Industry Trend: Fast Fashion Becomes Sustainable

As soon as the models leave the glamorous runways of the international fashion capitals and the designers retreat to celebrating their success, big textile companies all over the world start to get to work: According to an article by Suzy Hansen in The New York Times, big clothing corporations like Inditex require about two weeks to take inspiration from the upcoming season’s fashion shows and create their own, more affordable version of a ready-to-wear garment. Inditex makes 840 million garments a year in this fashion and delivers them to their stores, including Zara and Massimo Dutti, almost twice a week, striving to keep the stock fresh. Customers seem to adjust to the speed of fast fashion: Inditex has little to no leftover stock in their stores before the next order of must-have pieces arrives.

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Fast fashion not only affects the customer’s shopping behavior, it also has a big impact on the environment. Statistics published by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) show that the average t-shirt wastes about 700 gallons of water during manufacturing, the amount that could fill 140 water cooler jugs. For every pound of textile being produced, 7 pounds of CO2 is being emitted. The textile manufacturers are not the only ones to blame: The new trend of fast fashion leads to 13.1 million tons of textiles being trashed each year, the average American accounting for nearly 65 lbs. Forty-eight percent of Americans throw away reusable textiles instead of recycling them. But even though there is still a long way to go, fashion companies have already identified their negative environmental impact and made changes in their business models.

In 2011, big companies throughout all industries were hesitant in making costly sustainable changes in fear for becoming unprofitable. Now they are becoming more confident with implementing sustainability programs.  According to the fourth annual study released last February by the MIT Sloan Management Review (MIT SMR) and the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), “The Innovation Bottom Line”, nearly half of the surveyed 2,600 executives and managers from companies around the world changed their business models as a result of sustainability opportunities since 2012, which marks a 20 percent rise from the previous year. 

The percentage of companies reporting a profit from these sustainability changes, coined as “Sustainability-driven innovators” by executive editor at MIT SMR and co-author of the report, David Kiron, rose from 14 percent in 2012 to 37 percent in 2013. "Sustainability-Driven Innovators see the opportunity differently than do companies that haven't gleaned sustainability's financial rewards," says Kiron. "They don't dwell on it as a cost issue. They focus on how their efforts can increase market share, boost energy efficiency, and build competitive advantage."

The heightened awareness of sustainability and ethics in customers and their more critical view of the companies’ production standards, as well as the working conditions also forced big textile corporations to start making alterations. But what exactly does it mean for a company to be sustainable? According to Toby Heaps, editor-in-chief of Corporate Knights, sustainability means “creating more wealth than we destroy. It means that a company is on balance increasing our overall stock of wealth, grounded in human, produced, financial, natural, and social capital.” 

Every year the magazine releases the Global 100, a list of the most sustainable companies in the world. In the most recent ranking in 2013, Inditex received rank 26, showing that fast fashion might not stand in the way of sustainability after all. According to a press release from the company, Inditex conducted about 1.5 million tests on its clothing in 2012 to ensure health and safety standards and carried out more than 3,500 audits on suppliers under its own Code of Conduct. Furthermore, the company commit to producing zero discharge, to optimize the water management and to assist their suppliers in adopting more sustainable industrial processes.

Even though fast fashion companies like Inditex are starting to implement sustainable changes, there are still more sustainable opportunities to take. Industry experts still wonder if fast fashion companies are able to diminish the negative environmental impact and the bad working conditions – and stay profitable at the same time. Alex McIntosh, the business and research manager at the London College of Fashion’s Sustainable Fashion, questions if the fast fashion business model is able to last. “Eventually, there aren’t going to be resources to sustain fast fashion. Production costs will also get more expensive, and they won’t be able to keep this up. Value-based companies don’t have margins to absorb that additional cost. And then they will need to convince customers to spend more for clothes again.”

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