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What’s wrong with fast fashion?



Producing large quantities of lesser quality clothing, the fast fashion industry is blamed for its environmental effects. What are the problems with the fast fashion and how to fix them? Javad Nasiry, an associate professor at McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management, looked into the question in a study recently published in the journal Manufacturing & Service Operations Management*.

What is the fast fashion model based on?

The determining factor of fast fashion is to bring variety to consumers, at a higher speed, by offering more regular collections. Zara releases between 16 and 20 collections per year, H & M around 12 to 16. The business model of the fast fashion revolves around two main elements. One is the quick response. So when we see changes in consumer tastes, we can react to them more quickly. In fact, some brands have moved away from collections per se to introduce a continuous flow of styles on a weekly basis. The second major component is variety, what brands of fast fashion advertised as the democratization of fashion. They offer fashion at a reasonable price, which means that many people can buy it.


Javad Nasiry, Associate Professor at McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management

Isn’t it noble to want to make fashion accessible to a greater number of people?

Making fashion accessible to the masses is indeed something appealing. Everyone wants to be fashionable if the choice is offered. Today consumers can have access to many different styles at affordable prices. That’s what they mean by democratizing fashion, which is good in a way. But this does not take into account the other consequences. It’s an economic model that creates a lot of externalities in terms of environmental consequences. There are a lot of clothes that are produced.

And who are thrown…

Today, and not only in the clothing industry, we no longer repair anything. If we don’t like our clothes anymore, we just throw them away and buy new ones. There are several reasons for this. One of them is that we can do it because the price of an item of clothing is not so high. Another problem is that the clothes are not of high quality. They have a very low residual life.

Can fast fashion be sustainable?

Let me be honest and say that with what we have right now, that’s impossible. Currently, a business model is only evaluated on its benefits. If it is profitable and creates value for shareholders, it can continue to operate, but not otherwise. Typically, these companies try to greenwash rather than take serious action. For example, one area I’m interested in and working on is collecting clothes. You use a piece of clothing, and when you’re done, you want to get rid of it. Retailers like H&M, Zara and others say, “Why throw it away? Maybe you can take it back to the store. »

But what happens afterwards? The idea is that these companies don’t do much. They have third parties that work with them, and since the quality of the garment isn’t very high to start with, they end up recycling some of it, if possible, and if not, they just send it to the dump.

As part of your research, you evaluated the effectiveness of certain measures to reduce the impact of this industry on the environment. What seems to work?

There was a realization. Both the private and public sectors are trying to find ways to manage this problem. In the private sector, for example, we have a fair amount of investment, and hopefully more, to try to make those supply chains sustainable. As for the public sector, it can regulate. It can ensure that waste costs are internalized by manufacturers, by supply chains and tax unsold inventory, as some of these companies are notorious for destroying it.

But what we find in our research is that some of these practices can have negative consequences in the sense that the manufacturer, instead of slowing down or managing waste better, passes the cost on to customers and does not increase product quality.

You also looked at consumer education. Why is it an important link in the chain?

These days we have what are called microtrends which are basically buying something that you only use for one day. When the party is over, we throw it away. Consumer education is very important. These days there is a lot of interest, awareness among young people and institutions. But if these companies want to continue to embody the past, then the technology that is needed to take care of the waste has to advance very, very fast. Until this is in place, the only way forward will be consumer education and regulations.

And that inevitably means slowing down a bit.

* Xiaoyang Long, Javad Nasiry (2022), “Sustainability in the Fast Fashion Industry », Manufacturing & Service Operations Management24 (3): 1276-1293.

For the sake of brevity, the remarks of the interview have been edited.

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