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Why fast fashion has to slow down

During Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s first PMQs in the House of Commons, he was forced to respond to Mary Creagh (Wakefield, Labour) on the issue of fast fashion.

Specifically, how he would address the impact the reality TV show Love Island was having on the consumption of cheap beachwear being sold on the High Street for £1 and then discarded to landfill as soon as the holiday was over.

Fast fashion describes an accelerated business model evolved since the 1980s. To keep costs down, production is heavily decentralized making regulation difficult to implement. Increased competition impacts both the wages paid and the environmental consequences of using ever cheaper fabrics and notions. Fast fashion positions clothing as fast-moving consumer goods or disposables, with little emotional attachment engendered between the owner and what is owned due to the short time spans spent together. Functioning out of the introduction of the micro-season in an attempt to increase more regular purchases, clothing lives in the ‘now’ with regular updates to a wardrobe financially managed by constant discounts and sales.

Hubbub, a charity campaigning on environmental issues, used their online satirical magazine Faux to ask the question ‘how fast can we go?’ It was suggested, only somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that in the future we may reach a stage whereby fast fashion will move so quickly in the turn to new trends that ‘clothes will be on the shop floors for less than one day’ with leading brands introducing ‘use-by dates’ so you know exactly for how long the item remains on trend.

The notion of a throw-away society is not new.  The American economist Bernard London first introduced the term ‘planned obsolescence’ in 1932 as a means to stimulate spending among the few consumers who had disposable income during the Great Depression, but it was later scathingly picked up by social commentator Vance Packard in his 1964 ‘The Waste Makers’ to focus on how brands were purposefully creating products that were deemed out of date not due to functionality but rather design. Today from charities to lobbying bodies a consensus arises around the failings of the temporally shortening linear model of clothing consumption centred on buy-own-discard.

But how did we get here? In essence, we have reached a moment where on many social media channels who we are is defined by what we wear. Fast fashion functions as an index of who we are in that moment and as a consequence almost immediately positions us as out of date. Take the selfie. The selfie functions as a point of comparison: between a current and former self and against the broader digital community. The crafting of the self as an online brand positions clothes as props and markers of change, making any sense of repetition anathema.

The negative impact of this process on a sustainability agenda is evident. Such a heightened sense of self-awareness in the correlation of identity to clothing is encapsulated in headlines in the British press indicating that ‘one in six young people won’t wear an outfit again if it’s been seen on social media’.

Fashion has always been about seasonality. What is new is the pace of change and its consequences on the planet. As the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2019) has noted, whilst emphasis has been placed on addressing the ‘transition to renewable energy, complemented by energy efficiency’ this does not tackle the remaining 45 per cent of emissions that come from the production of everyday items including clothing.

As a result, the pace of fast fashion has to slow down and a temporal solution is here proposed that has two inextricably linked dimensions: on the one hand, deceleration of the supply chain is required and secondly, brands must begin to adopt a promotional strategy that shifts its emphasis from volume to value.

Last month saw Fashion, Style and Popular Culture Journal publish my article about ‘Temporal models challenging the sustainability agenda in relation to fast fashion consumption’.

Before COP26 I argued, ‘a new approach is urgently needed to tackle the problems created by fast fashion’s environmental impact using a ‘psycho-social approach’ to change consumer behaviour or action by government is destined to fail.’

Future research is required into how advertising has the potential to play a significant part in the turn to a slower economy with specific reference to the use of promotional discourse as a space to re-explore our relationship to clothing, specifically in conjunction with identity construction and indeed the utilisation of the second-hand market.

We have reached an imbalance between what we want now without considering its impact ecologically on the future. It is time to stop and think: we need a significant dressing down!