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f re m t i d s f ors k nin g
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Fashion is a colossal industry with a glamorous surface marred by unnecessarily high rates of consumption, production
and waste, not to mention unethical labour conditions. We take a closer look at how these factors are
influencing the future of high-street fashion ... and it looks like YOU are involved.
ast fashion is low-cost clothing based on current, high-cost
luxury fashion trends. Clothes are produced in a fast-response
system that produces clothes according to a current trend faster
than before and thus encourages disposability. H&M, for example,
releases about eighteen collections with a new look every year.
The alluring abundance and choice offered by high-street
brands democratise fashion by enabling us to wear the latest
looks at affordable prices, but on the other hand, fast fashion is
also an expression of bastardisation where poor technical quality
and unethical production are overlooked as low prices become
the dominant competitive parameter.
Trends in future fashion look to amend some of the alarming
realities in textile and apparel industries by breaking information
barriers, paying fairer prices and revising the current high-
street business model. We spoke to Vanessa Friedman, a former
Financial Times fashion editor who has recently been appointed
Fashion Director and Chief Fashion Critic at The New York
Times, and Ingun Grimstad Klepp, an ethnologist from Norway’s
National Institute for Consumer Research (SIFO), whose work
focuses on the production of textiles, sustainability and consumer
behaviour in fashion. The subject was developments that reform
the industry and what they mean for the modern day consumer.
The demand for faster cycles of cheaper fashion apparel
squeezes margins upon garment workers in a production
mechanism that is all too familiar. Lower manufacturing and
labour costs mean lower costs overall, and the lower prices
subsequently propel higher volumes of production. In 2010
alone, global textile fibre demand increased by 4.6 million tons
to 69.7 million tons. These are concerning figures, considering
the unrealistic minimum wage of people involved in this link
of the chain.
Low wages, increased production demand and suppression of
worker rights are just some of the conditions which led to the
sweatshop disaster in Rana Plaza, Bangladesh. The collapse of
the building saw 1,138 lives perish and left over 2 000 injured,
creating public awareness of the realities of human rights abuse.
Alongside this is also the grave concern for environmental costs,
as fashion is one of the world’s largest polluters in terms of
chemical waste, landfills and exorbitant rates of Co2
Nearly 10,000 synthetic chemicals are flushed into fresh water
reserves by the fashion industry, contributing to nearly 20 per cent
of overall global industrial water pollution.
We asked what the main challenges are in evolving fast fashion
to a sustainable industry.
“In relation to consumers, we don’t have access to knowledge
about textiles and clothing both from a social and technical
perspective. Marketing is based on images and dreams, not on
facts. This is all problematic in changing the focus from quantity
to quality and durability,” says Ingun Klepp.
Some choose clothing that fit, others clothes to fit in; some chose
clothes as expressions of taste and yet others as expressions of
personality. Consumers who looking to judge garments in terms
of physical quality still have limited choices. To date, there are
no systems of information by which consumers can choose
garments based on fibre makeup, production, or characteristics
of durability such as colour hold or fibre peel. While this may
not be a deciding factor for one’s fashion purchases, the lack has
several implications for the continuation of the current cycle.
By Marta Malchevski & Nicklas Larsen
instructions. The text stated, “Forced to work exhausting hours.” Perhaps a cry for help from stressed and underpaid seamstresses? Yes, says critics. No, says Primark, which in a press
release casts doubts on the veracity of the incident. In 2012, the company had clothes produced in Rana Plaza, the sweatshop that collapsed, resulting in more than 1,100 fatalities.
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The obstruction of basic information and transparency leaves
fashion behind other industries that are becoming increasingly
transparent. “In food, the use of GMO (genetically modified
organisms; ed.) is increasingly labelled, on textiles it is not
even marked – it’s not even something you are obliged to tell
your consumers.” Klepp and Friedman explain that a driver
for this unawareness is the lack of mandatory information
“Today, the lack of power is very present. The lack of power
comes from lack of knowledge. This is problematic, as there is
no universal system to communicate properties of ‘sustainable’
or ‘recycled’ that would give consumers an idea of what they’re
actually purchasing,” says Klepp.
“Nowhere have I ever seen a group come out and say: ‘We
define a recycled garment as one that has 20 percent recycled
fibres.’ There are no minimum universal standards, and I
think there should be. I feel very strongly that there needs to
be some sustainability for dummies,”
The task of slowing down the fast
fashion cycle faces many obstacles,
particularly when a common reality for
consumers is that purchasing a new
t-shirt often is cheaper than repairing
an existing one or even taking it to the
dry cleaner. Friedman argues change
“is more challenging on the high-street
level, as you don’t want to leave behind
an entire sector or a population who are
making decisions based on economics
and not values, because that is simply
the reality of their lives. You don’t want to price them out of
The Millennials, also identified under the acronym “Generation
IWWIWWIWI” (I Want What I Want When I Want It), will
make up 75 per cent of the global workforce by 2025. This gene-
ration, born roughly between 1980 and 2000, is interesting in
this context because of its characteristic virtual savviness and
global connectivity. This innate skill in communication has al-
ready demonstrated an immense power to raise awareness on
global causes, such as the KONY 2012 documentary. Joseph
Kony is a leader of a guerrilla rebel group in Uganda responsi-
ble for kidnapping children to his army. He was virtually
unknown to the public until the release of the documentary
about him became one of the largest events in the history of the
internet. Generation IWWIWWIWI’s virtual abilities build
foundations for new purchasing patterns such as sharing net-
works like rent-a-dress, clothes swap events like resecond.com
or online platforms of local designers such as Notjustalabel.com
(an independent platform for emerging designers).
Generation IWWIWWIWI finds an online fix. Friedman
explains that social media have enabled users to build an identity
through virtual associations with styles and brands. It’s like: “I
want it, I look at a picture of it, and then I Pin it to my board
– and now I have it, and then I don’t want it anymore.” Hence,
in a way these two things feed each other. Once we satisfy our
immediate desires, we turn to more considered purchasing.
Future business models
The future business models can be divided into two categories.
In opposition to the linear ‘take, make, dispose, waste’ culture,
life-cycle models have circular economic structures keeping
products in continuous cycles. This is for instance seen in
‘take-back management’ or closed-loop systems with the purpose
of upcycling, which means reinventing garments from old and
worn textiles returned by customers. For instance, H&M has
collected 5,000 tons in 1.5 years with its Garment Collecting
initiative, or the use of food processing by-products in the form
of Atlantic Leather, which turns fish skin waste into leather
through the use of renewable energy
without compromising biodiversity.
An alternative is incentive models with
an emphasis on business performance
by selling products and services that
incentivise businesses and consumers to
use fewer resources or optimise usage.
The invention of water recycle systems has,
for example, already saved Levi’s denim
production more than 770 million litres
of water. In areas of social responsibility,
Labor Link’s emerging software gives
textile workers a free, anonymous
communication channel from their
mobile phones to report working conditions and participate in
investigative surveys, something that Vodafone estimates will
benefit 18 million workers globally by 2020.
Traceability and transparency
The movement to standardise transparency is expected to
propel awareness of consumption impacts. The aim of traceability
is to provide information on farming, production, packaging,
distribution, transportation, and sales processes, while transparency
aims to make that information accessible. If the complexity of
accessing information on the product is reduced, we will likely
see more conscious consumption in the future.
Transparency of the supply chain isn’t a new thing. We already
have e.g. Free2Work, a barcode based app that informs what
brands or products use forced and child labour, or iRecycle,
which aggregates locations to return used items ranging from
cars and electronics to hazardous substances.
Bruno Pieters, former Artistic Director of Hugo Boss, in 2012
launched Honest By. According to Friedman, it is “the most
transparent fashion platform to this day” that shares the full cost
breakdown in addition to providing the complete traceability of
a product’s lifecycle from production to sales – an example of
how the movement to conscious consumption is expanding.
”Nearly 10,000 synthetic
chemicals are flushed into fresh
water reserves by the fashion
industry, contributing to nearly
20 per cent of overall global
industrial water pollution”
Vanessa Friedman, fashion director and chief fashion critic at New York Times. Friedman was, for many years, fashion editor at Financial Times, where she became a known
name in the business.
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“I think we have reached the tipping point on the top end, in
terms of expansion for more stores. What we will see as a response
is that the way you grow your revenue stream is not necessarily
by selling more stuff, but selling less stuff that is more expensive,”
says Friedman when asked how fashion will evolve in the next
It is unrealistic to expect consumers to turn to expensive high-end
brands merely to escape fast fashion. The intention for higher
costs is ‘it tends to make people think more about what they are
buying, why they are buying less and what they are getting for
their money, and I think those questions are really important,”
This foreseeable change in consumer behaviour will arise
from a shift in values. “Increasingly, market shares will be driven
by an appeal to the heart and mind,” says Friedman. “The
value systems that are delivered by brands and embodied by
products will be more important. They
will become a certain deciding factor in
purchasing.” As factors for choosing
sustainable options become increasingly
important, so too will consumer’s pursuit
for value in technical quality, stylish
design, and a guarantee of reasonable
production conditions. Klepp agrees that
higher prices will have a positive impact.
“It is crucial that the prices go up to ensure
decent pay for garment workers, but
also in itself, higher prices will slow rates
Aid of technology
The mother lode of transparency in fashion is yet to be unleashed.
Jason Kibby from the Sustainable Apparel Coalition and keynote
speaker at the 2014 Copenhagen Fashion Summit predicts that
the future of fashion is universal transparency. He foresees free
data on open platforms with barcodes that are encoded at all steps
of the production chain, even when it reaches the hands of users.
He sees rating apps and platforms where trusted third parties,
such as fair trade organisations, sustainable indexes or noted
fashion analysts, could also rate products on environmental
impacts, social responsibility and its cost mark up. This mega
platform is already in its early stages, with ratings, indexes and
various apps operating, albeit in a limited and independent capacity.
SCENARIO: What is the key to modifying consumer habits?
“It is crucial that this change is helped in the right direction
through information; yet there are many stakeholders responsible
to make the change,” says Klepp. The transparency movement will
have several ramifications for stakeholders. Firstly, implementing
a universal system for labelling garment properties would better
indicate workers’ skills and their inherent labour conditions.
The future collaboration of technology and open data will
enable consumers to make informed decisions. Furthermore,
the communication of production standards would also be grounds
for fairer competition in retail prices, and fundamentally, with
more informed consumption, brands will have a clearer idea of
what the consumer really wants.
The empowered consumer
Consumer education is a key factor in supporting progress towards
beneficial change. The growing consumer interest in sustainability
is known as the LOHAS movement (Lifestyles of Health and
Sustainability), which is expanding in sectors such as urban
design, food, agriculture, medicine, and energy usage. In the US
alone, LOHAS describes an estimated $290 billion market place
for goods and services focused on health, environment, social
justice, and sustainable living. As more and more consumers shift
behaviours, brands will react to the new demands.
“The thing that really drives the brand change is consumer
change. Brands are wholly responsive to their public, their buyers
and clients. If they sell it as a high-street brand, they immediately
put more in. I think all this can change
if people slightly change the way they
think of products and what they need,”
Similarly, a Cambridge University study
found that any change for environmental
and social benefit in the textile industry
would be driven by consumers. Since
by the volume of material, the greatest
beneficial change would occur if we
purchased less and kept it for longer.
By and large, the role of the consumer is
immense. Across the board, industry
consensus is that the most effective actions in reversing fast fashion
lie in the consumers’ hands: buying fewer and longer-lasting
garments, buying more second-hand clothing, washing clothes
less often at lower temperatures, and recycling clothes that have
reached the end of their lives.
The future of slower fashion rests crucially on the millennials
and generation 00s. Their inherent connectivity to global networks
has heightened awareness of global issues and provides an immense
opportunity to support greener consumer habits. This will be
particularly critical for the projected emergent economies of the
21st century, the BRIC and the Next 11 nations, of which
China, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Vietnam, and the Philippines
owe a significant portion of their GDP to the textile industry.
As of 2014, Bangladesh is the world’s second largest apparel
exporter, and in Pakistan, textiles account for 60 percent of exports.
A foreseeable shift in consumer habits would be a stronghold for
the establishment of greener business models in these emerging
economies and ideally making ‘sweatshop’ seem an archaic term.
Of course, with expected higher prices, consumption of sustainable
goods may become a luxury of high-income consumers. However,
by aiming to standardise sustainability, we may look forward to a
future in which these current decades of reckless fast fashion are
a closed chapter. ¢
”The future of slower
fashion rests crucially on the
millennials and generation 00’s.
Their inherent connectivity to
global networks has heightened
awareness of global issues”
Ethnologist Ingun Grimstad Klep, Statens Institutt for Forbrugsforskning in Norway, who works with sustainability and consumer behaviour in textile production and the fashion industry.
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