What are the transition challenges of the fashion industry?


In this first post of the four-part series about sustainable transition of the fashion industry, we will open up the discussion by analysing which transition challenges the fashion industry have. Additionally, we will try to elaborate the roles of engineers in the development of technological systems. In order to do this, we will use the theoretical framework known as the multi-level perspective presented by Geel (2005) [1]. By using this theory, we will  identify and explain what challenges there are  for a transition to happen, since the theory will help us mapping the current fashion industry and how it is developing with all of its actors, regulations, trends among others. Furthermore, it will also help us highlight the challenges of transitioning the fashion industry.

What is a transition?

In order to discuss sustainable transition, a definition of a transition is needed. A transition is a change at the level of societal functions such as transport or housing, and is a change in a sociotechnical system maintaining and providing this. Societal functions consist of socio-technical systems, which consist of a cluster of aligned elements including artefacts, knowledge, user practices, markets, regulations and infrastructure. Societal functions are amongst others water, transport, heating, energy, food, clothes and housing [1].

The theory of multi-level perspective distinguishes between three levels of heuristic and analytical concepts being niche-innovations, sociotechnical regimes and sociotechnical landscapes. The Multi-Level Perspective argues that transitions come about through interactions between processes at all three levels and result in changes from one sociotechnical regime to another [2].

What are the underlying mechanisms that drives the fashion industry?

In order to give you a deeper understanding of the underlying mechanisms that could drive a sustainable transition of the fashion industry, the Multi-Level perspective (referred to as MLP) will be applied and discussed according to the fashion industry. The MLP structurally divides the society into three different levels: Macro level (socio-technical landscapes), meso level (socio-technical regimes) and micro level (niche innovations). A visualisation of the model is showed below, which represent the different levels and their relations. In order to understand the challenges in a transition in the fashion industry, we will make use of the model. The model represents the ratio between the level of structuration and time.

MLP model pic.001

Simplified Multi Level Perspective model, inspired by Geel & Schot (2007) [2]

Characteristics of the Fashion industry

In this analysis the current meso level is the fashion industry dominated by the Fast Fashion characteristics, which we will refer to as the regime. The regime is influenced by the fast fashion, where there is a tendency to consume clothes with rapid speed and a mentality of ‘buy and toss’. The big market players such as H&M, Bestseller, IC Group and Zara are huge producers of mass production of clothing with up to 16 collections a year [3]., and this encourages their customers to consume even more. They translate the runway collections to affordable clothing and are huge drivers in the fast fashion industry. The short online MBA video below gives an overview of what the concept of fast fashion is about and its impacts on the market and the environment.

Created by OnlineMBA.com [4].

The landscape perspective represents the macro-level, and are developments and changes  in the society on a bigger scale. This could for example be demographic shift, rise of consumer culture or neo-liberal model of globalisation. Landscapes cannot be changed by individuals, but are the broader perspective of political, social and economic ‘landscape’ developments, which Geel & Schot (2007) elaborate as such:

“The sociotechnical landscape forms an exogenous environment beyond the direct influence of niche and regime actors (macro-economics, deep cultural patterns, macropolitical developments).” [5].

Changes in landscape put pressures on the regime. Existing landscape pressures that influences the fashion industry are both environmental changes and societal changes, for example global warming and loss of biodiversity. There are very little regulation regarding pollution in the fashion industry and only guidelines are given. Consequently, the incident of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh in 2013 influenced the industry to change regulations and several initiatives, to make the industry more conscious, occurred. This amongst COP21 and politics on the environmental level puts pressure on the regime, the meso level, which forces the companies to incorporate green aspects or think new.

The New Players

Niche innovations form the micro level, which allows radical novelties to emerge. The niches are unstable and have low performance, but act as nested innovations with possibility to grow, since they avoid the market selection [2]. Changes and developments at the landscape level puts pressure on the regime which creates windows of opportunity for the green initiatives (niches) like Vigga, MUD JEANS, Resecond, and exchange markets,  which has emerged the last years, working with themes such as circular economy, collaborative consumption, sharing, upcycling, organic or/and consciousness. The smaller companies have tried to win impact in the regime and especially Vigga has expanded by her circular and green production line. This represents a new market player with a completely new structure, which could have potential to move the current regime. H&M have also tried to follow up on this with their conscious collection, and are now the largest buyer of organic fabric [6]. Several established fashion brands are currently trying to change their business model, such as Burberry, which has just introduced a new ‘seasonless’ collection with only two collections a year [7].

Technologies has also been developed to make it possible to close the resource circuit such as REALLY CPH and H&M Conscious Foundation, where the latter are having a competition to find ways to close the resource loop of the textiles better.

Furthermore, a different kind of niche have occurred where some actors have started to come together to change the fashion industry to become more sustainable.  This is for example Copenhagen Fashion Summit (Nordic Fashion Association), where leading fashion actors are collectively working to create a transition in the industry. Additionally, Unfair Fashion is a network which tries to create synergy among upcoming designers working with sustainable fashion.

What challenges does the fashion industry face?

For a transition to come about, several processes on the three levels need to interact.  The nested innovations grow stronger through learning processes, improvements in price and performance and support from powerful groups. Changes at the landscape level create pressure at the regime. When a stable regime is influenced by changes at the landscape level, ‘windows of opportunity’ occurs for new niches to win impact and influence the market, where they compete with the existing regime [2]. The key aspect of the MLP model is that these three levels are interlinked and that transition develop through the interplay between different processes at different levels [2]. It requires many changes and co-coordinated activities for a transition to happen, which is the major transition challenge. Even though many niches have occurred in the fashion industry,  it is complex to make the consumption of clothes more sustainable, because the current regime is quite stable. The clothing industry is difficult to change, because it requires a collective action on every aspect.

Another way of describing transition challenges could be by using evolutionary thinking in understanding innovation, and how selection environments play a role in forming a transition. It is important to understand the meaning of a selection environment, because already established selection environments are hostile to radical innovations and favors gradual, incremental and path dependent change and innovation. Consequently, innovation requires a coordinated change on multiple dimensions being technology, regulation and market design. In this perspective the meso level, the sociotechnical regime, are the selection environment. These regimes consist of systems and social practices and they are part of the society that carries out our basic societal functions, such as transportation, energy, heating, food systems or the clothing industry [8].

The engineer’s role in transitions?

When talking about the different levels when it comes to sustainable transition, it is interesting to look at the engineer’s role in the development of technological systems in general, to see if the role of the engineer have changed and how they could help create a transition. Additionally, we will in the fourth and last blogpost in this serie write about how we as Sustainable Design Engineers can support the needed transition to sustainability, and will therefore draw on some of the aspects of the engineer’s role discussed in this blog.

When thinking of the role the engineer used to have of inventing and optimizing solutions, they now have to deal with the entire surrounding system as well. Therefore we know that we cannot come up with the final solution ourselves, because it requires a gathered, coordinated action. We are facing a massive challenge because the earth’s resources are finite. This requires a development of professions, and forces the engineer to work more transdisciplinary. Part of the design engineer’s work is to try to imagine what the future looks like and to make it interesting to open the discussion about opportunities. The engineer as a profession has gone through a transformation from mainly focusing on optimizing designs through applying scientific knowledge, an engineer is now part of creating solutions that also take the sociology of humans into account. Consequently, their role has gone from developing technological systems to developing socio-technological systems. However, the latter are not typically transitioned by engineers or designers for that matter, because established socio-technological system are still “[…] characterized by stability and lock-in.” [9]. This can be caused by legally binding contracts and even more importantly because “cognitive routines make engineers and designers look in particular directions and not in others. This can make them ‘blind’ to developments outside their focus. Core capabilities can thus turn into core rigidities.“ [10]. Therefore, it is typically the entrepreneurs, who creates the niche innovations that “push” the socio-technical regime, and not the engineers. Consequently, these ’blindspots’ will not lead to radical innovation, but merely “lead to incremental innovation along technical trajectories.” [11].

Engineers can partially be seen as a social group in which social structures are created, (re)produced and refined [12]. This is both helping engineers to act, but it also inhibits their competences, because the rules form cognitive routines “that are shared in a community of engineers and guide engineers in their R&D activities” [13].

So is it possible for the engineer to move outside this role in purely into contributing to socio-technical systems? There is a tendency that the ‘old-school’ engineers still lack the sociological side of system design. Nevertheless, the transformation of the engineer did start many years ago, and the engineer today needs to combine the technical aspect with the contextual aspects and look into the needs.

Sum up

A transition challenge is that existing regimes are difficult to change since the environments are hostile to radical change. The leading players do not think enough outside the box. A conclusion to this is that the largest challenge of moving an existing regime, is that it is locked in as do business as usual. Landscape changes and disturbances makes it possible for others to change the incumbent regime, but it is a tough battle. This is due to small niche innovations, with a radical different approach, has difficulties in surviving such as Chareroom, a sharing closet, which have had to close due to lack of collaborative partners to secure financial consolidation [14].

Make sure to subscribe to our blog in the bottom of the page, in order to get the next and second blog post in the four-part series of how to change the fashion industry.

Main author of this post: Dorte Mindegaard
Second author of this post: Stine Kolding


[1] (Geel, 2005)

[2] (Geel & Schot, 2007)

[3] (Politikken, 2013)

[4] (OnlineMBA n.d)

[5] (Geel & Schot, 2007, p. 400)

[6] (H&M, n.d)

[7] (Costume, 2016)

[8] (Nelson & Winter, 1982)

[9] (Geel, 2005, p. 447)

[10] (Geel 2005, p. 447)

[11] (Geel, 2005, p. 450)

[12] (Geel 2005, p.449)

[13] (Geel 2005, p. 450)

[14] (Chareroom, 2016)


Chareroom, (2016). Konkurs grundet manglende sponsorer. Retrieved april 2016 from: http://chareroom.dk/#/CHARE/Room

Costume, (2016). Har Burberry taget første skridt mod en ny modeverden? Retrieved 2016 from: http://costume.dk/modenyheder/har-burberry-taget-foerste-skridt-mod-en-ny-modeverden

Geels, F. W. (2005). “The dynamics of transitions in socio-technical systems: a multi-level analysis of the transition pathway from horse-drawn carriages to automobiles (1860–1930).” Technology Analysis & Strategic Management 17.4: 445-476. P.

Geels, F. W., & Schot, J. (2007). Typology of sociotechnical transition pathways.Research policy, 36(3), 399-417. Eindhoven University of Technology.

H&M (n.d), Sustainability report. Retrieved april 2016, from: http://sustainability.hm.com/en/sustainability.html#cm-menu

Nelson, R.R., Winter, S.G., (1982). An Evolutionary Theory of Economic Change. Belknap Press, Cambridge, MA.

Online MBA (n.d.) Minute MBA. The business of Fast Fashion. Retrieved april 2016 from http://www.onlinemba.com/blog/business-of-fast-fashion/ 

Politikken, (2013). I tøjbranchen kopierer alle hinanden. Retrieved april 6. from: http://politiken.dk/kultur/mode/ECE2040508/i-toejbranchen-kopierer-alle-hinanden/





Exchange markets

Copenhagen Fashion Summit (Nordic Fashion Association)

Unfair Fashion

Dorte Mindegaard

Dorte has a deep interest in contributing to a sustainable transition of the society and also of the fashion industry. Every link of the production chain of clothes has a severe bad impact on human and the environment, which Dorte believes could be reduced by legislation, consumer mentality change and awareness. She is studying an engineering master in Sustainable Design at Aalborg University in Copenhagen and has recently been in Australia at James Cook University to specialize further in sustainable transition.

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