• Bethany Walsh

Inside fast fashion: The sustainability paradox explained.

This article marks the first in a series that aims to uncover the complexities of the fast fashion phenomenon, scrutinising its take-make-waste paradigm that is fundamentally mutually exclusive to sustainability. The focus will be on deconstructing fast fashion’s linear value chain in comparison to the circular economy, addressing the current disparity between mass consumption and sustainability, to critically analyse how fast fashion operates an efficiency model, with a lack of eco-efficiency. However, despite clear basic paradoxes, it can be argued that fast fashion's business model has fundamental benefits that could propel sustainable competitive positioning, if brands align their value propositions with the sustainability agenda.

Despite 2020 being declared ‘the year of the blur’, it is a year that will be marked in history. With one third of the global population in lockdown, according to Fairs (2020), quarantine consumption has fuelled a tipping point for change through intensifying consumer shifts, such as ‘sustainability first’ and ‘radical transparency’ (McKinsey & Company, 2020), as humans recognised that wasteful consumption lacked meaning in a crisis.

As consumers sheltered from the pandemic, buying sentiment subsided with 65% saying they would decrease spending on discretionary categories, such as fast fashion, as demonstrated by McKinsey & Company (2020); With instincts being to revert down Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to basic desires of security, health and safety, rather than the hedonistic consumption that fast fashion propagates.

This curb in spending has aggregated supply side crises through order cancellations and payments being deferred, with the plight of 40 to 60 million global garment workers impacted by the crisis (Bloomer, 2020). This was visible to customers through campaigns such as #PayUp, which amplified public awareness of social and environmental injustice in some value chains, resulting in strengthened solidarity between people and the planet, pushing an inflection point into the clean revolution. As a result, the Future Laboratory (2020) has predicted a shift from ‘Turbulent Teens’ - a decade of dissent and climate denial, to the ‘Transformative Twenties’ – the decade of proactive purposeful consumption. However, according to the #shareyourprofits campaign, value retailers have had a robust recovery, with brands such as Primark making a strong Q3 2020 profit and therefore, sentiment from consumers regarding purposeful consumption may not, or not yet, be materialising through their purchasing choices. This therefore depicts that there is a woke behavioural gap between environmental awareness and action, within purchasing decisions, in the fast fashion sector.

Nevertheless, action is pivotal for the environment that we rely upon, as if clothing production continues on its current trajectory, it is predicted to rise 81% by 2030, and this will push planetary boundaries beyond their limits (Global Fashion Agenda, 2019). However, this is juxtaposed with the basic concept of fast fashion, that Kozowski, (2019) argues to be the “very antithesis to sustainability”. This is justified, given that the fundamental concept is built upon an ever-accelerating “unsustainable TAKE >MAKE >WASTE linear business model feeding our current fast fashion system” (Johnston, 2020). This model inherently contradicts circularity, which is based on principles that design out waste. Additionally, any business model that uses mass volume of low-quality virgin materials conflicts with the sustainable revolution.

fast fashion label
Anti-fast-fashion label. Artwork: Elizabeth Illing

Nonetheless, according to the United States Joint Economic Committee (2019), the fashion industry is valued at $2.5 trillion, with manual dexterity providing employment to 25 million (mainly female) workers in mostly developing nations to exit cycles of poverty (Fletcher and Tham, 2019). Consequently, whilst its production and disposability can be environmentally destructive, fashion constitutes a mass economic model that offers value at the individual (identity and expression), community (belonging) and national levels, through providing a crucial source of foreign exchange. Therefore, as the industry is a backbone to many jobs and the economy, it must strategically adapt rather than die. For this reason, fast fashion is not going anywhere, but in Hoskins (2020) words, “must fundamentally rethink how it walks”, by using the transformative decade as a strategic opportunity to survive.

Overconsumption has excelled since Zara democratised fashion, using trends, speed to market and scarcity as a competitive advantage. The New York Times (1989) recognised this disruptive innovation and coined the term ‘fast fashion’, which went on to evolve the industry and reconfigure consumer purchasing patterns. Overall, its model exploits value from consumer-centricity through quick lead times, replacing the ’exclusivity’ of trends, with ‘massclusivity’, to evolve utilitarian clothing requirements. This means that clothing has now become a ‘commodity’, being a ‘want’, e.g. wanting the next trend, rather than a ‘need’, e.g. for warmth and protection. In practice, this is evident through consumers already having pre-existing clothing in their wardrobes, that could keep them warm and covered, without consuming ‘the next trend’. This also shows the magnitude of influence that the sector has had on changing shopping dynamics, therefore presenting the accumulative power fast fashion brands have to reconfigure the landscape when it comes to the priority of sustainability.

To add, the physiological impact of consumption must be considered in order to depict levers for transformation, with studies such as Larsen and McKibban (2008), providing evidence that happiness arises from the motivations driving purchases, rather than from the object itself. This is underpinned scientifically, as the act of purchasing something new and exciting causes a spike in dopamine levels. Therefore, fast fashion's offering is the perfect formula to drive an-ever increasing want for more. As a result, fast fashion is fuelling addiction, as customers strive for newness in order to satisfy dopamine cravings. This poses the question, with the physiological aspect of addictive buying, what will be needed to break the cycle of addiction? Through the pandemic, this was tested, when a break in mindless consumption and increased understanding of the planetary crisis, failed to quell this addiction.

Overall, since entry into the market, fast fashion has experienced many waves of innovative transformation fuelled by value retailers using what Kotler and Armstrong (2019) refer to as ‘more-for-less’ value propositions – offering increasingly superior product selection in terms of speed to market of the latest trends at lower prices, accessible online shopping '24/7', and social media intensification of a ‘see now, buy now’ culture as outlined by Clark (2008). Consequently, fast fashion has never been in a fixed state, being agile, flexible and resilient to market dynamics. Therefore, the industry has the potential to evolve again into another stage of transformation that is considered ‘sustainable’. However, to what extent is fast fashion mutually exclusive to the sustainable revolution, and how can it adapt strategically?

Fast fashion's linear value chain combines quick-response production, with enhanced-product capabilities to respond to the latest trends through producing in demand 'it consumables' (Cachon and Swinney, 2011) referring to the 'it bag' phenomenon of the 90's and 00's. This drives efficiency in the supply chain, through exploiting minimal lead times, but Bridgewater (2019) states this is at the detriment of matching supply with uncertain demand. According to Chan (2019), the described model uses ‘push’ in favour of ‘pull’ supply chain management, which produces clothes before customers know they want the products, creating overproduction by miscalculating demand.

Subsequently, global inventory in the form of excess materials in the manufacturing phase is generated, which accumulates ‘$120 billion worth of fabric dead stock every year’, as stated by Bennett (2020). This is a consequence of economics of scale, where increasing volume decreases prices, which in turn drives down value perception of products, resulting in associated disposability. Therefore, fast fashion is fundamentally price efficient and time efficient, with many strengths of the model providing what consumers demand. However, this is at the detriment of ‘eco-efficiency’, due to the high volume of excess stock and social costs that exist in many brands' supply chains. As a result, current consumption levels are not compatible with any form of sustainability, and sustainable transformation is required. This is an opportunity that businesses in the sector must exploit, using agility in the model to adapt to the required sustainability agenda in the market.

fast fashion pricing t-shirt
Fast fashion vs 'slow fashion' pricing. Image: Techstyler

The fast fashion philosophy also follows a ‘dominant economic paradigm’, referenced by Ozdamar and Atik (2015), centred on profit maximisation through making rational calculations based on monetary KPI’s, as well as planned obsolescence. This is described by Kabaivanova (2018) to be because garments are designed to become unfashionable and wear out in order for consumers to buy the next trend, with low quality fabrics failing to support longevity and low prices failing to integrate the true costs of production. As a result of the downward pressure on prices, the question must be asked: can a £5 dress be made ethically and using quality materials that support the act of recycling?

By-product aside, fast fashion’s model relies on early identification of consumer demand, data feedback loops and quick turnarounds (Adegeest, 2019), operating an efficiency model. This holds consumer centricity at its core, delivering values of accessibility, convenience and affordability. Arguably, this agile and reactive model, embedded with data-analytics, could allow brands to be more responsive to consumer demand, for example adopting made-to-order production cycles. However, this is not yet mainstream, and investment is needed in technology, analytics, and nearshoring.

Nevertheless, Givaudan (2020) highlights that the fast fashion system exploits resources and people, with 80% of products currently being disposed of within six months. Additionally, according to Adegeest (2019), because economies of scale make it cost-efficient to overproduce, 20% of items are unsold, resulting in an oversized and oversaturated system. Nevertheless, the industry is argued to be responsive to consumer demand, meaning sustainable transformation is limited without mass consumer support and dedication to overcoming dopamine-fuelled shopping addiction. However, with vast quantities of dead stock and unsold inventory, the industry has inefficiencies to overcome. As a result, sustainable transformation requires industry shifts to offer sustainable options to consumers, but customers must want to break their addiction through finding happiness and satisfaction in quality products, or other solutions (which will be analysed in subsequent articles).

Linear vs circular resource management. Image: Bethany Walsh.

In contrast to the linear value chain described as central to fast fashion, the circular economy is regenerative by nature, based on what Green Strategy (2021) refers to as ‘principles of closed loops’, with value preservation of existing materials. This conflicts with fast fashion’s fundamental narrative because circular principles such as ‘design for purpose’ [and] ‘design for longevity’ (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2012) conflict with cradle-to-grave short-term material flow of evolving trends.

This paradox is magnified when fashion and sustainability are considered to have separate functions. However, if fast fashion integrated true circular principles as defined by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2020) to design out waste and pollution, keep existing products and materials in use and rely on naturally regenerative systems, fundamental characteristics would be discarded, no longer being ‘fast fashion’. Circularity constructs what the Ellen MacArthur Foundation defines as ‘cradle-to-cradle metabolisms’, maximising economic value and minimising environmental damage, in contrast to fast fashion's ‘cradle-to-grave’ material flow, described as “cyclical buy, wear and toss behaviour” (Stein, 2019), in place of recycling.

Fashion value equations. Image: Bethany Walsh

To add, the methods of how value is created in both economical models’ further contrasts. For example, in a linear value chain, value is generated by selling the maximum product, with a focus on short-term performance through key metrics of sales, growth and profit. This is ‘eco-efficient’ because ecological impact is minimised for the same output, e.g. still pushing the volume of product produced. This is evident with brands introducing ‘eco-collections’, not integrating sustainability into their business objectives, but still promoting overconsumption and the ‘want of the latest trend’. As a result, social impact remains negative.

In juxtaposition, value creation in a circular economy occurs through ‘value preservation’, meaning sustainability is sought through increasing ‘eco-effectiveness’ of products. Therefore, in a circular model, ecological, economic and social impact is positive, achieved through long-term planning, often sacrificing short-term profit at the cost of investment in sustainable performance to enable long-term survival (Kjaer et al, 2018). Subsequently, this shows the disparity between short-term profit and long-term sustainable planning. Overall, ‘true’ sustainability is currently incompatible with fast fashion because product value is minimal due to disposability being integrated into the product value equation.

Overall, fast fashion is a metaphor for speed, but fostering ever-increasing speed can remove time for sustainable innovation and can hinder ethical-working practices. Therefore, ethical and environmental dimensions now question fundamental aspects of fast fashion's model: how can brands replace binary thinking about social-economic continuums with sustainability? However, as highlighted in the above analysis, there are many complexities due to the many paradoxes, and therefore conclusions and recommendations are multi-faceted and require critical analysis from a multi-dimensional lens. Therefore, the next articles in this series will do just that.

In the next article, in order to understand what actions fast fashion can implement in order to transform sustainably, the misinformation that has hindered progress in the industry will be depicted. This is because, as Bauck (2020) highlights, real progress demands accurate data.