Charlie Hart interviews Ben Muis on the impact of Fast Fashion for Supply Management Magazine
Fashion Industry Insight: Ethical and Sustainability Procurement Challenges for Fast Fashion
“Putting some more sustainable or less damaging components or fabrics in the collection falls far short of the real-world requirements.”
Sustainability, fast fashion, economics, rules and laws… all very important factors in the fashion industry of today. With more and more requests from media and business coming our way it is clear that there is an increased awareness of the need to get the balance right.
Some of that interview was used in Charlie’s article (What does a £1 bikini say about the fashion industry?). We thought that it would also be great to share the full interview here:
Charlie Hart: After recent events, Missguided said the £1 bikini was a publicity stunt and that a small amount would be produced at a loss to generate interest. Does this set a precedent about the throwaway nature of clothes?
Ben Muis: It does, but not in the way that it appears at the moment. It is more a reflection of the overall outlook on marketing tools such as cheap give-aways than clothing per-se. It has been the case for almost 25 years that clothing could be brought in very cheaply and for instance allocated to a giveaway. Buy a pair of jeans and get a free T-shirt is nothing new. Neither is getting a frisbee with a pack of washing powder in the ‘80s and ‘90s and in reality, there is not much difference between those kinds of actions. What Missguided essentially did is allocate an item with a low value to a marketing campaign. Even though that is arguably justifiably frowned upon in the new climate we find ourselves in it is not necessarily new. People did not start buying happy meals because the food is so good. Neither did people shy away from getting a free something with their holiday booking many years ago. At the moment it is a hot topic because fashion is under the looking glass. The promotional goods industry completely lives off this principle though and just because it was done without another purchase to obtain a give-away it does not make it much different. It does tell us about the throwaway nature of clothes but again it could be argued that buying a T-shirt at an event or for an event, something that has happened for years, actually achieves the same end result. Something might be worn once and then is discarded or put away forever. Don’t get me wrong, I would prefer it if things were done more sustainably, but we do have to look at the facts.
Charlie Hart: What does this kind of stunt tell us about attitudes towards fast-fashion?
Ben Muis: Our attitude towards fashion has changed over the past 20 years. The availability of lower-priced products has created an industry that needed to sell more to generate the same revenue. This automatically led to a more aggressive development and sourcing strategy. The new consumer, the one who grew up in this environment, now does not know a world in which they could not buy something quick for the weekend. This means that the new generation of consumers has very different expectations when compared to the previous generations. The awareness that there is a problem with the resulting taught habits and effects is only just starting to seep through.
Charlie Hart: Do you think it was maybe judged harshly because it came out around the time the government rejected EAC recommendations?
Ben Muis: Yes, I do think that. In reality, if a company buys stock and decided to sell that stock at a loss to increase their customer database or their footfall we are not experiencing a new phenomenon. The timing and focused media attention certainly had an effect. Comparisons could easily be made to other promotions in the same or different industries that are going on all the time. For instance, for many years there have been Nivea beachballs given away across the continent. Even if you look at the risk of plastic ending up in the oceans alone the risk of these is much higher. What really needs to be taken into account is how the product was made and under what circumstances. If these were in order and a price was paid that the supply chain could see as ethically responsible then the retail price the retailers decide to sell the stock for is, and should be, unrelated.
Charlie Hart: With the EAC recommendations being rejected by the UK government, is there an issue surrounding sustainability and a lack of legislation/only voluntary schemes?
Ben Muis: Yes, there is. The recommendations appear to be rejected because other schemes are already in place or in development for a variety of industries. What this rejection does not take into account is the unique position of the fashion industry and the size or impact of the industry as a whole. A fashion company will launch hundreds of genuinely new products every season. Some will do this every month. That pressure to deliver such a variety at speed and on budget creates a very different pressure cooker within the industry than any other industry I can think of. If that pressured environment does not have to conform to rules, it generally won’t. Voluntary schemes are fantastic to have, but they will only have a very limited impact in reality. The industry as a whole will need to change. There is no way the current flow of product could ever become sustainable unless processes, material creation, use types, care and end of life principles are specifically designed to make sustainability an inevitable outcome. Putting some more sustainable or less damaging components or fabrics in the collection falls far short of the real-world requirements.
Charlie Hart: Fast fashion brands such as H&M and Boohoo are launching green/sustainable collections while hundreds are setting out emissions targets/war on plastics etc. Is this in response to consumer demand or is there a change in attitude by companies?
Ben Muis: Both. There is an awareness within certain companies that takes them to the next level. Launching green/sustainable collections at this point is part of the learning that needs to be in place in order for there to be a genuine step-change later down the line. The retailers mentioned are still reliant on a high flow of product to be purchased by consumers. Some of that product may go back into the supply chain after it has been recycled or reused. This change in attitude is still limited to very few players and is just a first step. Although it should be applauded because some initiatives are taken, the real end goal will need to be a realisation at the consumer side that they don’t actually need that many things. That will cause a problem within traditional brands and retailers, who may then start combining other business models with theirs to make up for the lower amount of total product in circulation. For instance, a subscription scheme at a retailer like H&M could mean that there is an immediate need for increased durability from the retailers’ side and a new infrastructure which involves local transport, cleaning, and re-stocking of returned products. That would mean that the people who sell products would not really sell them anymore but instead keep them in circulation until their end of life leads them to a recycling location. The attitude change towards that direction is coming slowly. It also would be followed by a number of new service providers and a number of people who simply get left behind.
Charlie Hart: When looking into sourcing, how can those in procurement/buying make considerations about environmental and social impact?
Ben Muis: Always think about the full cycle:
- Is the product material being made in a sensible way and location, from ingredients which are not toxic to the workers, consumer or the planet? If not, then ask why not.
- Are the people making the materials working in a safe working environment where normal expectations and perfectly reasonable conditions and pay structures are in place? If not, why not?
- Is the transport of the materials to the manufacturing location (where applicable) done by well organised and safe vehicles, operated by people who work reasonable hours and have the ability to rest when safety requires it. If not, why not?
- Are the materials then delivered to a manufacturing facility which follows the same guidelines as mentioned in the material suppliers location?
- Is the product made to a quality level which has durability beyond what could be considered a throw-away item?
- If it is a throw-away item, are you thinking responsibly about what happens to it at the end of life? To put this into context: remember that if you make a polyester give away item which is probably going to be used once, you are effectively making a pretty plastic bag.
- What packaging is used along the way? Is this packing made using non-toxic processes? Is it recyclable? Is it biodegradable? Is it necessary? Could it be replaced by an alternative in a different material? Would that even help to diversify? If in doubt, cut it out.
- What instructions are there on products and packaging (or online when scanning the label) about what to do with it after the consumer or retailers are no longer in need of it? Are we influencing or involved at the end of life stage of the packaging? If not, why not?
- Could anything be replaced by something better, less damaging? Even small things matter.
- Do we need to use polyester labels or could we replace them with a biodegradable base?
This kind of thinking is important and is the real route to improvements, which unfortunately takes time and allot of continuous and serious changes to thinking within the industry.
Charlie Hart: How can brands work with suppliers to ensure garments workers are being treated fairly when fashion supply chains are notoriously complicated?
Ben Muis: The first part of the answer is in the word complicated. The industry has been given the luxury of taking a back seat after the Far East supply chain started doing things on its behalf in the 90’s. This has led to ever decreasing transparency which is now difficult to unravel. Simplifying the supply chain, having an element of loyalty with facilities and actually understanding their in-house capabilities and capacity levels can help product development and sourcing teams to actually understand what they can put through these facilities before that facility needs to go outside for subcontracting and outsourcing. If that happens, improvements to how facilities operate and what that means to their workers can actually be achieved. There is the option to put technology into the supply chain to track things back to their source. This is quite suitable for supply chains that do not have as many tentacles and sub-tentacles. Technology also has a cost, which is one of the things that fast fashion is allergic to unless it gives profitability benefits. Without transparency in real depth, there will always be that element of the industry that will remain invisible. That is where you invariably also find the worst offenders in the treatment of workers. So, to evaluate your supply chain, see who your true partners are, concentrate on them and increase demands on visibility and clarity, monitor and revisit, increase demands again. That will all have consequences, but typically improvements do.
Charlie Hart: Can fast fashion (low cost/high production models) ever truly be sustainable?
Ben Muis: In certain segments, it may be technically or theoretically possible to become sustainable if there is a 100% recycling or re-use model associated with it. This is very much a theoretical situation though and until someone can prove to me that this can be achieved at the scale and incredible variety that would be needed to make an impact on that particular fashion model that could actually be called sustainable, my answer will be no. There is a consequence behind the principles of high speed consumerism. Fast fashion in particular is one of the industry segments that uses that principle and it is not something that can be done in a low cost / high production model without real life consequences to its surroundings.
Don’t get me wrong. It can be done, just not with the current business models in place. What would be needed in conjunction with any material changes is a closed loop environment where efficient re-use or re-cycling is part of the process. This would probably have to be combined with a change of business goals. Rather than sell the product, see the product provision as a service. If you want a clean flowery dress, you are offered one on a subscription basis. Wear it and send or bring it back to us. Then someone else will wear it, dramatically reducing the number of these dresses that need to be produced. People may frown on that thought to begin with, but the same people will dive into a bed and have a shower at a hotel where the sheets and towels have been used and re-used many times. There really is not that much difference between sheets or towels and clothing. A large scale sharing model is a good first step to reducing the impact of the industry while allowing businesses to generate revenue.
Alternatively, a complete change in types of outfits can offer a mass market solution. Technology and innovation would provide the solutions for that. For instance visually changeable clothing that performs a comfort function, stays fresh and changes in appearance depending on preference or templates. It might be a bit sci-fi when you visualise that but is not actually that far fetched in a world of high technology in so many sectors. Buying a new design could then actually mean that you are buying a new all-over display template or custom creation for your existing suit. These kind of thoughts bring you closer to a scenario where fast changing fashion influences are still possible without continually increasing the manufacturing quantities.
But the answer to your question still stays no for now when it comes to today’s fast fashion business sub-model. It is based on providing high volumes of products for sale to consumers that are paying low prices. The improvements attempted by some are of course very welcome, necessary and often admirable but it is not yet realistic to assume a few material tweaks or a change in packaging will give you a truly sustainable end result.
We are always looking forward to having deeper discussions with those businesses that want to think through their change options and explore how they can take one first step to a plan that leads to a more sustainable future.
About Ben Muis
Ben Muis is a consultant, mentor and speaker with more than 30 years of practical fashion industry experience at all levels. He has been involved in more than 20 brands and has a real focus on the improvements to strategies, direction, processes, technology and sustainability that can lead to the increased abilities and subsequent success of a fashion, sports or related business.
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