Fast fashion contradicts a sustainable philosophy

Fast fashion contradicts a sustainable philosophy

The design of sustainable clothing poses many additional challenges compared with conventional products, from restrictions in fibres to product designs and manufacturing processes. But the biggest hurdle to overcome is keeping up with changing trends at the same time.

While fast fashion is undoubtedly profitable, its very nature can promote waste, making clothes that are only supposed to last a season or two and being particularly demanding on workers.

"How fast fashion and sustainability can work together is an interesting discussion and honestly, I'm not sure if it's possible," says Olivia Sprinkel, senior consultant at Salterbaxter MSLGROUP, a UK-based consultancy. "One element of sustainability is designing for longevity, so having a product that's only meant to be worn a couple times a season before being thrown out, that's not living a sustainable philosophy."

Adila Cokar, founder and executive manufacturing consultant at the Toronto-based Source My Garment, an ethical manufacturing agency, adds that the idea of sustainable clothing produced quickly and constantly, such as fast fashion dictates, is contradictory. She advises companies going down the sustainable path to be more flexible and opening with their timing.

"I tell companies they need to plan a year or even a year and a half in advance for their designs so they're not putting pressure on the factory or manufacturers – because how you treat your workers is an aspect of sustainability as well. When you rush factories, telling them to produce as fast as possible, you're putting pressure on the workers and that's when bad stuff happens," she says, pointing to accidents, overwork and exploitation.

To avoid this, Sprinkel says sustainable clothing companies need to remember that consumers will always have a classic style and buy a certain type of clothing. She suggests they identify that market and target those consumers with their designs, which would be "much more long-lasting and create brand loyalty, instead of trying to keep up with changing trendy clothing designs that go out of fashion quickly."

She adds sustainability challenges regarding design are faced both high-end luxury designers, and lower-priced companies.

"Many high-end designers want to design sustainably, but aesthetics and the appearance of the final product are more important to their consumers. If they can't achieve the desired look with sustainable textiles, then that's a difficult decision for luxury designers to make," she explains. "For lower priced companies and designers, they face high prices for using organic cotton or other more sustainable fibres."

Sustainable materials

However, the range of sustainable materials available to designers is certainly growing as consumers become more aware and concerned with what they're wearing, Sprinkel says, but admits the market for these is more limited than traditional materials.

Organic cotton, for example, is one of the most popular 'eco-friendly' labelled fibres for sustainable clothing because it grows from non-genetically modified seeds – but is that enough to make it eco-friendly?

"The growing and harvesting of cotton has a serious impact on ecosystems and thus poses serious environmental challenges, largely associated with high water and energy use," says Nicola Mentore, consultant at Werner International, a textile and fashion consultancy based in the US.

Another recently popular fibre for fabric is bamboo. However, despite its fast regenerative qualities that many associate with its sustainability, the fibre is incredibly tough and requires such harsh chemicals to break down that it should never be labelled as an 'environmentally-friendly' material, says Cokar.

And according to Sprinkel, selecting a sustainable fibre is only half the decision: where it is grown and refined also matters. For example, a company based in Europe using cotton, where cotton is largely only grown in Spain and Greece, for their clothing would usually need to transport cotton from cotton-growing areas to a fabric plant. This cloth would then perhaps be shipped to Europe for making-up and finishing – a process which involves a lot of transport and subsequently, pollution and carbon emissions.

"In the US it's different because you could have cotton that is grown there, and have the fabric also made locally. At that point, the whole product can be made within a relatively small area, which cuts down on transportation costs," she says. Sprinkel suggests companies decide on a fibre and where to source it before designing the product and choosing a manufacturing factory.

So breaking into the sustainable fashion industry is no small feat. Cokar suggests that young designers or companies find a niche in the fashion market and try to fill it with their sustainable product.

"Competing against the H&Ms and Walmarts of the world is not a good business plan for emerging brands because they're obviously going to have less money available, less connections, and lower volumes of products," she says.

"But if you're making one-of-a-kind pieces, as opposed to mass-produced products, you'll be able to charge a bit more on the market, and give yourself the opportunity to establish yourself as a quality brand. It'll also give you a platform to be transparent about the work put into the product."

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