Fast Fashion: Who Pays – Consumers or the Environment?

Fast Fashion: Who Pays – Consumers or the Environment?

By Maryam Nazir Chaudhary

Introduction

Fashion is a global yet ever-shifting phenomenon. In Malaysia, the retail industry, specifically fashion retail, is amongst the most important sectors in its economy. In recent years, a new model of ‘fast fashion’ has quickly colonised the world. It is defined as “a business model based on offering consumers frequent novelty in the form of low-priced, trend-led products”. Fast fashion companies in Malaysia, such as Zara, H&M, Uniqlo and Padini, have all shown similar trends of tremendous sales growth in the past few years.

The popularity of fast fashion may be attributed to an increased efficiency in production, which has subsequently led to a drastic decrease in the average per person expenditure on clothing. However, this greatly fosters overconsumption; with new products possessing such incredibly low prices, there is no point in repairing old items, and thus barely used clothing is quickly discarded. On top of that, retailers constantly encourage their customers to keep purchasing new products aligned with the latest trends, resulting in short product life cycles. The fickle nature of fast fashion aligns closely with the values of today’s fast-paced modern world.

Notwithstanding, the repercussions of fast fashion are severe. Consumers’ buying habits have become completely disconnected from their physical needs. Consumers used almost twice as much clothing per capita in 2015 as compared to 2000. Moreover, the fashion industry comes second in the world’s most polluting industries. It produces over 92 million tonnes of waste per year, consumes 79 trillion litres of water and generates 8-10% of global carbon dioxide emissions. By accelerating climate change and using up valuable, non-renewable resources at an alarming rate, fast fashion represents a key environmental threat.

Sustainability

Despite industrial development, globalisation and the advent of technology, the planet’s resources still remain finite. Today, the world faces many environmental issues such as global warming, biodiversity loss and freshwater scarcity. The United Nations defines sustainability as “development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. Thus, sustainability is a dynamic concept, incorporating not only environmental factors but also economic and social aspects on a local and global scale. It advocates for the fair distribution of resources, both inter- and intra-generationally.

Raising awareness of environmental issues is crucial, and it is doubly essential for corporations and consumers to react. Several companies have incorporated sustainability into their policies in the form of Corporate Social Responsibility or CSR for short. However, CSR still prioritises pursuing benefits for the firm whilst improving reputation and building a ‘socially responsible’ image.

Nowadays, sustainability has become an exceedingly important and inescapable concept – businesses both affect and are in turn affected by sustainable considerations. Holding frequent global operations and possessing the necessary financial/technological resources, companies are not only responsible for impacting the planet but can also provide needed, sustainable solutions. Alternatively, in the age of information and the internet, consumers expect firms to reflect their ethical concerns. If corporations can successfully achieve the ‘socially acceptable’ standard as set by their customers, they are rewarded with a stronger company-customer relationship, with increased customer loyalty and higher repurchase rates.

Moving Forward

As the Earth’s natural resources rapidly deplete, it has become clear that fast fashion is an unfeasible concept. Its very basis contradicts that of a circular economy; a system that efficiently manages raw materials, prioritises waste prevention and opposes consumerism culture. The fashion industry must be revamped from a linear process of take, make and dispose to a circular one that maximises efficiency, reuses and recycles. The definition of sustainable fashion incorporates all of the dimensions required by such a circular economy: “(apparel) that incorporates fair trade principles with sweatshop-free labour conditions; that does not harm the environment or workers by using biodegradable and organic cotton, and designed for a longer lifetime use; that is produced in an ethical production system, perhaps even locally, which causes little or no environmental impact and makes use of eco-labelled or recycled materials”.

As mentioned previously, corporations are capable of setting new sustainable procedures in place, and are also greatly influenced by the values of their consumers. Thus, it is imperative to raise awareness in individuals and to encourage them to take positive action. Fortunately, these days, consumers are becoming increasingly concerned for the environment and hold corporations accountable. And yet, they as individuals appear to remain uninformed of their own responsibility and the impact of their consumption. A study in the UK and Germany found that the purchase behaviour of consumers was little affected by their awareness of sustainability issues. A lack of options and/or higher prices may be to blame – such barriers in sustainable fashion should be removed to ensure that consumers do not have to trade between their wants and sustainability.

On the other hand, awareness may rarely translate into action due to consumers thinking themselves incapable of enacting a large change as individuals. Hence, businesses should be more transparent about their sustainability considerations; they should emphasise the individual consumer’s contribution to the well-being of the planet, by highlighting the impact of a single purchase of sustainably produced clothing. Similarly, people often distrust corporations; CSR strategies are often seen as publicity stunts and any pro-environment actions are questioned and doubted. People do not believe companies that engage in environmentally-friendly practices and thus do not mind purchasing from other firms. To combat this, a label or certification from a reliable source alongside relevant ethical information would allow consumers to make better-informed, ethical judgments. It is critical to provide positive information and to not bombard consumers with negative news as this may have the opposite effect of that intended.

Locally, there are several sustainable fashion brands in Malaysia that consumers can purchase clothing from. For example, LTTL promises zero fabric waste in their production process and utilises recyclable materials, whereas Terrae uses 100% recycled fibres made from ocean waste and provides biodegradable packaging. Similarly, Kualesa crafts apparel out of biodegradable bamboo lyocell and recycles 99% of water and chemicals used in production. The Modest Brand ensures its collections are made from environmentally-friendly materials, including recycled polyester and recycled nylon.

Ultimately, if the fashion industry is to become sustainable, feasible and environmentally-friendly, it must wholly abandon the fast fashion model and adopt one that prioritises efficient resource usage, amplifies product lifetime, and minimises waste generation. Such a comprehensive transformation will require global-level collaboration and the implementation of novel, ingenious ideas, at consumer, business, and government levels.

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