Can fast fashion be sustainable?

Shopping streets around much of the world are lined with Christmas decorations, ready to welcome the hordes of shoppers in what is usually the busiest shopping period of the year. But there is a backlash emerging in response to our growing consumerism and the clothing industry is under increasing scrutiny. Not long since the flight shaming movement started, a new trend is gradually emerging in Nordic Countries: the Köpskam – literally the shame of buying, and mainly aimed at the fashion industry.

An industry under the radar

As a reminder, the textile industry is one of the most polluting industries and is even more CO2-emitting than air and sea transport, generating 10% of the worlds’ carbon emissions[1]. Production is often carried out in developing countries and scope 3 emissions from transportation, for the development of supply chains and to export final products, are also a factor in high indirect emissions. With the fast fashion trend, some brands offer new collections every 3 weeks, resulting in further draws on resources such as cotton and water. In countries like the UK people are buying on average twice the amount of clothes than a decade ago, and across Europe each item of clothing is being worn 40% less[2].

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that the fashion industry currently uses 98 million tonnes of oil to produce textile fibre, contributes 20% of the world’s water pollution through toxic dyes, is the second-largest consumer of the world’s water supply, and pollutes the oceans with microplastics. Of more concern, the UNFCCC predicts that carbon emissions from the industry could increase by 60% by 2030. In terms of social consideration, although the fashion industry creates jobs and in particularly in regions where work is scarce, the quality of employment is low with often minimal wages and poor health and safety conditions.

Measures are emerging

In France, in response to the hurry of Black Friday, 550 brands announced their commitment to boycotting the event around the Make Friday Green Again collective. The collective says discount deals encourage people to purchase things they don’t need and instead wants shoppers to look to their own wardrobes at what items they can repair, sell or recycle.

In addition to social and environmental jeopardy, Black Friday and other sales days are often  misleading for consumers. Since 2015 the French association, UFC-Que Choisir has been reviewing the prices of thousands of articles sold on Black Friday by the 20 largest e-commerce website in France. The results show that the average discount on each item is less than 2% than a week earlier. In the UK, consumer group Which? published research last week that found that only 4 of 83 products were cheaper on Black Friday promotion than in the six months before or after.

The French Parliament adopted on the 9th of December an amendment aimed at better combating “misleading” advertisements of Black Friday. The French Parliament is currently discussing a whole anti-waste bill package to answer this wave of overconsumption and to encourage the adoption of a more circular economy.  In addition to the textile sector, this bill will also include other sectors such as furniture, household appliance, hygiene or beauty products and electronics. The proposed future law is intended to strengthen consumer information, improve the quality of goods production, stop overproduction, and combat planned obsolescence and plastic pollution.

Alternative and greener approaches

There is a growing demand for second-hand apparel from conscious shoppers in favour of a more circular economy; Vintage clothes could even be the new “must have” items. Websites like Vinted or Hurr Collective, which offer consumers the possibility to sell or rent used clothes, are expanding in Europe, and in the United States the popular Macy’s and JC Penney brands have started partnerships with second-hand textile resale platforms such as Thred Up.

In the coming years, global sales of second-hand clothes could exceed those of new clothing. In France the vintage market was estimated at €1bn in 2018 and according to the Institut Français de la Mode, two out of five French people have already bought second-hand clothes in 2019. A study published by TredUP, predicts that the second-hand market in the US will reach $51bn in five years, a real threat to fast-fashion brands that generated $44 bn in 2018.


Even the pioneer of the fast fashion industry, H&M has set important commitments to respond to growing consumer concerns. The brand has set a goal to be carbon positive by 2040 throughout its entire value chain, and climate neutral for top suppliers by 2030. The brand also offers now the possibility to rent clothes in Stockholm for one week for 35 €, and started to offer a few second-hand clothing items on its online channel in April.

Investment risk

The textile and apparel industries are very important contributors to the world economy and prosperity. Global apparel consumption is estimated to be around US$1.8 trillion corresponding to around 2.3 % of global GDP. The industry employs between 60 to 75 million people globally, and textiles are responsible for 4% of the global merchandise trade, amounting to US$765 billion in 2018[3].

H&M CEO Persson recently stated that shaming consumption “will have terrible social consequences”, but equally continuing consumption growth will have terrible environmental consequences. Companies like H&M will need to adapt quickly to both the environmental and social pressures in their industry to remain relevant in the long-term.

[1] Business Insider, October 2019
[2] Forbes, November 2019
[3] ESG ROBOT, February 2019

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