We often get asked why we started Trace Collective, and certainly combatting the brutal damage that fast fashion has done stands at the top.
So we wanted to spend some time laying out the facts that we gathered these past years about the fashion industry, and to share those with you we have put together this series of four blog posts. This is the first one, so it made sense for us to start very much at the beginning. And that is unpacking what fast fashion actually means and how it looks like behind the scenes (a.k.a. your local Zara store).
Fast fashion can be described as "inexpensive clothing produced rapidly by mass-market retailers, in response to latest trends". It stands opposite to the traditional model of making fashion, which was based on seasonality and design houses.
Good on You (download their app, they are great!) points to 5 key factors that can help us recognise whether a brand is fast fashion:
It produces thousands of styles, which touch on all the latest trends.
There is an extremely short turnaround time between when a trend or garment is seen on the catwalk, or in celebrity media, and when it hits the shelves.
It relies on offshore manufacturing where labour is the cheapest, with the use of workers on low wages without adequate rights or safety, as well as on complex supply chains with poor visibility beyond the first tier.
There are very limited quantities of each particular garment, an idea pioneered by Zara. This creates a rush feeling in shoppers as they know that if they don’t buy immediately something that they like, they’ll probably miss their chance.
It uses cheap, low quality materials, where clothes degrade after just a few wears and get thrown away.
Now, some of the points above are not exclusive to fast fashion, but altogether these five traits can certainly provide a good overview of what this industry represents, and help us identify what brands are indeed fast fashion.
Implied in the points above, there is a fundamental outcome. Fast fashion, through low prices and cheap qualities, has converted clothes in a disposable good. While other necessary goods and services, such as insurance, homes and education, are getting increasingly expensive for low and middle income classes, fashion has become a deflationary product. With increasingly low price tags, shopping for clothes has become the go to weekend activity for many of us.
So, what does this all mean, and why do we care? Well, we could possibly say that it has gotten a bit out of hand. Today, 80 billion new items of clothing are manufactured each year. That is 400% more than 2 decades ago. For perspective, the world population is 7.73 billion, and a significant percentage of those +7 billion live in emerging economies with nearly no disposable income, certainly none are consumers of fast fashion. The math really doesn't look great.
On average, only 20% of those 80 billion pieces of clothing produced yearly are worn on a regular basis. Which means that most clothes end up being incinerated or in landfill (a staggering 73% of them, to be precise). In the UK, 350 million kilograms of clothing end up in landfill every year. According to The Economist, clothing is the fastest expanding category of waste in the country. The US has equally shocking stats: on average, every consumer throws away 32 kilograms of clothing each year. Computed by the national population, this makes up to 11 million tonnes of textile waste yearly in the US alone (1 tonne = 1,000 kg). In 2017, the last year with aggregated data available, the total weight of solid clothes waste dumped in landfills around the world amounted to 92 million tonnes. Every second, the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is landfilled or burned.
You may already be appalled with this numbers, but let’s be fair – we still haven’t told you much besides of the fact that we use (and throw away) a lot of clothes. Maybe it doesn't seem like a big deal. So why does this matter?
Ryan Gellert, Patagonia’s Head of Operations in Europe and the Middle East, put it beautifully in an interview this year: “as an industry, we are creating product that people don’t need, by stimulating demand and creating this sense that if you don’t buy it now, it is not going to be available. There is this race to the bottom on price and quality that is an unsustainable model”.
How unsustainable, exactly? Well, fashion may have become a depreciatory good – but the commodities and resources used to produce it have not. Human labour, as well as the feedstock used to produce our clothes, get more expensive as time passes, due to scarcity of natural resources and natural inflation levels. However, if fast fashion companies are to keep their prices low (or decrease them, as it often happens), that means they need to keep textile and manufacturing prices unnaturally low, in order to maintain their profit margins.
And how do fast fashion brands keep their margins with such low prices? By cutting costs on textile sourcing and on labour. This means that the textile fabrics that go into our clothes are, pardon our language, completely crap for the environment and for our bodies (this last point is often ignored), and that manufacturing factories face immense cost pressures to meet brand targets.
In the words of Lucy Siegle, “Fast fashion isn’t free. Someone, somewhere, is paying.”
And, if not us, who is paying? Hint: the workers in the supply chain, and our planet. We tell you more in our next two posts, click the links in the images to read.
- This is the first post in a series of 4 under the name Fast Fashion 101 -
The sources used to put together this post are the following:
Good on You: What is Fast Fashion?
The Economist: The True Cost of Fast Fashion (video).
The True Cost Movie (available for rent or purchase on their website, where you can find tons more of resources, as well as in Netflix in most countries).
UN Environment: Why fast fashion needs to slow down.
Wrap UK: Textiles Overview.