The New York Times coined the term ‘fast fashion’ in the ’90s to describe Zara’s arrival in New York. Its mission being to take only 15 days for a piece of clothing to go from the design phase to being sold in its stores.

Zara’s business model heralded a new dawn in the fashion industry. ‘Fast fashion’ became the benchmark for growth despite the devastating humanitarian and environmental consequences.

Coty Jeronimus is a textile sustainable supply chain expert and the founder of TaskLab and NomadNoos. She witnessed this extraordinary transition and the disturbing disconnect between brands and consumers on the impact clothes were having on the environment, the textile labour force, and human health. Recognising early-on the monster the industry was creating, Coty actively sought to create a shift within her field of expertise. She has been guiding and consulting fashion brands to develop sustainable supply chains ever since.

Today, many early adopters are now reaping the benefits as consumers increasingly seek out brands that hold sustainability as a core value. As COVID 19 continues to take centre stage around the world, the impact on the fashion industry is colossal. For Coty, the fashion industry lies at a critical juncture where it has the opportunity to redefine itself. For those who survive the current economic upheaval, evidence suggests building sustainable supply chains is no longer a choice but a necessity.

According to the United Nations Environment Program, the textile industry is the second biggest global polluter, emitting around 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2 every year. This accounts for 10% of global emissions. Alongside these shocking statistics lies an equally disturbing reality. It is the amount of waste generated by the industry.

In a report by the Environmental Protection Agency, of the 15.1 million tons of textile waste generated in 2013, the industry discarded 12.8 million tonnes. (1) Approximately 15% of fabric intended for clothing ends up on the cutting room floor. The industry also produces 20% of global wastewater. This waste is not only created in the manufacturing process.

Each year, more than 100 billion new garments arrive on the market. In 2018 alone, H&M reported having $4.3billion worth of unsold clothes. Until recently, many companies like Burberry, Cartier, and H&M chose to burn their excess stock. (2) For the sake of growth, the fashion industry tolerated this waste rate for decades.

The waste does not stop there. As consumers, we play a massive role in the amount of waste created. As clothing production doubled between 2000 and 2014, consumer buying increased by 60%. Despite this increase in consumption, we keep clothing items for half as long. In Britain, the Environmental Audit Committee reported that the U.K. throws away 1million tonnes of clothes annually, with 300,000 tonnes going to incinerators or landfills. It is alarming to think that up to 95% of the textiles ending up in landfill each year are recyclable.

Unfortunately, creative marketing and the lure of wanting to have the latest fashion piece blinded consumers. Many have no real understanding of the impact their choices have on the environment. Knowing,’it would take 13 years to drink the water used to make one pair of jeans and one T-shirt” (3), would one be so keen to buy a pair of jeans each season or every year?

How did we get here? Working in production at Quiksilver in France in the ’90s, Coty Jeronimus witnessed the fashion industry’s transformation. Supply chains turned their focus away from local production to sourcing the mass production of cheap clothing. Production moved mainly to China, Bangladesh, and to a lesser extent in Eastern Europe.

 

Coty travelled extensively to oversee production. As she recalls, “In China, workers were living the whole year round, near the factory with six to eight people sleeping in the same room. In Bangladesh, you saw the washing water from the jeans or T-shirt production. You saw where people had to clean themselves. The water was a different colour. It was not a natural colour anymore. When you see these things, you start to think, what is this? It is not normal.” Rather than turning a blind eye, Coty left her job. She sought to bring positive change to the industry, launching her company TaskLab. Today, Coty consults brands as they shift to responsible and durable supply chains. She avoids the term ‘sustainable’ as it is so misused.

For companies to transition to responsible and durable supply chains, it can be a lengthy and challenging process. As Coty says, “it’s not possible for companies to change the whole supply chain directly. Some brands can do it, but it’s not easy for more established companies. One of the big surprises for companies – or what raises the alarm is they see that their supply chain is so complicated.”  For Coty, it is a natural result of ‘the fast fashion’ business model. “Today, to give consumers a certain price level, we make our supply chain so complicated by sourcing from everywhere on the planet.” She cites a simple example. “You dive into a product, and you see that in just one yarn, there are four other different yarns. All have a different composition. You have to trace each one back to the raw material.”  These raw materials most likely come from different parts of the world.

It is at the raw material level that Coty believes companies can achieve a substantial environmental impact. The work she has done in Mongolia for the Greengold project  as an international consultant and in Nepal with a local Tessin NGO is insightful. As she says, “It is critical to understand the context in which raw materials are produced and ask the important questions.” It meant understanding the way the Mongolian herders operate, their environment, and their land management systems. It also meant providing them with the tools and understanding of what is required to work with international brands to produce a qualified fiber. The selection processes necessary before bringing the fibre to the processing plant.

So inspired by the work, Coty established her high-quality yarn brand, NomadNoos. It is also from her personal experience that she is keen to highlight “the importance of working directly with people. To know suppliers, and what is happening in these countries. To understand the impact on the environment and the people living there. This is something completely lost in our clothing, but it impacts your product’s value, It enables you to be more transparent about the product’s cost with your customers.” 

‘Fast fashion’ brands face another challenge. “When making six collections… they have to plan them at least one year in advance.” While forecasting tools are helpful, quantities and product choices remain a forecast. It is one reason why there is so much leftover stock. Moreover, it is how millions of tonnes of unworn clothes either get burned or end up in landfills. Bringing supply chains closer to home mitigates many of these challenges allowing companies to be more precise on their material needs.

A consequence of European fashion companies moving further afield for their production is that they stopped using many suitable local, natural raw materials. Coty sites wool as an example. “Almost all of our wool products in Europe are imported from Australia, New Zealand, or Argentina. Through selective breeding, these countries have high-quality merino fibre. However, some products don’t need this level of merino fibre. The wool used could be from native European sheep wool.”

Unable to sell their wool, many European sheep farmers resort to burning it. It is an environmental and economic tragedy. Coty believes we should take advantage of what we have. As an advocate of regenerative farming, she sees it as a win-win. It is an opportunity for brands to support local industries, to source from local raw material producers while creating a real environmental solution. Using regenerative farming practices, “sheep can capture carbon and create carbon-neutral environments. This is important and positive.”

Coty’s sentiments resonate with the European Union’s New Green Deal goals. It advocates sustainable supply chains and a circular approach to textile production in Europe. It is the first time there is collective action to change government policies. Additionally, there is support for companies to shift to sustainable practices with economic incentives. It is a clear move away from celebrating the fast fashion business model to promoting a safe and circular economic model.

Furthermore, there are signs from within the industry recognising the urgency and need for change. Bowing to consumer pressure and  a growing awareness of the industry’s catastrophic environmental devastation , some of the world’s biggest fast fashion brands signed The Fashion Pact in 2019. Today, ’60+ signatories, stemming across multiple sectors and 14 countries, together representing over 200 brands and 1/3 of the fashion industry, have signed the pact, focusing on ‘climate, biodiversity and oceans.’ (4)

The pact has set out Science-Based Targets, which is critical. In addition, a reporting strategy is in place to monitor impact and take tangible actions to reduce  carbon emissions. Hopefully, such transparency and accountability coming from within will signal an end to the industry’s widespread ‘green-washing’. However, will it be enough to drive the industry to a new era? As Sienna Somers from Fashion Revolution.org says, ‘’We have just eleven years left to halt irreversible climate change. However, the pact states that they aim to achieve net-zero by 2050. This will be too little too late.’’ (5)

As COVID 19 has rocked the world in 2020, the question many people ask is, will the fast fashion model survive? COVID 19 brought to light the fast fashion model’s fragility with a high cost to millions of people. As companies dropped or refused to pay for orders, manufacturers had no other option but to retrench workers. Alone in Bangladesh, more than three million people were affected. It is hard to calculate what the future will hold. Coty says, ‘’brands are now shifting because they have so many problems with their production, the value chain, their stock. They are now trying to produce closer to where they are selling.’’ 

One of the positive impacts of COVID 19 is the greater public awareness of the climate crisis. There is a greater public focus on the fashion industry’s  negative environmental and social impact. McKinsey’s recent report suggests that COVID 19 has accelerated the generation Zers’ and millennials’ demand for sustainable fashion. It signals their consumer habits are changing. This does not bode well for fast fashion brands. The report indicates ‘consumers want fashion players to uphold their social and environmental responsibilities amid the crisis. Of surveyed consumers, 67 percent consider the use of sustainable materials to be an important purchasing factor.

Additionally, 58 percent of respondents are less concerned about the fashion of clothing… Consumers now cite newness as one of the least essential attributes when making purchases.”  More than 2/3 of respondents plan to purchase more durable items, with almost 3/4 intending to keep items longer. More than half  would repair clothing and buy second-hand. Hopefully, it is not too bold to suggest that these statistics reflect a growing global trend. (8)

Globally, we continue to live through such uncertain times. It is impossible to gauge the economic and social consequences of COVID 19. Regardless, it is clear there is a growing collective understanding that we cannot continue to wreak havoc on the environment and squander finite resources. Coty is not alone when she says, ‘’it’s a human problem. We have to buy less, and we have to use less.”  As consumers, we have the opportunity and the responsibility to support the fashion industry’s transition into a ”durable and responsible” new era.

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