Fast fashion is under fire. Members of the European Parliament have called on EU countries to “ban” and therefore “end fast fashion” due to the impacts of high volumes of production and consumption. But how is fast fashion defined, and what form would the ban take? Furthermore, what would a ban mean for fast fashion manufacturing hubs—typically in developing countries—which should be focusing on decarbonisation investment, not justifying their right to exist in a global market.
The EU defines fast fashion as “high volumes of lower quality garments at low price levels.” From the outset, this vague and relative definition looks flawed on two of the three criteria. High volume and low price do not automatically mean a product is unsustainable. A lower price can be achieved when being more sustainable, for example, by upgrading to new machinery that uses less water and less energy, or by generating on-site solar power and reducing the amount of energy purchased from the national grid, or by purchasing bulk shipments of raw materials at a reduced price due to economies of scale, and with fewer logistics emissions. Low price does not necessarily mean “cheap,” nor does it mean lower quality.
Therefore, all garments and footwear require a universal set of minimum quality, durability, ethics and safety standards that manufacturers and brands adhere to, in line with the EU textile sustainability and due diligence targets. Fortunately, these factors are being addressed in Ecodesign Regulation, the Digital Product Passport initiative and the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive. The directive requires brands to report their total company impact on the climate within their traditional financial reporting framework, and they must publicly declare any overproduction of stock (unsold goods). So with the demonstrable need for standards and regulations across the board, why is all the blame being levelled at “fast fashion”?
Some luxury brands, media outlets and even European policymakers have perpetuated a false and persistent narrative that “premium” and “luxury brands” are inherently sustainable and “fast fashion” is inherently not. This idea has taken hold, despite the realities of the production of goods, outlined above.
This narrative not only ignores the many varying factors that determine price, quantity and quality, but it confuses consumers by labelling entire brands like H&M as ‘fast fashion’ and therefore shameful and irresponsible to purchase. This elitist idea is very convenient for luxury brands, since it insists that “mass produced, low-cost fashion” (invariably made in developing countries like Bangladesh and Cambodia) is the fashion that is killing the planet.
What’s implied is that fashion made there is bad or “low” fashion that is only ever a compromise for those who can’t afford the “high” (sustainable) option. When consumers believe this, it lets premium and luxury brands off the hook, allowing them to stall on sustainability efforts, as evidenced by LVMH, Hermes and others taking the easy road by setting incremental intensity targets for Scopes 1 and 2, instead of absolute emissions reduction targets for Scope 3, which the likes of H&M is setting. Instead of acting to tackle fashion’s collective impacts, luxury brands and retailers allow the negative attention to linger on the likes of Zara and Uniqlo, and the manufacturers of their products in South Asia, using them as sustainability scapegoats.
At the recent Global Fashion Summit in Copenhagen, Antoine Arnault declared LVMH’s disdain for fast fashion claiming it was a separate industry to luxury fashion, which he believes is “sustainable by nature.” Quite how that works when both are supplied by the same commodity raw materials and supply chains is anybody’s guess.
On the topic of fast fashion being a “separate industry”, I recently visited a group of garment factories producing for Hugo Boss, Kmart, Puma and Ralph Lauren all under the same roof, on the same machines, by the same skilled workforce. The manufacturer has an integrated cotton recycling facility where it turns its own fabric cutting waste into new yarns, fabrics and garments, certified by the Global Recycling Standard. The factory is Jinnat Knitwear, part of DBL Group in Bangladesh.
Similarly, leading manufacturers Urmi group have become the first manufacturer in Bangladesh to invest in advanced seamless knitwear technology. The Group’s Director and Chief Operating Officer, pictured below with ex-olympic and world-championship track and field medallist, Fiona May, are developing high performance sportswear with the technology. Urmi manufactures products for fashion, sportswear and underwear brands including H&M, Puma and Marks & Spencer. They are two examples of the growing diversification of Bangladesh’s advanced manufacturing capabilities.
DBL and Urmi are two examples of the growing diversification of Bangladesh’s advanced textile and garment manufacturing capabilities. Both are vertically integrated, creating textiles and products from the fiber or yarn, through to the finished garment. This “all under one roof” integration allows streamlined production and resource efficiency, which decreases the product footprint and allows very competitive pricing—especially on high volumes (due to economies of scale). This lean and digital approach to garment production is in place whether they are manufacturing for Hugo Boss or H&M.
Probing the ‘fast’ versus ‘luxury’ comparison further via a direct product comparison, a quick Google search threw up these two similar T-shirt style options:
A Loewe printed cotton T-shirt, made in Italy, priced at $621; and a H&M printed organic cotton T-shirt, made in Turkey (and naming the factory and its location on the website), for $35.
H&M used organic cotton (grown without synthetic pesticides or fertilisers), whereas Loewe used conventional cotton, which does use these chemicals derived from fossil fuels. Because of this difference, conventional cotton has a higher carbon and ecological footprint than organic cotton. Regarding production location, 18.8% of Turkey’s energy supply (and rising) is from renewable sources, while Italy’s is 16.6% and declining. This is to illustrate that preconceived notions of sustainability based on a country’s location or fashion “reputation” are unlikely to bear out in truth. Neither are persistent views about where worker exploitation and wage theft happend in fashion supply chains.
In 2018, the New York Times revealed that Italy, synonymous with designer brands and luxury goods, operates a shadow economy of seamstresses paid as little as $1 per hour. These workers sew coats that sell for up to thousands of dollars. A year after that revelation, the Italian authorities arrested a factory owner in Naples who employed dozens of undocumented workers allegedly making leathergoods for some of Europe’s best-known luxury brands, including Armani and LVMH brand Fendi. The workshop appeared to be acting as an uncertified subcontractor.
In the UK, an investigation into garment supplier factories found that workers in Leicester were being paid as little as $4.65 (£3.50) per hour—less than half the legal minimum wage. Know the Chain’s benchmarking on exploitation outlines the widespread and systemic problem in apparel and footwear supply chains. It’s latest report found that the world’s largest luxury brands are among the worst offenders in addressing the worse forms of exploitation.
As with environmental impacts, decent work and fair wages is an industry-wide issue in for all regions, products and price points. Therefore, the sustainability of fashion is not determined by brand categorization, price point or the country of manufacture. It is determined by how a product is made, including labor, and what it is made from, along with the management of production volumes and recycling of waste, and the use of renewable energy sources.
When the president of the European Parliament, Roberta Metsola, gave her plenary speech demanding an end to fast fashion, she chose to “mark the 10th anniversary of the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in Bangladesh.” She “recalled that this disaster was a wake-up call for the Western world, including the EU,” which she said has a responsibility to “own up to the consequences of putting consumer preferences for abundance and affordability ahead of moderation and sustainability.”
Fortunately, since the factory collapse, Bangladesh’s garment industry has been overhauled by the Accord on building and fire safety, and it is now an industry exemplar. The International Accord is now being rolled out industry-wide to support freedom of association and to allow increased collective bargaining of workers, as it has done in Bangladesh.
This is all the more reason why it is unfair and dicriminatory for Metsola to drag Bangladesh through the mud yet again, using its tragedy as a motivational tool to convince European Parliamentarians to crack down on the rampant fashion consumption of its citizens. Her choice of example, and its inclusion in all the Parliamentary press releases, and wherever fast fashion and sustainability problems are mentioned, reinforces the impression that Bangladesh’s garment industry is forever deadly and exploitative—forever a disaster zone. This same decade-old narrative is still what defines the garment industry in Bangladesh, despite years of investment, innovation and global standard setting, proving that Bangladesh’s factories are among the most advanced and safe in the world—including the examples above.
Garment exports are crucial to the economic stability of Bangladesh and other developing countries, as well as the livelihoods of the millions of workers they employ. Ultimately, the entire fashion industry has environmental and social sustainability problems. Since brands from Hugo Boss to H&M and Ralph Lauren to Lidl all have their garments produced in the same factories, under the same roofs, and using the same resources, they must admit they are all part of the same problem—one that requires truthful and open communication, and a universal set of minimum product standards to tackle fashion’s assault on the climate and its obligation to provide fair and safe work.