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In Eco-Woke Times, Will Fast Fashion's Success Be Its Undoing?

The outsized success of fast fashion over the last 20 years or so has depended on selling an increasing and kaleidoscopic variety of clothes at relatively inexpensive price points. That approach has been a hit with consumers in the U.S. and worldwide, helping spur greater apparel sales in stores and online.

Yet its success has come at a cost to the environment, including water pollution and a sizable carbon footprint. As consumers make more sustainable buying choices, their scrutiny might turn to fast fashion, putting the brakes on the industry's sustained growth, or even fundamentally challenging it as a retail model.

H & M, Washington, D.C.

As a retail concept, fast fashion in 2020 refers not only to a spectrum of relatively inexpensive clothes, but also to the way new styles are rolled out faster than they used to be, allowing and encouraging consumers to buy more. The retailers that specialize in offering new styles at this increased pace are giants like H&M and Zara, but also rising competitors, such as Misguided, Fashion Nova and Romwe.

Consumers are still eager to buy from fast-fashion retailers — H&M had its best year since 2015 in 2019 — but criticism of their environmental practices seems to have the industry concerned that people might start thinking twice about buying clothes from them.

H&M CEO Karl-Johan Persson, the son of billionaire H&M Chairman Stefan Persson, said in an interview with Bloomberg in October that the public shaming that has targeted the airline industry for its carbon impact is now spreading to other industries, including his.

The protests were “about ‘stop doing things, stop consuming, stop flying,'” Persson told Bloomberg. “Yes, that may lead to a small environmental impact, but it will have terrible social consequences.”

Persson acknowledged that the changing climate is "a huge threat and we all need to take it seriously," but he said that movements to restrain certain activities would increase poverty and reduce jobs.

In response to environmental criticism, H&M and Zara have both rolled out initiatives that they say will ameliorate their environmental impact, though a Norwegian consumer watchdog said last year that H&M's climate-conscious clothing line was misleading consumers about the sustainability of its products. H&M declined to make anyone available for an interview for this story.

Disposable Clothing, Lasting Impact

In the 20th century, the fashion industry tended to follow the seasons, with new styles emerging ahead of spring, summer, autumn and winter. There was also a sharper line between high fashion, which produced limited quantities for the carriage trade, and mass-produced clothing at lower prices.

By the beginning of the 21st century, lower production costs and more efficient international logistics made it possible to speed up the fashion cycle. At the same time, the line between high fashion and ordinary clothes blurred.

Realizing that they could capture an enormous new market, designers started producing a changing array of styles they could sell for less but in vastly higher quantities.

Since the business model for fast-fashion behemoths is based on volume, that means overproduction, said Dana Thomas, a fashion journalist and author of Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes. The emphasis on quantity over quality in fashion is enormously stressful to the environment, Thomas said, but it will be a hard addiction for consumers to break.

"Consumers have been conditioned by fast-fashion brands to pay too little for clothes," she said in an interview. "Clothing has never been cheaper than it is today."

Entire retail empires have been built on the concept of fast, cheap clothing. H&M Group is a sprawling global operation, with more than 4,700 stores in over 50 countries and an e-commerce platform. Though still headquartered in Sweden — Stefan Persson is Sweden's richest man at a net worth north of $18B, per Forbes — the U.S. has more H&M stores than any other country, with about 540. 

As a fast-fashion retailer, H&M rolls out new styles in a matter of weeks, with more than 100 designers on staff in Stockholm to follow fashion trends — on catwalks, at competing stores, in the media — and incorporate their findings into production designs. Then buyers and pattern-makers determine inventory for the new styles, which are sourced from a network of supplies, mainly from Asia.

Zara, owned by Spanish apparel giant Inditex, is another major fast-fashion player. Zara enjoys roughly $20B in annual sales and rolls out new designs as rapidly as its Swedish rival. Its 300 or so designers reportedly create 12,000 new designs every year, which take as little as six weeks from design to realization on store shelves.

While the clothes are sold for bargains, they have made the head of Inditex, Armancio Ortega, the wealthiest retailer in the world.


During the last 15 years, global clothing production has doubled, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, and the average number of times a garment is worn has dropped by 36%.

About 150 billion individual pieces of clothing are produced by the global fashion industry each year, or 20 items per capita, according to the foundation, which has a stated goal of "accelerating the transition to a circular economy," one that operates without waste. H&M Group is one of the foundation's "core partners."

Nearly a third of that production is excess inventory and never sold, and in one way or another, half of the fast-fashion items produced are thrown away in less than a year. Many clothes are worn just seven to 10 times before they are thrown out, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation's 2017 textiles report.

The textile sector represents 6% of global greenhouse-gas emissions, and it also accounts for 10% to 20% of pesticide use, according to McKinsey's State of Fashion 2020 report. The clothing industry consumes more energy than aviation and shipping combined, according to the United Nations.

The manufacturing of clothes is also solvent- and dye-intensive, an industry that is estimated to cause one-fifth of all industrial water pollution. 

The impact of clothing on the environment doesn't end with its manufacture. Because synthetic materials are so commonly found in clothes, washing them releases an enormous volume of microplastics, with as much as 35% of microplastic pollution in the world's oceans attributable to clothes. 

As consumers treat clothing as more disposable, more of it ends up in landfills. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates textile waste represented 6.3% of municipal solid waste as of 2017, the most recent year for which totals have been published. On average, Americans throw away 70 pounds of clothing and other textiles each year, according to the Council for Textile Recycling.

Do Consumers Care?

"In terms of awareness, the UK and Europe are a few steps ahead of the United States in awareness of fast fashion's impact on the environment," said Fashion Revolution Northeast Regional Coordinator Shannon Welch. "But the organic food movement is an example of how awareness can take off and grow in the United States."

Welch's organization advocates for greater transparency in the fashion supply chain. The challenge is to get consumers to pay attention to how their clothes impact the environment, she said, and one way to raise awareness is to point out that skin is the largest organ in a human body, and it absorbs the chemicals that are put on clothing. That gets people thinking about the issue, Welch said.

In the UK, a turning point in consumer attitudes about fast fashion was the BBC’s 2018 exposé of Burberry, which destroyed $36.8M worth of unsold clothes, accessories and perfume in its fiscal year 2017-2018 to minimize its excess stock and, the company said, protect its brand. The move was seen as a massive waste of resources.

"That provided a wake-up call to the industry," UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion co-Secretary Michael Stanley-Jones said.

In June, the Environmental Audit Committee of British Parliament issued a report urging the government to crack down on fast fashion, making 18 recommendations about the industry's environmental and labor practices. 

Among other measures, the group proposed a ban on burning or throwing away unsold clothing, a penny tax per garment on producers to fund clothes recycling efforts and mandatory environmental targets for the larger fashion retailers. The Conservative government rejected the recommendations.

"Fashion producers should be forced to clear up the mountains of waste they create," Labour MP Mary Creagh, who chairs the committee, told the BBC. "The government is content to tolerate practices that trash the environment and exploit workers despite having just committed to net zero emission targets."

Highly visible protests targeted the UK fashion industry, orchestrated by an organization called Extinction Rebellion. In April, the organization blocked traffic in central London to hold a catwalk show calling attention to the impact of fashion on the environment. In September, the organization staged a "die-in" at London Fashion Week

There also might be a generational component to increasing awareness.

"Gen Z views fashion differently than previous consumers," Stanley-Jones said, citing a report by McKinsey that found that U.S. Gen Z consumer views consumption as access, as opposed to possession, and consumption as an expression of individual identity and a matter of ethical concern. "Young consumers are turning away from the fast-fashion market and increasingly buying secondhand."

ThredUp's 2019 Resale Report forecasts the secondhand clothing market will double over the next five years, with millennials and Gen Zers driving the growth. The report estimated that one in three members of Gen Z bought secondhand last year, more than any other demographic — baby boomers came in at 19%, for instance.

Cotton is a thirst crop. About 2,700 liters of water is used to make one T-shirt, National Geographic reports.

A number of high-level initiatives are underway to address the environmental problems posed by the clothing industry, or at least its carbon footprint.

The Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action kicked off in 2018, and 150 brands, including H&M, Inditex and Nike, as well as luxury purveyors Armani, Hermes and Prada, signed the Fashion Pact led by French President Emmanuel Macron at the G7 Summit in September. 

Most efforts in the fashion industry to become carbon-neutral rely on carbon offsets, Stanley-Jones said. 

"These measures, while important, are stopgaps," Stanley-Jones said. "Eventually brands and their owners will need to innovate to make the operations throughout their value chain carbon-neutral, without relying on offsets."

The major players in fast fashion, H&M and Zara, say they are changing their environmental practices. 

"Since the fashion industry today is too dependent on virgin resources, we can’t stress enough the importance of recycled materials and the need to accelerate the transition from a linear to a circular economy," H&M told Bisnow in an email statement. "It’s absolutely necessary for the industry to find and invest in technology which would enable production and usage of more sustainable materials and recycled materials. We believe the development of new innovative sustainable materials and recycled materials will accelerate."

The company also said that its goal is to use only recycled or other sustainably sourced materials by 2030 and to be climate-positive throughout by 2040.

"We see it as a long-term investment and believe that recycled fibers will be competitive to virgin fibers," the statement said.

In July, Zara's parent company, Inditex, announced its sustainability plans for the first half of the decade. Among other things, the company has promised that by 2023, all of of the waste generated at its head offices, logistics platforms and stores will be sent for recycling or reuse. By the end of this year, Inditex says all of its stores across all brands will have containers for collecting used clothing for reuse or recycling.

Also, by 2025, the apparel giant, which brought in more than $20B in revenue between February and October, said all cotton, linen and polyester it sources will be organic, sustainable or recycled. 

Elizabeth Cline, a fast-fashion author and journalist and director of reuse at Wearable Collections, said the Zara initiatives represent a significant step, but fast fashion can't ever be truly sustainable: The rapid turnover in styles will always use significant energy.

"The business model will have to change and evolve," Cline told NPR, "for them to operate sustainably."