The fashion industry is always at the forefront of the discourse on sustainability. The market behemoth is valued at over $400 billion, profiting through cyclical trends and, more recently, influencer culture––because who doesn’t wear clothing?
Yet beneath the elusive designs that make their way to Fashion Week and the fast fashion sector that moves more quickly than most can keep up with is a supply chain riddled with low-wage workers and unethical business practices. The lack of corporate-focused sustainability in an industry as large as fashion has drawn the eyes of governments and a new generation of consumers, putting into question the future of sustainable fashion.
The Reality of Fast Fashion
In the past, brands released two collections per year in conjunction with the twice-a-year Fashion Week. However, with the rise of fast fashion and express trends came the fall of slow and high-quality products, bringing in a new era of consumerism and single-use clothing. The Spring/Summer and Fall/Winter trope has fallen off the rails, with brands now offering up to 24 collections per year. The world’s clothing production capacity has doubled in the past two decades. Consumers purchase approximately 60% more garments than they did in 2014 but discard them 50% more quickly.
Even with charities and a massive second-hand clothing market (mostly centered around impoverished countries), 57% of discarded clothing still end up in landfills. With the most notable being H&M–some fast fashion brands–have pledged to a recycling and upcycling program for preventing clothing waste. But in reality, only 10% of the world’s clothing is recycled.
And beneath all those environmental issues are gaps in business ethics, starting from unreasonably low wages provided to factory workers in clothing production hubs like Bangladesh. Workers are overworked and mistreated to meet factory quotas, don’t receive any benefits, and are often required to work overtime without pay. In an already overstretched corporate infrastructure, the bottom of the supply chain suffers the most.
These statistics only brush through a portion of the industry’s faults. From supply chain waste to overall inefficiencies in production (which cause even more waste to pile up), every aspect of a garment’s life cycle harms the environment. The lack of sustainability is so widespread that it has become a global issue––yet corporations are sitting still and are, quite literally, watching the world burn in the name of profit.
Motivating Change Through Consumer Habits
Consumers are the key to remedying the fast fashion epidemic. Without consumers, even the industry frontrunners Zara and H&M won’t be able to thrive. And that’s why the industry is closing in on a big win with a growing number of people considering sustainability in their shopping lists. In 2015, a study found that 58% of respondents value corporate social responsibility (through eco-friendliness), while 66% were willing to spend more on sustainably-produced products.
On another front, the COVID-19 pandemic caused a massive decline in retail performance. The luxe and fashion industries were particularly hard-hit, with a 30-40% drop in sales. Lengthy lockdowns and living at home for over a year have also induced a shift in consumers’ spending behavior. In particular, there has been a growing migration from brick-and-mortar to online shopping, and spending decisions are driven through value rather than quantity.
Shoppers are unlikely to carelessly spend after the financial implications of the pandemic, hence the need for fast fashion to rethink their sustainability models. With less clothing expected to reach consumers’ carts, prioritizing quality and appealing to a new generation of thoughtful spenders should be at the top of corporate priority.
Competition in The Digital World
Fast fashion brands are now competing with virtual second-hand platforms like ThredUp and Depop, online thrift stores where sellers can curate products that appease various audiences with different style preferences. With a growing interest in second-hand shopping and the rise of throwback trends––from the classic ‘90s to the reimagined Y2K era––digital thrift stores offer shoppers an opportunity to add unique pieces to their carts. As thrifted goods are inherently more sustainable than new, mass-produced garments, these platforms are favored by the eco-conscious generation and are pressuring fast fashion brands to make changes––fast.
How Today’s Tech Boom is Driving Fashion Sustainability
Recently, non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, have been in the center stage, causing a colossal shift in the digital art industry. These tokens offer immutable ownership to any digital file, which means an opportunity to reimagine the fashion design process from the ground up. It all starts with hyper-realistic 3D renders of virtual clothing, from sneakers to high-fashion garments, which can be worn virtually in the metaverse.
Gucci has been exploring the virtual fashion scene for years by releasing digital clothing that can be equipped in games like The Sims and Roblox. NFTs, take this interest up a notch by providing monetizable products and coveted ownership. There are merits to their existence in both the online and offline fashion industry.
For one, NFTs eliminate the outdated design process by digitizing the pre-production cycle, from the initial sketch to the corporate showroom. It also makes it simpler for designers to collaborate with brands so that brands can simply purchase the NFT and take production in-house, allowing them to control all sustainability factors.
In the virtual space, NFTs reinforce exclusivity and heighten the elusiveness of luxury drops, which is expected to prompt consumers to pay attention to the digital fashion space. 3D sneakers are already selling for millions, and digital fashion marketplace DIGITALAX has successfully auctioned off single edition pieces––a sign that mainstream adoption is underway.
Digital goods are considerably more sustainable than tangible products because they cut off the majority of the supply chain, which means that fast fashion will have to make major adjustments to stay relevant over the crucial next few years. Ultimately, sustainable fashion is the key to staying relevant in a world where fashion-forward consumers are shifting interests and becoming more eco-conscious.