Fast fashion has followed a trend similar to the fast food chains that inspired its name - explosive growth, massive popularity, and then consumer skepticism. Turns out that having access to clothes en masse mere days after the latest runway shows requires production practices that aren’t healthy for societies or our planet. Just like factory farming and consuming Whoppers and fries consistently isn’t healthy or sustainable, inexpensive clothing meant to be worn once or twice and constantly replaced isn’t much better for us. Even McKinsey says so. In 2004, we had Supersize Me; in 2015, we got The True Cost. Are we seeing the beginning of a shift away from fast fashion? Will apparel brands more akin to Chipotle start gaining real traction?
Fast fashion keeps coming under fire for human rights violations, for supply chain practices, for implication in tragedies such as the Rana Plaza collapse, and for collusion in promoting over-consumption. Despite well-worded codes of conduct and CSR statements, these violations keep happening. Every so often, there’s positive PR around a recycling drive or the release of a ‘Conscious Collection’ - the equivalent of posting calories and offering more salad options. Inevitably something goes wrong and once again shade gets thrown.
Due to the immersive education on the impacts of the textile industry I’ve experienced while starting Thread, my fast-fashion consumption started slowing. A year ago, I made the decision to boycott fast fashion completely. Since going cold turkey, stories keep circulating that do nothing but reinforce the belief that I have made the right decision.
Beyond the accusations of sweatshop labor and the environmental impacts of this movement, more and more stories implicate fast-fashion giants in nefarious behaviors, taking advantage of folks in first-world countries who don’t even work in the supply chains of these brands. As customers begin to push away from fast fashion, are we seeing retaliation? Or a struggle to feed the beast these brands have created?
First, there was the cease and desist sent to Zara by artist Tuesday Bassen’s attorney, citing copyright infringement. Zara’s response was that its legal department would drown her in paperwork and the suit would cost more money than Bassen would ever be able to afford as an independent artist, so drop it. I’m paraphrasing here, but I’ve gone to the Law School of ‘The Good Wife,’ so can decipher the meaning behind the statement. I know that this happens all of the time, that this has probably happened since independent artists and large corporations started coexisting. I know that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but it doesn’t make the situation seem any less icky. Zara can afford to license Bassen’s work, or collaborate with her to produce at scale – it just chose not to.
More recently, Zara was hit with a $5 Million class action suit from customers in Los Angeles alleging that the company had cheated them over exchange rates. Zara is headquartered in Europe, so product price tags are listed in Euros - even in U.S. stores. Customers shopping in the U.S. were charged in USD at the register, but upon reviewing the exchange rate of the day when purchases were made, many were over-charged, in some cases by 60 percent. “On average, consumers are being charged $5 to $50 more than the lowest tag price in euros,” reports The Fashion Law. Zara denies any deceptive pricing on its part and it remains to be seen how this will play out if it doesn’t settle - but at this point, Zara, I don’t believe anything you say.
I don’t mean to just pick on Zara. The fast-fashion industry as a whole has lost my confidence and therefore financial support. If there is a real shift towards transparency and improvement, I could be won back, but it will take some major changes.
From Feb. 1 to April 30 of this year, Inditex (Zara’s owner) reported a net profit of $621 million. I’m not against making profit - Thread is a for-profit company. But $621 million net in one quarter, at the expense of more responsible supply chains, stealing designs from independent artists, and overcharging customers through deceptive pricing tactics, however, is a perfect example of shareholder primacy and the need for quarterly growth taking precedence over any other stakeholder involved in Zara’s production.
As far as I can tell from the aforementioned stories implicating Zara recently, the chain doesn’t care about the people working to make their clothes, they don’t care about their impact on the environment, they don’t hesitate to take advantage of independent artists, and they don’t even care about ripping off their customers. There’s a better way to do business.
Everlane, for example, has figured out how to make money making beautiful things that enrich people’s lives. It even goes so far with transparency as to publicly list not just what its costs are, but what its markup is. Zady manages to be refreshingly direct about the fact that any textile manufacturing has impact and has built the ‘New Standard,’ which does a beautiful job outlining the environmental impact of various textiles. At Thread, we don’t just audit our supply chains for social compliance, we are on a first-name basis with the folks working at every step of our supply chain.
The biggest threat to fast fashion isn’t that these brands cause harm, it’s that there are alternatives that don’t. Just as markets have shifted away from fast food towards the slow food movement and organic options, clothing customers are beginning to seek out more nourishing options.