In a consumer economy every trend, design, and pattern is determined by what the end user would like and prefer. To keep up, brands all over the world have introduced the concept of fast fashion as a way to get people the trends they want, as soon as they want it, and at reasonable prices.
Fast fashion was invented as a means to instant gratification. Luxury and semi-luxury goods that were once out of reach for most people can now be obtained at a fraction of the price.
To achieve that objective, brands need to churn out inventory faster than ever. As a result, the fast fashion industry is plagued by wastage and allegations of malpractice. Some of the complaints on these ‘McFashion’ brands include:
- Poor conditions in their manufacturing hubs
- Promises of sustainability not translating into real action
- The addition of tons of unused clothing and inventory to overburdened landfills
- Incentivizing customers to buy more over time
But, can we really blame fast fashion as an industry? The fact remains that people do want good clothes at throwaway prices. They also may not be too concerned about these clothes having a shorter shelf/ wardrobe life. On the other hand, for the business model to burgeon, brands need to keep churning out more designs as quickly as possible.
The “People” Problem
As a generation, we have been shaped by quick, easy and effortless access. We tap into Google for information. We don’t need to cook our meals anymore because we can always grab lunch on the go, or order in. The degree of effort involved in consuming anything is relatively low today as compared even to a few years ago.
The same goes for fashion. Clothing, once reserved for special occasions, passed down as heirlooms and having a special place in society is replaced by newer notions of ‘buying every time we pass by.’ For instance, the ugly sweater trend is now almost a tradition in several Christmas parties. Did you know that it has its origins in the tradition of knitting for the family around the chilly time of year? An ugly sweater was representative of the outpouring of love by a (usually elderly) family member who would knit sweaters for everyone, often in outrageous patterns.
Today, there’s a different ugly sweater for each party, available in stores and online.
The evidence is in- people are the driving force for fast fashion businesses. Our incessant demand may just be the reason why the planet is heaving.
But because of sheer numbers (7.7 billion strong and counting), we also present a problem on the opposite end of things.
Let me introduce you to:
The Business Problem
Because of growing awareness surrounding the use-and-dispose nature of fast fashion, brands are trying to cut down on their impact both as independent entities and as a collective. As early as 2020, H&M has made a promise to use pesticide-free cotton, and Zara wants 10% of its products to come from recycled sources.
Beyond that, brands like Nike are also taking steps in the right direction. The brand claims that 75% of all their products now contain at least one recycled element. With the plastic they cannot reuse, they’re building basketball courts.
Popular brands run initiatives that accept used clothing and promise to recycle, among other commitments. Now, imagine a billion people buying more, simply because they can now close the loop on their purchases and be guilt-free about it. Even people who may have considered restraint earlier as a way to reduce their buying and disposal footprint would now be enticed to buy more because their used clothing is going to be recycled.
This is a bit like saying that our commitment to our waste is only until we drop it in the dustbin. Unfortunately for us, the time has come to make it our responsibility until it either reaches the landfills or becomes recyclable.
Transparency is the way forward
Let’s dive into this section with a very relatable analogy. Whenever we opted-in to receive email updates from companies we trust, very few of them send a follow-up email asking if we would indeed want to receive communication. To a brand, it seems counterintuitive to cross-check when someone’s already given their confirmation. After all, why give them a chance to change their mind?
Yet, marketing experts always agree that sending that follow-up email and allowing people to unsubscribe even at this stage simply improves the overall quality of the database. Since people have now actively chosen to receive updates, twice, they’re much more likely to engage with the contents of future emails.
And so it goes with fashion brands and information. Burberry is considered one of the most transparent brands in the industry today. In early July 2018, they admitted to destroying over $40 million of unsold inventory, by burning it. While they received flak for it, the question on everyone’s mind was singular- how much more are the other folks burning?
Brands that have taken up initiatives to do good must also go a step further and tell people about the impact of said initiatives. For example, unless a human crisis takes place on the scale of what we saw in Bangladesh in 2013 in which more than a thousand people died, we are usually unaware or ignorant of the working conditions in sweatshops around the globe. Several fashion labels have vowed to provide better wages and working conditions to everyone in the supply chain across the world, and for consumers, it would be good to see some of these actions quantified and shared widely.
Likewise, how many used clothes does the recycle initiative receive each year? How are they sorted and sifted? Apart from making textile fiber, how else are the products used? For example, what happens to synthetic clothing and apparel with waterproof layers?
Providing such information upfront is definitely not good for sales, at least initially. But over time, a mindset shift is bound to happen, and only brands can facilitate that. It may seem like an impossible dream today, but cultural changes are known to occur. The best way to start is by providing all of the information needed to make a choice.
Luckily, in the social media era, brands are not alone in wanting to bring about a shift. Influencers on different platforms, usually Instagram, often dictate what their massive horde of followers believe in, advocate and eventually consume.
Brands can look at these influencers to bring about a cultural shift in a gradual manner that does not shake people out of their current comfort zone. The best way to make cultural shifts happen is to give them time to evolve.
With more brands advocating change, influencers will rise to the occasion and start advertising more conscious buying. As a result, people will slowly, but eventually shift back to the good old times of delayed gratification.
Due to the amount of space they occupy in consumers’ minds, brands can achieve this change in small but effective ways. For example, let’s start with the product tag. Instead of saying, “This product was made from 50% recycled textiles”, stating, “20 clothes were recycled to produce this coat” emphasizes the matter on hand without driving customers away.
Such labeling gives people a chance to reconsider, and hopefully spend on a costlier piece of clothing instead, but one that comes with the promise of lasting longer. Fast fashion brands, too, can benefit from such a business model because they can sell each product for a premium while also manufacturing lesser, and having to dispose of dead stock even lower.
Once the shift is complete, fast fashion brands move to a more sustainable business model for themselves, consumers invest in products that serve them well for long, and the true essence of sustainability comes to the fore, with lesser production and more use, a real closing of the loop.