To What Extent are Fast Fashion Retailers Responsible for the Negative Impact on the World’s Sustainability in the Fashion Industry?
Fast fashion, the quick manufacture of low cost clothing, driven by the continuous demands of consumers wanting to wear luxury inspired designs without the high-end price tags, is proving detrimental to the world’s sustainability. During the 19thcentury, when sewing machines first emerged, this provided customers with the possibility to own ready- wear- clothes, stemming an increase in sales and a decline in prices, (Bau, 2017, p.1). Currently fast fashion is a trend consumers could not live without. Whether it is the affordable prices, or the new, endless styles they pull out almost every day, fast fashion needs to urgently change for the protection of the planet. With nearly 60% of all clothing produced ending up being deposited into landfill or incinerators, (Nini, 2018), less than one percent of materials are being recycled, (Carder, 2017). Consumers play a significant role towards fast fashion’s negative outcomes, as they indulge in the embodiments of unsustainability, demanding the latest trends at their fingertips. A prominent modern trend is to wear an item once or twice, and then dispose of it once it has no desirability. With nearly a quarter of 16 -24 year olds saying that they would only be photographed in an item one to three times on social media before discarding it, (Siegel, 2018); it is clear that consumers are not taking into consideration the damaging issues caused by fast fashion and the impacts it has on the environment. The “buy-now, wear now mentality”, (Mintel, 2017), as Senior Fashion Analyst Tamara Sender describes this; heightens the careless attitude of people, and how they are showing no consideration whether they will actually wear the product, or if they actually need it. Consumers are unaware of what their fast fashion shopping habits are leading too, from devastating water pollution to dangerous air contamination. However, it can be questioned if fast fashion retailers are entirely to blame for all of the environmental concerns in this industry, or if the consumers demanding and buying the goods are the ones at fault. Conversely, designer brands can be at denunciated too, when luxury brands such as Burberry were reported to have incinerated £28.6 million worth of left over stock- which Burberry described as being intended to ‘save the company’s reputation’, (BBC, 2018).
It is estimated that £140 million worth of clothing is disposed of every year in landfill, (Wrap, 2019), which could lead to the fashion industry consuming a quarter of the world’s annual carbon budget by 2050, (Laville, 2017). The continuing pressure from the demands of consumers, is pushing fast fashion retailers such as Pretty Little Thing and Boohoo into vast competition with each other; to turn out new designs and to stock them as quickly as possible for as little as possible. The undeniably cheap fashion they churn out, such as dresses for as little as £5; only encourages the careless behaviour of consumers, and fosters their shopping addictions further- it is a vicious “unfortunate cycle of consumerism and over consumption”, (Bau, 2017, p37)driven by both parties. The advertisements these fast fashion online retailers use, initiate that anyone who shops from them can adopt this ‘glamourous’ celebrity-like lifestyle, and dressing like your favourite celebritycanbe your reality, without the designer price tag. Influencers and celebrities play a major role by inspiring people with what to buy. Therefore, it can be argued that they hold a lot of responsibility for fast fashion’s negative impact on sustainability, as it is up to them to help make people more environmentally conscious and aware. In 2016, a $35 Pretty Little Thing dress was worn by Kylie Jenner at the brand’s launch party, and as a result the dress completely sold out in 24 hours, (Stevens, 2018). The same year she wore the dress, the company’s sales grew over 400%, (Stevens, 2018), demonstrating just how strong the impact of celebrity brand endorsement affects consumers and their shopping consumptions. Fast fashion brands such as Pretty Little Thing draw a connection between the everyday person and the successful celebrity they aspire to be like, these brands are “synonymous with celebrity and social media culture”, (Stevens, 2018). Figure 1 is an example of how Pretty Little Thing uses celebrities to advertise their brand. The collaboration with Kourtney Kardashian shown in figure 1, was described to allow consumers to “feel like a part of the infamous family”, (Carder, 2017), as well as letting one “emulate the famous family’s style on a budget”, (Carder, 2017).
Figure 1. Pretty Little Thing advertisement campaign with Kourtney Kardashian, (photograph). Available at: https://www.redcarpet-fashionawards.com/2017/10/26/prettylittlething-x-kourtney-kardashian/ (Accessed 16January 2019)
With brands like Pretty Little Thing working with so many influencers and celebrities, journalist Stevens acknowledges that it’s “tough to browse Instagram, Twitter, or even ride the tube without seeing PLT’s logo on an ad sitting alongside a familiar celebrity face,” (Stevens, 2018). These advertisements are merely “amplifying consumers’ purchase intentions”, (Bau, 2017, p.2). In November 2018, brands such as Boohoo, ASOS, Missguided and Pretty Little Thing were asked by Parliament to give evidence regarding their sustainability in the fashion industry, (Santamaria, 2018). The chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, Mary Creagh, describes the formulation of the letters sent to the fast fashion brands, were intended to “encourage them to face up to social and environmental consequences of their business models,” (Santamaria, 2018). However, mere concernsfrom the Environmental Committee will not be enough to change the nature of these brands and their cheap £5 dress ranges that will only be “discarded instantly”, (Santamaria, 2018). Correspondingly, consumers also need to be educated and made aware by these brands, about the products they buy, the outcome of the unsold products and the waste materials, that are “causing mountains of non- recycled waste to pile up”, (Santamaria, 2018).
However, it could be argued that fast fashion’s negative impact on the environment is originating partly due to societal pressures from social media sites such as Instagram. These online social media sites are enticing people to constantly update their wardrobes in order to keep up with the constant shifting trends. This new culture of wearing a piece of clothing once, was previously a lifestyle considered only for celebrities and the rich. Now everyone is pursuing this means, due to the low-cost garments made by fast fashion brands- that are designed to be disposed of. Marketing lecturer Patsy Perry, states how “we see celebrities doing that- all the big influencers, you barely see them wearing the same thing twice,” (BBC, 2018). This cultural movement and impact from the rise of influencers and bloggers, who originate from a ‘normal’ person, and therefore particularly appeal to everyday people, are making individuals feel that it is acceptable and conventional to throw out their clothing after only wearing it once or twice. Influencers have a strong voice when it comes to what to wear and how to wear it, however they are not educating themselves and others about the problems caused by this ‘wear it once’ fashion trend. Umar Kamani, the founder of Pretty Little Thing describes in his interview with journalist Ben Stevens, “when a girl has 200,000 followers on social media and some magazines don’t even get that readership, you have to question if that girl is a better magazine than the actual magazine”, (Stevens, 2018), highlighting the importance influencers have at promoting fashion brands in today’s society. The idea of being sent clothing, and getting paid to simply post a photo wearing it does not require much meaning or thought behind it. Nevertheless, to some extent it is notfair to accuse influencers for the negative impact fast fashion has, as they are not the ones making the clothing. Instead they are only following what the big brands have told them to do, in order to get paid. People are persuaded easily into buying an item that looks aesthetically pleasing on an influencer’s feed. However, influencers need to change theirminds, and consider the consequences of what they are posting, especially as in ten years’ time when ‘YouTube hauls’ will not be as popular when more sustainability issues arise, (Sander, 2018). Founder and creative director of the Fashion Revolution movement, Orsola de Castro believes that influencers could be our saviours, as many have received backlash against their ‘hauls’, and as a result have been encouraged to take a more sustainable approach, (Saner, 2018). She describes how people are “waking up to the environmental impact of their clothing choices,” (Saner, 2018). Eco-influencers are also currently on the rise, as sustainability is a hot topic in our society today. Journalist Kate Hall believes that eco-fashion influencers canhave an impact on changing the world, (Hall, 2018), yet Siegle proposes that it is not that simple; influencers need to become activists, and “take on the brands and habits plundering the planet”, (Siegle, 2018).
To some extent it could be claimed that consumersare to blame for the negative impacts of fast fashion. Senior retail analyst at Mintel, Samantha Dover, deems that shoppers are still more interested in the cost and style of clothing, rather than thinking about how it has been made and the potential damages it has caused to the environment, (Butler, 2018). Buying £5 dresses from brands such as Boohoo, only fuels the destruction caused to the environment, yet consumers chose to ignore this and any potential ethical concerns for low cost items they purchase. Nonetheless, for some consumers, for example students and people on lower paid incomes, buying fast fashion is not a means of frivolity; instead these items are just in their budgets and price ranges. Marianne Bau discusses in her journal the effect of affordable fashion, and how spending a lot of money on one particular item consequently causes one to feel guilty about their indulgence, (Bau, 2017, p13). The term “bargain boast”, (Bau, 2017, p13), acts retrospectively for consumers to feel to some extent fulfilled for finding a respectfully priced item, allowing them to form an acceptance for new weekly purchases. Equally, some consumers and particularly young people arebecoming more mindful and conscious towards looking after the environment, especially when they no longer want a piece of clothing. Apps such as Depop have reinvented a popular approach to buying second hand clothing, as well as making it simple to sell unwanted items. The trend of upcycling has become more established and prevalent in society today. Clothing rental companies are also developing, in order to help reduce consumption. Renting clothing could help moderate the environmental impact of the fashion industry, and potentially interpose with the normalisation of fast fashion clothing disposal, (Hooker, 2018). Anna Bance, ‘Girl Meets Dress’ founder, believes that consumers would ultimately be spending half of their clothing budgets on renting rather than buying, (Hooker, 2018). The movement of renting clothing couldput fast fashion companies at risk- or just positively force them to re-think where they stand in terms of sustainability.
The negative impacts on sustainability is undeniably partly invigorated due to fast fashion retailers, and their lack of responsibility. Fast fashion brands have faced much criticism regarding their irresponsible actions towards their unsustainable manufacturing of products. Retailers such as ASOS and Missguided are able to produce trend driven garments in only one to two weeks, (Yu, 2018). Online retailer Boohoo was asked to testify in parliament to discuss the brand’s relation to sustainability, particularly about their bargain £5 dresses; which Boohoo described merely as loss leaders- making the company no profit, and instead are designed to attract potential customers to the website (Butler, 2018). These pieces, mass produced with inexpensive materials, designed for transient use, are undoubtedly highly likely to be thrown out after a few wears. However, Boohoo was also reported to declare that they influence people across social media by showing them how to utilise and re-use clothing, (Butler, 2018). Some fast fashion brands have started working with an app that allows users to send off unwanted clothing to be recycled in return for money off coupons to use on future purchases with the brands, (Butler, 2018.) However, this could be claimed to be an environmental concerned ploy in order to push their sales by using ‘sustainability concerns’ as a mere profit-making vessel. Alternatively, it can be argued that fast fashion brands are become more environmentally conscious, and they are undergoing new ways to improve their collections in order to make them more sustainable; or to at least help their customersconsidersustainability. Brands such as Primark have started selling products containing sustainable cotton, whilst brands such as H&M, have been encouraging recycle schemes, where consumers can drop off unwanted clothing to be recycled and receive a store voucher in return. Consumer and fashion psychologist Kate Nightingale advises that “brands are listening”, (Saner, 2018), suggesting that it is up to the fast fashion brands to revolutionise, and that they arestarting to slowly transform their manufacturing and materials to become more environmentally cognisant. However, Nightingale believes that actually “changing the industry will not be easy”, (Saner, 2018). On the other hand, it can be evidenced that the fashion industry isalready pushing new innovative ways to produce fabrics particularly from using waste, for example luxury designer Salvatore Ferragamo is one of the first brands to use orange waste to make fibres for their collections, (Boztas, 2018). Journalist Sarah Butler believes that companies are not just providing consumers with a small sustainable selection of clothing to choose from, but instead they are starting to consider how to “make their entire range more sustainable”, (Butler, 2018). Fast fashion brands are creating more sustainable clothing. For example, H&M each year launch their conscious exclusive collection, encompassing “high-end environmentally friendly pieces”, (Teather, 2018), in order to move their fashion and sustainability development “towards a more sustainable fashion future”, (Teather, 2018). By creating collections like these will eventually inform a majority of consumers to know and understand what sustainability is, and how theyplay such an important role to the environment. Subsequently, other fast fashion brands, particularly online retailers, need to follow these concepts in order to advocate these sustainable evolutions.
Luxury brands are starting to lead the way of revolutionising fashion’s manufacture. Organisations such as Parley for the Oceans are partnering with brands such as Gucci and Stella McCartney, in order to source materials regenerated from ocean waste to make into sustainable materials. Future laboratory researcher, Racheal Stott believes this trend for recycling ocean waste and turning it into fashion is growing, (Conlon, 2018). The only problems are that for fast fashion brands, processes like these can be time consuming and costly, which will result in an influx of price. Instead, if they cannot do this, then they need to provide an alternative. Fast fashion retailers need to invest in making their products last longer; they need to educate their consumers on how to get the most out of their products before throwing it away, and they mustencourage consumers to consciously recycle unwanted clothing. Clothing company Patagonia is also a leading brand for sustainability, as it signifies its price premiums due to its production of high quality and environmentally friendly goods, (Forest, Ramon, Hyunjin, 2012, p1).
Figure 2. Patagonia advertisement campaign, ‘don’t buy this jacket’, (photograph). Available athttps://i2.wp.com/csrcentral.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/Dont-Buy-This-Jacket-Ad-2.jpg (Accessed 16 January 2019).
Figure 2 is an example of one of Patagonia’s “slyly subversive” (CSR Central, 2015), advertisement campaigns; designed to cause disturbance on the typical Black Friday “annual consumer buying frenzy”, (CSR Central, 2015). The campaign was intended to alter people’s judgements in order to help persuade them not to buy products they do not need. Luxury brands such as Patagonia, who aspire to be influential to other companies, must guide fast fashion brands, in order to make the industry more environmentally friendly, (Forest, Ramon, Hyunjin, 2012, p1). Patagonia’s influence on their own customers to “reduce, repair, reuse and recycle”, (Forest, Ramon, Hyunjin, 2012, p1), is a major attribute other companies need to build between their own customers too. Figure 3 portrays Vivienne Westwood’s campaign of ethically designed bags, produced by local women using recycled materials. The campaign was also devised to make a statement about the fashion industry ignoring ethical and sustainability issues, and how this needs to change. Designers like Westwood who believe that the industry is about “quality, not quantity- not landfill,” (Yu, 2018), are guiding the fashion industry to a more sustainable future.
Figure 3. Vivienne Westwood’s Ethical Fashion Africa campaign, (photograph). Available at https://wellmadeclothes.com/articles/TheTop5AdCampaignsToTakeAStandAgainstFastFashion/ (Accessed 16 January 2019).
In conclusion, the fast fashion industry and its negative impact on the world’s sustainability, is evidently a ruthless cycle processed by both brands and consumers, and it will be very challenging to change. However, it is important that luxury brands lead the way to compel the rest of the industry to become more sustainable, and it is up to them to endure responsibility in order to be influential to fast fashion brands. If enough luxury brands consider ways to become more sustainable and demonstrate this within their collections, consumers would develop a stronger awareness. Subsequently, fast fashion brands would feel the pressure from the rest of the industry around them, especially if their consumers are beginning to reconsider their shopping habits. Influencers and celebrities also play an imperative role with providing others guidance on how to be sustainable, and how to consider the environment within fashion. These influencers and celebrities need to be recognising the magnitude of power they hold within their blogs, videos and social media accounts to enable a wider promotion of recycling and shopping at sustainable brands. An infinite amount of responsibility lies within fast fashion retailers to help educate and inform their consumers about ways to consciously shop. Whether retailers develop a few clothing lines that respects sustainable materials or uses recycled fibres; potentially this initial small eco-conscious range could ultimately grow into a value that encompasses their entire brand and its products. Fast fashion retailers who are not quite ready to launch products to this extreme level of sustainable fashion, need to make sure that they remind their consumers to be resourceful, to think whether they really need an item and if they will wear it. Customers play an important role with making sure they also take care of unwanted clothing, whether they re-sell it, mend it, or even donate it; anything but to purely dispose of it. It is apparent that all aspects of the industry, from designer brands, to fast fashion retailers, influencers and consumers, all play major roles within fast fashion’s sustainability. Fast fashion is making progress to become more sustainable, it just needs to be endorsed globally and pushed to a larger scale.
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Table of Images:
Pretty Little Thing advertisement campaign with Kourtney Kardashian, (photograph). Available at: (Accessed 16 January 2019)
Patagonia advertisement campaign, ‘don’t buy this jacket’, (photograph). Available at: https://i2.wp.com/csrcentral.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/Dont-Buy-This-Jacket-Ad-2.jpg(Accessed 16 January 2019)
Vivienne Westwood’s Ethical Fashion Africa Campaign, (photograph). Available at: https://wellmadeclothes.com/articles/TheTop5AdCampaignsToTakeAStandAgainstFastFashion/(Accessed 16 January 2019)
At BECCI Fashion we are working on making our products more sustainable and sourcing more sustainable fabrics and materials, such as recycled leather for our Fashion Design Degree work. Take a look at our instagram to see what we have been up to @ www.instagram.com/beccifashion