fossil fuel industry are taking far more heat. Unlike these sectors though, fashion has spent a good part of the past forty years telling everyone that they are the ‘good guys’.

From Benetton’s United Colours multiracial ads to Stella McCartney’s leadership of vegan fashion, the industry has espoused so many ‘right-on’ causes that they seem to imply that they can be part of the solution to all the world’s problems.

The current generation of activists is not buying this. It is not that they want to play hard ball. Rather, they want tangible evidence that fashion ‘gets it’ about the sector’s environmental and climate impact and sustainability challenges. Whether fashion’s customers will ‘get it’ too remains to be seen. 

Meanwhile, for opinion formers and investors worried about the effect of these converging issues on brand and corporate value (do brands really want to join coal, oil and gas as the next set of ‘stranded assets’?) the fashion industry cannot start addressing these criticisms soon enough. 

It is encouraging that firms like H&M, Inditex, Kering, M&S, Asos, and Primark have already started, at least in the sustainability area. Now it needs to become sector-wide. 

What retailers can do to show they are listening

  • Tackle the ‘fast fashion’ problem seriously, such as by introducing garment return/buy-back and recycling.
  • Ensure garments are made of 100% recyclable materials and increasingly, from recycled materials.
  • Measure and report the carbon cost of garments. Put it on the label.
  • Remove polluters and polluting chemicals from the manufacturing process.
  • Re-energise efforts to address the living wage problem in your supply chains.
  • Set time-bound commitments.
  • Tell NGOs and customers clearly what you are doing. 

Robert Blood is the managing director of data gathering and NGO campaign consultancy Sigwatch

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