Sustainable fashion steps in as fast fashion loses its allure


When the retail clothing chain Forever 21 declared bankruptcy in 2019, it marked a sea change in what consumers are seeking today.

Fast fashion, as sold by Forever 21, was on its way out. Sustainable fashions produced by smaller retailers or sold in the second-hand market, was on the way in.

In a Sept. 29, 2019 story, “Bankrupt Forever 21 is closing 200 stores,” the New York Times reported the retailer had been betting its fortunes on a growing demand for “fast fashion.” But consumers, the story reported, were moving toward sustainable fashions, which avoided the environmental, labor, and quality pitfalls of fast fashion.

Fast fashion, for those unfamiliar with the term are “trendy, inexpensive garments mass produced at lightning speed in subcontracted factories and hawked in thousands of chain stores world-wide” (Wall Street Journal, “The High Price of Fast Fashion,” Aug. 29, 2019).

Other high profile retail chains associated with fast fashion include H&M and Zara.

Model Becca Kearns wears a blouse from Of the Land and slacks from Soul Threads from Workspace Collective, a store in Danbury that used to specialize in sustainable fashions. MIKE CHAIKEN PHOTO

Terryville’s Coraima Boria, 25, is among the consumers who have shifted their consumer dollars from fast fashion to sustainable fashion.

Green Strategy, a consultancy firm in Sweden that works with retailers on developing sustainable products, defines sustainable fashions as clothing that is “manufactured, marketed and used in the most sustainable manner possible, taking into account both environmental and socio-economic aspects.”

For Boria, the ethical issues surrounding the treatment of labor in the fabrication of fast fashion is a key driver for her preference.

“It has a lot to do with the exploitation of factory workers that have to work in unethical conditions for less than fair wages and can barely afford basic living costs,” said Boria.

Additionally, Boria said, “I like to know what I’m supporting and to make sure that it’s going to something that will reduce waste and ultimately help the industry and our environment.”

Some companies in the retail sector, including H&M, have recognized the hazards inherent in fast fashion beyond changing style trends. These entities commissioned a study by the Ellen McArthur Foundation Circular Fibres Initiatives, “A New Textiles Economy.”

The 150-page report issued in 2017 says: “The trajectory of the industry points to the potential for catastrophic outcomes. Demand for clothing is continuing to grow quickly, driven particularly by emerging markets, such as Asia and Africa. Should growth continue as expected, total clothing sales would reach 160 million tons in 2050 – more than three times today’s amount.28.” Of particular concerns, says the report, is the negative environmental impact of this production trajectory.

Like Rae, Naugatuck’s Katrina Orsini is concerned about “inhumane labor practices” surrounding the factories that produce fast fashion. But, she said, the environmental issues around fast fashion also weigh on her conscience.

“The conversation (against fast fashion) has… become more urgent recently due to the climate crisis,” said Orsini, the founder of Hartford Fashion Week who currently is working on her master’s degree at Parson’s School of Design in New York Cit. “It takes 2.700 liters of water to make one cotton shirt. Over 10 million tons of clothing ended up in landfills in 2014… Production of nylon and similar synthetic polymers produces nitrous oxide, which is a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide.”

As Doreen Breen of Thomaston sees it, the trouble is that consumers have been trained to want more and more.

“On average Americans buy 64 items of clothing per year,” said Breen, who designs the Connecticut-based sustainable fashion brand Soul Threads. “Collectively that’s 20 billion garments.”

The MacArthur foundation report says, “In the last 15 years, clothing production has approximately doubled, driven by a growing middle-class population across the globe and increased per capita sales in mature economies.”

Fast fashion has fed into this growth, the MacArthur foundation report said, “with quicker turnaround of new styles, increased number of collections offered per year, and – often – lower prices.”

“We have been indoctrinated into a society requiring; a large variety of clothing for many different occasions and moods, to frequently have a new outfit, a need to follow trends, an extreme desire to have as much and what everybody else has,” said Breen.

Sustainable clothing is more expensive than fast fashion items, said Breen. But consumers need to realize that it’s key to return to the model of “having fewer high quality pieces that last, we wear frequently and we mend.”

Meagan Neville of Danbury had worked in the retail industry as a buyer before opening Workspace Collective in her town, which put the spotlight on local designers and sustainable fashions. (She has since closed the store).

Neville said she recognizes why fast fashion appeals to consumers as opposed to buying sustainable fashions or even buying second-hand garments.

“Everyone who I have had this conversation with (about an aversion to sustainable clothing) has come to me with good points from lack of funds to not wanting to buy secondhand for the sake of it not being cool,” said Neville. “Sometimes, it is easier to spend $5 on a t-shirt that will last a season or two.”

But, Neville said, “Shopping decisions matter and there are real and have ramifications that mainly are unseen by the common consumer.”

Neville also said, as a buyer, she had first-hand knowledge of the ramifications of fast fashion on labor. “My first job out of college was working on 7th Avenue for Macy’s Inc. where it was my job to literally get the lowest cost possible for the products from the factories manufacturing our designs and products.”

“If they didn’t get down to the lowest cost we wanted — which was literally pennies in some instances, we would threaten them by saying we would find another factory to work with,” said Neville.

“In an effort to not lose out on business, the factories could comply” by paying workers less, said Neville.

Locally, the Salvation Army offered its own take on how to combat the negative dimensions of the disposable clothing industry.

The Salvation Army is known for its used clothing stores. In 2016, Leo Lloyd of the religious order launched an initiative called Redeemed. The initiative, which emanated out of the church’s Hartford unit turned used clothing into new garments ‑ created and designed by local designers.

“The idea (for Redeemed) was to create an opportunity for local designers and seamstresses to earn and pursue their vocation in a way not currently available,” said Lloyd.

Additionally, said Lloyd, Redeemed provided new opportunities for participants in the Salvation Army recovery program.

“People learned to sew, others to create artwork and media content,” said Lloyd. “Some tried on modeling or photography while others learned event planning and execution.”

“Seeing ‘castoff people’ from castoff places shaking off hopelessness and enlivened with new purpose and possibility was exciting,” said Lloyd.

There are advantages for shopping sustainably other than addressing the environmental and socio-economic problems with fast fashion, said Neville, “You are dealing with brands that are committing to transparency from the get-go.”

There also is the economic benefit of supporting local businesses when you shop sustainably, said Neville. “You know where your money is going.”

Hannah Vitarelli of Waterbury, who sells vintage and used clothing, said these type of garments also have an advantage, stylistically, as opposed to items from fast fashion retailers.

“Things are more unique (from second hand or vintage stores),” said Vitarelli. “Fast fashion looks all the same on a lot of people.”

There also are options to fast fashion retailers that can be discovered on the web.

Rae said some of her favorite sustainable brands are Unalome Designs, Harmonic Threads, Warrior Within Designs, Curious Culture Clothing, Spinzstress, Cosmic Sun, Frequency Collection, Solaura Designs and Elven Forest Creations.

The MacArthur foundation report offered several recommendations to the clothing retail industry as to how to avoid the catastrophe that the authors foresaw.

“Transform the way clothes are designed, sold and used to break free from their increasingly disposable nature.

“Increase clothing utilization further,,, (and establish) a commitment to design garments that last.

“Make durability more attractive.”

The report also said there should be a move by the retail market toward short-term clothing rental so items that may be worn once by one consumer might have a longer life when rented out to a multitude of users.