By Fiana Herscovici
What is Fast Fashion, Really?
Whether you are the type of person who finds themselves staring into the depths of a seemingly empty closet, exclaiming “gosh, I have nothing to wear!”, or you wear every last piece in your wardrobe until someone begs you to do laundry, we all have to shop. So, we flock to wherever we can to find the best deals, the hottest trends, or wherever sells those white ankle socks in bulk. Demand for the materials we need to produce our favorite brand of jeans or to replace that pilling sweater will rise as the population grows. Where did you get your Halloween costume from? Probably a fast fashion retailer. Why? Because it is fun, cheap, and convenient to shop fast fashion.
Photo By Hanna Morgan
If we are all involved in the industry, then we should become aware of how it works. The fashion industry used to run on four seasons: Winter, Spring, Summer, and Fall. Designers would work months into the future to predict what consumers would like in order to produce a line of apparel just in time for the season’s change. Nowadays, fast fashion brands produce about 52 micro seasons a year which translates to around one new collection per week, a process started by Zara when the business model shifted to bi-weekly deliveries of new inventory. Why so many seasons? So that stores can keep up with trends in real time which increases the amount of customer visits to the store and diminishes inventory more rapidly to encourage exclusivity. The more likely brands are to change inventory, the more customers will want to shop in order to accumulate these new styles. Fast fashion has us hooked on trends, and we want to try them all.
The Devastating Costs of Fast Fashion: Outsourcing and Cheap Materials
Stemming from this tremendous amount of inventory is a supply chain that usually begins overseas. This process of outsourcing production is called contract manufacturing and companies use this process to raise profits by diminishing their spend on labor. By producing their fashions elsewhere, companies only need to pay the cost of outsourcing, and the factory where the clothing is produced pays all the laborers. In addition, with 52 micro seasons, inventory is churned out at a rapid pace, and there is not enough time for quality control or to use high quality materials. What begins is a positive feedback loop: clothing made at fast pace using cheap materials that customers buy for a low price and then throw away after the first few wears, causing consumers to come back again and again to a mountain of poor quality inventory that keeps growing. In other words “the same urgency that throws quality out the window also keeps the costs of these garments incredibly low”. Thus, fast fashion businesses turn a profit not because of markups, but because of the sheer amount of demand they receive from customers. Inventory, and having a lot of it, is what keeps fast fashion alive.
Photo By Karina Tess
In the U.S. alone, 11 million tons of clothing is thrown away. These pieces are typically left in landfills and rarely break down, releasing toxins into the air, and chemicals, dangerous dyes, and synthetics into the water supply. What’s more is “clothing production is the third biggest manufacturing industry after the automotive and technology industries. Textile production contributes more to climate change than international aviation and shipping combined.”. Fast fashion can even have a physical effect on the wearer as “harmful chemicals such as benzothiazole—linked to several types of cancer and respiratory illnesses—have been found in apparel on the market today.” Fast fashion comes at a cost to the environment, workers, and to you and I.
I sat down with Shreya Karri, a student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst studying Environmental Sustainability within fashion to examine the discrepancy between consumer values and shopping habits.
Why Is It So Hard to Shop Sustainably?
Over the past summer, Shreya conducted research that was “focused on entrepreneurship within the context of ethical and environmentally-friendly fashion, and understanding customer needs and pain points within the market.” She conducted this research as part of the Collegiate Summer Venture Program (CSVP), a 10-week summer program hosted through the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship and Valley Venture Mentors. Shreya explains that her population size was 100+ individuals and she focused mainly on interviewing “women between the ages of 18 and 45 who had any interest in sustainable and ethical fashion, regardless of whether they had purchased clothing from sustainable brands in the past”. Shreya’s questions “focused on understanding their current fashion shopping habits as a consumer, their interest in sustainable and ethical fashion, and how likely they are to shop sustainably in the future”. Below are a few of the questions Shreya asked her interviewees:
As a result of this study, Shreya found that “many people are unsure about the different options that are available for sustainable and ethical fashion and some don’t know that there are such options out there. [...] People are interested in learning more and finding out about what they can do to partake in shopping sustainably and making more environmentally friendly choices through their shopping habits.” Shreya also discovered that because “sustainable fashion is generally more expensive than fast fashion retail, mostly college grads or those who are currently working and are within their mid-thirties and older have the financial resources to be able to afford a larger collection of clothing coming directly from sustainable brands” So for those younger and/or unemployed consumers, Shreya found that these individuals shopped sustainably by visiting “thrift stores or second-hand retailers when looking for sustainable alternatives”.
Photo By Mukuko Studio
If a consumer is looking to shop sustainably in store however, they may not have much luck. “Most sustainable brands are primarily e-commerce platforms,” Shreya explains, “meaning many sustainable fashion companies do not have a brick-and-mortar location, as a result, we find that many individuals feel more comfortable shopping in person rather than online in order to make sure that the garments they are purchasing fit them properly.” So, many shoppers may want to shop sustainably but when faced with the inconvenience of 1. Paying more money and 2. Not being able to try this more expensive clothing on, Shreya’s interviewees gave “mixed reviews” about their willingness to shop sustainably.
However, Shreya explains that “a lot of people are willing to shop sustainably” but they “are not really sure about their options and where to go”. When asking Shreya if she witnessed a discrepancy between one’s shopping values versus one’s shopping habits in real life, she admitted that there was a discrepancy between consumer values and habits. Shreya explains that this was more so because “consumers are not sure about what brands and platforms are out there to shop that are more ethically sourced and sustainable.” Shreya hypothesizes, “if sustainable brands were as well known as fast-fashion retailers perhaps we would find consumers to be far more likely to have their shopping values regarding sustainability align with their shopping habits in real life.”
Slow Fashion as a Path to a Sustainable Future
So what does sustainable fashion look like? Shreya explains, “sustainable fashion is slow fashion,” which is sourced using “eco-friendly materials” and created by individuals who are being paid fair wages. Because of the higher quality textiles used and the raised standard of living assigned to workers, Shreya expresses that “sustainable garments are priced at a far higher price point than most garments within fast-fashion retail.” Thus, many individuals who Shreya interviewed said that they would “shop sustainably through thrifting or second-hand retail because that is more financially feasible for them than to purchase brand new pieces from a sustainable brand.” Personal finances are a driving force for shopping habits, and Shreya adds that for those consumers whose “values and habits don’t necessarily align due to a lack of information regarding their options within sustainable fashion” their decision to buy sustainably will come down to price.
Photo by Ethan Bodnar
If one of the reasons that consumers are not shopping sustainably is because they are unaware of sustainable brands, how can sustainable fashion companies make their brands more known? And if these companies are known, why are they not more competitive with fast fashion? Shreya reminds us that sustainable companies produce slow fashion which means these brands put “more thought into how much is produced, what's produced, and how it's produced”. In addition, “fast fashion retail allows companies to create a greater variety of products at lower price points [which can] lead to greater consumption of fast fashion by consumers.” So, if sustainable brands want to keep up with fast fashion, there needs to be a move towards “making sustainable and ethical fashion more mainstream as an option.” One way that we are already seeing sustainable fashion becoming more popular is that “the fashion industry continues to make strides towards sustainability and environmentally friendly alternatives.” Shreya explains that “consumer preferences and values regarding clothing are quite different and vary from consumer to consumer, and as discussions of climate change increase, we find that sustainability is valued as a “perk”, but not always a necessity. As high-fashion brands continue to move towards setting more sustainable values for themselves we are likely to see that effect continue down into general fashion retail which will hopefully lead to sustainable fashion companies and options becoming more well known.”
When asked whether she would choose to purchase the same piece from a sustainable fashion line with a higher price point or a fast fashion company with a lower price point, Shreya answers honestly, explaining that “idealistically [she] would go for the piece that's part of a sustainable fashion line even if it did come with a higher price tag [because] these pieces will last longer and can often become part of one’s collection for years to come.” On the other hand, Shreya recognizes that “as a current college student that's not always financially feasible [to shop sustainably].” Holding her sustainable values and shopping habits to the same degree, Shreya says that if she does “gravitate towards fast fashion products at a lower price point” her purchasing decision will be influenced by how often she anticipates using the garment and how she can use and reuse her current pieces. Thus, Shreya is “making sure to take care of the clothing [she owns] to make sure it can be preserved and worn over a longer period of time [...] rather than making frequent, large purchases at fast-fashion retailers over time, as this can accumulate the amount of clothing one owns and contribute negatively to the environment.”
The route towards sustainability is a long and strenuous one. As consumers, we put our financial dispositions first, but as human beings, we are looking at a ticking clock that speeds up with the start and end of every micro season.
Will you change your habits?