By Annamma Joy
Low-priced, quickly produced, and designed for obsolescence, fast fashion encourages consumer detachment from issues of sustainability and fair labour conditions. This article explores issues such as consumption reduction, recycling and reuse and discusses the feasibility of luxury brands incorporating sustainability into their brand narratives.
Aesthetic appeal and symbolism are central to the fashion world: individuals use both to construct their sense of self. Because identity in a postmodern society is a work in constant progress, adopting new fashions can help define an ever-evolving self-image, thereby providing a sense of personal direction for the future.1 Fast fashion allows for such on-going personal transformation at a mass-market level, due to its affordability. The phenomenon of fast fashion (so-called because such fashion is produced quickly in response to trends, and is deliberately designed for a short shelf life), is a fairly recent development in the fashion world, made possible by globalisation, and eagerly embraced by consumers. Traditionally, fresh looks from the catwalks in the latest colours are sold at high prices, but within weeks such designs might already be passé and tagged for price reductions. The Spanish brand Zara, an exemplar of fast fashion retailing and, not coincidentally, one of the fastest growing companies in the world, pioneered a different business model, predicated on the idea that store purchases are the best indicators of what consumers want, coupled with localised sourcing for more than half of its products.2
Though sourcing from Spain and Portugal is more expensive, the supply chain is shorter, and the company can react more quickly—typically in a matter of weeks–to new seasonal trends. As a result, Zara does not have unwanted inventory, and rarely lowers prices. The genius of this model is that it picks up on every trend, but is never associated with any one style: the chain offers something for everyone, and the enormous selection, with literally thousands of options, varies as frequently as every week. Unlike other fashion brands, Zara does no advertising whatsoever, choosing to rely instead on expansion, with chic locations in more than 73 countries, and aesthetically appealing shop window displays. Chinese consumers flock to Zara, although they prefer lighter colours than their European counterparts. Unsurprisingly, market growth in China of fast fashion companies like Zara is expected to accelerate. According to Interbrand’s yearly report of the best global brands, Zara was ranked at 64 in 2007, moved to 62 in 2008, to 50 in 2009, 48 in 2010, 44 in 2011, and 37 in 2012. With its brand equity significantly higher today than six years ago, the company, originally started in 1975, continues its rapid growth.3 Zara’s Achilles’ heel, as is true of many fast fashion brands, is its lack of sustainability: Interbrand’s ranking of the top fifty green global brands in 2012 did not feature either Inditex (Zara’s parent company) or Zara itself; only one fast fashion company, H&M, was listed at 46. In common with all other fast fashion companies, clothes from Zara are designed for obsolescence; launder the clothes more than ten times, and they start to disintegrate.
Fashion’s blind spot
Research we conducted involving young fast fashion devotees in Hong Kong and Canada revealed that despite the importance young consumers place on sustainability, they have a blind spot when it comes to fashion.4 They may care deeply about eating organic foods, but fast fashion consumption is exempt from such moral decisions. This approach can in part be explained by the fact that youthful consumers may fail to fully grasp issues of sustainability, in particular the disastrous future environmental risks associated with unsustainable production. Consumers thus make of sustainability what they will, and allow marketers to define sustainability as they wish. Both the fast fashion consumer and the fast fashion retailer have greatly benefited from this arrangement: for the former, an endless stream of affordable clothing defining and reflecting their ever-changing identities, and for the latter, very high profit margins. The familiar sustainability mantra is reduce, reuse, and recycle. In our study of fast fashion in Hong Kong and Canada, recycling as an activity was followed, with most participants faithfully separating their trash for pickup. But they engaged in very little reusing, and did hardly any reduction in consumption, although a few participants did feel guilty for throwing out clothes purchased just weeks earlier. Continuous consumption is whetted and abetted by fast fashion companies such as Topshop, Zara, and H&M. How can consumers, especially young consumers, resist the temptation of an ever-changing array of inexpensive, of-the-moment fashions? Even the most socially concerned young adults that we interviewed were torn between their desires for trendy outfits and their beliefs about saving the planet with less consumption. Most participants in our study experienced a very significant disconnect between the value they placed on sustainability and their actions when it came to clothing.
The flip side of fast fashion
Sustainability as a concept is relatively new in the fashion industry.5 There is still a misperception among consumers of how sustainable clothing is manufactured, and what the end result actually looks like; some participants equated sustainable clothing with shapeless, mud-coloured garments completely lacking in fashionable appeal. In recent years, however, such perceptions have incrementally changed, as brands have recognised the power of consumers to actually start caring about the process of clothing manufacture, and to find a sense of moral affirmation in purchasing and wearing sustainable clothing, whether defined as organic, coloured with natural dyes, or made of un-dyed fabrics or fibres.
Burgh-Woodman and King6, argue that sustainability is secondary to economic and political considerations; even the newness of sustainability discourse is couched in terms of preserving the status quo Fast fashion companies’ invulnerability to moral considerations may be changing. Zara, in common with many fast fashion companies, has manufacturing operations in Asia, Africa, and Bangladesh, all known for their often deplorable working conditions; Bangladesh has the distinction of offering labourers the lowest minimum wage in the world. The April 24th 2013 collapse of a commercial building in Bangladesh housing multiple clothing factories resulted in the deaths of more than 1,115 workers as of this writing, an unspeakable tragedy with the potential to galvanise public opinion against unsafe labour conditions.7 Media outlets have publicised which companies immediately sought remedies to create better working conditions, and which dragged their feet, or tried to distance themselves from the tragedy; consumer brand loyalty can be effected by such news.8
Bringing a constant stream of trendy clothes at very low prices to the market feeds consumer desires for the excitement of new acquisitions. But the flip side is that, as referenced above, fast-fashion clothes fall apart quickly, creating the problem of how to dispose of them. Asian countries in particular do not like to reuse or recycle like Europeans. In cities like Hong Kong that have a large number of domestic service workers, consumers will pass on their clothes, particularly if those clothes are premium or even luxury brands, such as Louis Vuitton or Prada. In the interviews that we conducted, many participants noted that even domestic workers did not want fast fashion hand-me-downs; domestic workers could afford to buy such fashions themselves, and the clothes simply do not hold up long enough to be worth passing on. While compliance rates vary dramatically from city to city, Americans and Canadians are overall not much better at reusing and recycling.
Growing green awareness
To its credit, H&M issued a sustainability report in 2012.9 The highlights are:
• H&M is one of the first and largest fashion companies in the world to make its supplier factory list public.
• H&M is the first fashion retailer in the world to launch a global system to collect used clothing and donate them.
• H&M is the number one user of organic cotton in the world.
• H&M raised the support for higher wages and yearly wage reviews for garment workers during a personal meeting between the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, and the CEO of H&M, Karl-Johan Persson.
• The launch of a cutting-edge global water stewardship with WWF, which is a game changer in the fashion industry, taking the whole supply chain into account.
While the above sounds very impressive, certain details are missing. Even though H&M has increased the amount of organic cotton used in making clothing, that amount only equals 8% of the company’s total cotton use. Also, while H&M recycles clothing (their own brand as well as others), they show no sign of reducing their manufacturing of fast fashion clothes. They have, however, reduced the amount of water used in their operations, and have made labour conditions better for their workers.10
Inditex has been accused outright of maintaining degrading conditions for their workers,11 despite the fact that the co-founder of Zara, Amancio Ortega, has been named by Forbes as the third richest person in the world, with a personal fortune of $57 billion. While no longer the chairman of Inditex, Ortega controls 60% of the company’s shares, which were up more than 50% over 2012.12
The four pillars Inditex identifies as central to its business model are beauty, clarity, functionality, and sustainability, yet Greenpeace’s Toxic Threads Report, November 2012, lists Inditex as among the worst offenders. Inditex has agreed, however, to zero discharges of all hazardous chemicals from the entire manufacturing life cycle and all production procedures by January 1, 2020. They now have to live up to this commitment and are in the process of making their restricted substance list and the audit process of their entire supply chain publicly available. Greenpeace members were pleased at this development, because Zara, as one of the world’s largest fashion retailers, is setting an example for other retailers.13
Think twice and reuse
Because of its inherent poor quality and quickly out-dated styles, fast fashion items are not particularly suited to recycling. Some items are re-made into usable goods, such as cushion covers or scarfs. In Sweden recycled clothes are used for insulation to reduce noise or as padding in furniture, or as sources of fabric to use as raw material for making new clothes. But when it comes to fast fashion, silk purses (new fibres) cannot be made from sow’s ears, as the phrase goes. Silk from recycled saris, for example, is sold as a knitting material; fast fashion fabrics are typically so flimsy that little can be done with them once their sell-by date is past.
Since a majority of consumers buy fast fashion, we can assume that reuse is a problem as well, given that, much as they can’t be recycled, fast fashion also can’t be reused. So what can be done? This is a problem presented to most developed countries: consumers are addicted to fast fashion, but do not have an easy method for donating used clothes other than to charity shops. Sweden, as referenced above, Finland, and Norway are perhaps the most advanced in terms of clothing reuse. Consumers are happy to buy vintage clothes in second hand stores and the government, voluntary organisations, and even companies like H&M in Sweden are aware of the problems fast fashion creates and try to make it easy for people to recycle old clothes before they buy something new. With the economic downturn in the U.S., shopping at local thrift stores and large charities such as Goodwill and St. Vincent de Paul (recently rebranded as St. Vinnie’s to better appeal to young consumers) has become increasingly popular, offering fast fashion at an even lower price than retail, coupled with the virtue of supporting a charitable organisation.
But how about simply reducing one’s consumption? Consumers’ appetite for fashion is insatiable: what they see on the catwalk they want instantly. Companies like Topshop, Zara, and H&M quickly oblige. A reduction of fashion consumption necessitates attitude and behavioural changes, including an interest in high-quality items—luxury fashion products–that will last for decades, without requiring the massive use of environmental resources.
The very term “luxury” may be a problem because for many it connotes high prices and unsustainable practices, given the publicity centred on blood diamonds in particular and conflict minerals in general. Are luxury brands perceived as sustainable brands? In Interbrand’s survey of the top 50 green global brands, perception is measured in terms of whether consumers accept the credibility of the brand’s environmental claims, the relevance of the brand’s environmental claims, (comparing the perceived importance of green activities of the category with the brand’s current green perception), how the company is differentiated from the competition in the brand’s green efforts, the consistency of the brand’s various green communications across all touch points, the consumer awareness of the brand’s green activities and its green reputation in the market and the level of understanding of the brand’s green activities as a whole. But do consumers know that these standards are often upheld in the practices of sourcing, manufacturing, and selling luxury brands? The answer is often “no”. No luxury brand made it to Interbrand’ Best Global Green Brands 2012 list.14 Since the catwalks provide the trends for the fall/winter and spring/summer seasons, resort collections and the like, fast fashion companies are merely following the trends provided by luxury fashion, albeit typically with lower quality (which all too often translates to exploitative labour and environmental practices).
Should luxury brands that promote sustainability through their emphasis on quality be actively marketing their brand as sustainable? How well do luxury brands know their customers’ level of interest in sustainable products? Many luxury brands are redesigning their packaging, using eco-friendly raw materials, pursuing sustainable practices such as lower water and energy consumption, and organising and supporting various social and environmental initiatives. Many companies are also silent about their environmental activities: Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy, a corporation comprising over sixty luxury brands, has had an environmental charter since 2001, and has been auditing its carbon footprint since 2004. Tiffany & Co. produced a 2011 Corporate Responsibility Report, which touted the company having joined the U.N. Global Compact in support of human and labour rights, the environment, and anti-corruption practices, and also stated their commitment to responsible mining.15
Sustainable development and luxury converge at a deeper level, argues Kapferer, as both focus on rarity and beauty.16 Luxury brands, unlike premium or mass brands, sell products that are rare, and are thus resource-dependent, which increases their need for sustainability. With its emphasis on artisanal craftsmanship, luxury is inherently distinct from the mass-market throwaway culture. In some instances, far from exploiting unskilled labour, luxury corporations promote specialised skills and train employees, thus ensuring that such skills are enhanced and sustained. Luxury brands are less concerned with cost reduction (as fast fashion is) and more with creating value. Luxury brands can reasonably position themselves as green brands, with sustainability as a point of differentiation from their competition. Luxury can lead the way by redefining the notion of quality and the luxury dream that takes into account environmental concerns. A good example is the company Eden Diodati.17 This company manufactures a sizeable portion of its garments through a non-profit cooperative in Italy staffed by volunteers and employing individuals with disabilities, who are given the chance to learn skills and rebuild their lives through their work with Eden Diodati. This company has been recognised by the Ethical Fashion Forum, a group that promotes sustainable fashion and, through its Fellowship 500, unites fashion innovators around the globe in a network supporting sustainability “from field to final product” as their literature states.18
Higher quality, lower quantity
Middle-class consumers may aspire to the high quality and rarity associated with luxury brands, but, in all likelihood, will not be able to afford them. To fill the gap, fast fashion companies may need to re-invent themselves as “quality fashion companies” that cater to those eager for sustainable clothing and willing to pay a bit extra. In our study in Hong Kong and Canada, it was clear that consumers were sympathetic to sustainable practices but were unwilling to compromise on price. When they have access to clothing that allows them to feel stylish for a low price, they are unwilling to change their habits. They consume with their hearts and not their minds.
Given the need to encourage recycling and reuse, a coalition of consumers, researchers, charity organisations, environmentally conscious groups, second hand stores, fashion companies, and government bodies at municipal and regional levels could organise mass donations, either to be resold at non-profit thrift stores or passed on to those in need in developing countries. Companies may have the desire to help in the recycling process, even though they may be unwilling to reduce their manufacturing footprint or transform their industry. Designers may be recruited to create new goods from old clothing, but, as noted above, the fibres in fast fashion are not re-usable. Despite such limitations, collaboration between all these parties is crucial to seek solutions.
Enlightening consumers about the entire life cycle of an article of clothing, and the human and environmental costs inherent in each step, along with options for improving labour conditions and reducing the environmental impact, are vital in changing consumer patterns to benefit the whole rather than the one. Much as the concept of ‘slow food’ (organic and locally grown) has taken hold, so ‘slow fashion’ (clothing manufactured under safe labour conditions, produced from sustainable materials) may become what consumers want, to satisfy both their ethical and aesthetic desires. A new mantra, in addition to reduce, reuse, recycle, is called for: higher quality, lower quantity.
About the Author
Dr. Annamma Joy is a Professor of Marketing at the Faculty of Management at The University of British Columbia, Okanagan. Her primary research interests are aesthetics and consumption, particularly in the context of art, fashion, and wine. In line with those interests, she has extensively researched the consumption of luxury brands in Hong Kong and China.Professor Joy has published articles on luxury fashion and fast fashion and sustainability, among other areas of scholarly research. She can be reached at Annamma.email@example.com.
1. Venkatesh, A ., Annamma Joy, John F. Sherry, Jr. , and J . Deschenes (2010), “The Aesthetics of Luxury Fashion, Body and Identity formation,” Journal of Consumer Psychology, vol. 20. no. 4 (October): 459-470.
4. Joy, Annamma, John F. Sherry Jr., A. Venkatesh, Jeff Wang, and Ricky Chan (2012), “Fast Fashion, Sustainability, and the Ethical Appeal of Luxury Brands,” Fashion Theory, vol.16. no. 3: 273-296
5. Ekstrom, Karen and Kay Glans (2011), Beyond the Consumption Bubble, Routledge: U.K.
6. Burgh-Woodman, H. and Dylan King (2012), “Sustainability and the human/nature connection: a critical discourse analysis of being “symbolically” sustainable” Consumption, Markets and Culture, (online: 1-24).
8. “Some Retailers Say More About Their Clothing’s Origins,” The New York Times, May 8, 2013). http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/09/business/global/fair-trade-movement-extends-to-clothing.html?hp&_r=0
12. http://www.forbes.com/sites/luisakroll/2013/03/04/inside-the -2013-billionaires-list-facts-and-figures/
13. http://www.greenbiz.com/blog/2012/11/30/zara-commits-detox -after-greenpeace-dressing-down
16. Kapferer Jean Noel (2013), “All That Glitters is not Green: The Challenge of Sustainable Luxury” http://www.europeanbusinessreview.com (2869-2889). 17. http://www.edendiodati.com/shop/accessories.html