Seams Like a Waste: Fast Fashion and Sustainability
Updated: Mar 31, 2021
By Marc Rodriguez
Minnesota School of Business MBA Program
Clothing retailers have altered the phrase “time is money” into a business model that emphasizes quick production of trendy, affordable pieces (Caro & De Albeniz, 2014). In the concept known as “fast fashion,” retailers create low-cost collections that mimic luxury fashion lines through two operational pillars: quick response (QR) and dynamic assortment (DA) (Chan, Joy, Sherry, Venkatesh, & Wang, 2012; Caro & De Albeniz, 2014, p. 58). Fast fashion retailers create and ship designs swiftly to capitalize on latest trends (Cortez, Nguyen, Doan, ZagitaNg, & Vegafria, 2014). From the retailer’s point of view, fast fashion provides accessible price points to consumers while ensuring value equals benefit minus cost (Caro & Albeniz, 2014). For consumers, fast fashion enables shoppers to stay current with ever-changing, upscale trends without breaking the bank (Chan et al., 2012). Big names in the fast fashion world include H&M, Zara, Forever 21, Inditex, Topshop, and New Look (Caro & De Albeniz, 2014). Fast fashion may prove a profitable business model; however, some critics cite a dissonance between value capture and environment concerns (Chan et al., 2012).
A conversation about fast fashion inevitability turns to sustainability and ethical conduct (Caro & De Albeniz, 2014). Environmentally conscious consumers often must choose between sustainability and an updated wardrobe (Caro & De Albeniz, 2014; Chan et al., 2012). Sustainability, by definition, refers to activities that can be continued indefinitely without causing harm and can meet the current generation’s needs without compromising those of future generations (Chan et al., 2012). Because fast fashion is prone to quick cycles and rapid prototyping—the tenets of QR—it encourages volume and disposability in an effort to produce small batches combined with large variety—the characteristics of DA (Chan et al., 2012). Opponents, disenchanted with quick consumption and impact on society, cite three main criticisms of the fast-fashion trend: dealing with waste; working conditions; and consequences to local economies (Caro & De Albeniz, 2014).
Dealing With Waste
The flip side of a high sales volume implies a large amount of clothes that, once their trendy shelf life expires, must go somewhere, creating the problem of waste (Caro & De Albeniz, 2014). Trendy fashion pieces burn hot when popular, but they are not articles that one keeps for long periods of time (Chan et al., 2012). Sales in the global apparel industry grew an average of 4.3 percent between 2000 and 2012, with the average of purchased pieces climbing from nine to fourteen pieces per person worldwide (Caro & Albeniz, 2014). Some retailers have created recycling programs, but these incentives are sparse in the market (Caro & De Albeniz, 2014). The value chain favors the retailers: low manufacturing and labor costs translate to lower overall costs (Chan et al., 2012). As savings are passed to consumers, a higher volume of discarded, flavor-of-the-week clothing floods the market—creating a bulk and a burden (Chan et al., 2012).
People and Working Conditions
Fast fashion companies often do not balance high-end tastes with high-standards in production (Chan et al., 2012). Sweatshops and inhumane working conditions have been discovered among many fast fashion retailers throughout the world (Cortez et al., 2014). Undercover investigators have discovered sweatshops in Brazil, India, Indonesia, Thailand, and Bangladesh, where workers—including children—toiled as much as 16 hours a day (Cortez et al., 2014). On an external level, noncompliant factories shut-downs creates an absence creates a hole in production that adversely affects sales (Cortez et al., 2014). Proponents state that fast fashion enterprises jobs and enable companies to manufacture in a cost-competitive environment; however, manufacturing on geographical concerns alone can be a risky proposal (Caro & De Albeniz, 2014). In 2013, a building collapse in Bangladesh killed more than 1,100 and injured 2,500 workers due to a lapse in safety monitoring (Caro & De Albeniz, 2014). Since this accident, more than 170 brands and retailers signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh to improve conditions (Caro & De Albeniz, 2014). Some companies went a step further, drafting their own codes of conduct (Caro & De Albeniz, 2014). Gap, Inc. created a Code of Vendor Conduct; still, in 2007, investigators exposed a sweatshop in India associated with Gap Inc. (Cortez et al., 2014). Fast fashion critics state that although some companies have taken positive steps towards worker safety, they must communicate their quality standards with suppliers and manufacturers and back them up with regular inspections to ensure compliance (Caro & De Albeniz, 2014).
Outsourcing and Offshoring
In addition to risking workers’ safety in other countries, fast fashion poses another long-term issue through offshoring—or moving core business processes away from communities that depend on the jobs and revenue (Caro & De Albeniz, 2014). Outsourcing provides a cost-cutting strategy that moves production out of high-cost countries and moves them to low-cost production locations, usually in developing economies (Urethanes, 2015). For mature, low-tech industries that operate within intense market competition, outsourcing has become a necessary strategy; however, the increase of international opportunities can court controversy (Buciuni, Coro, & Micelli, 2014). When retailers move manufacturing to other countries, they often depress local economies (Caro & De Albeniz, 2014). Cheaper, quicker manufacturing options may create long-term implications that irrevocably shape a region’s capabilities (Caro & De Albeniz, 2014). Another negative arises with quality control: companies that outsource may find it challenging to control production standards (Cortez et al., 2014). Besides quality, production schedules may handicap the fast fashion model. With a standard lead time of six to nine months, outsourcing models may cause retailers to miss trends completely, thereby contributing to loss off revenue and product waste (Rigoglioso, 2011). In contrast to the economic utility of outsourcing, firms may achieve quicker turnaround by using closer production facilities (Rigoglioso, 2011).
Dealing With Waste
In ranking critical issues, personal safety always is of primary concern. However, in the interest of merging solutions with profit potential, this paper focuses on the problem of waste. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans throw away 12.7 million tons of textiles, or 68 pounds per person, per year (Shambu, 2015). Of this waste, 85 percent of clothes are thrown away without being reused or recycled—accounting for 5.7 percent of solid landfill waste (Weber, 2015). Proactive waste solutions do exist, such as textile reclamation, reuse of fabrics for stuffing in mattresses, coffins, or upholstery (Weber, 2014). However, there is little incentive for the used-clothing industry to engage in the lengthy and costly process of recycling due to low demand for reclaimed fibers (Weber, 2015). Organizations that accept and sort used clothing assume a labor-intensive process in a “snowflake industry,” where each item of clothing is unique and must be sorted individually (Weber, 2015, p. 26). Companies incur increased wages for tasks that are specific and time-consuming (Weber, 2015).
Many consumers may believe that clothes are redirected towards charitable ends; however, studies show most discarded clothes frequently become trash (Shambu, 2015). Cline (2013) refers to this misconception as the “clothing deficit myth”—every donated garment lands in the hands of the indigent (as cited in Shambu, 2015). In fact, a large majority of donated clothing ends up in landfills (Shambu, 2015). Factoring in the artificial, synthetic fibers common in modern textile production, discarded clothes pose a threat to the environment (Shambu, 2015). This escalating use of non-biodegradable clothing, referred to as “Frankenfabrics,” are difficult to recycle and take decades to decompose in landfills (Shambu, 2015, p. 66).
Textile waste is not a commonly addressed problem throughout the world, but there are many solutions available to increase recycling and to divert waste from landfills (Weber, 2015). Alternate solutions can be grouped into categories: manufacturers and retailers; charities; the used-clothes industry; and marketing public relations (Weber, 2015).
Manufacturers and retailers
Firms that assume social responsibility can stimulate both the supply and demand for recycled garments (Weber, 2015). Companies can off-set waste by incorporating reclaimed fibers in new garments, designing products with less environmental impact, and establishing take-back programs (Weber, 2015). Additionally, more retailers should study the recycling initiatives at H&M, which collecting more than 3,000 tons of clothing in 2013 through in-store drop boxes (Caro & De Albeniz, 2014). Manufacturers should research retail lines made partly from recycled cottons, and governments should offer tax incentives to companies that use reclaimed fibers partially or completely (Caro & De Albeniz, 2014). It is possible to produce garments that do not require recycling; for example, the Switzerland-based company Frietag developed a line of 100 percent compostable clothing (Weber, 2014). Building on the in-store collection model, retailers could offer customer incentives—in-store coupons—for clothes donations. To off-set an increase in wages, companies could solicit community and corporate volunteers to help with sorting, boxing, and transporting clothes.
Charitable organizations finance their missions by collecting and reselling clothes, but they are still businesses than must run according to fiscally sound practices (Weber, 2014). Many charities restrict their collections when it ceases to be cost-effective and outside of their budgets (Weber, 2014). If charities partner with private sector interests, they could ensure that all donations are used proactively (Weber, 2014). Donating to charities directly could off-set overhead costs and enable organizations to concentrate on their missions. Volunteers could increase productivity without incurring wages. Charitable organizations should ponder ways to attract volunteers. Churches can gain volunteers from parishioners, perhaps incorporating sorting and boxing activities directly after service while they have a captive audience. Charities could partner with local schools, universities or social groups to incentivize student volunteers. Lower-schools could organize clothing drives. College students could gain valuable resume-building material through community involvement. Social groups, such as scouting troops and veteran’s organizations, could hold clothing reclamation drives.
Resellers can partner with companies and organizations to increase collections (Weber, 2015). One solution is to invest in updated sorting machinery that determine fibers used in garments (Weber, 2015). Another would find companies partnering and cooperating with recycling facilities and textile mills that specialize in reclaimed material (Weber, 2015). To increase the reclaimed fiber market, used-clothing suppliers should solicit support and investments from the private sector and the government (Weber, 2014). Popular used-clothing chains, such as Plato’s Closet, could work the American Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency provide clothing for victims of natural disasters. During hurricane season, used-clothing companies could donate low-selling or unused inventory to shred and to use and as water barriers around homes and basements.
Marketing public relations
In an effort to combine philanthropy with public relations, any organization can organize a recycling initiative. Used clothing dresses up charitable concepts through the myriad opportunities of community involvement. Manufacturers, retailers, businesses, the used-clothing industry, or charities could partner strategically with retail consignment shops, local theaters or playhouses, technical schools, community colleges, or fashion schools. These mergers could turn recycling into successful events—reconstruction contests or fashion shows, for example—that generate positive public relations in the process. Businesses often transcend conventional marketing by turning to alternative methods to increase their competitive advantage (Papasolomou, Sabova, Thrassou, & Vrontis, 2014). Marketing public relations (MPR) provides an effective, viable framework for marketing based on contemporary consumer and strategic theories (Papasoloumou et al., 2014).
The predominant solution for waste from the fast fashion process comes in the form of marketing public relations. Considering the appeal of charity and corporate image, MPR is effective in building brand awareness and brand knowledge while increasing the credibility of messages (Papasoloumou et al., 2014). Special events, coordinated with retailers, businesses and community organizations, could educate the public about the pitfalls of clothing waste in engaging formats. Consumers often receive MPR as news, thereby adding credibility and trustworthiness (Papasoloumou et al., 2014).
Implementation and Recommendations
MPR possesses several attributes that make it conducive to the fast fashion waste solution. MPR does not require extensive promotional budgets, breaks through clutter, makes the media and the public interested in a cause or service, prepares the public for news, enhances two-way communication, creates a buzz through favorable brand perception, and encourages positive word-of-mouth communication (Papasoloumou et al., 2014). With these concepts in mind, this paper offers three MPR models to off-set clothing waste:
Consignment shop models
One of the main decisions a retailer must make is how to manage inventories (AlDurgam, Ben-Daya, Hariga, & Hassini, 2013). Researchers posit the benefits of a hybrid inventory program which considers a supply chain where vendors and buyers manage their inventories independently (AlDurgam et al., 2013). Fast fashion retailers could either partner with consignment shops to sell used merchandise through their store fronts or create a consignment division within their own company. Consignment programs would be advantageous between retailers and third-party consignment shops for several reasons: retailers would not have to tie-up capital in new inventory; the consignment entity possesses detailed access to stock levels and sales patterns; and independent vendors assume responsibility for managing inventory and initiating orders (AlDurgam et al., 2013). Retailers would gain more visibility without having to invest in additional inventory (AlDurgam et al., 2013). Rather than contributing to waste, retailers could open in-store, bargain basement departments that re-sell luxury brands. Using floor space in existing locations negates costs involved in opening new store fronts. The MPR comes into play by donating a large percent of consignment sales to charity, retaining enough profit to maintain operations. The same relationship could take place at an existing consignment shop; partnering would enable consignment shops to sell retailer re-branded and approved merchandise. The benefits are two-fold: the retailer leverages the existing consignment store staff to facilitate sales, and the consignment shop gains enhanced brand and marketing power.
Fashion show partnership
Virtual events are effective, cost-effective ways to create a deep impact in the community (Harad, 2015). Using donated or dropped off clothes—or items left behind in bargain bins as fast fashion trends move forward—retailers could organize local fashion shows that keep clothing in rotation while educating the public on waste (Harad, 2015). A sustainable fashion show would possess many positive incentives: expert positioning (sets up the retailer and partners as local experts in the field); cost-effectiveness (uses existing floor space but can be viewed virtually by a global audience); repeatable format (create usable content by documenting the process in a behind-the-scenes format) ;and asset building (easy to recreate and build upon) (Harad, 2015). The formats could vary: shows could feature models wearing donated clothes or clothing created in conjunction with a reclaimed fibers design contest. Sponsors could tap local celebrities, businesspeople, students, and residents to serve as models. Because the event would occur in a store, the retailer could save on money incurred from special events space leasing. Adding the virtual aspect opens the event worldwide and broadens the reach. The event could be advertised and marketed through sponsoring partners’ Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Periscope, Vine, Tumblr accounts as well as company websites.
Organizers could create a red carpet for the event; however, rather than literally walking on a red carpet, any participant who wears a red item of clothing could participate in this exclusive, roped-off area. To solicit sponsorship, organizers could add a step-and-repeat on the red carpet, creating advertising opportunities for local or national companies. Event partners could use red carpet “interviews” as content for their social media and to incorporate clothing waste education and awareness. Volunteers from the public, or from local colleges, could help organize and run the event. Retailers could partner with local colleges to provide college credit for student participation—providing professional experience for students while keeping wage hours down. Local journalism students could serve as the red carpet “reporters.” Weber (2015) states many charities have been reluctant to partner due to concern of negative exposure and the reticence of pairing with competing charities. However, a fashion show event could create a buzz-worthy event that stimulates sales, educates consumers, generates content, and provides positive public relations.
Community theater partnership
Local retailers could solicit a clothes drop-off program and donate the items to a local community theater companies—offering those who donate discounted tickets to performances. This partnership would encourage participation from consumers, the local community, and local businesses—an ideal combination of public relations and profitability. To expand this concept, local schools or colleges could create a playwriting contest. An example of a contest goal would be to write a one-act play that somehow incorporates several wardrobe changes and touches upon sustainability. Proceeds of the box office could be donated towards clothing-related charities. When the curtain rises, the audience may include store managers and employees, local students, fashionistas, consumers, and theater patrons. Some patrons might show up just to see if their donated items made the cut.
Fast fashion by definition describes a quick-response system that encourages disposability and waste—continuously capturing the latest trends (Chan et al., 2012; Cortez et al., 2014). For retailers, the practice does have merit. When rapid production and enhanced design are combined—making fresh items available to consumers quickly and with little overstock—a firm's profits may double (Rigoglioso, 2011). Fast fashion encourages sale-oriented consumers to buy early and to buy often; however, this cycle causes a surplus of clothes that end up in landfills (Rigoglioso, 2011; Caro & De Albeniz, 2014). Rather than criticize the fast fashion model, retailers can research ways to add sustainability to the mix—thereby maintaining QR and DA principles while keeping customers happy (Caro & De Albeniz, 2014). A collaboration among manufacturers and retailers could redefine the long-term viability of the fast fashion industry. Partnering with charities and local organizations could offer solutions to alleviate clothing waste. Incorporating a charitable public relations dynamic can ensure the fast fashion model prioritizes people as well as profits. Fast fashion companies may find that, although trends come and go, sustainability is the best accessory.
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