Does the West need a reality check on sustainable fashion?

17 : 10 : 2017 Fashion : Sustainability : Manufcaturing
Stella McCartney Autumn / Winter 17 campaign

Stella McCartney Autumn / Winter 17 campaign

The West pats itself on the back for its green credentials, yet we still feed the fast fashion machine.

Amy Nicholson, researcher, The Future Laboratory

Some Western consumers hold the dangerous belief that the effects of fast fashion are someone else’s problem. Through corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives, sustainable collections, eco-fashion awards and clothing donation schemes established by leading retailers, the West pats itself on the back for its green credentials, yet we still feed the fast fashion machine, an industry that is one of the most resource-intensive in the world both in terms of natural resources and human resources, according to the Danish Fashion Institute.

Contrary to what people in the West often tell themselves, the evidence demonstrates that consumers in developing Eastern nations are often more sustainably minded than their counterparts in Europe and the US. Just 32% of shoppers in developed economies seek sustainable fashion compared with more than three-quarters (78%) of Indians and almost two-thirds (65%) of Chinese, according to The State of Fashion Report 2017.

And according to McKinsey, the average citizen in developing countries purchases just a fraction of the clothing that his or her counterpart in the developed world buys each year. Consumers in developing markets show more consideration for buying small-scale, locally produced garments owing to a greater level of trust in, proximity to and relationship with the manufacturers, says Divya Hira, an entrepreneur who sources ethical and Fair Trade products from around the world.

In the West, we hide our collective guilt by blaming the damaging effects of hyper-consumption on emerging economy superpowers such as India and China. ‘The global hypocrisy over who is generating pollution and creating carbon [emissions] is disgraceful. I don’t think Chinese consumers are more irresponsible than Western ones,’ Christina Dean, who runs Redress, a non-governmental organisation that targets the reduction of waste in the fashion industry, told Forbes.

Worryingly for the environment, developing nations are showing an increasing appetite for the disposable fashion model as they look to imitate Western behaviour.

‘Consumers from emerging markets have been brought up with local vendors, suppliers, designers and makers rather than big brands,’ she explains. This is in contrast to Westerners, who are used to multinational brands such as H&M and Zara.

To make matters worse, marketing-driven consumer demand has turned the sector in Europe and the US into a throwaway fashion machine. According to McKinsey, Zara releases 24 collections each year while H&M produces 12–16 with regular refreshes. Production has accelerated in recent years, and among all European fashion companies, the average number of clothing collections more than doubled between 2000 and 2011, from two a year to about five.

This demand for fast fashion in Europe and the US shows no sign of slowing and, worryingly for the environment, the expanding middle classes in developing nations are showing an increasing appetite for the disposable fashion model as they look to imitate Western behaviour.

But the developed world needs to apply the brakes to its fast fashion addiction or face a perfect environmental storm. We must abandon our smug belief that buying the occasional sustainable item is enough to offset the destructive spending patterns that result from our desire for cheap, disposable clothing. It is the only way that we can have any moral authority when we plead with emerging nations that are enjoying new levels of disposable income that they shouldn’t follow us down the ‘pile it high, sell it cheap’ path that is threatening the planet.

For more on how to build a truly sustainable business, read our Whole-system Thinking macrotrend.