The fast fashion business model, though highly profitable, is not without its weak points. Its reliance on only one source of revenue - the sale of new clothing and accessories - for example, is hardly diversified. Journalist Lucy Siegle believes there will soon be a time when the fast fashion business model will simply no longer be viable, citing the combination of fast and cheap as unsustainable (Siegle, 2008, Para. 13-14). This may be true as the system exists today (that is, reliant upon the frequent high-volume sales of new, cheap clothing), but perhaps it’s more useful to consider contexts in which fast and cheap could be part of a healthy and sustainable system of fashion commerce.
Systems of leasing, for example, allow individuals to gain quick access to clothing at prices lower than retail while simultaneously reducing material throughput. In this case, it is the concept of ownership that is questioned, not speed or price. Alternatively, clothing with modular or convertible elements could be frequently and quickly modified, shared among friends, or even borrowed and returned. A truly closed loop system could similarly reduce the need for natural resource consumption while satiating our desire for novelty and renewal. Fast and slow may be at opposite ends of a spectrum, but activities that fall into these categories are not automatically good or bad; it is their ultimate purpose that is most important to determining its sustainability.
To better understand what alternative futures for fashion may be emerging, a series of weak signals were documented - both from the realm of fashion and beyond. Click on the collection below to explore what their potential implications may suggest.
In addition to the signals mentioned above, many ideas have emerged about how to tackle the issues facing the garment industry - ranging from models that improve the system to ones that exist entirely outside of it. They also range in scalability. As an attempt to make sense of the information, initiatives have been mapped into a two-axis matrix. Click on the matrix below to explore the interactive environmental scan in detail.
Some ideas have already been put in practice, while others are highly experimental. Examples of improvements to the system include supply chain transparency efforts undertaken by companies like Everlane, Patagonia and Honest by, as well as material efficiencies gains like the development of technological advancements in the use of recycled materials and textiles. Though these improvements are important starting points and help minimize some of the adverse symptoms that exist within the system, they generally do not address the deeper causal issues of overconsumption, commoditization and distancing.
Other concepts and models challenge the system by questioning its speed and disposability, as well as the need for the private ownership of clothing. These ideas span a broad range, from clothing libraries in places like Sweden and Australia, to the “slow fashion” movement, to negative-waste clothing production (like tonlé, pictured below and featured in a case study in the full report) to “hacking” boot camps that teach people how to deconstruct and re-imagine their existing wardrobes. Unlike the initiatives concerned with improving the system, many of these ideas are far smaller in scale, and are run by individuals or groups rather than corporate entities with large research budgets. Many of them appear to be driven by an ethos of activism and deep concern for the current system’s abuses.
Media theorist Douglas Rushkof believes the Internet has permanently transformed the way we experience the world by changing our feedback mechanisms and the role of narrative, shifting emphasis from product to process, and blurring the boundaries between makers and users (Rushkof, 2013). These concepts can be seen in various efforts to transform the garment industry: while some embrace technology to completely eliminate waste and create spaces for industry collaboration, others are attempting to open up the system and truly democratize it - allowing more people to be involved in the design process. Finally, several initiatives focus on a return to more traditional techniques and the pure joy of creating, and the community that can form around these common interests. They most closely resemble Princen, et al.’s definition of low-commodity potential ideas, and embrace their sometimes eccentric and imperfect form as a mark of our humanity rather than as something to be corrected.
What soon became clear from this scan is that regardless of the initiative, the purpose and goal behind it matters just as much – if not more – than the features of the innovation or practice.