Who is Responsible for Fast Fashion?

Fast fashion is mass-produced, poor quality, annoyingly affordable clothing. Chic trends are too conveniently delivered tomorrow, and unethical practices too conveniently swept under the rug. Estimates say the fashion industry is responsible for 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Equal to France, Germany and the UK’s emissions combined. Us Brits also buy more clothes per year than the rest of Europe. So, calls to boycott fast fashion make sense. But this is not a guilt-inducing article. These calls to action will not solve an industry’s problems.

One report has found 52% of consumers want the fashion industry to use more sustainable practices. But only 29% of customers would pay more for sustainably made versions. We are addicted to cheap clothes. The origins of fast fashion are in the 50s and 60s: With growing mass production and consumerism, retailers sold runway fashion for the average income, inevitably compromising on quality. Until even high-profile women today, like Kate Middleton or Michelle Obama, are known for wearing Zara and H&M. Democratisation of fashion is one of fast fashion’s few redeeming features. Along with being more accessible to plus sized shoppers, who struggle to find their size at sustainable rivals or charity shops.

But we are changing our ways. This survey shows 67% of consumers think sustainable materials are an important factor in their purchases. Environmental concerns have grown in 2020, but so have budget concerns. This explains how online retailer Boohoo saw profits rise in lockdown despite scandals. Common advice to ‘buy less but buy better’ means buying expensive. This is not an option for those on low-income. Though it is arguable these aren’t the people buying new things every time their favourite influencers flaunt a new haul on Instagram. It is inevitable we all have to buy new things regularly as poor-quality clothes fall apart so quickly. Perhaps, we should point the finger to brands making these clothes.

It is unfair to say evil, corporate brands do nothing for sustainable causes. Green initiatives by fast fashion brands have sprung up, like H&M Conscious. Critics point out H&M is still based on selling lots of clothes for cheap and question its authenticity. Self-regulation cannot be truly effective. Similarly, Asos’s circular collection has come under fire as items need only to meet two out of 10 sustainable principles. And it is only one collection in a huge brand. But to berate brands who are crossing over to the environmentally friendly side is counterproductive. Hypocritical, even. Sympathy can even arise for brands considering they are trying to meet our demand for sustainable clothes, despite governments’ lack of encouragement. 

Drapers reported in 2019 that 85% of brands, retailers and suppliers want more government help in promoting sustainability. Without a proper legal framework defining what counts as ‘sustainable’, of course, brands have self-regulated. As this confusing article shows, even if a brand ticks the boxes for one definition it may fail in other areas. The debate around whether organic cotton is eco-friendly is even more confusing for consumers. Standards need to be imposed. Last year, the government rejected a 1p tax on garments, to be invested in reuse and recycling. In September, MPs urged the government to support the development of eco-friendly fabrics and boost recycling facilities. Emphasizing, after the pandemic, the industry needs to “reassess and rebuild”. This is hard to do when it is cheaper to burn stock than recycle it, as the Burberry case has shown. It burned £30 million of surplus stock in 2017 to protect its luxury brand. The French government has drafted plans to ban this practice. Similarly, UK ministers pointed to existing voluntary UK measures in place. But this needs to be a more unified front. Otherwise, brands will go to developing countries with their unethical and unsustainable practices, as happened with the Rana Plaza factory collapse in 2013. Unsustainable practices here still affect the whole globe. 

Interestingly, MPs have also called for more investment in research and development. The technology to make sustainable clothing widespread and affordable just does not exist yet. Even if consumers and brands are taking steps in the right direction, sustainable clothing is just in its infancy. So, let’s not feel too guilty about shopping at fast fashion stores. There are way more structural problems the consumer cannot solve alone.