In previous years the words “cruelty free,” “organic,” and “sustainable” have just been marketing buzzwords, but now more than ever consumers of the fashion industry are becoming aware of what they are supporting through their purchases. Many have turned their backs on products made from animals; fur, leather, and wool are just a few examples. Others have boycotted fast fashion companies after learning about their environmental and social impacts.
Fast fashion is a contemporary term used by fashion retailers to describe how quickly designs from the runway at Fashion Week make their way into retail stores, where they are ready to be picked up by consumers in the fastest and most inexpensive way possible. This allows for major fast fashion retailers such as Zara to have new items delivered twice a week to their stores. Not only does this improve the consumer’s garment availability but also increases the number of times a customer comes to the store to shop for the new and latest trends.
While fast fashion leaves the consumer satisfied at the quickest rate possible, it cannot hide the fact that fashion is the third most polluting industry in the world and the second largest consumer of water. Just to create one pair of blue jeans, nine hundred gallons of water are wasted. This amounts to about 400 million gallons used just to create jeans. After the water is used up in the manufacturing process, the polluted water is sent back to rivers, lakes, and oceans. The fast fashion industry also adds to climate change with the amount of greenhouse gases emitted during the production process. For example, man-made fabrics such as polyester, nylon, and other petroleum-based fabrics emit harmful, volatile compounds and nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas three hundred times more potent than carbon dioxide. While the majority of individuals know that most of their clothing is made in China, they are unaware that one t-shirt transported from China to the United States results in 9,000 clothing miles and over two pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions.
In response to the harmful effects of fast fashion, slow fashion movements have emerged. Overall, the idea that clothing companies should emit as little harm as possible is called ethical fashion.
The Ethical Fashion Forum (EFF) is a non-profit network that focuses on social and environmental sustainability in the fashion industry. EFF takes the idea of ethical fashion even further than doing no harm and states that ethical fashion should take “an active role in poverty reduction, sustainable livelihood creation, minimizing and counteracting environmental concerns.” For a company to be ethical, EFF has set up a list of the criteria as seen below:
- Countering fast, cheap fashion and damaging patterns of fashion consumption.
- Defending fair wages, working conditions, and workers’ rights.
- Supporting sustainable livelihoods.
- Addressing toxic pesticide and chemical use.
- Using and/or developing eco-friendly fabrics and components.
- Minimising water usage.
- Recycling and addressing energy efficiency and waste.
- Developing or promoting sustainability standards for fashion.
- Resources, training, and/or awareness raising initiatives.
- Animal rights.
Some existing brands, after learning about how unsustainable their practices are, have used this criteria to formulate ethical business plans, one being Mara Hoffman. Although the brand does not claim to be perfect when it comes to ethical fashion, they are making major strides by increasing their products made in the USA, using digital printing to reduce water usage, and using organic cotton fabrics.
Other brands have emerged alongside fast fashion, counteracting its unsustainable practices. An important brand to mention is Reformation, created in 2009 by founder and CEO Yael Aflalo. Reformation describes their company as one that sources “sustainable fabrics and vintage garments while incorporating better practices throughout our supply chain to make beautiful styles at a fraction of the environmental impact of conventional fashion.” Aflalo has succeeded in making her brand one that avoids harming the environment without sacrificing style. In fact, Reformation has almost built a cult following, with celebrities such as Karlie Kloss, Taylor Swift, and Vanessa Hudgens seen wearing the brand periodically. The commercial success of Reformation brings up the important question about whether fast fashion can ever be sustainable.