Pumping the Brakes on Fast Fashion

Clothing hanging on a rack.
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Scholars discuss how to limit the negative social and environmental impacts of fast fashion.

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Around the world, consumers buy 80 billion new clothing items per year.

Of American buyers’ total yearly clothing consumption, 85 percent of the clothing purchased ends up as waste in landfills.

The term “fast fashion” describes the speedy production of inexpensive clothing to keep up with rapidly changing fashion trends.

Zara, a popular fast fashion brand, boasts a business model that produces over 20 different collections per year—meaning the business churns out new clothing pieces every five weeks on average. Fashion Nova, a California-based fashion company that creates relatively inexpensive womenswear, releases more than 600 items per week on its platform.

This model of clothing production and sale presents ethical problems, primarily with environmental sustainability and labor exploitation.

If the fast fashion industry continues on its current course, greenhouse gas emissions will surge by 50 percent within the next 10 years. The fashion industry also uses massive amounts of water. At present, fashion companies expend one-tenth of the total water used worldwide to operate industrial factories.

Fast fashion also raises social concerns. In the fast fashion industry, brands often outsource the labor required for manufacture to overseas producers to cheapen the cost of production, in part by avoiding paying minimum wage to domestic workers. Subcontracting this labor promotes hazardous, unhealthy, and below-standard working conditions in low- and middle-income countries.

Currently, U.S. fashion brands face little regulatory intervention. Activists, policymakers, and community members are calling for greater accountability for fast fashion companies to reform the quality and safety of their manufacturing methods.

In response to sustainability concerns, the New York Senate introduced the New York Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act, which would mandate that retailers and manufacturers publish their social and environmental policies online. The bill would require businesses to implement more sustainable processes on supply chains. This bill, if passed, would be the first in the United States to require fashion companies to address their social and environmental shortcomings. One scholar argues the Act’s arrival signals a change in the legal conversation around addressing labor and environmental issues in the fashion sector in the United States.

In this week’s Saturday Seminar, experts share ideas on how to lower the high social and environmental costs inherent in the operations of fast fashion companies.

  • In an article in Sustainability, Radka MacGregor Pelikánová of Anglo-American University, Tereza Němečková of Metropolitan University Prague, and researcher Robert K. MacGregor evaluate international luxury brands’ public approach toward sustainability goals following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Pelikánová, Němečková, and MacGregor find that after the height of the pandemic, international luxury brands tended to promote their corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts within their “materials and distribution channels.” These companies, however, did not substantively change the methods used in their production channels. The authors point to some exceptions, including Czech luxury brands, that used the COVID-19 pandemic as a chance to embrace CSR-friendly production models. These companies viewed sustainability as an opportunity to cultivate a “lavish aura.” Pelikánová, Němečková, and MacGregor call for luxury brands to go beyond simply giving public statements on CSR initiatives.
  • In a recent case study, Silvia Damme and Marina Schmitz of CBS International Business School discuss the shortcomings of the fast fashion industry. Damme and Schmitz describe three main issues with the industry: working conditions and human rights, overconsumption and waste, and environmental impact and health. Damme and Schmitz identify one company, LANIUS, as a pioneer in the sustainable fashion scene. The founder of LANIUS advocates regulation of the fashion industry as a means of increasing industry sustainability. LANIUS’s founder points to large companies such as H&M as influential in making the shift toward a more sustainable industry but maintains that the consumer is the most powerful influencer.
  • Should clothing be free? In a recent paper published for the Responsible Fashion Series at the University of Antwerp, Timo Rissanen of University of Technology Sydney reimagines the fashion industry in a post-fossil fuel dependent future. Rissanen imagines a world where clothing is highly regulated and provided to the public for free. He argues that for a society that regulates so many things, it is somewhat odd that clothing—a commodity with finite quantities—is largely untouched by regulators. Rissanen explains that governments regulate clothing after it is discarded, but not beforehand. He suggests that clothing should be approached in policymaking as a common good, and he explores what this could look like in practice.
  • In what areas can the fashion industry make policy changes to further sustainability? In an article in Sustainability, Meital Peleg Mizrachi and Alon Tal of Tel Aviv University urge that fashion companies should implement changes within both their production processes and their business plans. In proposing potential solutions for the issue of unsustainability in the fashion industry, Mizrachi and Tal advocate a sustainable certification program. Mizrachi and Tal explain that this certification program, which would rank fashion companies’ sustainability efforts, would make it easier for shoppers to engage with sustainable brands by increasing transparency on matters such as environmental waste and carbon emissions.
  • Companies that advertise ethical labor practices in their supply chains could see increased profits, according to findings in a working paper written by Emmanuel Teitelbaum and Aparna Ravi of George Washington University. Teitelbaum and Ravi identify a “first-mover effect,” explaining that firms benefit financially from ethical labels when they are the first to adopt that label because it is relatively unique. They suggest that this effect explains why some companies, such as REI, Everlane, and Patagonia, emphasize sustainability in their brand strategy while other companies do not. Based on these dynamics, Teitelbaum and Ravi argue that ethical consumers can affect some companies’ profits but remain limited in their ability to influence all companies to shift toward ethical labor practices.
  • In an article in the Cardozo Arts and Entertainment Law Journal, Kal Raustiala of UCLA School of Law and Christopher J. Sprigman of the NYU School of Law respond to concerns about environmental destruction and labor exploitation in the fast fashion industry. Raustiala and Sprigman find that the freedom to copy clothing designs encourages innovation in the fashion industry by accelerating the fashion cycle. They acknowledge that fast fashion causes serious environmental harm, which they recommend legislatures address through policies aimed at minimizing environmental damage across industries. They also emphasize that fast fashion contributes to exploitation of low-wage workers, which they urge regulators to address in generalized labor-related regulation that is not limited to the fast fashion industry.

The Saturday Seminar is a weekly feature that aims to put into written form the kind of content that would be conveyed in a live seminar involving regulatory experts. Each week, The Regulatory Review publishes a brief overview of a selected regulatory topic and then distills recent research and scholarly writing on that topic.