With the closing of ‘fashion month’ last September, the forthcoming fashion trends for the spring/summer 2019 season were presented along the runways of New York, London, Paris and Milan, triggering a cycle that sees garments in similar styles and silhouettes being replicated and mass produced for department stores at more affordable prices.
This process, known as the trickle-down theory, in which flamboyant haute couture is reconfigured and simplified into ready-to-wear looks for the average consumer, has occurred since the 1800s, but with industrial transformation and technological advancements, has continued to move at an accelerated pace over the years.
Today, retail giants such as Zara, H&M and Topshop are characterised by rapid turnaround times in which new collections are able to move in and out of stores – from production to point-of-sale in quick succession. This concept is known as ‘fast fashion’ and, currently at the peak of its prevalence, has ignited a media frenzy and intense backlash for the wide scale ramifications it disperses through its supply chain.
In order to fully grasp the effects it has on people and the planet, it is important to understand the nuances, as well as the social and environmental conditions that have amalgamated into what is currently the driving force of this highly lucrative and unregulated industry.
According to Patrick Woodyard, co-founder and CEO of ethical and fair trade footwear company Nisolo, fast fashion is an industry that has become “completely defined by a lack of connection between the original producer of our goods and us as the end consumer”. This phenomenon has occurred over several decades, with the onset and expansion of globalisation. As trade barriers began to soften, major brands had the freedom to jump from one country to the next in pursuit of cheaper labour and materials.
Driving down the collective cost makes way for more units to be produced, while a reduced selling price of garments that are stylish and in-season are enticing for the trend-conscious consumer. Thus, corporations achieve fruitful profits through economies of scale, meaning a blueprint of ‘cheaper, faster and higher volume’ has become the tried and tested recipe for success. In fact, the industry today has reached its most profitable moment in history, generating approximately $585 million in revenue in 2018 so far, according to statistics portal Statista. Not surprisingly, apparel forms the largest segment of the market with a volume of $406 million in 2018. But, as posed by director Andrew Morgan in his film The True Cost, the question remains as to who bears the brunt of this success. The answer, it has become evident, are the clothes’ producers, the consumers and the environment.
Fast fashion’s consistent demand for cheap labour and high margins means companies frequently outsource their manufacturing processes to labourers in third-world and developing nations to improve their bottom line. Countries such as Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka are known for their cheap labour practices, which is often contiguous with the practice of child labour.
While governments have the power to enforce fair labour laws, some instead choose to strategically keep minimum wage at a low point in order to attract foreign investors from major apparel companies. According to Business Insider, India has the lowest minimum wage rate amongst large-scale economies, at only R4.05 per hour. However, according to their Minimum Wages Act of 1948, rates vary across industries, occupations and companies – resulting in remuneration that is unregulated and unfair.
And that’s if workers even get paid. In many instances, they are cheated out of wages that are due to them. Back in 2017, Spanish retailer Zara came under fire when customers in Istanbul found unusual notes sewn into their clothes. The notes came from Turkish factory workers claiming they had not been paid for making the merchandise and asking shoppers to support their campaign.
“I made this item you are going to wear but I didn’t get paid for it,” one note reportedly read. However, this was not the first time Zara had been embroiled in controversy. The retailer had previously been accused of child and slave labour practices in Brazil and Argentina. According to Argentinian investigators, workers, including children, were allegedly discovered in slave-like conditions in factories producing clothing for Zara. They were reportedly forced to work 13-hour shifts without a break and could not leave the premises without permission. The workers were also believed to have been held against their will and had no official documents, as reported by The Telegraph.
The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates there are around 170 million children engaged in child labour worldwide. The United Nations defines this term as “work for which the child is either too young, work done under the minimum age, or work which, due to its detrimental nature or conditions, is considered altogether unacceptable for children and is prohibited.”
This is a particular issue in the fashion industry as the majority of the supply chain requires low-skilled labour, with some tasks even considered better suited to children than adults. In cotton picking, for example, employers prefer to hire children for their small fingers, which do not damage the crop.
The fashion industry supply chain is intricately complex and spread vastly across many countries, making it difficult for retailers to control every stage of production. Sadly, this makes it possible for manufacturers to employ children and labourers in immoral conditions without brands and consumers ever finding out or facing adequate consequences.
Fast fashion comes at a grave expense to the environment. Water pollution, the use of toxic chemicals and increasing textile waste are just some of the negative impacts on the planet, while pressure to produce rising volumes of garments at a reduced cost within tight timeframes, results in environmental corners frequently being cut. Vibrant colours, bold prints, textures and fabric finishes are some of the most appealing features of clothing items, yet these are often achieved through the use of harmful chemicals.
Some of the most frequently used chemicals include chlorobenzene for colour dyeing, phthalates used to soften leather and rubber, and brominated flame retardants (BFRs), which are said to interfere with the hormone systems and reproductive development of humans. Despite being banned or strictly regulated in certain countries, the use of these chemicals in textile production continues to fly under the radar. Not only are they carcinogenic but they are bio-accumulative too. This means the substance builds up in an organism faster than the organism can excrete or metabolise it and, through the waste that is discarded, persists in the environment for long periods of time, threatening the health of wildlife and vegetation.
Polyester is another man-made, energy-intensive synthetic fibre commonly used in fashion. The material has sparked major controversy for its artificial makeup of micro-plastics, which easily pass through waterways and end up in our oceans. Small creatures such as plankton eat the microfibres, which make their way up the food chain in other fish and sea creatures eaten by humans. Since these micro-fibres do not disintegrate, every piece of polyester that has ever been made is still in existence today, contributing to large mountains of textile waste dumped in landfills across the globe. In addition, other low quality textiles such as nylon and acrylic, as well as genetically-modified cotton, release methane, a harmful greenhouse gas and significant contributor to global warming, into the atmosphere when decomposing. Their dyes and toxic chemical components infiltrate soil and contaminate both surface and groundwater.
Globally, almost two billion kilograms of textile waste are put into landfills each year, while consumers are estimated to throw away approximately 31 kilograms of clothing every year, according to the UK-based Council of Textile Recycling organisation. Through these various elements of soil, sea and air pollution, it comes as no surprise that the fashion industry is the second most pollutive industry in the world, after oil.
As calls for greater transparency and accountability in the fashion industry mounts to a head, and consumers become increasingly educated in the realms of ethical labour practices and purchase decisions, retailers have been pressured into taking cognisance of where, how and the conditions in which their clothing gets made.
Fortunately, the calls for corporate consciousness have not fallen on deaf ears, with many introducing sustainable, ethical and ‘green’ initiatives into their overall retail strategy. Swedish brand H&M, one of the most prominent adopters of the fast fashion production cycle in the world, is subsequently leading the way when it comes to transforming their image and business model.
For a company that previously kept a list of their manufacturer and supplier names under lock and key in a safe in Sweden, they have come a long way in terms of transparency. Now, all factory names and addresses in each country are readily available on the H&M website, as is their commitment to ensure fair and ethical working conditions.
According to Anna Gedda, head of sustainability at H&M, the company aims to put environmental consciousness at the heart of their brand. In doing so, they invest in different strategies and have set a number of sustainability targets outlined in their annual Sustainability Report – which is made available to the public.
In 2017, 35% of materials used to make H&M’s products were recycled or sourced sustainably, and they aim to increase this to 100% by 2030. In addition, the prospects for reducing their carbon footprint is looking positive. Last year, 96% of the group’s electricity came from renewable energy sources, resulting in a 21% reduction of emissions from their own manufacturing operations.
Now in its seventh year, the brand’s Conscious Exclusive Collection – a range that champions 100% recycled and raw materials – has grown from strength to strength. Alongside organic cotton, linen and silk, as well as eco-friendly ECONYL fibres and recycled polyester, the Autumn/Winter collection, which debuted in the Northern Hemisphere in September, includes recycled cashmere and velvet made from repurposed polyester.
Much of their recycling also stems from their in-store Garment Collecting initiative launched in 2013. Customers are encouraged to hand in unwanted clothing, from any brand and in any condition, all-year round. During 2017, H&M collected approximately 17 771 tons of textiles, which were then reused or recycled into fresh textiles and new products. This way, less garments and textile waste ends up in landfills.
Another brand at the forefront of innovation and environmental sustainability is Dutch denim pioneer G-Star RAW. The company adopts as ethos of ‘Raw Responsibility’, encompassing core values of environmental consciousness that filters down into every aspect of the value chain – from eco-friendly operations and a responsible supply chain to a sustainable product that lands in the hands of consumers.
G-Star, along with H&M, is one of 17 leading apparel brands that have signed a Transparency Pledge. The pledge was drawn up by coalition of global unions and labour rights groups advocating for companies in the fashion industry to make information about their manufacturing supply chain accessible to the public. The brand has also incorporated a Fair Wage Project into their supply chain, which continually seeks to ensure workers are paid a living wage.
When it comes to garments, G-Star’s advanced techniques and technological processes, which reduce the environmental impact of creating a pair of jeans, as well as their numerous green goals, have been widely publicised. These innovations, such a rotating air-drying system, which reduces energy consumption, and their aim to use only organic cotton in their garments by the year 2020, has cemented them as an industry-leader in ethical and quality denim production.
The brand’s RAW for the Oceans capsule collections is one of their most ground-breaking projects to date. The sustainable range transforms plastic collected from the ocean into textiles, which is then used to produce G-Star’s iconic denim designs and other apparel.
But it is their recent project, The Most Sustainable Denim Ever, that earned them a Gold-level certification from the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute. What makes these jeans so sustainable? It starts with the use of organic cotton. This saves 91% of the water used in the conventional water-intensive cotton crop, and eliminates the use of synthetic fertilisers and toxic pesticides. G-Star specifically developed a dye that uses 70% less chemicals too, while even the denim’s washing process during production formed part of a planned grey-water scheme. Replacing zippers and rivets, the denim is fitted with eco-finished metal buttons.
Winds of innovation
With the apparel industry estimated to grow at a rate of 5.9% per annum over the next three years, and currently worth in excess of $2.4 trillion globally, consumer appetite for disposable fashion is set to accelerate exponentially.
With the rise of online shopping sites, ‘Instagram boutiques’ and social media stores, the instantaneous and rapid nature of acquiring new fashion in even more accessible ways, forces brands to adopt speedier production processes in order to maintain a competitive advantage.
Consequently, the industry’s carbon footprint and environmental impact will rise along with it. While there is nothing we can do to change people’s capitalistic conditioning and desire for new clothes, the behemoth that is fast fashion is one that could be embraced, and most importantly, maintained.
Instead of viewing sustainability as an obstacle to overcome, brands should look at it as a catalyst for innovation. By utilising technology in production processes, uplifting the communities in which their supply chain operates and employing ethical sourcing initiatives, retailers have the power to usher in a new era of responsible and ethical consumer buying behaviour and product standards across the industry.
As they say, sometimes a catastrophe is needed to spark change and the whirlwind that is fast fashion is definitely being countered by small gusts of eco-friendly transformation growing stronger by the day.
This piece was originally published in the October/November 2018 issue of African Independent magazine.