The fashion world has undergone a phenomenal acceleration over the past decade, with collections constantly being updated and produced in record time. Deciphering this new phenomenon in the RTS program Tout un monde.
Fast fashion is fashion what fast food is to food. The leaders in ready-to-wear are now able to replenish their shelves in a few weeks, where previously it took several months to create new collections.
This acceleration is enhanced by lower prices for consumers and well-functioning logistics networks around the world. However, with its long production chain, this industry has become one of the most polluting in the world.
Consumption doubles in 15 years
For the French market alone, 600,000 tons of clothing are put up for sale every year, according to the agency for environment and energy management (Adem). Figures also show that 20 kilograms of clothing are consumed per person per year, twice as much as 15 years ago. “All brands that want to do business have entered fast fashion,” explains Carlos Cordon, a professor at Lausanne’s management school, IMD. “In addition, companies that have not chosen to copy this model, such as the traditional American companies Gap or The Limited, are in decline.”
This model has its origins in a Benetton strategy in the 1990s, when the brand decided to order white wool sweaters in order to quickly adapt production to the most fashionable colors. The manufacturer then managed to deliver 10% of its production in two months. A concept that has been taken over by the Spanish Zara, which is a frontrunner in fast fashion and which currently produces collections in two weeks (see box). “By going very fast, we avoid producing things that won’t be sold at the end of the season. Zara has much less unsold products than other brands,” says Carlos Cordon.
The challenge of recycling
The speed of collection changes leads to a decline in the quality of clothing and an increased use of chemical materials. This poses a real challenge for recycling. “More and more clothes are made from two different materials,” said Sophie Saing, manager at Texaid, one of Europe’s leaders in recycling. “We’ll find wool and acrylic or cotton and polyester. So we’re trying to separate the fibers and see how we can reintegrate them into production.”
As for the clothes put in the dumpsters, it’s usually resold to thrift stores and the profits donated to charities. In Switzerland, up to 65% of clothing can be returned for sale, while 15% is converted into rags for garages and 15% into insulation. The rest is burned or thrown in a landfill.
Frédéric Godard, professor of organizational psychology at INSEAD (European Institute of Business Administration) in Fontainebleau, France, notes a desire among garment makers to produce trends that are quickly going out of fashion. “One of the big problems with fast fashion is that manufacturers are artificially moving towards styles that don’t age well. It’s a form of planned obsolescence, even if the designers aren’t aware of it.”
According to him, this trend gives more access to creativity. “It is a fundamental revolution in fashion. It has allowed the industry to continue the logic of ready-to-wear, that is, producing as many styles as possible for as many people as possible. It also allowed everyone to express themselves and have a whole range of styles,” suggests Frédéric Godard.
Faced with fast-fashion, however, there seems to be a reverse movement since 2012, with manufacturers returning to Europe. “The price of cotton and raw materials has risen and some have decided to look for other production locations,” explains Sabine Schechinger, a lecturer at the Geneva University of Art and Design (HEAD). The latter also notes a certain awareness among manufacturers about employee wages and environmental issues.
A trend against fast fashion is also developing on the consumer side. This is slow fashion, the desire to dress in an ecologically responsible manner. This is what the French platform in particular offerswith an online magazine and an overview of ecological shops.
>> The interview with Frédéric Godard and the slow-fashion report: