Fast fashion is quickly becoming demonized by publications The National, The Guardian, and many more as they discuss the issues of sustainability in fashion. Fast fashion is the first to be outed as the cause for the fashion industry’s lack of sustainability as pointed out by the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion. Yet, the UN does not specify which fashion faction is the main contributor.
Fashion in today’s terms is “a popular trend, especially in styles of dress” and is broken into two factions: fast fashion and slow fashion. Slow fashion is a relatively new term for fashion cycles meant to oppose fast fashion and can encompass all other major fashion players from High fashion, to sustainable fashion, to durable workwear brands such as Carhartt.
High fashion—also known as luxury fashion and Haute Couture— has multitudes of cultural connotations in the western world. Haute Couture is “expensive, fashionable clothes produced by leading fashion houses.” The term High fashion is considered interchangeable with Haute Couture, but luxury fashion is a little different: where Haute Couture refers directly to fashion houses, luxury fashion derives from the idea of “Luxury Brands” which culminate “associations about a high level of price, quality, aesthetics, rarity, extraordinariness and a high degree of non-functional associations.”
According to the article Fast Fashion, Sustainability, and the Ethical Appeal of Luxury Brands by Annamma Joy, John F. Sherry, Jr, Alladi Venkatesh, Jeff Wang and Ricky Chan, fast fashion differs from the rest of the fashion industry for its focus on “low-cost clothing collections that mimic current luxury fashion trends” (emphasis added), and relies on fast-paced trend cycles to support their low-quality items’ ten-wash durability cycle.
Thus, the unsustainable garment cycle of fast fashion is reinforced by luxury brands’ own continuous and swift trend-setting. Fast fashion is therefore both a byproduct of and the enabler to luxury fashion’s cultural hold. They could be argued to rely upon each other to stay afloat. Yet, it is far more likely that fast fashion will be demonized by mainstream media outlets due to the low prices that are an explicit reflection of exploitation within the garment production process. However, an item’s higher price is not always equivalent to better production practices and lower prices contribute to higher rates of accessibility, which is of its own importance.
What makes fashion unsustainable?
According to the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion, “Around 215 trillion litres of water per year are consumed by the [fashion] industry.” They also report that the fashion industry is responsible for approximately 2-8% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, and textiles account for 9% of annual microplastics lost to the oceans. According to a 2019 article, the washing of synthetic textiles is the largest contributor to microplastics found in the ocean, of those textiles synthetic clothing is a major contributor. Chemicals used in the process of making garments can harm the planet and its inhabitants and create other dangerous working conditions, including the 2013 Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh that killed over 1,100 factory workers and injured 2,500 more.
How does society react?
Annamma Joy, et al. found data suggesting fast fashion consumers do care about the environment and sustainability but at the same time hold aesthetic style as a priority while shopping for their wardrobe. Meaning the grip fast fashion has on Gen Z consumers is based on the quick trend turnover its industry now relies on to stay afloat. If the fast fashion industry were to produce sustainable, higher quality garments, their profit margins would significantly decrease.
Luxury brands have successfully marketed themselves as aspirational, and while stylish and (sometimes) longer-lasting, fail as sustainable alternatives. When asked about opinions on sustainable fashion or “eco-fashion” brands, the majority suggested that the clothing did not fit their style or aesthetic and budget. Thus, the conversation about fast fashion and sustainability has come to a stalemate: people’s awareness of the harmful impacts fails to deter them from contributing to its growth. Aesthetically-motivated consumerism and the low cost to buy persist as a stronger influence.
What is harder to understand is the lack of investigation into High fashion brands and sustainability by mainstream media. The issues enumerated by the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion concerns the fashion industry at large—not just the fast fashion industry as sole contributor to water consumption, gas emissions, and textile waste. There is no way to know for sure that a luxury brand is maintaining quality or sustainability because, as a whole, the industry’s sustainability is unaccountable.
What distinguishes luxury from the issue?
Quality is a relative term. As a westerner, quality refers to the durability of the garment, the expertise of how it was made, what fabric it uses, the structure of the garment, its stitching, the fit, and the ingenuity of the garment’s design. How does a consumer know that their purchase is high quality? They must have faith in the brand, designer, or retailer because the reputation of these institutions defines their quality.
Brands may put their fabric percentages on tags in garments, but they aren’t required to tell you where the fabric came from or how that fabric was made. A fabric may be 100% cotton or cashmere, but that does not guarantee the fabric is a durable weave. The garment supply chain has fragmented greatly: from design, to sourcing textiles, to production, to transportation to the retailer, it’s nearly impossible to trace the true sustainability of any fashion item whether it be fast, slow, luxury or couture.
For all the cultural connotations, there is no explicit evidence proving distinguished fashion names hold higher quality garments in comparison to the average consumer’s fast fashion retailer. Persuasion of the public seems to lie in marketing, aesthetic, and pricing. It is hard to ignore the holes in blanket statements made by major names in the High fashion industry about sustainability when their actions contradict their words.
Two years ago the G7, an inter-governmental political forum consisting of seven major world powers, had 20 fashion retailers sign a global pact to fight the climate crisis, protect biodiversity, and preserve the oceans. What does that mean today? Harper’s BAZAAR featured Browns’ new venture to enable customers to shop responsibly with curated, conscious collections online. However, looking at their website now, that small curated collection is nothing in comparison to their greater inventory. How is Browns combating the issue if they cannot force all brands they carry to be more sustainable? It’s a bandaid to a deeper wound.
Fashion critics toss around the idea that Haute Couture is akin to fine art. The Met Gala, for example, is known as the fashion event of the year: an event with an emphasis on one-wear red carpet fashion, opening an art exhibit for costume and clothes, operating on the assumption that these items are considered art. Simultaneously, clothes are considered a necessity. No shoes, no shirt, no service. If a person were poorly dressed in the winter months of Canada, they would die of hypothermia. Clothing in that regard is a necessity, a part of humanity’s right to live. Is it, then, sustainable to make clothing that is only worn by its owner once or sits on a mannequin as art?
Some designers are taking strides to make their brands more sustainable and accessible, such as Brother Vellies who dedicated space for sustainability at their brand and dressed Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in a white gown for the 2021 Met Gala. Simultaneously, Stella McCartney decided to showcase her Adidas collaboration at the 2021 Met Gala, ostensibly to raise awareness for sustainability. Although the performance could be construed as thinly-veiled marketing for the new line. Interestingly enough The Guardian broke a story mere months following the major event with a Stella scandal, revealing that the designer and CEO took a major salary raise after receiving government relief money and furloughing employees without pay. Thus countering the UN‘s Sustainable Development Goals, which specify that the treatment of fashion industry employees must also be ethical and sustainable for the industry to improve its global impact.
High fashion offers duality to clothing. Where sustainability is concerned, the purpose of clothing is blatant necessity. Where luxury is concerned, clothing is expression, ideas, art, etc. It is hard to disagree with either sentiment when even the average consumer displayed in Annamma Joy, et al.’s article places equal emphasis on necessity and aesthetic style. Yet, it cannot be ignored that the baseline for clothing’s purpose is a necessity, which must be met with accessibility in order to supplement that necessity.
Haute Couture designers who clad models in something that will never make it to the street or rack are not contributing to the accessibility of clothing, making the practice, although beautiful, unsustainable. Similarly, one-wear red carpet fashion at events like the Met Gala can not be considered sustainable despite claims of ethical production because one-wear items are just as unsustainable as fast fashion’s ten-wash items. Putting hypocrisy and scandal aside in the case of Stella McCartney’s sustainable Adidas collaboration, these luxury items can not be considered fully sustainable due to the high prices creating a paywall for average consumers, thus making the items inaccessible and therefore unable to supplement basic necessity. However, all these items could redeem themselves by delivery as second-hand items to those trapped in the fast fashion cycle.
What could be the solution?
“Circular Fashion” refers to the deconstruction of the linear clothing pipeline that ends with wasted textiles and garments in landfills. The hope is that more clothing can be redistributed secondhand rather than discarded. The issue is if a garment is to be of reasonable quality when it becomes secondhand, it must be of considerable quality when it’s first made.
In addition, there cannot be a discussion about Circular Fashion without also discussing the current imbalance in wealth distribution. Fast trends and low-cost, ten-wash items create a trap for those of low income because to stay clothed, they must constantly re-buy draining funds regularly instead of saving for higher quality clothing. If more people could afford to buy from brands committed to sustainable fashion, it would be a whole new world, but the wealth gap grows every day and clothing remains a necessity.
Circular Fashion could have a domino effect in the fashion industry if more people from higher socio-economic classes contributed to the circle by donating their one-wear items, and luxury brand name staples to thrift stores. It would also rely on “vintage” resellers not to poach high-quality items from Value Villages or Good Wills, leaving low-income families to fish through racks of poor quality secondhand fast fashion. Although a beautiful sentiment, Circular Fashion in today’s fashion schemes feels like a pipe-dream because it relies so heavily on consumers to become the solution.
Being that fast and slow fashion both contribute to the unsustainability of their industry, it feels fitting that they be the ones to collaborate for a solution. Although, as far as these companies are taking initiative, they seem to be more concerned with pointing the finger somewhere else. The slow fashion industry points to the fast fashion industry and the fast fashion industry points to the consumer. Yet again, a trap laid out for those of low income to take the brunt of burden.