Ethical Fashion, not Fast Fashion

Date: November 15, 2013

Ethical Fashion, not Fast Fashion

When everyone is talking about fast fashion, and brands like Topshop, Forever 21, Zara and H&M become more and more popular, some people, however, claim that “fast fashion” is “fatal fashion”! What’s the reasoning behind this? And what is your opinion?

Everything disposable

Fast-fashion clothing mimics catwalk trends, but quickly and cheaply.  At $10 for jeans and $5 for a shirt, budget retailers keep squeezing down the production and transportation costs to capture the best deal they can. Official figures from Zara, pioneer of fast fashion, show 16% growth in annual sales and 22% increase in net profit, the 22% standing for some 430 million euros. Its strategy of crossing-over with top designers or celebrities like Stella McCartney and Kate Moss to create limited collections gains it a lot of noise and income. However, lower cost often implies lower quality, resulting in a shorter and shorter life cycle of fast fashion.

Fast fashion negates consumers’ pursuit of quality and durability in clothing, and is thus accused of producing disposable clothes.  Fiona, a Hong Kong office lady, spends around $200 a month on clothing, and over 60% of it is on fast fashion. “Most of the items would not be worn for more than one season, some go out of fashion, some simply lose their luster or even fall apart after a few washes,” she comments. The previous generation always said they wore the same shirt for more than ten years. Now it’s no longer the same story.

According to a Cambridge University study, “in 2006, people were buying a third more clothes than they were in 2002.” The increase in the amount of clothes people consume also has consequences for the environment. “UK consumers send 30kg of clothing and textiles per capita to landfill each year on average, and that 1.2 million tons of clothing went to landfill in 2005 in the UK alone.”   So it can be inferred that the number is getting bigger over the last few years, raising public awareness and stimulating the growth of ethical fashion.

One buys, all pay

To cut down costs, fast-fashion retailers sacrifice quality for quantity and speed to market. They either source from countries like Bangladesh and Turkey, or set up their own factories there. The tragedy in Bangladesh in April this year has exposed the dark side behind all the glamor and shine of those short-lived items – how such cheap clothing was made and under what sort of working conditions. Even though the retailers are not directly appointing unqualified factories to produce their clothes, there should be no shirking of their responsibility.

The fashion cycle has evolved from twice a year to every few weeks, and retailers press for an ever-shorter delivery time. With or without their acknowledgement, factories either ask their workers to work extra hours or outsource some of the work to other factories, to keep up with the impossible targets. It makes perfect sense that the factories will choose to outsource to a cheaper factory. So even though the unqualified factories can’t get deals from the brands directly, they can still survive under the new fast-fashion cycle. And in this case, the transparency of the supply chain has become more important than ever, and so should be the sense of ethical fashion.

Wear organically

Ethical fashion, a new concept in recent years, not only focuses on the sustainability of fashion products, but also on the production processes, materials, fair trade, and even the design and technology involved.

Not everyone knows why people choose organic cotton instead of the conventional yarn, as not everyone knows that the 3% of the world’s farmland dedicated to conventionally grown cotton is using 25% of the world’s chemical pesticides. Some of these chemicals are even considered to be the most toxic chemicals in the world. However, less than 10% of the chemicals applied to cotton is actually spent on pest control. The rest is absorbed into the cotton plant, the soil, water and eventually to animals, humans and the entire eco-system. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated that one to two million birds are killed annually by carbofuran, one of the insecticides routinely used on cotton. This is only part of the story because cotton processing utilizes chlorine bleach, heavy metal dyes and formaldehyde resins, and all cause damage to the environment. Not only that, chemical residue on the manufactured garments can cause skin irritation, rashes, headaches and dizziness.

On the other hand, organic cotton involves strict production guidelines. These usually include: the field must be pesticide-free for at least three years and be free from toxic chemicals; a certain amount of organic content may be used (95% by USDA, for example); it also has to be eco-friendly processing, with non-chlorine bleach, silicon-free softeners, azo-free dyes, etc. These result in a cleaner, healthier, more balanced and sustainable environment as well as products for us and our children.


Business opportunities behind the labels

According to a survey by Ethical Fashion Forum (EEF) in 2011, the organic-cotton market grew by 72% to £177 million over the past two years. A significant proportion of a survey’s respondents also placed the onus for sustainability on companies. For example, 61% of women feel “it is important that a company acts ethically” (Mintel, Ethical Clothing – UK 2009).

World fast-fashion giant H&M launched its first ever organic-cotton lines in 2010 and 2011. The giant takes very bold steps on this issue and states that their mission is to use organic cotton only for all products by 2020. Despite a scandal surrounding contaminated sources of organic cotton, H&M continues its battle on this agenda and is actively involved in the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), a cross-industry body that advocates sustainable production and the usage of cotton for environmental protection and conservation.

Apart from the chain stores’ actions, more and more smaller scale shops are now offering organic-cotton products, particularly in the baby’s and kids’ segments.


Listen to your customers

The aspiration for ethical fashion continues to rise; probably it is now time for more retailers, wholesalers and fashion buyers to respond positively. Picking your supplier partners carefully would be a good first step. Suppliers with fair wages, proper working environments, no child labor and no forced labor are the basic prerequisites in choosing a long-term partner. And, in the end, the eco-label allows one to differentiate oneself in terms of design, brand and advertising.

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