Is the concept of ethical fast fashion an oxymoron? Do we as consumers have a good enough grasp of the ethical considerations?
Today’s typical fashionista has high expectations. She, or maybe he, wants to buy cheap and affordable trendy clothes in the latest styles straight off the catwalk.
Never mind that an item is unlikely to last more than ten washes. Fast fashion is getting faster and cheaper, but what is the real cost to society and the environment? We may have an uneasy feeling about the issues, but generally have a poor grasp of ethics.
How important is this industry?
The direct value of the UK fashion industry to the economy is around £26 billion and growing fast. Average spending on fashion in Europe is about €700 (>£500) per person per year. Italy, Germany and the UK are Europe’s largest fashion markets in terms of consumption.
Fashion’s total economic contribution is much more if we include activities in indirect and related industries. We may be feeding the economy with our purchases, but we are also harming the environment. Shipping, transportation and logistics are energy demanding, time consuming, and pollution-spewing.
The formula for success in this industry was always to give the customers what they wanted: trendy garments at the right price, of acceptable quality, in the right place, and with a dash of speed. In the last five years there has been a concerted effort by some retailers to become more ethical buyers, employing better human resources policies and safety practices.
Ethics in Fast Fashion
Do procurement teams harbour concerns about sweat shops or care about child labour or manage waste disposal? Or is it more important to buy cheap to satisfy the consumer who just wants to pay £3 for a T-shirt?
Paul Brownhill, Group Chief Executive at Britannia Garment Packaging, says that although the majority of consumers want quick access to the latest trends at an affordable price, they are now also seeking assurances about the way these items are produced. He notes that consumers are increasingly concerned about the quality, safety and environmental impact of the clothes they buy. Is this really true?
The University of British Columbia recently researched this issue and came to the conclusion that, theoretically, young consumers place an importance on sustainability but have a blind spot when it comes to fashion.
“They may care deeply about eating organic foods, but fast fashion consumption is exempt from such moral decisions. This approach can in part be explained by the fact that youthful consumers may fail to fully grasp issues of sustainability, in particular the disastrous future environmental risks associated with unsustainable production.”
Other similar studies demonstrate little evidence that ethical issues have any effect on consumers’ fashion choices or that they are likely to sacrifice their own personal needs for the greater good.
Some Bright Spots
Leading retailers like H&M, Gap and Zara have all signed a pledge to improve factory conditions. H&M, whose tag line is ‘Fashion and quality at the best price in a sustainable way’, was recently named one of the world’s most ethical companies by the Ethisphere Institute.
One of its claims to fame is that it is the number one user of organic cotton in the world. H&M, with 3,900 stores in 61 markets, is also one of the first and largest fashion companies in the world to make its supplier factory list public.
Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy, (LVMH) a corporation comprising over sixty luxury brands, has been auditing its carbon footprint since 2004. Tiffany & Co. produces a Corporate Responsibility Report, which touts their support of human rights, anti-corruption practices, and commitment to responsible mining. This is all very commendable if it is more than just words on the page.
Fast Fashion and the Ecosystem
For those that do care about the future of our children and damage to the environment, there are a couple of other options. Buyers can check questionable supply sources, read every label, and buy only locally produced items, but this may come at a cost.
What about sourcing second-hand or hardly used items? Re-purposing items creates a positive ethical and environmental impact and can be both cost-effective and trend-setting – it even has possibilities in the commercial environment.
Landfills are full of synthetic material. Cheap clothing goes out of fashion and people end up with a lot of unwanted items. UK consumers ditch more than a million tons of clothing every year.
In poorer countries the problem is less noticeable; items get handed down and re-circulated until they totally disintegrate. In developed countries, they may end up in the rubbish bin.
What can we do to help?
- We could support ethically sourced products from brands that have committed to best practice
- We could create more awareness among commercial buyers about poor labour practices and sustainability
- We could buy fewer higher quality garments to reduce the environmental impact of fast fashion.
The campaigning organisation Labour Behind the Label provides information on what brands need to do to up their game and move closer to employing ethical sourcing practices.
Suppliers are anxiously trying to satisfy the market’s needs for speed and price, at what cost? Is “ethical fast fashion” an oxymoron?