Is fast fashion sustainable?

It’s all very good and well to source sustainable resources for inputs in garment production but I think that one crucial element is missing from the debate. Namely, is the manufacturing model that one employs, sustainable?

I’m not the only one who thinks that the predominant model of the industry today, the push model, is unsustainable. What could be more irresponsible than excess production in advance of demonstrated demand? This is why I tell you to only produce what’s been ordered, aka pull manufacturing.

The pivotal leader in fast fashion is Zara of whom I’ve written before. The question is, is Zara’s model sustainable? Well, if you consider that everything they produce is pre-sold (albeit ordered by various store managers with autonomous purchasing power) and that the size of these lots do not exceed 500 units, and that these are produced by local small sewing contractors near by, it would seem the be true. However, there’s another element which bears discussion, that of style longevity. By its very nature, fashion per se is short lived, obsolescence looms on a very short horizon.

So, are the benefits of disposable fashion as exemplified by Zara mitigated by their lean model? In other words, since they’re not over producing and dumping unwanted goods at discount, is their overall model lean and sustainable?

The concept of a lean manufacturing model in keeping with sustainability were not the kinds of questions being asked on a recent segment of Marketplace Money on NPR (audio). Rather, the segment focused strictly on the costs of disposable fashion. There’s a big difference between rampant push production of fashion commodities versus scaled, pre-sold fashion commodities.

PAIGE DIAZ: Fashions change so much that what’s the point of paying so much when it’s just going to go out of style in a week.

Instead, Diaz sticks to fast-fashion stores like H&M, where she can find all the latest trends for low, low prices that rival even Wal-Mart. And if it falls apart after a couple washes? Just throw it away and buy a new one.

CASEY SHEAHAN: When we look at disposable clothing, we have to think in terms of all the incremental costs associated with it. The cost of disposal, the cost of transportation, the cost on a labor base in a foreign country. There are social, there are environmental, there are financial.

Then, in my mind, there’s always the question of which garments are being made? Frankly, it seems that most of the “eco-fashion” out there boils down to tee shirts. Is this sustainable? Does the world really need another tee shirt? How many of these tee producers are producing to order using a sustainable manufacturing model? I’d imagine not many. In consideration of this, who is really sustainable? I would not agree that an eco-fashion line is sustainable if they’re producing in advance of orders.

Then I’d have to ask, can fashion be sustainable at all? Should we just all give up and go home? As one person said (lost the link):

What if fashion didn’t change every season in such a military fashion? What if 60% of everything was still in use today? What if you had to pay more, a lot more, for things that lasted and didn’t break and were still useful 13 years from now? Would that be better?

What about cars? From the same unnamed party:

All structural elements, switchgear and trim are made from fully recyclable materials. Better still, it is highly unlikely that your car will ever need recycling at all. After all, more than 60% of all Porsche vehicles ever produced are still on the road today. This exceptional longevity is fundamental to the Porsche philosophy and, in particular, our approach to the environment.”

So a Porsche can be sustainable due to longevity and durability, but are clothes? I think this is one of the reasons I dislike trendy apparel. Buying something to mimic the latest fad just seems so wasteful to me, I prefer classical items with long term appeal. I guess it’s a good thing that not everyone buys like I do, otherwise we’d be even worse off. In the meantime, I’ll hitch up these mom jeans, pathetically obsolescent but pacified, knowing I’m doing my part to sustain the planet…

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  1. La BellaDonna says:

    I swore at my heavy-duty winter coat because it was looking a little shabby, and I’d only worn it for … 17 years. Oops. So I did the mending, maintaining, and refurbishing it required, and three years later, it’s doing quite nicely. It’s known as The Coat from Hell, because it was not a treat in the making-up stage, but it’s performed the way I expect my clothes to perform.

    Yes. I expect my clothes to hold up, that is, not only be wearable, but be attractive and suitable, for at least twenty years. The clothes I make generally fit into this category. The clothes I buy don’t always hold up as well, but I do what I can to make sure that they do.

    My taste isn’t that variable. It’s diverse; there are a lot of styles which appeal to me, but I don’t get tired of them. I like having a wide selection to choose amongst, but if I like it today, I’m probably going to like it tomorrow, next year, and in ten years. If I’m paying good cash money for clothes (or for the fabric for clothes), I want them to last!

  2. Alison Cummins says:

    My work suits only last four to five years. I have four or five at any given time and I wear them once a week each, all year round. I wear something under them — the suit doesn’t touch my skin anywhere — so I don’t have to wash them after each wearing.

    I consider 250 wearings reasonable for clothes that need to look professional.

    “In the old days” people* had two suits of clothes, one for every day and one for Sunday. Every spring they’d switch over and wear new clothes on Easter Sunday and demote their old Sunday clothes to everyday. (I guess their old everyday clothes became washday clothes, at least for women?) That’s about 365 wearings per outfit, but the clothes were only acceptable as Sunday Best for 52 wearings.

    There’s more to it though; clothes were recycled. Silks were turned, adults’ coats were cut down for children, out of style clothes were given to the servants. (The butlers, footmen and ladies’ maids of wealthy Europeans would be very well dressed in silks and velvets — but a generation out of style.)

    My grandmother recycles old underpants into dustcloths. No, she isn’t hurting for money in the least. She just retains the habits of two generations ago.

    *Which people? Where? When? What social class? Whatever, my mother said it so it must be true.

    I’m not sure that this comment has a point. I think I’m just feeling garrulous.

  3. Oxanna says:

    Fashion today moves so quickly (at least for the “fashion-forward”) that it can make my head spin!

    Let me preface this by admitting that I’m not always a fan of the “sustainable” movement. One reason being that I think that “sustainability” often goes hand in hand with increased regulations that end up harming people instead of helping them. (I said I had libertarian tendencies. ;) But I do think that people today can be quite wasteful and too fast-moving to appreciate true quality and workmanship. So…

    PAIGE DIAZ: Fashions change so much that what’s the point of paying so much when it’s just going to go out of style in a week.
    And if it falls apart after a couple washes? Just throw it away and buy a new one.

    Yipes! Even if H&M is considered “cheap”, their prices are still pretty expensive for something that won’t hold up for a couple washes! I’ve had $8 Old Navy T-shirts that hold up better. Also, what is this business about “it’s just going to go out of style in a week”? Only if you’re living life in the ultra-fashion-forward lane! Most of us don’t pick up and drop fads so quickly. And if you do…wouldn’t it be a tad smarter to recycle stuff you have already? Or alter an old outfit? Oh wait, I forgot – all the stitches unraveled and the color faded, so you don’t *have* an old outfit! *sigh*

    On one hand, it’s nice that inexpensive yet fashionable clothing is available to those with lower budgets. I know I like to be current and not break the bank. However, one reason I don’t like to shell out the dough for a “superior” product is that, often enough, the more expensive product isn’t really superior! If it won’t last 6 months without pilling/fading/sagging, why should I pay more for it? And that’s for general wear. Coats, etc. should be held to a higher standard – I have a coat that I think is at least 20 years old, if not more, and it’s still going strong with a few mending jobs here and there.

    Thinking back, most woven, non-stretch garments I buy tend to last an acceptable length of time (1 year minimum). It’s primarily the Lycra blends and knits that have been the least hardy. For instance: a rayon/poly/spandex knit top that, when washed according to instructions, has some serious pilling issues after only 2 months. Original MSRP was around $30, IIRC.

    And now I’m sort of rambling so I think I shall stop…

  4. Isn’t American Apparel more or less sustainable? I know they manufacture all their stuff in L.A. It’s mostly just basic stuff but it comes in a zillion colors.

    What if the sustainability issue were expanded to be fabrics and notions made in this country or the eastern or western half, depending on where you live? What if it were such an issue that the mills in the South started producing more stuff from their cotton?

    I only buy something trendy if I like it. Usually I get stuff at Target or the thrift stores. Sometimes I can only find stuff at a thrift store, i.e., I love dark pine/forest green and I find it only at the thrift stores (or I sew it myself) because it’s not an “in” green right now.

    Also, doesn’t Zara have to make at least one of each item of clothing first so that the buyers can see what their buying? Or do they just make an illustration of each one? It seems easier to manufacture after the orders are placed instead of the other way around.

  5. Katja says:

    I found the link with the 60% quote, it was on a blog discussing a beloved 13 year old shirt:

    For myself, though I like fashion, I’m happy with a few nice things to wear until they wear out. I have several carefully cared-for sweaters that are over 20 years old, and I recently had a tear in my eight-year-old winter coat rewoven. I also get my shoes resoled so I can keep wearing them. I don’t need a lot of things. And that means when I do get something new I can afford the best.

    A final thought to leave you with: I remember my great aunt buying a dress that she wore to church every Sunday, announcing that she would never need another one and that she would be buried in it. Six months later, to her surprise, she was still alive. So she bought another new dress and made a similar announcement. I’m happy to say this pattern continued for several years . . .

  6. Mimi says:

    Well, it seems the dilemma of any “fashion” item as we know it, is that it relies on being accepted by a large group of people, and then must be quickly puched into artificial obsolescence to make room for the next crop.

    In my work as a custom designer, I find that there many are people who merely accept or reject what is presented to them, and then there are the egonomic types, who think, plan and envision before they buy.

    The first type really needs specific direction, or possibly a checklist (“must haves”) from a magazine before buying his/her wardrobe. The second type of person is a good custom client. We all have different ways of thinking about our clothing purchases.

    If a manufacturer produces garments in anticipation of demand, manages to sell some at full retail, some at varying levels of discounts, and some at very deep discounts, but all of the suppliers and workers and related services are paid, is that so “wasteful”? I could understand if we were throwing unpurchased clothing into a dumpster somewhere, but that isn’t what happens… If that were the case, the manufacturer would simply go out of business, no?

    I think fashion can only be as sustainable as our own personalities, tastes, bodies, aesthetic maturity… we are all participating in a cultural mosaic. Each day we decide whether our goal is to fit in, blend in, or stand out. I am not sure that mass appeal fashion production is pushing leaner methods out of the industry. For Americans, there would need to be a huge shift in the fashion mindset for people not to go looking for the new “it” item of the moment, and while I don’t participate in that race, I am not at all against it.

  7. Kathleen – you are probably the only person who will have the slightest interest in this comment, so everyone else – skip to the next one.

    In terms of lean manufacturing, you have a few issues to contend with. On the surface, Zara meets the requirements of the lean model – supply matches demand. The end customer deems the price to match the value received from the manufacturer and the retailer (since there is no unsold product).

    Sustainability extends the concept of the total value stream beyond the end customer. Now you’re into a tangible and intangible definition of value and waste. The tangible is the physical garment itself. Between purchase and disposal, something has been consumed. It has kept the buyer warm, covered the body, protected it from UV rays, etc. Do the buttons and zipper condintue to close the garment?

    Tangible waste is what’s left over – is it at the end of its useful life, or is it reusable? If it’s ready for the trash, the cost of disposal, let’s say the cost of maintaining that portion of the landfill is waste, since the landfill itself adds no value (but what if it’s eventually reused as a ski slope?). If the garment is reused through donation or resale, or even as a rag, you don’t have end-of-life-cycle waste yet.

    Intangible value is how much the buyer gets out of owning the garment – entirely subjective. Did the buyer make a good impression at a meeting, totally outshine a rival at a social event, attract someone of romantic interest, or even take out of the closet to admire? Maybe the meeting achieved something of dollar value – getting the job or the sale.

    So sustainability (in lean thinking) is a lot more than how long a garment is fashionable and does it fall apart too soon (in the buyer’s estimation). Add to that whether the company is profitable enough to stay in business, employ people, act as a good corporate citizen, pay taxes, etc.

    Kathleen, are you sorry you brought up the issue?

  8. Kathleen says:

    Kathleen, are you sorry you brought up the issue?

    Not in the slightest. This is the sort of discourse I was hoping for. It’s one thing for me to stand up here and pontificate. It’s another thing when others concur and bring up other salient points in the debate.

    The factors you mention are sustainability concepts that affect all manufacturers; my point was that using a narrow definition of sustainability -the designation currently perceived by consumers as being limited to inputs- is too narrow. Likewise, my feeling was that companies like Zara, with a leaner (will you settle for “leaner”?) model are generally not perceived to be sustainable -unfairly in my estimation.

    My point is we need to expand the definition of what constitutes sustainability. Eco fashion producers could be more sustainable by changing their manufacturing model whilst Zara would be more sustainable than their current level by adopting organic inputs.

  9. Marie-Christine says:

    Well, I sort of go by a dual model myself… I also keep coats and sweaters and stuff like that for 20+ years. Last summer, I was enraged at the elastic I used in the swimsuit that needed replacement, till I realized it was 10 years old :-). But I do make McFashion items, a few a year, which I know I’ll be tired of soon but which I hope keep my wardrobe from looking.. entirely 20 years old. I do my best to not spend a lot of money or time on making these.
    On the other hand, I’ve found that the weirder stuff wears the best. People are still as bemused by the Miyake coat/blanket now as 20 years ago, and will clearly continue to be. If it’s way out enough, fashion becomes irrelevant, style takes over. That in my opinion is a nice alternative to boring ‘classics’ as the mainstay to longevity.

  10. Even if clothing items are made to be fashionable for a short period, they don’t have to be literally thrown away…consignment stores and thrift stores abound, and are excellent sources for those who create new styles by mixing and matching or “refashioning” old styles. you have to consider this as part of the extended life of any item of clothing.

    …and part of the ustainability movement could be encouraging people to donate teir clothes rather than tossing them

    It would also be great to have some sort of depot for unwearable used clothes–with rips or stains–because these could still be excellent fodder for refashioners.

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