Fast Fashion: Changing The Direction Of The Juggernaut

30/09/2016 11:15
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sustainable fashion

My recent article on Fast Fashion - Can it be Sustainable? explored fast fashion, sustainability, and the growing stand-off between two fashion industry camps - fast fashion retailers outwardly promoting sustainability initiatives versus a growing sustainable fashion movement questioning whether fast fashion and sustainability can co-exist - including thousands of independent brands, fashion professionals and consumers.

With many of the industry's most creative minds being applied independently to each side of the argument, I believe we are missing an opportunity to step back and view the full picture. The fast fashion model is increasingly dominating the industry as a whole, in relation to volumes, visibility, and sales. This model is now the way most fashion business (by volume) is done - how can we as an industry constructively move this debate forward? Is it possible for us to shift the direction of the fast fashion juggernaut?

I see three places we can start. Some of these (no 3...) will require some blue sky thinking. I believe that all of them could open the door to more solutions-focused debate... (and that's got to be more fun than reminding ourselves of the problems... again ;-))

1. Uniting the Industry's Best Thinkers

I've had the privilege to work with some incredible, pioneering thinkers and actors at the cutting edge of the sustainable fashion movement over my 10 years of growing the Ethical Fashion Forum. People who have turned major challenges into business opportunities that transform livelihoods and reverse environmental damage. These entrepreneurs are going well beyond "doing no harm" - they are using business as a tool to drive change in the industry as a whole - as well as in their own supply chains.

At the same time, I have seen equal amounts of passion amongst individuals inside large corporations to do business better. When these actors are empowered, (which is not often enough - ref my earlier post about the 'brain drain') they can and are developing wide-reaching solutions.

I believe that providing opportunities for constructive and open debate, uniting leaders across small and large business, and furthering collaboration, will catalyse change. Some of the most impactful initiatives I have witnessed have been the result of the innovative, pioneering thinking of small business, working alongside the resources and reach of major High Street brands. Major brands and retailers have the potential to take the fair trade fashion model to scale - make it visible and accessible to all their customers. (Now that's integrity.) But to do this they need to work with the great minds who have already taken fair trade fashion from concept to reality (I'm talking to you, Safia Minney, founder of People Tree!)

2. Developing the Business Model

If promoting sustainable consumption is directly in conflict with the increasingly predominant business model across the fashion industry - (regular fashion "fixes" of low cost product) then it follows that the industry (and all its players) need to develop this business model. This is no easy solution. But, it is a creative and inspiring one. (And it needs our best thinkers to put their heads together - ref point 1 above.)

Here are two ideas being incubated or already out there:

  1. Aspirational fashion: Leading fashion retailers have already brought out "exclusive" sustainable collections, at (often marginally) higher price points. This could be done on a broader scale, with an emphasis on the benefits for the people behind the product - the role of craftsmanship, and the idea that style is more than a fashion fix. Fast fashion retailers have changed perceptions about how much fashion should cost, helped to create a "bargain boast" culture, and consumers have lost track of what it really means to create fashion. Fast fashion retailers with their massive advertising reach can help to move the dial again. (Vivienne Westwood - we might need your help here!!)
  2. Leasing: M&S, H&M, and now Zara, all have take back schemes. But none of these drive commercial value (yet! Closed Loop is on the horizon..) and this will make it difficult for them to gain traction. Rent the Runway has proven that there is mileage - and serious profits - in the concept of leasing. It encourages us to value exclusive pieces, and craftsmanship. It creates a model in which we can all get a regular fashion fix - and at the same time, potentially support incredible brands that are not only producing beautiful pieces, but doing it with respect for the environment, and creating fulfilling work. What is more - it could help us all to be more critical in our fashion selection - less bargain basement - and more style!

3. Develop a Strategic Vision

If we were to step back, and strategically plan this industry to maximise benefits for people on both sides of the supply chain - would we design the system to operate as it does today? (See Fast Fashion - Can It Be Sustainable? for more on this.) Our industry, and the challenges with it, are the product of unplanned and organic growth. As it stands, we do not have the structure or the mechanism to come up with a collective strategic vision for this global industry and implement it. The closest we have is the World Trade Organisation (and integrating sustainability goals within the work of the WTO is some years off...)

However, there are many bodies that unite the players of our industry towards better practices - from the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, to the Ethical Trading Initiative, the Copenhagen Fashion Summit and the UN Global Compact, to name a few. Together, these organisations wield considerable influence. If we can come together to develop a common vision - a set of targets that we all buy into and promote - a "manifesto" for the fashion industry, this will multiply all of our impact. I believe that if we can do this well, it can and will transform our industry for the better.

Interested in the fast fashion debate? Join the conversation on Twitter.

Or... join us in person (we're working hard to bring together actors from both sides of the fast fashion debate...) at one of our monthly Sustainable Fashion Meetups in London. We hope to be able to reach a more global audience with these in the future - express interest in this here.

This September The Huffington Post UK Style is focusing on all things sustainable, for the second year running. Our thirst for fast fashion is dramatically impacting the environment and the lives of thousands of workers in a negative way. Our aim is to raise awareness of this zeitgeist issue and champion brands and people working to make the fashion industry a more ethical place.

We'll be sharing stories and blogs with the hashtag #SustainableFashion and we'd like you to do the same. If you'd like to use our blogging platform to share your story, email