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What Price Fast-Fashion and the Future of Clothes?

Updated: Jan 18, 2021

"Since the invention of the mechanical loom nearly two and a half centuries ago, fashion has been a dirty, unscrupulous business that has exploited humans and Earth alike to harvest bountiful profits." So says accomplished fashion and style writer Dana Thomas in her new book, 'Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes.'

It's an inauspicious way of introducing readers to the realities of the global business of textiles and apparel. The book is geared for the general public, although the message for industry insiders is clear enough: clean up your act.

However, as Thomas describes throughout her lively analysis, our industry won't change its ways of operating unless demanded by consumers, the ultimate customers of our industry's production. Indeed, many consumers remain at least indifferent to how their clothes are made, the opaqueness of supply chains that often hide labour abuses, and the harm our industry inflicts upon the Earth environmentally.

"We as consumers," explains Thomas, "play a pivotal part. It's time to quit mindless shopping and consider what we are doing, culturally and spiritually. We have to look at the game that is Fashionpolis. Only then can we make something better."

Thomas is an accomplished journalist having written for publications such as The New York Times and The Washington Post and has authored several books on the luxury fashion business. Capably written and well-researched, Fashionopolis is a name taken from 'Cottonopolis' coined to describe the textile centre of 18th Century Manchester, England.

Presented in three sections, Fashionpolis describes the general history and current state of the industry, discusses near-shoring, and describes innovations and the people and companies behind new approaches to manufacturing, sourcing, and design.

The impact of NAFTA

Indeed, our industry has prospered over the past few decades handsomely since the advent of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement), which, according to Thomas, helped to jump-start the world of global sourcing and supply chains, while at the same time wiping out vast swaths of the US textile and apparel manufacturing industries. Moreover, free trade dogma and the formation of the World Trade Organization (WTO) only furthered what NAFTA began: tariffs fell globally, and new competition emerged from countries like China.

Thomas also notes that NAFTA convinced many brands to jettison their manufacturing operations in favour of becoming marketing companies that would scour the world in pursuit of low-cost manufacturing in countries throughout Asia and elsewhere while focusing on marketing and design. At the time, many brands felt real value derived from intellectual property, not manufacturing. Dozens and dozens of brands throughout the US dumped their manufacturing operations in favour of off-shoring. In turn, such off-shoring has proved problematic for some over the years as new brands have competed for space in an increasingly crowded market.

So how to compete in an increasingly crowded market? That's where fast-fashion came into play. High volume, low margin production allowed some nimble players to carve out portions of the market at the expense of less agile traditional big brands and retailers.

What about small companies? That's a different story.

Slow-fashion, near-shoring, circularity and sustainability

Chock full of dozens of interviews with a wide range of industry players spanning locations from Asia to Silicon Valley to Europe, Fashionopolis is a manifesto for slow-fashion, a call for finding a better way of making and selling clothes to consumers around the world, as well as a heartfelt cry for change.

Industry change, as Thomas points out, is an essential conclusion of her research. It's time for our industry to evolve to eliminate polluting supply chains, while supporting workers around the world with decent pay and benefits, and to adopt new technology and production techniques.

For instance, Thomas is particularly critical of the denim and jeans industry: runoff of synthetic indigo from the dyeing process into rivers throughout Asia is an environmental disaster. Such pollution, she maintains, has occurred as manufacturers struggle to cut corners to meet the supply and price demands of large-scale, fast-fashion buyers.

As an alternative, she provides many examples including various practitioners of slow-fashion, and a return to small-batch production, including Alabama-based designer and retailer Billy Reid, organic-cotton centric and local maker Alabama Chanin, and Tennessee retailer and local manufacturer Imogene+Willie.

Beyond citing practitioners of slow-fashion, Thomas notes companies dedicated to helping to clean up the denim supply chain by offering natural alternatives to synthetically produced indigo (which makes up more than 98% of all indigo made in the world). An example is natural indigo producer Stony Creek Colors based outside of Nashville. In turn, Thomas highlights Jeanologia's laser technologies as virtually eliminating the need for manual "sandblasting, hand-sanding, and [use of] the bleaching chemical of potassium permanganate."

Moreover, Thomas offers examples of circular production where previously made raw materials are reused or recycled in ways where environmentally harmful production can be reduced if not outright eliminated over time. She cites Evrnu's cotton reclamation programme, which breaks down previously used cotton to its molecular level and reconstructs those modules to produce new cotton from previously used lint. Another interesting example is Modern Meadow's new process that creates leather from bio-fabricated collagen made from a unique fermentation process.

In terms of sustainability, Thomas donates a significant number of pages to depict designer Stella McCartney's determination and vision to promote a sustainable model of production to large luxury businesses such as her label's parent company Kering and its competitors. No small task, as Thomas explains.

Still, any discussion of sustainability inevitably leads to new ways of finding technological solutions to problems plaguing the industry.

New technologies for changing times

After reading Fashionopolis, I came away feeling that use of 3D printing is a dream of many clothing designers, but the reality – at least for the moment – is that 3D printing of clothing is not ready for mass-scale production. Even so, companies continue to try to perfect the technology so that in the future a new garment can be made by any consumer at home with an inexpensive 3D printer. It certainly sounds a little bit like sci-fi to me, but – come to think of it – so was handheld communication devices in Star Trek in the 1960s, for sure a precursor to my mobile phone today.

Nevertheless, if there is any recent technological development that puts fear into the hearts of manufacturers throughout the developing world, it has to be robotic automation. According to Thomas, such technological innovation isn't years away, but is already happening today – and it's far beyond the sci-fi stage.

"Throughout my reporting and research for this book, I heard every pro and every con," Thomas explains. "Robots will axe jobs that poor folk need and pummel the fledgling economies of developing nations. Robots will create better jobs, improve worker skills, and lift [all] economies. Robots will eliminate waste. Robots will produce more clothes than we could ever think of wearing."

Whether you embrace or fear widespread robotic technology in the textile and apparel business, it doesn't matter. As Thomas explains: "Robots are coming. And they will radically change how our clothes are made and sold."

For example, companies such as Softwear Automation has deployed its "Sewbots" technology in the field. Founded at Georgia Tech using a Department of Defense grant to find ways of automating the production of military uniforms, within a few years Softwear Automation attracted the attention of private investors, which "turned [Sewbots] from a science project into a commercial product," according to company CEO Palaniswamy "Raj" Rajan.

"Sewbots do not look human," Thomas explains. "They are boxy contraptions attached to overhead tracks, and they dart up and down [a] production table." Typically, a Sewbot machine can make products like bathmats and T-shirts in mere tens of seconds – far faster than human workers are capable of operating. In turn, because of the speed of assembly and sewing, Sewbots offer companies the ability to produce more goods at less cost.

Today, Softwear Automation has installed its robotic machinery with customers in Georgia and Arkansas.

What to make of it all?

Some readers may come away from Fashionopolis yearning for sound recommendations and simple solutions to the problems facing our industry. However, as Thomas concludes, there is no single silver bullet to cure what ails the sector. Instead, a series of initiatives and innovations already in motion may help to correct missteps of the past.

Fashionopolis is an engaging and essential read for executives throughout the textile and apparel complex, worthwhile for Thomas's attention to detail and journalistic acumen. Above all, Fashionopolis should be understood in the context of improving an industry that is in many ways stuck in the past, resistant to change and fearful of harming profits.

As Thomas aptly concludes: "The revolution is not only to be born from the makers (and innovators). We all have to step up (as consumers). Buy less. Wash our clothes differently. Repair and upcycle them more. Consider the impact of the material they are made of. Consider the supply chain that produces them. We need to fashion a personal style that does more good for the world than ill."

Though a great question remains: are consumers willing to change?

Note: This article was originally published on on September 17, 2019.


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