Is Fast Fashion Worth the Cost?
By Mark Heuer
On April 24, 2013, garment workers reported to work at the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh as usual. But that day was anything but usual. The factory collapsed that morning, killing 1,100 workers. This tragic news directed my research to the world of fast fashion-and its high social and environmental costs.
Fast fashion refers to "cheap chic" garments that are fashionable, yet affordable. Impulse buying is stimulated by glitzy social media campaigns by retailers such as H&M, Zara and others. Rapid product cycles speed garments from fashion shows to the clothing racks of retailers.
This speed and affordability support a "make, take, waste" paradigm that epitomizes the chasm between retailers in developed countries and the lax labor, safety and environmental conditions of garment factories in countries such as Bangladesh.
I became interested in fast fashion in particular because of my broader interest in global supply chains. In my corporate career before Susquehanna, I managed a strategic business unit that entailed building and managing a supply chain. From that experience, I gained an appreciation for the importance of supply chains in the global economy, as well as the logistical challenges involved. Globalization has fundamentally changed the world economy since the 1970s. In many respects, supply chains deliver economies of scale but also exact social and environmental costs on developing countries.
Following the Rana Plaza catastrophe, I focused more specifically on the social and environmental impacts of fast fashion. From my business career, I learned the importance of providing solid alternatives for practices or policies I criticize. Otherwise, criticism lacks substance and a sense of direction. With this practice in mind, I coedited Eco-Friendly and Fair: Fast Fashion and Consumer Behavior, published recently by Routledge.
The book emphasizes consumer behavior as an approach to changing how consumers think about garments. For example, one chapter is titled "Knowing Better, but Behaving Emotionally: Strong Emotional Undertone in Fast Fashion Consumption."
Other chapters consider approaches for extending the lifecycle of clothing through sharing, renting and repairing clothing. Yet another proposes a bank for fabrics, where textiles can be traded and sourced easily.
Textiles are the second-most-polluting industry in the world, behind fossil fuels. The pollution extends through the supply chain-from the use of pesticides in growing cotton to the rapid fashion cycles resulting in the "make, take, waste" paradigm.
Much of it is unnecessary and can be addressed, potentially, through changing consumer attitudes. Fast fashion retailers successfully link fashion to self-esteem, so attitudinal change is a daunting effort, but necessary.
The costs of fast fashion were brought home last year for students in my Global Business Ethics class.
They participated in externships involving garments by volunteering at used clothing and consignment shops in Selinsgrove. The teams presented research and marketing ideas that could be adapted locally and then linked their ideas to the global fast fashion industry.
The next time they go shopping for clothes, I hope they remember the lessons they learned and make purchases that encourage sustainable social, environmental and economic well-being, both locally and globally.
Mark Heuer, Ph.D., is associate professor of management in the Sigmund Weis School of Business.