Is Fast Fashion Moving Too Fast?

Researchers assess what it will take to support sustainability within the global fashion industry.

Every year, the fashion industry emits 1.2 billion tons of greenhouse gases.

Fast fashion, which is a common business model for modern fashion retailers, emphasizes fast turnaround times for garment manufacturing, low production costs, and high volumes to keep up with current trends.

In a recent article, Meital Peleg Mizrachi and Alon Tal of Tel Aviv University call for regulatory action to achieve a more sustainable fashion industry. Mizrachi and Tal encourage policy changes to reshape production patterns and business models of fashion companies.

Mizrachi and Tal describe a model for a more sustainable approach to fashion known as the circular economy. Essentially, a circular economy designs products in a way that “supports sustainability, social justice, and economic well-being.” This model promotes sustainability and equity by reducing waste and producing items that prioritize longevity of use and potential for reuse.

Mizrachi and Tal contrast a sustainable fashion industry with the industry’s current focus on fast fashion.

According to Mizrachi and Tal, industry critics are expressing concern over brands’ use of sustainability in their marketing materials. Often, companies that claim to be sustainable are often “all style and no substance,” Mizrachi and Tal explain, meaning they don’t implement circular solutions into their business models.

To demonstrate how sustainable efforts could work, Mizrachi and Tal point to a 2021 UK initiative led by 17 leading fashion companies called “Textiles 2030”. The initiative commits these companies, which account for half of UK clothing sales, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50% and water consumption by 30%. The Textiles 2010 initiative achieves these goals by integrating “new circular economy approaches into their business model by 2030”.

At its core, the Textiles 230 initiative urges the industry to produce garments that have the ability to be sustainable and recyclable, providing a paradigm for putting the circular business model into practice.

Researching the best alternatives to fast fashion, Mizrachi and Tal assess the feasibility of various policy interventions that would encourage sustainable fashion outcomes.

Mizrachi and Tal emphasize “pay-as-you-throw” community initiatives as a possible route to sustainable goals, in which residents must pay fees based on the amount of solid waste they dispose of. According to Mizrachi and Tal, this program works as a monetary incentive for individuals to accumulate less waste and would be very effective in building sustainability.

Mizrachi and Tal also target the fashion industry’s use of outsourcing as the culprit of hampering sustainability. Since an overwhelming majority of apparel manufacturers outsource labor, Mizrachi and Tal propose holding companies legally responsible for labor conditions. According to Mizrachi and Tal, this liability will both protect outsourced workers from below-average treatment and reduce environmental harm in the industry as a whole. Mizrachi and Tal acknowledge, however, that this alternative will likely provoke political backsliding.

Next, because Mizrachi and Tal argue that overconsumption contributes significantly to the predicament of unsustainable fashion, they advocate educational solutions as the answer. They indicate that educating consumers about the harmful environmental and social impacts of the fashion industry through programs such as collaborative community education can reduce harm. Mizrachi and Tal acknowledge, however, that this solution is long term – the effects of the educational initiatives will not be felt for years.

Additionally, Mizrachi and Tal see a carbon tax – imposed directly on fashion companies that emit greenhouse gases during production – as a potential way to reduce environmental damage. Mizrachi and Tal highlight a weakness of this solution: it will be very difficult to determine where the emissions occur in the production processes of the companies in order to be able to effectively assess the taxes.

As an alternative, Mizrachi and Tal suggest that governments impose higher taxes on fashion products that lack sustainable characteristics.

At the same time, argue Mizrachi and Tal, governments should actively support sustainable fashion businesses, including favorable loan terms for progressive companies.

Additionally, Mizrachi and Tal support a standardized certification program as a potential step on the road to sustainable fashion. Mizrachi and Tal envision a system in which fashion companies would be ranked based on their performance in sustainable categories, such as environmental waste, emissions and workers’ rights. According to Mizrachi and Tal, this type of certification system would make it easier for consumers to shop sustainably. On the other hand, Mizrachi and Tal understand that differing definitions of “sustainable fashion” could make this solution controversial when creating certification criteria.

Whichever approach to sustainability in the fashion industry is chosen, Mizrachi and Tal recommend that consumers remain at the heart of regulatory decisions.

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