If supply and demand are the two pillars of economic theory, is it the consumers or the fast fashion brands who are to blame?
With a recent Common Objective report predicting that apparel production is set to increase by 13% by 2021, we have to stop and question if the current consumer drive for sustainable fashion relates only to the method of production and not the volume.
Arguably we are in the midst of what could be not just a consumer but an environmental revolution, and yet paradoxically our landfills continue to grow alongside our demand for ethical and sustainable clothing. Clearly something has gone wrong with this new paradigm. Leading us to question who is to blame for this ever increasing demand?
In a period that has come to be defined by Fast Fashion, a term first identified by the New York Times back in 1990 to describe Zara, we have to ask whether these larger, almost always global, brands are only paying lip service to current consumer demands whilst continuing to plough ahead with ever rising sales targets and production volumes.
Similarly, are we the consumers doing essentially the same by preaching our newfound concern all the while still consuming ever more?
Fast Fashion: Our Habit Of Consumption
In the last three decades, since the cult of fast fashion was identified, we have done very little to help the situation, with one easy act being to actually wear our clothes more. Recent research by WRAP shows that if we increase the active life of our clothing by even nine months then we “would reduce the annual carbon, water and waste footprints of UK clothing by 20-30% each, and cut resource costs by £5 billion”. However, this is the antithesis of our widely accepted consumption culture.
So despite this evidence and the growing interest in not only how our clothes are made, see the rise in organic and sustainable fabrics, and by who, the brands are still finding it profitable to produce ever more garments and we seem unable or perhaps unwilling, albeit through no direct fault of our own, to break our habits of overconsumption and in turn devaluation of clothing.
In their defence, the brands themselves will no doubt argue that their increased production is merely keeping up with demand, and if they don’t then a competitor will.
Certainly there is some truth in this, as a report by the European Parliament states that “The amount of clothes bought in the EU per person has increased by 40% in just a few decades” and “accounts for between 2% and 10% of the environmental impact of EU consumption”.
We must remember that we have the power to vote with our wallets, by giving our money not only to specific products but also specific companies that align with our wider societal values.
Convenience Comes At A Cost
Meanwhile this alleged demand, one might argue is exacerbated by the fact that another old adage, “buy cheap, buy twice” has not only been adopted though the guise of fast fashion by many larger brands as a viable business model but has been insidiously accepted by consumers as it allows them to cheaply purchase clothing with no attachment or purpose beyond a single use. This marks a clear shift from the past in which durability and practicality were prioritised over quick access and choice.
Evidently the connection between supply and demand is key here, and this relationship can often be seen in the elasticity of price, and in regards to the mass market many people may not want or be able to pay a premium for better quality or produced items.
While brands certainly won’t want to reduce margins in a bid to differentiate through sustainability in such a competitive environment (and that is without taking the current wider economy into consideration) but the current status quo looks to benefit the many, at least in the West, fast fashion in reality only benefits the brands themselves.
Fast Fashion Economics 101
So, how did we get here? Thanks to technological developments in production, not to mention the dubious practice of off-shoring and sweatshops, the final production price for many garments of mainstream clothing has been significantly reduced. In addition to this, economies of scale has resulted in the viable opportunity for over-production, thus creating an unwanted surplus and unfulfilled production schedule which combines to create a lost revenue opportunity.
Clearly then, not all of this so-called consumer demand can be placed at the door of the market. In a bid to shift this surplus product and maximise factory efficiency we have seen a change from four seasons a year to 52 and an increase in marketing campaigns to pray upon our social ad physical insecurities all while pandering to our need for immediacy. In return all we need to do is give up ever increasing levels of our disposable income.
Although, before anyone starts to attack the newer generations for being suckered into fast fashion, a topic several British newspapers have covered, we need to understand where this all came from.
Post-Depression America And The Start of Mass Consumption
Certainly it preceded social media, and while influencers may have exacerbated consumption problems by ordering clothing and taking photos before returning them, they certainly aren’t the root of the problem or even close. Instead, we need to go way back to post-depression America where President Hoover helped usher in a new era of literal manufactured desire.
Fast forward through through the decades, watch the show Mad Men for a run down of how this went. What was once an economic stimulus quickly became an issue of over-consumption leading to a mindset change which Earnest Calkins would go on to state is where we would want something “not because the old one is worn out, but because it is no longer modern.”
However, Calkins did not say these things at any point in the last three decades as fast fashion took over, it was way back in 1930. This highlights how long back we, as consumers, have been led into believing that we need new items to stay current, cool and in touch with the ever growing pace of modern society, ultimately resulting in our modern throwaway culture mindset, which looks to be programmed into our brains.
Our Global Fashion Agenda
Over time, with ever more intelligent marketing tactics and behavioural psychology, the mass market are believing that the true value of clothing is that it can be used once and then left in the wardrobe. This is a fact proven in a report by the Global Fashion Agenda (2017) which states that more than 30% of the clothes in the typical European consumers wardrobe have not been worn for more than a year.
Think back to the environmental benefit that re-wearing rather than purchasing can have. It is clear that not only do all sides need to take responsibility in working towards sustainability, but that the very questions being asked need to be expanded beyond how our clothes are being made, and to question why are they being made and can their life be extended through reuse or recycling?
For our part as consumers, we need to develop a mindset of intentionality towards our purchases. This may involve trialling a capsule wardrobe or perhaps a reduction in consumption will lead to an increase in creativity and innovation in how we reuse, wear and recycle our clothing. Who knows, perhaps as well as more value out of our clothing we will also get more joy.
However, we cannot do this alone and even by voting with our wallets any shift in consumer culture and clothing production will need the buy-in of government and regulatory bodies to ensure that industry play their part, as if history has taught us anything it is that we are all complicit if we do not make a change.
Remember convenience has a cost, that is more than just on our wallets. Identify and support those companies which are looking to make a change in the world and only buy what you need when you need it.