Fast Fashion – it’s the democratization of fashion, we’re told. Retailers borrow what they see on the catwalk, design and produce cheaper versions, and sell those trendy clothes at incredibly low prices. At first glance, this is a win for the consumer. Fashion is no longer an exclusive, aspirational industry. We can all afford to play thanks to the likes of H&M, Forever 21 and Zara, who put the latest trends in all of our hands.
We’re buying into this message: every year, Americans purchase 20 billion new items of clothing, making fast fashion is a $1.2 trillion industry . But the fast fashion business model is predicated on cheap prices for consumers, which leads to the use of cheap materials by manufacturers. The production of this enormous volume of clothing contributes to the apparel industry becoming the 2nd largest polluter of fresh water globally (after oil & gas) .
The cheap materials impact the environment once they’ve become “so last season.” On average Americans wear an article of clothing seven times before they send 10 million tons of clothing to the dump each year . To satisfy our demand for low prices manufacturers use low quality cotton and polyester, which release methane, a greenhouse gas, and take hundreds of years to biodegrade . What’s more, the poor dyeing and bleaching practices used to keep costs low can “leach from the textiles and – in improperly sealed landfills – into groundwater” .
These environmentally-damaging fast fashion practices are being addressed head-on by Cuyana, an apparel and accessories brand focused on selling “fewer, better things.” Their sourcing practices and customer experiences all encourage the environmentally-responsible and less frequent consumption of high-quality products.
Cuyana emphasizes the consumption of “fewer, better things” with more than just its slogan. The company carries quality, basic products, and while prices are on the higher end ($215 for a silk dress), they’re more accessible than prices for comparable products from traditional luxury brands. This is due to the fact that “for each collection [Cuyana sources] exclusively from suppliers that produce the materials and garments in-house” .
Cutting out the middle man allows Cuyana to charge lower prices than traditional luxury brands. Thus, consumers receive high quality for a more accessible price, and are not inherently encouraged by the business model to constantly purchase and dispose of clothing, as is the case in fast fashion. Cuyana’s quality and accessible yet expensive pricing strategy are working to help drive down the 150 billion items of clothing that are produced each year .
Cuyana’s sustainable business practices are demonstrated throughout the customer experience. In addition to further driving down costs by being a direct-to-consumer brand (amplifying the impact of accessible prices and quality items explained above), Cuyana also launched the Lean Closet Program along with the brand in 2013. When a customer purchases a product from Cuyana and selects “lean shipping,” the customer receives a reusable bag, which is to be filled with old clothes. The customer can then ship the bag back to Cuyana, who will donate the clothing to a non-profit, H.E.A.R.T. (Helping Ease Abuse Related Trauma). The Lean Closet program encourages customers to adopt the practice of donating rather than simply throwing away their clothes. It also helps to directly reduce waste by donating clothes on behalf of the consumer.
Pressure from Investors
The goal of retail is, ultimately, to drive sales, so Cuyana’s branding could eventually come into conflict with its business. Cuyana is a venture-backed retailer, and pressure for positive cash flow could put its sustainable business practices at risk . Because Cuyana’s business model is fundamental to how they are addressing climate change, any risks to the model are risks to its sustainability. Cuyana should be diligent in deciding which investors it raises fund from, to ensure the values of the company are not compromised in the future.