Don't Be Fooled, Fast Fashion Can Never Be Sustainable

by: Rosie Dalton | 2 years ago | Features

Image: from the H&M Conscious Collection SS17. Image source.

Over recent years, many fast fashion brands have made claims about how sustainable they have become. H&M launched its very own ‘World Recycle Week’ and pledged to increase its consumption of organic cotton, for instance. While Zara forged relationships with companies such as Lenzing, which specialises in the sustainable harvesting of fabrics like Modal and Tencel. Much of this action comes in response to greater consumer awareness and subsequent pressure for these corporations to become increasingly transparent about how their clothes are made. Which is great, because it means that the fashion industry is finally becoming a little less opaque and more planet-friendly. But the problem with retailers like H&M or Zara shouting their ‘sustainability’ initiatives from the rooftops is this: fast fashion can never truly be sustainable.

The prevalence of greenwashing has been a major issue over the past ten years or so – not just in our wardrobes, but also in our supermarket aisles and beauty cabinets too. The difference with food and beauty products, though, is that they feel somehow more corporeal than clothing does. With each of these product categories, you are quite literally putting something directly into your body or onto your skin. Which also means you’re more likely to be aware of what is in these products. This hasn’t always been the case, of course, and greater knowledge around the harmfulness of pesticides and certain chemical additives has meant that we are increasingly cautious about these products, in a way that clothing is perhaps still catching up to.

Where fashion is different to both food and beauty, though, is that it is much less results-driven. Food needs to taste a certain way and cleansers or moisturisers need to perform their basic functions in order to be successful. With clothing, however, so much of this success relies upon aesthetics alone. And this is where fashion can be highly effective at fooling people. When you consider the fact that fast fashion retailers have some of the biggest research teams and most intimidating advertising budgets, their ability to manipulate people through such trickery becomes almost unparalleled.

For those that aren’t aware just how much social injustice and environmental harm is wrapped up in cheap clothing, the fact that fast fashion retailers offer a cheaper version of designer styles doesn’t seem like such a bad thingl. In fact, it probably seems pretty damn attractive, when you think about it. Add to this the fact that the Zaras and H&Ms of the world are especially skilled at having their products placed in the pages of major fashion magazines, or on the bodies of popular bloggers and it is little wonder that so many of the luxury houses now struggle to compete. Never mind whether such placements are paid or not – because, as with so much of fashion, this side of things tends to go unnoticed.

It is the unseen in fashion that needs to be brought to the surface, then. Fortunately, this is happening more and more today, as consumers have access to increasing information about the true cost of cheap fashion. But the uptick in ‘sustainable initiatives’ launched by such companies that aren't really sustainable is what's standing in the way of this positive change. These initiatives represent a particularly insidious form of greenwashing because, unlike the airy-fairy claims behind ‘all-natural’ beauty products, for instance, these efforts are actually quantifiable. At least to some extent, the amount of organic cotton actually being used by H&M can be measured and then reported on.

What these sustainability initiatives ignore, however, is the fact that no matter how much organic cotton retailers like this are consuming, they will never be truly sustainable. This is because the fast fashion business model, by its very nature, is an unsustainable one. Above all else, these businesses are focussed on quantity over quality. They routinely produce more than is necessary and encourage consumers to buy one in every colour. But many of these garments are not designed to last either, which simply perpetuates the vicious cycle of disposable fashion.

In order for fast fashion to truly become sustainable, then, what these companies need to do is to drop the ‘fast’ element of their approach. And let’s face it – this is never going to happen. Because once they lose the speed, they also lose the one thing that gives them a competitive edge – their ability to produce designer knock offs in less than half the time. Without that speed, then, fast fashion clothing would be exposed for what it trily is: poor quality. No matter what the annual reports may claim, then, fast fashion is always going to be inherently unsustainable.

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