Fast Fashion’s Fast Impact on the Environment

While fast fashion may provide global consumers with new fashion around-the-clock at unsustainably low prices, the impact of the industry on the environment, in particular carbon emissions, cannot be ignored.

Everywhere you look these days, it seems like there is a fast fashion retail store around the corner. And that is because the industry has been rapidly growing. While it is challenging to gauge the exact size of the fast fashion industry by itself, fashion is a $1.2 trillion global industry with nearly a quarter of the spend coming from the United States (1). Fast fashion’s appeal stems from two main drivers of consumer behavior – a constant desire for new product and cheap prices.

However, meeting consumer desire and expectations comes at a heavy price. In addition to questions around ethical labor practices, the practices the fast fashion industry engages in have an incredible environmental impact, in particular, production of carbon dioxide emissions. The global nature of the industry as well as the constant need for new product hurts at both ends – before the consumer makes a purchase (transportation from manufacturers to retail stores) and after the consumer is done with a product (land fills and incineration).

Fast fashion’s negative impact is born out in the data. Again, the impact of fast fashion alone is hard to isolate, but the textile industry is responsible for being one of the five largest contributors to carbon dioxide emissions in the United States. Its role in the developing world is even pronounced (2). Unchecked, the carbon dioxide emissions from the industry will continue and at an accelerated rate as the global apparel business has been growing and is expected to have double-digit growth by 2020 (3). Unfortunately, practices are difficult to change in this industry since fast fashion companies need to constantly be creating and delivering new products and customers are unwilling to pay a higher price for clothing.

A company in the fast fashion space is H&M. It is one of the four big players in global fast fashion (4). For H&M, emissions from transportation made up 43% of its total greenhouse gas emissions. The company has taken measures such as using rail versus road when transporting clothing from its sourcing markets (5) and working with environmentally green transport companies (6). The Company also realizes that the fast fashion industry must work as a collective to have a meaningful impact and are involved in developing and promoting standards in the transportation industry. H&M works with organizations like the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s SmartWay program, which helps companies advance supply chain sustainability, including improving transportation efficiency.

In 2013, H&M launched a global garment collecting initiative that encourages consumers to drop off any unwanted apparel at their stores. It has since collected >32,000 tons of clothing, enough to make >100 million t-shirts (7). With its collection of unwanted clothing, H&M has partnered with I:Collect, a solutions provider for reusing / recycling clothing. I:Collect will either sell the apparel as second hand clothing, reuse the clothing as other products (ex. cleaning cloth), or recycle the clothing into textile fibers for other usage (ex. insulation).

In addition to the global garment collecting initiative, H&M can further shape consumer behavior by using a “Green Index” on each product it sells like Timberland has in the past. Timberland has put a “Green Index” on some of its products that provide a measure of the environmental impact of a product (8). By seeing an index and perhaps accompanying data on how far a product has traveled and how, a consumer may be incentivized to buyer fewer products at the store.

H&M can further impact consumer behavior by slowing down the fashion cycle (9). Instead of launching new lines constantly throughout the seasons and years, H&M can launch new lines just once a season, manufacture higher quality clothing that lasts longer, and design staple clothing items to reduce the number of clothing items one may need to purchase. However, this is challenging since consumers may just shift their buying to another fast fashion company and companies are incentivized to increase their own sales. This approach would require cooperation across the industry.

H&M itself can reduce carbon dioxide emissions from transportation by using manufacturers that are local to each market. However, using local manufacturers can be challenging for several reasons including higher labor cost as well as the cost of rebuilding manufacturing infrastructure. Regulation that forces such practices would also be controversial. As such, any regulation would have to provide fast fashion companies with the right incentives such as lower logistics and production costs (10). I would propose that governments provide tax breaks or subsidies to fast fashion companies that build manufacturing infrastructure in the same region they sell in.

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(1) https://maloney.house.gov/sites/maloney.house.gov/files/documents/The%20Economic%20Impact%20of%20the%20Fashion%20Industry%20–%20JEC%20report%20FINAL.pdf

(2) https://www.mckinseyonmarketingandsales.com/sites/default/files/pdf/CSI_Apparel2020-NEWBRAND.pdf

(3) Calamari, S., & Hyllegard, K. H. (2016). An exploration of designers’ perspectives on human health and environmental impacts of interior textiles. Textiles and Clothing Sustainability, 2(1), 1-16. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1186/s40689-016-0020-7

(4) http://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20160607006070/en/Global-Fast-Fashion-Market-Size-Trends-Forecasts

(5) Why fast fashion can be eco-fashion. (2011). Retail Week, Retrieved from http://www.library.hbs.edu/intra/go/abi.html?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/865010427?accountid=34924

(6) http://about.hm.com/en/sustainability/sustainable-fashion/climate-emissions.html

(7) http://about.hm.com/en/sustainability/get-involved/recycle-your-clothes.html

(8) Lipke, D., & Contributions by Andrew Harmon, Brenda Lloyd, Jessica Pallay, Brenner Thomas and,Maisie Wilhelm. (2008). IS GREEN FASHION AN OXYMORON? DNR, 38(13), 12-n/a. Retrieved from http://www.library.hbs.edu/intra/go/abi.html?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/210811251?accountid=34924

(9) Three ways luxury fashion can be sustainable (2015). Fountainebleau: INSEAD. Retrieved from http://www.library.hbs.edu/intra/go/abi.html?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/1684195415?accountid=34924

(10) Choi, T. (2013). Local sourcing and fashion quick response system: The impacts of carbon footprint tax. Transportation Research.Part E, Logistics & Transportation Review, 55, 43. Retrieved from http://www.library.hbs.edu/intra/go/abi.html?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/1362145017?accountid=34924

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2 thoughts on “Fast Fashion’s Fast Impact on the Environment

  1. AC, this is a very interesting glimpse into the fast fashion industry. My take-away from this summary is that H&M is far from doing enough to reduce its impact on the environment, but your suggestions demonstrate how challenging it is to balance the sustainability and profitability of an organization and an industry. If H&M were to limit the new lines of clothing it releases each year, it may win the reduction of its carbon footprint, but lose its foothold in the fast fashion market. A difficult trade-off, and likely difficult to achieve success without an industry transformation.

  2. The “Green Index” initiative is a very interesting approach on how to create awareness and deter consumption of environmental “un-freindly” products. While some detail has been provided on how H&M’s strategy promotes this behavior along the supply chain (ex. using environmentally green transport companies) it looks that there is room to expand these efforts to earlier stages. In particular, it would be very interesting to understand how they manage procurement of raw materials, and for example, if there are initiatives of sourcing from eco-friendly suppliers set in place.

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