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“Identify and critically discuss the main issues and challenges that face mass-produced fashion in terms of sustainability debates.”
Mass-produced fashion, often termed as “fast fashion” covers the leap, normally in the very quickest response time possible, from the catwalk, of the latest fashion trends, onto our high-street stores and increasingly the on-line stores wherever consumers buy their fashion. This mass-produced fashion often comes from the latest fashion trends shown by the big name designers (such as Versace, Chanel etc) at the various “Fashion Weeks” which occur in the spring and autumn of the year in Paris, Milan, New York and London.
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In order to be able to translate these “high-end” (expensive) “designer” clothes into mass-market affordable clothing, very sophisticated and very large supply chains have been developed. Allowing the consumers to buy this fashion at an affordable price. Retailers such as H&M, Zara and Primark have become particularly adept at producing this mass-produced fashion. These types of retailers are now “household names” and by-words for this type of fashion.
In contrast, “sustainability” in terms of fashion has been defined as “clothing which incorporates one or more aspects of social and environmental sustainability, such as Fair-Trade manufacturing or fabric containing organically-grown raw material”. (Harris, Fiona; Roby, Helen and Dibb, Sally (2016). “Sustainability is not singularly about minimizing negative impact, but also maximising positive impact, allowing individuals, communities and economic systems to flourish. To work sustainably is to question the status quo, challenge convention and find new ways of working that achieve ecological, social and cultural balance that is in tune with human behaviour” (Williams 2009).
Thus, from the above definitions of “mass-produced” and “sustainability” it is clear that here are both many and very varied issues and challenges that face mass-produced fashion in terms of sustainability. However, as this essay demonstrates, by having an ever-closer examination of these issues and challenges, it becomes increasingly clear just how complex a question this is, and that the answers can be dependent as much upon the scope and nature of the questions being asked.
The biggest sustainability challenges that face mass produced fashion is resources. The organic production of cotton is an area that is becoming increasingly popular with large fashion companies. With the likes of Levi’s, the production of their organic cotton jeans, or M&S and their organic cotton products. Organic cotton unlike alternative fibres such as hemp, is a more straightforward substitute for conventional grown cotton and as such been more easily incorporated into the high street. But this faces issues, with its limited supply. Organic cotton makes up a very small percentage of world fibre and 0.7 percent of global cotton production (Otacom. 2012). The number in farmers converting to organic production is growing however it is a slow process (taking 3 years) to convert land to certified organic, becoming a costly risky move to make. (Otacom. 2012).
With the increasing consumer demand for faster cheaper fashion, the industry is under pressure to deliver. This resulting in the industry standards impacting hard, resulting in workers being paid less, working longer hours and in some instances suffering from slavery and child labour. (Greenpeace 2011) Greenpeace revealed that in some parts of the industry companies had unknowingly opted for damaging process chemicals, for a low unit price. Resulting in unsafe, unhealthy working environments for workers and their living environment. But yet the fashion industry also contributes to families and communities, giving work to over 25 million people worldwide. This being especially women, adding to their independence and value. (Fletcher, K. and Tham,2015).
A “hidden” environmental issue of producing clothing on such a monumental level as currently, is that half a million tonnes of plastic microfibres are released every year from washed clothes. Which is 16 times more than plastic microbeads from cosmetics, which is now being recognised as a very serious source of pollution to our world’s oceans and it’s marine life. (Wrap, 2017)
Knowledge and Awareness
Issues within sustainability in mass produced fashion also sit within their consumers. Such as through a lack or limited knowledge about the impact of clothing consumption on their environment. This comes through demographic characteristics such as age and education. With recent research findings through Hiller Connel (Assistant Professor in the Department of Clothing, Textiles and Interior Design, Kansas State University), “‘social’-oriented consumers deterred by lack of awareness, a perceived lack of social acceptability”. The consumers may have negative attitudes towards sustainability, perceived ideas, such as a lack of social acceptability and a high price tag. The consumer will instead follow the cultural norms. Sustainability also has to compete with other motivations such as saving money. So instead, the consumer will opt for affordable convenient clothing lines rather than more expensive sustainable clothing. Consumers will also share different ideas of what concerns them, not everyone will engage with the sustainability issues within the production of their clothes. “The decision hierarchy in terms of purchasing and clothing is still about basically do I look good in it, not has it been produced in a good way or what’s it made of.” (Harris, fiona; roby, helen and dibb, sally, 2016)
Concerns about Aesthetics
While clothing is seen as a basic human need, for many others clothing is more than that, fashion is a visual language. People see fashion as a representation of their inner self to the outside world. Through clothing people can present an image of themselves and meaning to others. From the changing fashion trends the consumer is able to reinvent themselves, constantly changing. This can be seen through different age groups such as teenagers, where clothing is seen as a social tool, through a means of self-expression and a source of confidence. (Harris, fiona; roby, helen and dibb, sally, 2016)
“What you wear is how you present yourself to the world, especially today when human contacts go so fast. Fashion is instant language.”
In the past 10 years fast fashion has become even more fuelled through changes in technology. With the feeding of trend data right through into production, has enabled a fast turnover of affordable on trend fashion, with the likes of Zara’s delivering products twice each week (Greg petro, 2012).
With the short time frame of availability of clothing items, a reaction is created in the consumer stimulating them to buy, allowing them to keep on trend. If the consumer has the opportunity to make multiple cheaper purchases rather than to buy one item that is of the same price for ethical reasons, they are more than likely to choose low cost clothing. (Harris, 2015)
“In 2016, based mainly on Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs data, it is estimated that 1,130,000
tonnes of clothing was purchased in the UK.”
Lack of Trust in Fashion Companies
For customers of mass-produced fashion, there is generally a significant degree of questioning as to both the validity of the retailer’s sustainability claims and even more challenging to the Industry. A distrust as to how genuine are the motives and the commitment of the Industry to sustainability. Thus if the customers don’t feel that the retailers of mass-produced fashion have really committed and “bought in to” sustainability, it therefore both disengages the customers from the message of sustainability. More importantly, this customer disengagement can allow the customer to absolve themselves from their own commitments to sustainability and can allow them to have the attitude that “if they can’t be bothered, then why should I”. This means that customers will be more reluctant to participate in the sharing of the potential premium costs of buying sustainable fashion. Hence it will be more difficult and challenging for the mass-produced fashion industry to meet the sustainability challenges.
A further challenge to mass-produced fashion is that due to the increasing complexity of clothing supply chains it is difficult for Retailers to be entirely clear of the audit trail of all their clothing manufacturing. Thus, whilst the major Retailers should know and have sustainability controls in place for the factories finishing off the garments, it is in practice difficult to extend this sustainability control down to say the dyeing process of fabrics and the control of the chemical effluents.
It however can be possible by the retailers of mass-produced fashion by being clear and bold in their commitment to producing a sustainable supply chain. With pledges against “modern slavery”, minimum wage, no child labour etc. Gaining the trust of the consumer and with it a dual commitment by both the retailer and the consumer to sustainability.
Changing Consumers’ Behaviours
Whilst it is a whole other debate as to whether consumer demand introduced mass-produced fashion, or whether mass-produced fashion produced the consumer demand. What is true, is that in order to adopt a more sustainable model, mass-produced fashion will need to work very closely with and educate its customer base on the importance of sustainability. In short, mass-produced fashion can’t become sustainable without the commitment and “buy-in” from its customer base.
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Thus over time, mass-produced fashion needs to wean its customer base away from buying ever more disposable fashion, to investing in fashion for a longer term and therefore on a more sustainable basis. Whilst everyone realises that producing a £2 T-Shirt that is worn just once and isn’t “worth” washing is not in the long-term sustainable. But to change this, will require commitments not just from mass-produced fashion producers and retailers but also a similarly matched commitment to a change in behaviours from consumers.
One of the greatest challenges for mass-produced fashion is to try and find a sustainable economic model that is also environmentally sustainable and does not rely on what has become overconsumption by consumers. In the UK we are buying twice as many clothes now, than we did 20 years ago. This level of consumption is being driven in part by basic consumer demand and also by the never-ending pressure from the media and the fashion industries for consumers to be constantly changing their wardrobe to the latest “look”. Again, if mass-produced fashion is to move onto a more sustainable model, whilst it can try to do so, but it will only achieve these aims if consumers too can similarly change the spending habits.
Ironically, what might be needed is for a major brand or a new brand to enter the mass-produced fashion market that has sustainability at the very heart and core of it’s message and principles. If this brand was to become “fashionable” in the eyes of consumers, then it could change consumer perceptions of sustainable fashion not being chic or trendy. Such a brand could become an “ambassador” for sustainable fashion and become the flag bearer for a change in both the industry and in how we “consume” fashion.
A recent report by the Dame Ellen MacArthur’s foundation has concluded that the world’s fashion industry now creates greenhouse emissions totalling 1.2 billion tonnes a year, which is greater than that of all the world’s international flights and shipping combined. The report goes on to warn, that “if the industry continues on its current path, by 2050, it could use more than 26% of the carbon budget associated with a 2C pathway.”. The report also noted that only 1% of material used to make clothing is recycled into new clothing (Sandra laville, 2017).
Thus whilst there are many huge challenges to making mass-produced fashion sustainable, the fact that both the industry and now the consumers have begun to recognise the problems, that we can start to put in place the solutions.
Both the mass-produced fashion industry and the consumers are beginning to realise that clothes need to be designed differently, worn for longer and recycled as much as possible to put mass-produced fashion onto a sustainable path. Going forward mass-produced fashion needs to phase out microfibre release; and wearing clothes for the “one-off” by further developing the usage of short-term clothing rentals, significantly improve the amount of clothes recycling and a much greater use of renewable materials. The challenge to the mass-produced fashion industry is to be able to make the change to a sustainable industry but one that is still profitable.
Reducing the focus on cost
Rewards based on cost Very cheap clothing
Align buyers’ and suppliers’ remuneration with sustainability objectives
Accentuate benefits other than price to consumers to increase the value of their clothes
Mainstreaming sustainable clothing
Stigma and stereotypes of sustainable clothing
Misconceptions of sustainable clothing
Normalise designs of sustainable clothing
Make it easy for consumers to buy sustainable clothing
Involve designers in sustainability strategy
Harris, Fiona; Roby, Helen and Dibb, Sally (2016)
Table – Sustainable clothing: challenges, barriers and interventions
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