Fast fashion is defined by its quickly-made, affordable clothing and expedited fashion season and cycle. For that reason, many fast fashion products come sourced and imported from countries such as Bangladesh and India with ready access to raw materials and cheap labor.
While most have heard about or seen the backlash against fast fashion’s negative impacts on the environment and questionable labor ethics, the slowing of the pandemic and reorganization of international trade relations may give life to a second wave of somewhat more eco friendly, still affordable fast fashion. Specifically, fashion brands may experiment with shifting their manufacturing to Vietnam or countries closer to home, and/or focus the industry on taking on more environmentally friendly and sustainable production and sourcing practices. Some fast fashion companies may use these methods to revamp their company or image and either incorporate both changes together or choose to go down one road or the other. But what are the implications of doing either or both?
Fast Fashion’s Manufacturing Shift to Vietnam and Nearby Countries
The first change accompanying the second wave of fast fashion is the shift of production and manufacturing capabilities to Vietnam or countries closer to importing countries. Much of the reasoning behind this shift stems from the fact that labor costs in China and India have steadily risen throughout the years, despite their reputation for cheap labor. Additionally, with growing tensions in foreign relations and trade, import and export costs between high consuming fast fashion countries and their manufacturers have greatly increased.
In response to these issues, Vietnam has become a very attractive country in which to produce fast fashion. Vietnam has a unique position as a country that has both one of the lowest fashion labor costs while also maintaining favorable free trade agreements with several countries, most notably by way of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) free trade agreement. Thanks to both its membership in the ASEAN free trade agreement and its geographic location relative to high fashion importing countries, it can easily tap into transport networks shipping through and out of Asia.
Many countries closer to fast fashion-importing countries have become potential candidates for production and manufacturing capabilities. Some examples include US brands sourcing from South American countries, or Swedish brands that source from nearby countries in the EU. Most of the reasoning for this shift comes from lower transportation costs as well as potential free trade agreements with neighboring countries, like in the case of US and South American countries or amongst EU countries. Also, having a close neighbor craft your products makes it easier to conduct quality assessments and have more governance over the production. The final decision, however, comes down to the political environment of the country and the costs of fashion production labor.
The global shift in preferred apparel manufacturing countries of fast fashion is being driven by brands wanting to save money and time on transportation and labor costs so that they can focus on spending money in other areas. If those savings prove possible, the brands can allocate those expenditures on environmental practices to alleviate some societal pressures and traditional fast fashion criticism; like on ethically and environmentally sourced fashion supplies, changing and optimizing processes to be more environmentally friendly, or by putting money towards environmental efforts
Fast Fashion Going Green(er)
The fashion industry in total contributes a massive amount of pollutants to the planet’s water and air, but most of the public criticism leveled at the industry over this specifically targets fast fashion. Because of this, many people have pressured the industry to adopt sustainable practices and work towards lowering its carbon footprint.
One move for brands working toward sustainability to consider is sourcing materials closer to home to reducing the need for transportation. However, this solution will only produce a moderate impact since many of those imports will likely turn back around to be sold in other countries.
Another practice fast fashion companies can consider adopting is slowing their fashion cycles and showroom rotations. This would alleviate the need to craft large amounts of products seemingly every week as well as reduce the total supply chain transport impacts across the globe.
Other fast fashion brands may prefer to approach sustainability from a materials angle. Global fashion leaders have begun to seek and promote the use of new, sustainably sourced materials in their clothes. Others have launched initiatives to collect old material to recycle and reinvigorate new products, a move which will result in a lower carbon footprint.
Finally, some others have tried changing their manufacturing processes to incorporate more environmentally conscious efforts. Some examples include using reclaimed or recycled water; air-drying instead of using power dryers; and using renewable energy to power their facilities.
One important thing to note here is that most, if not all, fast fashion giants own their own manufacturing sites or have sole partnerships with manufacturers. This means that independent, mid-size and niche fashion brands that contract or partner with independent factories may have more flexibility in choosing what production practices they’re willing to accept in the practice of bringing their label’s products to life. Some more mid-sized fashion brands, in order to stay in a stream of environmentalism, decide to work with slow fashion manufacturers from the outset, so as not to contribute to an overly large carbon footprint as well as to create products that last longer and reduce the amount of fashion waste and byproducts. Many opt into working with more skilled artisans and craftsmen from around the world, like those in Italy, who can create durable, lasting, and elegant products. They also may have the flexibility to work with and source from fashion suppliers that offer more sustainable materials, since they are not concerned with a “cheaper, faster, more” mindset.
The second wave of fast fashion may lead to a rebirth and realignment of the industry resulting in more public favor. However even with all of these changes coming from the second wave, numerous environmental externalities remain associated with the industry and will need even more improvement. Fast fashion companies, like most others, will have to continuously work towards lowering their carbon footprint and improving their sustainable efforts in ways that are affordable and realistic. They will also need to manage the issue of suboptimal labor conditions at their facilities across the globe, as well as that of the low wages paid by some of their usual top producing partner countries.