Trash the Runway? The Ultra-Fast Fashion Industry Can Be an Environmental Mess.

Megan McSherry has been interested in sustainable fashion since her first semester of college, when an assignment to write a paper about the environmental impact of her industry of choice completely changed her outlook on clothing.

Now 23, McSherry uses Instagram and TikTok to share informational Reels (TikTok-like short videos for Instagram), sustainable brands, and thrifting tips to her nearly 21,000 followers on Instagram, many of whom are young women like herself. One post explains how to write to brands, asking them to use environmentally friendly packaging, with sample text her followers can use. In another, McSherry demonstrates how to mend holes in worn-out clothing, rather than tossing items out.

On social media, McSherry and other sustainable fashion influencers are competing with a major force capturing the attention of Generation Z and millennial women: the ultra-fast fashion industry.

Scrolling through Instagram or TikTok as a woman in her early 20s can be a study in contrasts: for every video about how to upcycle your clothing, there seem to be two targeted ads for ultra-fast fashion brands like Boohoo or Fashion Nova. For every post about the wastewater created by clothing production, there are two influencers posting videos of their latest hauls from Shein.

Those companies, and a handful of others, are referred to as ultra-fast fashion brands for the speed at which they add new items to their stock. Traditionally, brands operated on a seasonal schedule, meaning they would debut new garments two to four times per year. Fast fashion companies have a 52-season calendar, stocking new pieces every single week. That model was pioneered by companies that have been around for decades, like Zara and H&M. Ultra-fast fashion moves even quicker. Pretty Little Thing, for example, has the capacity to launch 200 different product lines each week, according to their head of merchandising.

Fast-fashion companies, like Forever 21 and H&M, depend on brick-and-mortar stores. They were suffering even before the pandemic; Forever 21 declared bankruptcy in 2019, closing its physical stores. H&M also made cuts recently, closing 250 stores in October 2020. By contrast, the new ultra-fast fashion brands, like Princess Polly, Missguided, and Zaful operate almost entirely online. Their websites inundate shoppers with coupons, sales, and tantalizing offers of a $4 graphic t-shirt, $12 swimsuit, or $35 club dress. The ultra-fast brands rely on digital advertising targeted to their primary demographic—young women—through the use of consumer data and influencer partnerships. If the devil wears Prada, the influencers wear Shein.

It’s not just micro-influencers and YouTubers who are engaged in the fast fashion partnership economy; major celebrities from Kourtney Kardashian to Megan Thee Stallion have collaborated with brands like PrettyLittleThing and Fashion Nova. As the rapper Cardi B succinctly put it in her song “She Bad”: “I could buy designer but this Fashion Nova fit!”

The business model has proven profitable. As Rachel Monroe reported for The Atlantic, the Boohoo Group, a UK-based firm that owns multiple brands, saw its profits double in 2017, and double again in 2018. The industry is fueled by a new era of conspicuous consumption. Even non-influencers can feel pressure to never repeat an outfit on their Instagram page. A 2017 report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a UK charity aimed at eliminating waste, found that since 2000, clothing sales have more than doubled while the number of times an item is worn has declined by 36 percent.

How do you constantly make new garments available, at remarkably low prices, and still make a profit?

In short, by paying workers scandalously low wages, producing low-quality goods, and being environmentally wasteful, says Michael Brown, the founder of sustainability consulting group Brown and Wilmanns Environmental, who has been working on efforts in the apparel industry for over 30 years. Many fast fashion companies contract their cutting and sewing out to factories in other countries and engage in opaque and complicated supply chains.

The industry creates a lot of waste. Across the textile industry, less than one percent of the material used to create clothing is recycled into new garments, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation report. Textile waste can contribute to carbon emissions when it is incinerated in landfills. Twenty percent of global industrial water pollution occurs through the processing of textiles. And though it’s often not mentioned with top polluters like oil and gas or aviation, the textile industry makes up 10 percent of annual global carbon emissions, making it a worse polluter than the aviation and shipping industries combined.

Fast fashion companies often contract out production to countries with poor labor and environmental standards as a way of cutting costs–sometimes to devastating effect. One horrific example came in 2013, when the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing over 1,000 people. According to Bangladeshi news media reports, inspectors had discovered cracks in the buildings structure the day before the collapse, but the garment workers were ordered to come to work in the factory anyways.

The industry’s history of poor labor standards is long and well-documented. The EMF report found instances of modern slavery, child labor, unsafe working conditions, and long hours with little pay. Eighty percent of the garment industry’s workforce are women, according to the Clean Clothes Campaign. Reports of sexual harassment and discrimination against pregnant women are common. And the poor labor practices are not limited to countries in the Global South. In the UK, Boohoo was found to be paying their factory workers less than half of the country’s minimum wage. In the U.S., Fashion Nova, which engages in mostly domestic production, has taken advantage of a sweatshop system in Los Angeles, where workers are criminally underpaid. A 2019 investigation from the U.S. Department of Labor found that the company owed $3.8 million in back wages to workers over a three-year period.

But for all of the challenges, sustainable fashion advocates and influencers and have notched some wins, extracting commitments from fast fashion companies. One successful tactic has been confronting brands right where their customers are: on social media.

In March 2020, as malls began to close and would-be shoppers stayed at home, several brands, including H&M, Zara, and Nike, laid off garment workers and refused to pay the workers for completed orders that the brands wanted to cancel. In response, Remake, a non-profit focused on sustainability in the fashion industry, launched the #PayUp campaign on Instagram, Twitter, and other platforms to draw attention to the wage theft.

On Instagram alone, over 80,000 posts were shared with the hashtag. Supporters posted quotes from labor activists and photos of themselves with “Who made my clothes?” written on pieces of paper or directly on their skin. Remake’s petition garnered over 20,000 signatures, and eventually, the campaign was able to negotiate the return of $16 billion stolen wages from garment workers.

Elizabeth Cline, a freelance journalist and #PayUp organizer, said the campaign was influential because it harnessed the power of social media users around the world—including those who buy from fast fashion brands. TikTokers and YouTubers, and particularly South Asian influencers, spoke up, noting the mistreatment predominantly affected South Asian women. “It was something that struck a very raw nerve in people, to see these huge profitable corporations exploiting some of the most vulnerable people in the world in the middle of a crisis,” Cline said.

Fashion Revolution, which was founded in 2013 after the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse, publishes a yearly index ranking brands based on the transparency of their supply chain. Brands’ scores have increased by nine percent on average since 2017—a notable sign of improvement, which Fashion Revolution attributes to its social media campaigns pushing for transparency, using the index as a guide.

Another campaign, Boycott Fashion, garnered the attention of industry executives. The campaign, led by Extinction Rebellion, a climate activism group, called on participants to not buy new clothes for one year, while educating people about the environmental degradation produced by the fashion industry. Sarah Arnold, an activist who works with Extinction Rebellion, said about 3,000 people signed on to the campaign, and the group gained 20,000 followers on Instagram. That likely did not make a dent in sales, but as the campaign spread on social media, the CEO of H&M spoke out against climate activists for threatening the fast fashion industry, saying that reducing consumption would cause “social harm.”

Unlike deciding between airlines when shopping for flights, there are significant differences between clothing brands when it comes to environmental impact. Shopping at Patagonia—which uses mostly eco-friendly and recycled fabric and funds environmental nonprofits through a self-imposed tax—is much better for the environment than shopping at PrettyLittleThing. Thrifting is better than either. So, a lot of sustainable fashion influencers focus on challenging consumers to make more ethical choices. The influencers I spoke to said the emphasis on individual impact can be particularly helpful in convincing those who have disposable income to stop shopping at fast fashion brands. McSherry, the sustainable fashion influencer, shared direct messages she had received on both Instagram and TikTok from followers telling her how her account inspired them to take up sewing, shop more consciously, and share her tips with their friends.

The movement can, at times, feel classist; Patagonia’s women’s shorts, for example, can run over $60. But Gaia Ratazzi, a 19-year-old from Italy with over 53,000 followers on her sustainability Instagram account, said one of her goals is to encourage more privileged consumers to evaluate their habits while not shaming people who shop at fast fashion brands for affordability reasons. “I talk a lot about being a conscious consumer,” Ratazzi said. “The more privilege you have, the more individual actions matter.”

But the influencers and advocates I spoke to agreed that the movement has also become increasingly focused on corporate responsibility.

Daniel Esty, a professor at Yale’s Environment and Law schools, believes that the successful campaigns against fast fashion companies represent a broader paradigm shift away from shareholder primacy and towards a new understanding of corporate responsibility. Some customers and investors now expect companies to create environmental, social, and governance criteria (known as ESG criteria).

“Now, in a world of stakeholder responsibility, companies owe a duty of care to their customers, to their suppliers, to communities, to society more broadly,” Esty said. “Being seen as a bad actor from a sustainability point of view is no longer okay. These fashion companies are already out of step with the emerging new business ethics.”

Esty predicts a “triple pinch” is coming for fashion’s worst offenders in a matter of years, when criticism from customers and investors, as well as governmental regulation, will force companies to adopt more sustainable practices.

It’s an optimistic viewpoint. Cline, the #PayUp organizer, wants to see more than just corporate social responsibility promises and voluntary commitments. The fashion industry, she says, has had decades to prove it is committed to creating environmental and labor standards. It hasn’t. So, she wants to see it regulated.

“The bulk of the human and environmental toll of the fashion industry happens in the supply chain,” Cline said, which is often contracted out without oversight. “What would incentivize a brand to take full meaningful responsibility for that part of the process? My argument would be that nothing would, which is why you have to have binding agreements and regulations.”

Some countries have already begun to pass laws regulating the fashion industry. France will outlaw the destruction of unsold garments by 2023, instead mandating that companies reuse, recycle, or donate them. The European Parliament passed a law this year creating environmental and human rights due diligence requirements for all companies that do business in the EU, for their whole supply chains, essentially mandating that companies create ESG standards and rendering them legally responsible for human rights violations. In the aftermath of the Rana Plaza disaster, global brands and trade unions came together to sign a legally-binding accord to create safe work environments and institute compliance measures in Bangladesh, known as the Bangladesh Accord.

Other efforts have been less successful. In the UK, the parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee came up with a series of recommendations that then-Prime Minister Theresa May’s government could implement to regulate the fashion industry, including tax incentives for companies that use sustainable practices, taxing synthetic fibers, and mandating due diligence checks for labor abuses. May’s government categorically rejected all of their recommendations, stating that the UK’s environmental standards were already sufficient

In the United States, California has considered SB 1399, which would combat wage theft in Los Angeles by requiring brands to pay garment workers an hourly wage rather than piece-by-piece. It would also make brands liable for wage theft, even if they contract out cutting and sewing. The bill did not receive a vote in the last state Senate, but advocates are optimistic that it could be reconsidered.

A number of sustainable fashion activists and legal experts, however, believe that regulations for the fashion industry are gaining momentum. A working group with the American Bar Association has put out model contract clauses outlining responsible labor practices that brands and workers can use in negotiations. The International Corporate Accountability Roundtable, a group of advocacy organizations working to end corporate abuse, is calling for an expansion of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act to outlaw exploitation, including human trafficking, in corporate supply chains. The #PayUp Fashion campaign and Remake endorsed a letter to President Joe Biden asking him to appoint a fashion czar as a policy advisor to coordinate the industry’s inclusion in the administration’s proposed domestic sustainability policies, including those in the upcoming infrastructure plan. The odds of Biden appointing a fashion czar look long—the president has not singled out the fashion industry when discussing his environmental policies or acknowledged the letter. But the letter has been endorsed by dozens of signatories, including fashion brands such as Allbirds, Rebecca Minkoff, and Reformation.

Several activists and experts, including Esty and Brown, also expressed excitement about the possibility of extended producer responsibility (EPR) laws. The EPR principle posits that companies are responsible for their products throughout the duration of their lives, including when garments become unwearable or are thrown out, to ensure they do not become environmentally toxic waste.

Extended producer responsibility is already a norm in the technology industry; Apple, for example, has an extensive recycling program for iPhones. And takeback provisions are becoming more prominent in the appliance industry, with states creating EPR laws for items like paint cans, mattresses, packaging, and carpets. These laws, which mostly exist in blue states, mandate that companies create a recycling or stewardship system for their products, often as a collaboration between industry and government, and sometimes include a small tax on consumers to help pay for the recycling. Already, waste has been reduced in states like Connecticut, where the mattress recycling rate rose from 8.7 percent to 63.5 percent in the year after a mattress EPR law was implemented. Since the law went into effect in 2015, 136 million pounds of mattress material have been diverted from destruction, according to the Product Stewardship Institute. And, Esty said, it only takes a few states passing EPR laws for companies to develop recycling practices they can deploy nationally, as he has seen with the paint and mattress industries.

Extended producer responsibility has not yet come for the fashion industry. But if they do, they will incentivize companies to make more durable products. There’s a business incentive to takeback programs as well. This April, Nike launched a new sneaker program called Nike Refurbished. Customers will be able to return sneakers to Nike, which will grade and then resell them, creating a circular model.

“They’re looking at them as: ‘we’re just going to create a secondary market’,” Brown said. “They’re thinking far ahead. Their goal is to create circular systems for their products.”

The entire ultra-fast fashion industry, of course, is built on remarkably cheap, low quality clothing—clothing that may not hold up well for resale. Success, whether through EPR regulations or corporate pressure, might make that business model unsustainable.

Whether regulation or consumer pressure comes first, McSherry, who runs a sustainable Instagram account, believes the industry is reaching a precipice.

“It is possible to get the brands to realize that they need to step up, and getting consumers to slow down on the purchasing,” McSherry said. “There’s some happy medium, or inflection point, where each side will reach a certain point that the whole thing will shift.”