6-part series: 1. How does everybody make the fast fashion industry more sustainable?

Through our master thesis, Dorte and I have repeated this question a million times:

How do we make the fast fashion industry more sustainable?

Since we have now finished the master thesis, we will share some of our findings with you, and give you some insights on the above mentioned matter of concern – namely both insights on what is going on in the industry as well as proposals for how companies can change their business models to become more ‘circular’.

This post therefore represent the first post in a 6-part series regarding sustainable transition of the fast fashion industry. We will release a blog post 1 by 1 the following months  – so stay tuned!

We hope this 6-part series will give you a deeper understanding of the shared responsibility everybody has in the fashion industry – even though if you are a consumer, company, NGO or any other actor.

In this first blog post, we will begin with a little introduction to the subject as well as our motivation for studying this field as well as our aim to change this industry.

Take-Make-Dispose Economy Resulting in Overconsumption of Clothes

As a result of the overconsumption, which we have experienced over the last thirty years (Mathis Wackernagel in Brown 2005), modern society has now reached a point where humans exploit more than the planet can regenerate. According to Brown (2005), this overconsumption of modern society has resulted in a deep ecological crisis. Additionally, products are designed to last for only a short period of time, which allows the rapid turnover to fit the demands of the current Throwaway Society (Leonard, 2011). The consumption patterns are no different when it comes to the consumption of clothing, as fast fashion trends result in clothing items being consumed and discarded with tremendous speed, making the consumption inherently unsustainable (Joy, Sherry, Venkatesh, Wang & Chan, 2012). The number of garments produced annually has doubled since 2000 and exceeded 100 billion for the first time in 2014, which equals nearly 14 items of clothing for every person on the earth (McKinsey, 2016). Consequently,  clothing consumption does not only have a significant environmental impact when being produced, it also generates enormous amount of textile waste due to premature product replacement and fashion obsolescence (Kozlowski, Bardecki & Searcy 2012). One thing that can have influenced the increasing rapid consumption is globalisation in that it has made it possible to make production of clothes so cheap that consumers consider them to be easily disposable (Claudio, 2007). Furthermore, the price of clothing has decreased proportionally to all other goods over the last 20 years, which means that a t-shirt today are half the price as it was in 1994 (McKinsey, 2016). This tendency is due to the general development in the clothes and textile industry the last 20 years with outsourcing of production to low-income countries, where efficiency and more streamlined production processes have kept the prices low. Consequently, the lead times for production have been shortened allowing companies to introduce new lines more frequently (id.). The average number of clothing collections has more than doubled among European fashion companies, from two a year in 2000 to about five a year in 2011. Yet, Zara offers 24 new clothing collections each year while H&M offers only 12 to 16, but refreshes them weekly (id.), and collections are thereby beginning to fade into weekly collection.

Is Disposal of Clothes Too Painless?

Consumers have reacted on the cheaper clothing prices and the amount of collections by buying even more as disposable couture appears in shopping mall all over America and Europe at prices that make the purchase tempting and the disposal painless (Claudio, 2007). According to McKinsey (2016), the speed of the fast fashion industry still continues and concludes that consumers keep clothing items half as long compared to 15 years ago. According to Joy et al. (2012), this unsustainable consumption illustrates a dissonance among fast fashion consumers, who often share a concern for environmental issues despite their consumer pattern of rapid rate buying. However, consumers “do not want eco-labeling to limit their possibilities for choosing among different clothes when shopping” (Jensen & Jørgensen 2013: 354).

Sustainable Companies Arise

Contrary to the tendency of rapid consumption, many initiatives and companies have emerged the last years in making the consumption of clothes more sustainable. Sustainable fashion has been conceptualised through a variety of theoretical perspectives, with different foci. Sustainable fashion can be material-wise, it can be social-wise and one can argue that seasonless fashion is sustainable. However, one of the more powerful conceptualisations of sustainable fashion is based on the cradle-to-cradle principle (McDonough and Braungart 2009) and recently, cradle-to-cradle has been conceptualised further into the concept of Circular Economy. Circular Economy is also based on the same principles and is a response to the linear ‘take-make-dispose’ economy, which as stated earlier, have made the earth reach its limit in what it can regenerate. Currently, economy relies heavily on large quantities of resources and low resource efficiency, a growing world population and resource-related economic growth.

Circular Business Models = Recycling and Reuse of Clothes

However, this is contradictory, and according to Shephard & Pookulangara (2014), the challenge is that fashion has long been product oriented and focused on profits rather than the production component of the supply chain, which makes the integration of social responsibility appear contradictory to the fast fashion process (Cervellon & Wernerfelt, 2012; Joy et al., 2012). Nevertheless, a shift are currently happening, where it is not enough to be socially responsible throughout the supply chain, and initiatives to develop alternative economic models are emerging. These initiatives are for example recycling and reuse of materials, new ownership models by leasing through a brand or through peer to peer and business to peer clothing sharing libraries. These are all known as ‘circular business models’ based on the concept of Circular Economy. This concept is getting a lot of political attention due to the work of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, n.d.) and the recent European Action plan regarding Circular Economy (European Commision n.d.). Accordingly, the concept promises an economy that is restorative and regenerative by design.

However, the dissonance among consumers combined with the fact that consumers do not want limitations on their buying practices confirms that there is difficulties in disrupting unsustainable practices (Røpke 2009). Accordingly, the new circular business models companies try to adopt, especially within leasing of clothes, therefore only reaches a certain amount of consumers and not the mainstream market. This might be due to conventional consumption patterns as well as existing ownership culture (Pedersen 2015)

Furthermore, low prices on conventional clothes are an enforcing factor for the consumption (Jensen & Jørgensen 2013) making it difficult for the mainstream consumer to change their practices towards a more ‘circular’ consumption. Consequently, point of departure for this thesis has not been to look into these previous mentioned circular and sustainable initiatives, but to influence or change a large, incumbent fast fashion company and how a company as such can become more sustainable.

We Problematize Consumption Patterns and Textile Waste

Through the thesis, we thereby problematise the clothing consumption patterns and the amount of textile waste being produced. Furthermore, we problematise sustainability in the fast fashion industry both on a consumer and industry level by problematising how the consumers could become more sustainable in their practices of buying clothes, and how a large, incumbent company can turn their current business models to become ‘circular’.

We have with the thesis questioned how fashion can be united with sustainability. We have been curious whether a concept like Circular Economy can be incorporated into a fast fashion brand.

We will in the thesis make use of the concept of Circular Economy and the ‘inner joints’ informed by the butterfly model by Ellen MacArthur Foundation. The ‘inner joints’ focuses on keeping the resources, and in our case textile materials, in use and in high value for as long as possible before it becomes waste. This is for example by extending the value proposition, other ownerships models, service agreements.

Our Motivation for This Field

Our motivation is how we can help facilitate the transition towards a more sustainable fashion industry. In this research, we are focusing on how and whether fashion and sustainability can be united conceptualised through circular economy. Our motivation has been on why there are such extreme consumption patterns in the fashion industry – why do we buy as much as we do, and why do fashion companies make so many collections.  According to Hvass (2015), changing the business models to more sustainable ones, we can change consumers’ consumption patterns and thereby make the fashion industry less resource intensive.

Our motivation for the thesis is also due to the inconvenient lack of knowledge, understanding, interpretation, plan for action, and priorities regarding this subject. Furthermore, we see a lack on practical experience with Circular Economy in the fast fashion industry in terms of the inner joints of the Ellen MacArthur circular economy model and how they can be implemented in a large, incumbent company, which does not have sustainability as part of their business values. By investigating this, we contribute with practical knowledge on how to work with Circular Economy in the future.

Due to the nature of the problem, we have unfolded the problem in a two-folded process: Exploring the ‘problem space’ of understanding the challenges for a fast fashion company to become more sustainable, while opening up a ‘solution space’ of how the company could solve it. Throughout our research, several sub-research questions have been stated and unfolded.

How can we change the perception of sustainability as an add-on? How can we integrate sustainability as part of the core DNA? How can Circular Economy make a fast fashion company more sustainable?

What’s Next Up?

This was it for now. In the next blog post in this 6-part series about how the fast fashion industry can be made more sustainable, we will take a deeper look into

  • What are the mechanisms driving the fast fashion industry?
  • Versus: What is sustainable fashion?

So stay tuned!

Stine Pedersen

Stine is 27 years old, and is the main editor of The Fashion Footprint, which is based on her passion for sustainability and fashion and the ongoing question of how to make a transition of the industry. She has studied civil engineering in Sustainable Design at Aalborg University in Copenhagen, where she was engaged in 2 projects on how to make the fashion industry more transparent for the buyers and another on how to implement Circular Economy in a large danish fast fashion brand. Besides this interest, she always has a full calendar either with yoga or training, or with photography and installation exhibitions as possible.

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