Can fast fashion be sustainable?
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After a recent exposé on sustainable fast fashion that — you guessed it — wasn’t actually sustainable, many eyes of scrutiny turn to the fashion industry at large.
Fueled by the rise of conscious consumerism, sustainability regulations, and impact/ESG investing rise, experts beg the question: Can fast-fashion — or any fashion — brands ever become truly sustainable for people, planet, and profit?
What’s the problem with fast fashion?
Fast fashion is often synonymous with quick production, cheap pricing, and trendy, flimsy materials. But if we go deeper, we find that this cheap and quick production process comes with supply chains rife with questionable labor practices and significant carbon footprints. It also means microplastics in oceans from washing synthetic clothing and minimal wear before textiles clog landfills.
But the tags say this was sustainably made!
Yep, we’re seeing it too: ads and tags assuring you that your purchase is reducing plastics in the oceans. So many sustainably made swimsuits! Fashion brands are setting sustainability goals and green initiatives so they can grow while taking care of the planet and people — and, look good.
But to be sustainable, brands must have a solid grasp on how they source their ingredients, materials, and products. Did the plastic in this shirt actually come from ocean-bound plastic? Was the cotton picked by a farmer making a living wage? Were the threads sewn together by an adult, and not a child? Were the garments dyed by a consenting worker and not under forced labor?
Most brands cannot confidently answer these questions. Especially in the fast fashion industry where quick, cheap production is king.
Don’t regulations already exist to encourage ethical fashion?
Yes! They do. The U.S. and the E.U. in particular have or are considering several regulations that will impact the fashion industry.
Until recently, many brands have relied on third-party verification as their method of complying with these regulations. But the Higg Index controversy has shed light on how unreliable these verifications are. Norway — a country often recognized for its forward-thinking, trend-setting stances — recently banned the use of Higg Index information in marketing efforts based on, among other things, its close relationship with the fashion industry. (Higg is a sustainability index created by fashion brands for fashion brands.)
Third-party verification more generally only looks at aggregated data–it never gets all the way to the origin of a product. So, how can brands actually prove they are sustainably sourcing their products? They have to know their entire supply chain, from source to shelf.
Even upcoming regulations such as the Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act, inch toward a solution while still missing the mark. The act — which would require all $100m+ revenue-generating fashion companies selling in New York to map at least 50% of their supply chains and disclose carbon footprint data — still only requires the bare minimum of brands and was drafted by some of the largest fashion conglomerates.
What can brands do to avoid sustainability pitfalls and greenwashing?
We recommend that brands set sustainability goals with the understanding that they must connect with their entire supply chains.
Mapping and digitizing your supply chain — from source to shelf — will allow you to walk the sustainability talk and strategize accordingly. Following the steps here is a great start.
What can consumers do to shop more consciously without breaking the bank?
Truthfully? Purchasing second-hand clothes and sticking to only the essentials are the best ways to shop sustainably.
Luckily, the stigma around thrifting is shifting. As the younger, more environmentally conscious generations become the shoppers of today (and the future!).
Second best? Purchasing from ethical brands! Brands that know their farmers, factory workers, suppliers, etc. are doing their best to grow their business while doing good. Check out these tips for more sustainable living inspiration.
Sustainability done right will save fashion brands time and money, but these companies must be ready to get honest and address gaps in their supply chain practices — all the way down to the farmer, waste-picker, or factory workers.
In sum, can fast fashion industries ever be sustainable?
We believe so! But brands will have to lean on reliable, third-party regulation, and do some honest, consistent work to get there.