The challenges and opportunities of moving fashion: from fast to sustainable

Is Fast Fashion really the problem child the industry thinks it is?

In recent years, fast fashion has become viewed as a problematic sub-sector of the industry, with its impact felt on both the environment and segments of the economy.


The meteoric rise of fast fashion can be attributed to an extraordinarily complex set of factors, including globalization, advancements in technology, government policies, and consumer behaviour. In this short article, we will delve into the reasons why fast fashion was allowed or even stimulated to develop, considering that both the US and EU economies had a real desire to stimulate consumerism and growth.


We will also ask if speed is really the main issue.

Globalisation and China

One of the main drivers in the initial periodfast fashion’s existencewas the sudden globalization of the clothing and textiles industries. As production costs in developed countries began to rise, retailers and manufacturers had been looking out for cheaper alternatives.


China, with its large population and low labour costs, quite suddenly became available as a mass sourcing location. It rapidly emerged as the ideal location for textile and clothing production, leading to an influx of cheap clothing on the market, which in turn led to a spiralling decline in the prices of clothing for all age groups.

Politics and Economic Policies Stimulate Fast Fashion

Another significant and contributing factor in the rise of fast fashion was the push from political and business interests to stimulate economic growth and consumerism in the US and EU economies.


The fashion industry is a significant contributor to GDP in many countries, meaning that growth in the sector could have a real impact. Because of a series of events, the majority of retailers and manufacturers have become continuously focused on keeping prices low and turnover high to maximize profits.


This continuous pressure to keep prices low has led to the rise of fast fashion and the exploitation of cheap labour and natural habitats in developing countries.

Access to Communication Tools, Volume Production and E-commerce

Another enabler of the sub-sector’s growth is the advancements in technology.


The development of new textile production methods and materials, like the speed in which synthetic fibres could be made and how much faster information could be shared across the globe, has made it possible to produce clothing at a much faster pace and at an even lower cost. The rise of e-commerce and online retail in turn made it easier for consumers to purchase with a click, giving that feeling of gratification without even leaving the sofa.


This has led to a culture of disposable fashion, where consumers are encouraged to buy even more cheap clothing and dispose of it when it turns out it does not look good any more when it comes out of the washing machine or when the next fad is presented on their small screen.

The Tipping Point in Fast Fashion’s Emergence

A main tipping point that triggered the rise of fast fashion was the EU’s decision to remove quotas from Chinese imports.


This decision, made in 2005, removed the limits on the number of textiles and clothing that China could export to the EU. This had an incredibly significant impact on the textile and clothing trade, as it allowed Chinese manufacturers to flood the EU market with cheap clothing. A quick look in the history books will show numerous manufacturing and supply companies going under in that period, as domestic sourcing was replaced with early versions of a global supply chain.


It is likely that EU governments did underestimate the impact this decision would have on the textile and clothing industry, as well as the environment. However, as the net effect was a highly stimulated consumer market, it is quite likely that the view would have been that this was a price was worth paying.

The Lack of Insight, Regulation, Education

The issues associated to fast fashion were further exacerbated by the lack of regulations and laws, with nothing in place to enforce sustainability or ethical standards in the fashion industry. Many retailers and manufacturers have never yet been held accountable for the environmental and social impacts of their products, and their staff and consumers are often not aware of the true costs of fast fashion.


To truly deal with the issues fast fashion has created, a comprehensive approach is needed. This does include making consumers more aware of the real societal and environmental impact of fast fashion, as well as creating mechanisms to hold retailers and manufacturers accountable and investing in sustainable textile production methods.


Governments and industry bodies also have a role to play in promoting sustainable approaches, through regulations, education, and laws that enforce agreed standards. For maximum effect, this could be coupled with incentives for sustainable and ethical textile production.


Designers, product development teams, and buyers play crucial roles in the fashion industry. They are responsible for creating and sourcing the products that consumers demand. However, in an industry with very few regulations, these individuals have been educated to work in a system where the impact of their actions on the environment and society is not a primary concern.


The only measurements they have used for almost 20 years are looks, price and time to market. The resulting lack of knowledge and understanding does mean that we now have a situation where many in the industry are simply not equipped to respond to the rapidly changing demands of sustainability and compliance.


The Fast Fashion Next Steps Summary

With the fashion industry facing increasing pressure to become more sustainable and transparent in its supply chain information, these specialists are now being asked to rapidly change the way they work and learn to adapt their operational structures to meet these new standards. This can be a daunting task, especially when they have been working with relatively basic tools and systems for so long.


To support our colleagues and the industry as a whole, it is important to provide coaching, better software, and measurement methods to help them achieve their goals. This includes providing education on sustainability and compliance, as well as the resources needed to help them implement new processes and technologies. To keep this in context with the wider evolution (or revolution) of the economy and the tools that are becoming available to the sector and society: it may well be that by becoming more sustainable, fashion becomes even faster.


It is not necessarily the speed that is the issue, it is the effects on the surrounding people and environment. Do not be surprised if the final solution involves hyper localised and almost fully automated creation of clothing items, in a fully circular and digitalized capsule. Designs are likely to be either inspired by influencers or have high levels of consumer input, with friends voting on what looks best on you before it is even made.


In the meantime, though, there are many challenges the industry needs to face head-on in order to have a short to midterm plan to reduce and eliminate impact where at all possible.


In conclusion, the cause and impact of fast fashion is complex and has been caused by a combination of globalization, advancements in technology, government policies, and consumer behaviours. The role of the US and EU economies in their attempts to stimulate consumerism and growth has played the most significant role in the rise of fast fashion.


One of the key moments was the EU’s decision to remove quotas from Chinese imports, which had an accelerating and accumulative effect on the size of the sub-sector.


The long-term lack of regulations and laws that could enforce sustainability standards in the fashion industry, coupled with the resulting lack of knowledge and understanding about the impact of fast fashion among designers, product development teams, and buyers, has led to a serious situation where the industry is really struggling to respond to the changing demands of sustainability and compliance.


To improve and eventually fix this problem, a holistic approach is needed. This includes educating consumers, creating ways of holding retailers and manufacturers accountable for their impact, investing in sustainable textile production methods, as well as providing support and resources to those working in the industry to guide them while they adapt to new regulations and work towards a different kind of fashion industry.