Fast fashion is a rapidly expanding subsection of an already environmentally problematic industry: 10% of all global and greenhouse gas emissions are caused by clothing and footwear production alone, more than all maritime shipping and flights combined. Producing inexpensive fashion in vast varieties and quantities, imitating high-end fashion styles at a fraction of the cost and quality, fast fashion companies are meeting both high consumer demand and heavy criticism. What does a truly sustainable fashion industry model look like—and will customers buy it?
In episode 9 of the second season of The “New Normal” podcast series, Professor Javad Nasiry from the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University joins journalist Dave Kaufman to discuss the environmental impact of the fast fashion industry and what can be done to lessen its carbon footprint. Nasiry examines certain initiatives already underway and whether they have made a measurable difference, delving into the question of what an alternative to today’s fast fashion would look like and if it could make the industry more sustainable.
Variety’s double-edged sword
Nasiry’s research in sustainable operations focuses on the environmental consequences of new business models in apparel, renewable energy, and agricultural industries. His recent paper, Sustainability in the fast fashion industry, examined the environmental impact of the fast fashion business model by analyzing its implications for product quality, variety, and inventory decisions.
He found that a key driver of low product quality is the firm’s incentive to offer variety to consumers. Fast fashion’s prioritization of variety means firms take on less risk in an industry of uncertain trends and can quickly replenish inventory while introducing more fashion styles.
“In the 1990s, it was hailed as a very interesting business model because they could get the product from design to product on shelves for consumers to buy within two weeks,” says Nasiry. Today, knowing that customers value variety more than ever before, fast fashion companies are introducing 600 new styles every week.
“The reason that these business models are successful is because customers have a willingness to pay for these styles and products,” Nasiry explains, “But of course, the waste side is not really taken into account.”
Waste not, want not
Out-of-control waste is one of the primary short-term consequences that developed countries need to deal with, but in the long-term, the problems will be much bigger for developing countries and eventually developed countries, he says, citing the upstream supply chain problems, the land usage, the water resources usage, and the labor practices that these supply chains follow.
“A holistic solution to the problem of waste needs to take into account which part of the supply chain you are trying to focus on, and also the consequences of the solutions that you are developing in one part of the entire supply chain,” he explains.
“This is going to have a lot of consequences down the road, because in the end, these resources are limited—if you are using them for this purpose, then you won’t have enough for agriculture and for other purposes,” he adds.
Customer awareness of fast fashion’s environmental impact may also help turn the tide. Campaigns in developing countries, where most fast fashion consumers live, seek to educate on textile waste and industry pollution through recycling programs, art and film projects, and other initiatives.
“You are essentially creating this awareness in the customers, which means when I go and buy, now I’m aware and I will say, ‘Maybe I would buy a higher quality item instead of a lower one,’” says Nasiry. “If you create that incentive, the company doesn’t have the option of lowering the quality as well. They need to meet the quality and bring down the leftover inventory.”
Sustainable new tech and business models
Creating incentives for innovation is one way to rethink fast fashion as an economically and environmentally viable enterprise, says Nasiry. New technologies, such as inventory-focused AI and recycling technologies dedicated to apparel, paired with new business models, such as high-quality clothing rental companies, can lead the way forward: “We do have these business models and these technologies up and coming, but we need to provide the right incentives for innovation to continue in this domain.”
“It could be because they have to subsidize these technologies,” he suggests. “Maybe they will have to invest in collection schemes, maybe they will have to integrate with these recycling facilities, but they cannot exist on their own for too long. The problem they’re creating is getting too serious to ignore. It’s not just the apparel that we use and throw away. It’s also the pressure on the land, on the resources, on the labor.”
Ultimately, if fast fashion wants to survive, it needs to slow down, he says. Slowing down ensures that every part of the supply chain can catch up, letting the industry recreate its ecosystem first before catering to customers’ variety-seeking behaviour.
“My philosophical take on sustainability is something like this,” Nasiry explains. “At the moment, the approach is to say that we have a profitability framework, so we are profit maximizers as a corporation, and sustainability comes as a constraint shackle of what we can do. It becomes a nuisance. Hopefully, if we can change this into a framework of sustainability within which we are trying to maximize the profit, then we will have a much more sustainable business model.”
For more insights, listen to the full interview with Professor Javad Nasiry on the Delve podcast.
Delve’s The “New Normal” podcast series is a collaboration between journalist Dave Kaufman and Delve, the official thought leadership platform of McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management. The “New Normal” is produced by Delve and Dave Kaufman, with audio engineering by David Rawalia. Each episode looks in-depth at a different aspect of the new normal that we are all navigating due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Original music by Saku Mantere.
Dave Kaufman is a Montreal-based journalist and commentator. He has worked for CJAD 800 and TSN 690 Radio in Montreal, CTV News Channel, CTV Montreal, and TalkRadio and SkyNews in the United Kingdom. He has written for the National Post, Montreal Gazette, and Toronto Sun and other publications. Follow him on Twitter at @TheKaufmanShow.