Fashion is never deficient in irony, but sometimes it’s particularly delicious. Boohoo’s first show at NYFW with Kourtney Kardashian – its new Sustainability Ambassador – started 30 minutes late before plunging into darkness and silence, restarting and then restarting again. Cue an ideal metaphor for cut-corners, poor quality and endless returns.
Regardless of what went on, the show was doomed before its lights (finally) went on. Since being appointed by Boohoo, Kardashian has faced an impossible-to-keep-up-with torrent of criticism challenging her green credentials. Earlier in the year, Kardashian had made a moment of taking a public jet, stating that she was “obsessed with flying commercial” before imploring her followers to love and take care of the planet, even though she’d just gone hundreds-and-thousands of gallons of water over the drought limit for her Hollywood home.
Then, came the new role. “When Boohoo first approached me to collaborate on a line, I was concerned about the effects of the fast-fashion industry on our planet,” she said in a slick statement. “Boohoo responded with excitement and a desire to incorporate sustainable practices into our line,” she continued.
For Kardashian, the collection was touted as “sustainability is a step in the right direction” – but it’s kind of akin to saying that going up a flight of stairs is a step towards the moon. In terms of ethics, the cheapest pieces in the collection cost $6 USD, a figure so small it’s impossible to imagine it being produced by fairly-paid workers, plus, although 41 of the 45 pieces contain recycled fibers, amounts are limited. While the Oversized Cotton Shirt features 100% recycled cotton and the Faux Croc Trench Coat is entirely reclaimed polyester, other pieces clock in at less-than-fifty-percent. So far, not so horrendous; if a small-scale fashion brand was only doing this, it would be seen as taking some form of responsibility.
When you’re moving at the speed of a phone’s backlight, updating styles quicker than swipes and pumping out intravenous social media advertising, you can get away with more. Plagiarized items are deleted, returns are incinerated, trends vaporize; fast fashion hasn’t just been a machine of production, but a quick change artist, a magician of multiple, simultaneous disappearing acts.
But realistically, it’s a drop in the ocean of Boohoo. With hundreds, if not thousands of new styles added every single day, creating 41 acceptable pieces is a little like trying to offset a long-haul flight with a plant pot of cress. Then, there’s the mention of “Produced in the UK,” which is hardly a win considering the dire conditions of its Leicester factory. Don’t forget, too, the care copy which sounds less like trying to promote longevity and more an admission of horrendous, ready-to-be-binned fabrication. “If the tip of the cords break, make a knot to secure it and seal the end to prevent fraying,” goes one note. “Open and close my snap buttons gently to avoid damaging the PU.”
It’s not just cheap PU that’s being damaged – it’s the planet. It’s easy to be numbed by the numbers, since we’ve heard them all before; the crux, though, is that while clothes sales have increased from 100 billion to 200 billion units a year worldwide, longevity has decreased by 36%. Studies show that fashion is one of the most polluting industries and fast fashion is at the epicenter of this, pumping out fumes, styles and waste at pace.
Fast fashion benefits from this sheer speed. A slow creative process leaves time for thought and public reflection on the nature of the production; keep things quick, though, and there’s no space to ruminate. When you’re moving at the speed of a phone’s backlight, updating styles quicker than swipes and pumping out intravenous social media advertising, you can get away with more. Plagiarized items are deleted, returns are incinerated, trends vaporize; fast fashion hasn’t just been a machine of production, but a quick change artist, a magician of multiple, simultaneous disappearing acts.
And it’s tricked entire audiences. Now, though, the rabbit’s out the hat and the cat’s out the PVC bag. Just recently, the UK’s Channel 4 shone the spotlight on Shein, with undercover filming showing that workers were earning as little as £3 GBP per item produced. The term ‘fast fashion’ has gained iconic status, as recognisable as Fendi’s own alliterative FF; but it’s interwoven with dark, unsavoury connotations. Whereas ‘fast food’, at one time, was a positive indication of the industry’s quick, convenient sustenance, ‘fast fashion’ has been a pejorative from the start, coined by critics rather than marketers trying to promote its speed as something positive.
Collective disillusionment has, after some delay, forced fast fashion brands to try to prove their innocence and genuine commitment to the environment. Pretty Little Thing, for example, has just launched the PLT Marketplace, another brand moving into resale to simultaneously clean-up its image and reclaim a share of the cash generated by the lucrative secondhand market. H&M, meanwhile, has been pushing its Conscious collection and creating environmental point-of-sales, while Primark’s Cares range has aimed to flood the mainstream with recycled materials. Pledges regularly come with all the confidence of the traditional fanfare, but all the impermanence of the traveling funfair: only time will tell if H&M uses 100% recycled materials by 2030 or – even more ambitiously–Zara does the same in just three years time.
It all sounds good, but it’s all faux fur coat and no recycled polyester knickers. Greenwashing–false claims about sustainability used to ease guilt and earn respect–has got the attention of many of us, and now has caught the beady eye of law now, too. In summer, a lawsuit was filed in New York federal court alleging that H&M had made false claims about its Conscious collection, arguing that some of the supposedly less wasteful pieces actually used more, rather than less, water to be made.
On the subject of water, similar things have been happening across the polluted pond in the UK, with behemoth retailers ASOS, Boohoo and George all being scrutinized by The Competition and Markets Authority. “Eco-friendly and sustainable products can play a role in tackling climate change, but only if they are genuine,” interm CMA chief executive Sarah Cardell told the Guardian. “We’ll be scrutinizing green claims from ASOS, Boohoo and George at Asda to see if they stack up.”
With high street brands having a hard time convincing consumers that their claims check out, many are making a more concrete commitment to the environment. Not content with partially recycled materials, they’re instead experimenting with new-gen textiles. H&M, for example, has linked with Piñatex® to create fast fashion out of pineapple leather (the Pineapple Express, anyone?), while Zara has recently collaborated with Renewcell, creators of recycled cellulose fabric Circulose®.
“The most effective way is to build a long term plan to replace various virgin materials and plug our product into the existing supply chain. It won’t make fast fashion slower, but it will make it circular. The most circular it has been,” she says.
Nora Eslander, Head of Communications at Renewcell
For Nora Eslander, Head of Communications at Renewcell, it was a chance to interweave genuinely green materials into the mass market. “With Zara being one of the largest fashion brands in the world, there is power to influence real change in the industry,” she tells FUTUREVVORLD. “The story is no ‘simpler’ than getting Circulose® in the supply chain of the big players in the fashion industry.” While Eslander concedes that this kind of collaboration is unlikely to make fast fashion more slow, it can make it more circular. “The most effective way is to build a long term plan to replace various virgin materials and plug our product into the existing supply chain. It won’t make fast fashion slower, but it will make it circular. The most circular it has been,” she says.
Is Zara’s sustainable capsule, though, an end-of-the-roll scrap of the brand’s entire output? “There’s an issue if there’s no follow-up. Brands that do ‘sustainable capsules’ to deflect calls to change for real are ruining trust in serious efforts,” she says, reflecting Renewcell’s confidence in Zara’s approach. Again, she emphasizes the ability to scale up a circular system to a mega circumference: “We can take the waste and anything new we produce and recycle it over and over again,” she says. “We’re able to replace large quantities of virgin material at commercial scale like never before with the ambition to expand globally.”
This scale is part of the problem. Even if, in some sort of utopia, the vast majority of fast fashion’s products didn’t contain virgin fibres, the sheer level of production is an attack on the environment. While they may be recyclable in theory, many consumers will opt out of take-back schemes due to their inconvenience. Equally, fast fashion relies on low prices to survive and produce at a huge rate, meaning that quality is generally flimsy and so the lifespan of products is short. Essentially, in order for fast fashion to become more sustainable, it would have to stop, well, being fast.
This recalls an old philosophical experiment – when does a bike cease to be a bike? Take away the wheels, and it might be a broken bike, but when you do away with the handlebars and the pedals too, it becomes an entirely different object. In the same way, you can take away many of the things that make fast fashion unsustainable – it’s low price-point, high returns and ever-increasing range of styles – but is it even fast fashion anymore? Even if you don’t think it’s moronic to claim that fast fashion could become sustainable, surely it’s oxymoronic?
If fast fashion itself can never be sustainable, though, it doesn’t mean that brands who once produced fast fashion can’t exist, assuming that they pivot in an entirely new direction…these brands could be sustainable under an entirely different guise.
If fast fashion itself can never be sustainable, though, it doesn’t mean that brands who once produced fast fashion can’t exist, assuming that they pivot in an entirely new direction. While the likes of Zara and H&M may not be doing nearly enough with their conscious collections, and Boohoo and Pretty Little Thing are making total empty gestures, these brands could be sustainable under an entirely different guise. Whether that’s possible is another story, and it relies on consumer action, too. Renewcell’s Eslander believes that the obstacle of getting people to buy less and wear for longer is one of the most difficult. “We won’t wait for people to change their consumption patterns,” she says. “We are working very hard on changing fashion from the inside by replacing virgin materials.”
Equally, too, with devastating cost-of-living crises looming across our FUTUREVVORLD, it’s key to remember that fast fashion – or at least, cheap fashion – will always play a compulsory role in the economy. A necessary evil, it’s the only affordable option for those on the lowest incomes, especially with thrift shops often being more expensive than buy-new brands. While that doesn’t excuse huge hauls, it does mean that fast fashion is unlikely to disappear as long as poverty exists; it’s why direct action groups such as Extinction Rebellion purposefully swerve targeting the cheapest outlets, aware that even the lowest-priced sustainable fashion is currently an out-of-reach luxury for many.
This consideration leads to something often missed in the fast fashion discussion: the people. While a fair primary consideration is putting the planet above profit, fast fashion is just as destructive to the lives it exploits along its bulldozer path. If there is a place in the FUTUREVVORLD for the rehabilitated remnants of fast fashion, it must take into consideration how it deals with its employees, and those who can afford more realistically priced clothing should show solidarity with the people behind the products.
Ultimately, it’s not collaborations with big-ticket names (sorry, Kourtney) or the safety of future-facing pledges that will ensure a place for fast fashion in our greener, cleaner FUTUREVVORLD. Instead, legitimate activations–such as working with Renewcell or Piñatex®–will need to be scaled-up to the heavens, alongside longer-lasting production and convenient circular models. Whether that’s even possible to achieve with mass market pricing is one for headached strategists; but the people, right now, who can afford to make the choice between fast or slow fashion, can’t afford to make the wrong choice.
Photos by Nana Kwadwo Agyei Addo, courtesy of The Or Foundation