Style that’s sustainable

The early 21st century has been good to the apparel industry. Thanks to falling costs, streamlined operations, and rising consumer spending, clothing production doubled from 2000 to 2014, and the number of garments purchased each year by the average consumer increased by 60 percent. Fast fashion has been a particularly hot segment and a source of enviable growth for some clothing companies. By compressing production cycles and turning out up-to-the-minute designs, these businesses have enabled shoppers not only to expand their wardrobes but also to refresh them quickly. Across nearly every apparel category, consumers keep clothing items about half as long as they did 15 years ago. Some estimates suggest that consumers treat the lowest-priced garments as nearly disposable, discarding them after just seven or eight wears.

The fact remains, however, that innovation in the way clothes are made has not kept pace with the acceleration of how they are designed and marketed. Fast fashion is now a large, sophisticated business fed by a fragmented and relatively low-tech production system. This system has outsize environmental effects: making clothes typically requires using a lot of water and chemicals and emitting significant amounts of greenhouse gases. Reports also continue to emerge about clothing-factory workers being underpaid and exposed to unsafe—even deadly—workplace conditions, particularly when handling materials like cotton and leather that require extensive processing. Without improvements in how clothing is made, these issues will grow proportionally as more clothes are produced.

So far, sales increases suggest that most shoppers either overlook or tolerate the social and environmental costs of fast fashion. But some companies aren’t waiting for a consumer backlash. They have begun to remedy the largely unseen impact of the fast-fashion business. In this article, we consider how apparel businesses can resolve challenges in two major segments of their value chain: the heavy resource demands and difficult labor issues in the production process, and the excessive waste associated with disposing of unfashionable or worn-out garments.

Fast fashion, serious consequences

Apparel sales have risen dramatically in recent years, thanks to several trends that appear likely to continue. Businesses have aggressively cut costs and streamlined their supply chains. This has caused the price of clothing to fall relative to the prices of other consumer goods (Exhibit 1). Shorter lead times for production have also allowed clothing makers to introduce new lines more frequently. Zara offers 24 new clothing collections each year; H&M offers 12 to 16 and refreshes them weekly. Among all European apparel companies, the average number of clothing collections has more than doubled, from two a year in 2000 to about five a year in 2011.

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