Over the past two decades, fashion has undergone a massive transformation and acceleration in the way it is produced and consumed. Increasing trade flows of clothing and apparel, and the growing impact of Chinese and South Asian markets in garment production have lured global brands to source their products from suppliers in these locations. Today, China emerges as the leading global exporter of clothing, with more than one third of the world’s clothing exports supplied by the country. Within the European Union (EU28), where the value of private clothing and textiles consumption amounts to over 500 billion euros, China again emerges as the leading supplier of clothing, if with slightly diminishing values.
It is fair to say that what makes the fashion industry “fast”, meaning increased volumes of supplies produced at greater speed, is also what troubles the industry nowadays. One of the most pressing topics with fast fashion companies is the ethical issues that revolve around the sourcing of clothing products. Many brands such as Inditex, H&M, Primark, ASOS, and New Look source their products from factories located predominantly in the developing world, where labour costs are low and working conditions may not be the most ideal. In this regard, the collapse of the garment factory at Rana Plaza in Bangladesh in 2013 was a turning point, after which labour and production policies and practices of brands were put under the spotlight. Since then, efforts have been made to ensure fashion companies are more transparent and accountable, and brands in return have collaborated to contribute to a fair fashion industry. According to the Transparency Index 2019 report, Europe-based fast fashion companies such as H&M, ASOS, Marks & Spencer, and C&A achieved scores ranging between 54 and 61 percent, which indicated they succeeded in disclosing supplier lists in their annual filings.
Another problem associated with fast fashion is the environmental impact of both the quality and quantity of clothing produced. Decreasing the carbon footprint and sourcing sustainable cotton in clothing products are some of the measures fast fashion retailers are pursuing. While practices towards reducing energy and water consumption are solid steps towards sustainability, overproduction of clothing contributes to another environmental problem: textile waste. In Europe, the quantity of textile waste generated per capita was as high as nearly 15 kilograms. Some of the solutions for dealing with discarded, used clothing are exporting or recycling. However, in most cases discarded textile ends up in landfill, which makes up the main bulk of the waste problem in the fashion industry.
Thankfully, fashion consumers are aware of these issues and not oblivious to what happens behind the scenes in the clothing industry. One study showed that in the eyes of European consumers, major fast fashion companies were not exactly associated with sustainable supply chains. Surveys also found that European consumers did consider the environmental and social impact of the clothing products they purchased, albeit with varying degrees. While UK consumers lagged somewhat behind when it came to practicing sustainable choices, Italian consumers were found to advocate legal obligations for fashion companies to consider ethical manufacturing.