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Sustainability is Fast- Fashion's Achilles Heel

Have you ever wondered why so many companies in our supply chains like to talk about how much water they've saved or how little energy they use to make their products? These companies may tout such statistics to appear environmentally friendly, but the numbers are stated without context.

To say "I save a million gallons of water in my denim production," as an example, sounds big and is great until we consider that such a number may be the equivalent of just a portion of one day's worth of water consumption at a plant. What about the rest of the year? Of course, I'll argue that I am using less water before, only I've left out the detail that it amounts to a mere drip in the amount of water I consume every year.

And then there's worker well-being. I may tout that my factories are the safest and cleanest in the world, until one considers the turnover of workers. I may offer a decent place to work in, but that is overshadowed by wages that do not allow workers to support their families. How is this sustainable? Worker turnover tells you it isn't. My claims are hollow. Human decency says something is wrong.

Fast fashion: the good, the bad, and the ugly

Fast fashion has risen to become such a convenient way of doing business because it delivers the goods – both in terms of price and variety to the consumer. But what often goes missing is how a garment is made and under what conditions. Even more, some consumers have become more astute in the ways of textile and clothing production. They ask questions and are often sceptical of the answers they hear from our industry.

Once upon a time, a typical consumer didn't ask many questions other than what's the price of a garment, and will it look good on me. Today's a different matter. Consumers often want the details, including how and where garments are made and with what materials. They probe. In fact, it's all of this probing that has caused so many firms to make sustainability claims about their products.

So, does all of this exposition mean we're at the end of the age of fast fashion? Hardly. There will also be demand from consumers for low-cost products. Indeed, there will always be demand for companies to maximise their margins through cost-cutting, increased stock-keeping units (SKUs) for consumers to sift through, and more elaborate ways of making more stuff for less cost.

The alternative, of course, is so-called 'slow fashion,' which is typically made with high-quality components and high costs of production. Such production usually takes place at or near the major consuming markets of the US or EU.

Even so, such production is small, and the costs involved in starting slow fashion garment and textile companies can be high. It's hard to raise capital in a sector that left for overseas production hubs 30 or more years ago, and along with it, the know-how and infrastructure necessary for a thriving industry. Indeed, conventional wisdom holds that most Americans won't sit behind sewing machines regardless of pay and working conditions.

Signs of change?

But there are signs of change. Increasingly, consumers care about how their clothes are made. They ask questions that previous generations did not. Although prices are always relevant, sustainability is equally as important. And that's where the seeds of fast fashion's demise have taken root.

As companies have responded to consumer calls for more transparency in industry supply chains, and more examples of sustainable production, the opaqueness of the fast fashion model stands in stark contrast. Whereas it was once enough to just focus solely on price and fit, a brand today also has to consider sustainability and transparency. Brands also have to carefully evaluate the manufacturers with whom they choose to make their goods.

Here's the fundamental question for our industry: how can a brand, say in the US, be genuinely sustainable when its products have to be shipped all over the world to be made? You know the story: US cotton is exported to Pakistan to be spun to yarn, only to be shipped to China for weaving, and then sent to Vietnam for cut-and-sew, and shipped back to the US for sale. That trail is tens of thousands of miles long. And the carbon footprint? HUGE. How can such supply chains be sustainable?

But it's these supply chains that bolster fast fashion. It also creates a contradiction that is not sustainable. And it has also forced many companies to reconsider their business models, as consumers increasingly get wise to the traditional business practices of our industry.

The end result

What's the end result? Change. And lots of it. Our industry is changing right under our feet. And it's not due to trade wars or politics, but the purchases of today's rising young consumers. Sustainability is expected; when it's not evident, many consumers shop elsewhere.

Hence, sustainability is unwinding fast fashion. What's a company to do? Some look back to their home markets to cut out non-sustainable global supply chains, only to find that the textile and cut-and-sew infrastructure that once thrived, no longer exists. Others take a regional approach to production; they "near-shore" their manufacturing. Supply chains are shortened, along with delivery times. And others still stick with fast fashion techniques and simply diversify their sourcing as they've always done to more countries, erecting more and more elaborate supply chains to cut costs even further.

Each of these approaches has supporters and detractors. And opinion is persuasive and passionate. I had a touch of that recently on LinkedIn, of all places.

A theater fire

I posted an OpEd piece from the Wall Street Journal entitled, 'Innovation Should be Made in the U.S.A.' The authors of the article, Sridhar Kota and Tom Mahoney, focused on the realities of sourcing production in the US these days. It can be bleak. As they explained, "offshoring by American companies has destroyed our manufacturing base and our capacity to develop new products and processes."

Of course, this is something I've heard from garment companies in particular over the years: we'd source in the US again if we could only find manufacturers. And they're right, outside of a couple of locations in the US, it's hard to find cut-and-sew companies, let alone quality workers. The solution, according to Kota and Mahoney, is to adopt a national industrial policy managed by the government to help funnel financial resources and coordinate available know-how to industries harmed by globalisation.

But back to LinkedIn: you would have thought I shouted "fire" in a crowded theater. My account lit up with thousands of reads and dozens of thoughtful and impassioned comments. For sure, social media can be a powerful tool, but I think in this case, the subject really hit a chord. Some folks were angry about the hollowing-out of American manufacturing. Others were more concerned with sustainable production, while even more blamed the failure of government policies to help industries affected by globalisation to adjust.

All I know is that such a reaction from a predominantly textile and apparel audience to a general article about re-shoring suggests that the pressures facing our industry today are real. Old models are being challenged, while new models are being established.

I don't question that we live in changing times. I'm just not sure how it will all turn out for our industry as it tries to find a way.

Note: This article was originally published on on November 22, 2019.

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