Like the big fast food chains, fast fashion brands that deliver to your door – sometimes in less than a day – have rapidly became a habit for many around the world. Both offer an instant, affordable pick-me-up – a mini-treat for people who, in today’s economic climate, are likely time poor and financially stretched. But there is a cost, of course: the environment, and the conditions in which these products are made.
In recent years, however, we’ve seen some drastic changes to fast food chains and how people view them; brought about by both changes from the companies themselves and a broader awareness in customers of the less-than-desirable aspects, such as how unhealthy most items can be; the environmental damage caused by producing them; and how employees are treated. Fast fashion has failed to show a similar initiative.
I recently had the chance to catch-up with Roberta Graham, associate director at cultural and creative consultancy Space Doctors about how she believes that to make real changes in the fashion industry – a sector that’s exceedingly terrible for the environment – brands need to be held to account in the same way that fast food companies have been, with rigorous rules about their impact on climate crisis, their treatment of staff, how they deal with waste, and their production lines.
Christopher Marquis: What are the main sustainability issues around fast fashion today?
Roberta Graham: It’s estimated that 92 million tons of textile waste is created annually by the fashion industry – a figure set to increase by around 60% from 2015 to 2030.
But statistics aside, the elephant in the room is the way we think of fashion: where we find it easy to see things like food, tech, and even automotive as ‘industry’; somehow, despite clothes being a basic necessity, fashion has managed to maintain a stance as not just a sector, but an art form and our primary form of self-expression as individuals.
That’s especially true in high-end fashion, which has done a rather good job of masking the fact that it’s no better than fast fashion when it comes to environmental damage and unethical practices. The myth it’s created around itself that higher quality lasts longer, and therefore is more sustainable, is irrelevant when the price point is so inaccessible and some high fashion brands would rather destroy unsold stock than let it reduce in price at the end of the season.
As culture itself has sped up with the sprawling influence of social media and celebrity culture, we have come to see clothes as very disposable but often as props rather than functional items – worthy of only one Instagram post before being discarded. It’s up to both us as shoppers, and the brands making the clothes, to undo that mindset and shift our thinking towards longevity.
Marquis: What parallels have you noticed between the rise of fast fashion and the rapid growth of the fast food industry in the 1980s and 90s?
Graham: The things that draw us to the likes of Shein, PLT and Boohoo are largely similar to those that make people choose McDonald’s over home-cooking: convenience, low prices, reliability, consistency (for the most part, a Big Mac is the same wherever you order it), and the near-monopoly they have over their corner of the market. They’re also accessible: McDonalds food has a hugely broad appeal, and fast fashion brands also offer something for everyone not just in styles, but in sizing.
Both fast fashion and fast food provide a big hit of dopamine: even if we know they are bad for us on a broader scale, we still see them as a quick and easy pick me up – something that pretty much everyone needs at the moment.
Another similarity is the mainstream ‘blame the poor’ narrative which has led discourse around issues with both industries. Our society is set up to encourage people to consume as much as they can, but when issues in these industries become public knowledge – whether it be obesity and animal cruelty in fast food, or unethical labour and climate impact in fast fashion – the first port of call has always been to demonise those consumers; calling them out as irresponsible, making immoral choices and even being selfish for simply believing and chasing the dream they have been effectively sold by both companies and society.
As with the climate crisis itself, if we want to make real impact we need to change the cultural context itself, not just the individual actions of some people living within it.
Marquis: What positive steps have we seen in terms of the fast food industry improving its sustainability credentials, and what’s driven them?
Graham: Fast food companies have been under pressure to play their part in offering healthy options at lower prices as well as altering their supply chains to be more ethical and sustainable so that they are able to provide cheap fast food for people who want or need it, but they are now held to a higher standard by both consumers and legislators.
Consumer demand has changed as people have become increasingly health-conscious and aware of things like plant-based diets; as well as the way mental and physical wellbeing are interlinked and tied into food.
The way that fast food companies have been forced to offer nutritional information such as the number of calories in products means that they demonstrate the tangible ‘impact’ of their offer beyond taste and enjoyment. That allows consumers to make educated decisions on the context of their health and the environment.
These shifts in mindset have been coupled with the fact that such companies simply can’t get away with the things they used to be able to, thanks to government legislation and regulations around things like ingredients and production, such as the sugar tax.
It goes without saying that even with these changes, fast food still has a very long way to go in terms of sustainability; but the positive steps we’ve seen so far – no matter how small – serve to show other industries that even the vast, global brands that seem untouchable can, and must do better.
Marquis: Are there any other sectors that fashion might take the lead from in terms of sustainability? What are they doing well, and not-so well?
Graham: Fashion is the only category which already has a tradition of second hand and hand-me-downs embedded within it. As well as learning from other sectors it can also return to some of its roots to find answers as some other categories already are. There is a growing movement in baby and children’s clothes, toys, and accessories of renting and returning to reduce consumption of items only used for a few months.
We’d also do well to view fashion as we do perfume: many people have a ‘signature scent’ that they see as part of their identity, meaning they don’t constantly feel the need to update, swap, or buy new. That’s a very different attitude to how we consume clothes, where we constantly feel we need to reinvent ourselves to signal who we are.
In the tech world, we’re seeing a number of innovations emerge such as mushroom leather, but these tend to be sustainable because they are niche and therefore not mass produced or putting pressure on one specific resource. Ultimately, if we are unable to tackle the inherent demand then we need to find a way to diversify material usage in fashion to take the pressure off certain resources, without creating elite systems only affordable to the rich.
Marquis: What are the main things the fashion industry can learn from the trajectory of fast food, and where might brands and shoppers start to make positive changes?
Graham: Rather than demonising what fast fashion brands are doing wrong, we need to consider what Primark, Shein et al are doing right, and what makes them so popular. Only then can we solve the destructive elements – we need to truly understand what ‘need’ they’re fulfilling and find a way to replace that for consumers in a way which causes less negative impact. We’ve understood the appeal of fast food – doing the same with fast fashion shouldn’t be so difficult.
Ultimately, the onus should be mostly on fast fashion brands, rather than individuals. Like fast food companies, they should be held accountable and forced to be transparent about their environmental credentials, materials, and production lines just as the likes of McDonald’s must be transparent about ingredients and processes.
Marquis: How far can the language we use around fast fashion help brands become more sustainable, and reframe how we all think about fashion more generally in terms of regeneration/‘conscious consumerism’ etc.? Are there any key terms that need to be re-examined in order to work towards a greener future?
Graham: The language around fashion needs to evolve to directly link the end product back to the original resources used, in the same way that food does through outlining its ingredients and their provenance.
Fair trade did a great job in telling the lived experiences of social and environmental hardship of cocoa and coffee as a compelling reason why it's important to change – we need to understand these perspectives from the fashion industry, too.
More broadly speaking, desire needs to be addressed through problematic terminology such as ‘seasons’ and ‘trends’, which encourage rapid turnover and drive a feeling of constantly ‘needing’ something new.
However, it’s vital that change comes from internal actions in brands as much as language. Fashion has a huge issue with greenwashing, which is possible because the language around sustainable actions used by brands is so disparate – the average consumer doesn’t have the time or desire to research whether a sustainable claim is valid or not before buying.
Fashion needs to be regenerative, not sustainable. We have reached a point we cannot sustain, so in order to make an impact brands must not only balance what they take, they must actively give back to the climate and the global community not only with words but tangible actions across design process, production and the way they stimulate desire in consumers.
The industry needs to be held accountable to a standard set of regenerative guidelines similar to nutritional labelling on food to allow consumers to make fast and easy decisions based on genuine measured impact, not marketing jargon. Imagine the impact if all clothing items were labelled with their carbon and human footprint…
Marquis: And lastly, how is Space Doctors working with companies to make these types of changes?
Graham: Something that feels really hopeful and exciting to me is that we’re seeing more and more clients come to us with big strategic questions geared specifically towards creating change not just outwardly, but within internal systems as well.
Over the last few years I’ve worked on multiple projects where clients are actively wanting to understand and respond to larger societal shifts: we’ve worked with global retailers asking us to help them understand the circular economy to drive internal innovation, for instance; and we’ve helped an outdoor apparel brand understand how they can design apparel which is genuinely inclusive.
We recently worked with an outdoor apparel brand who was really ambitious in wanting to use semiotics and cultural insight to explore how they could take steps towards becoming a truly, holistically regenerative brand within the next ten years.
This was not about understanding outward cues of regeneration and leveraging these to drive appeal, but about interfacing semiotics with speculative and creative strategy to really understand how the teams could begin working to change internal systems to create clear glide paths towards the preferable future for the client.
We’re lucky enough to work with huge influential clients around the world and as people who not only really understand culture, but also the power of semiotics to influence it. It’s our responsibility as an industry to be really clear about what we are recommending and how it impacts the future.