The fast fashion industry has long been critiqued for unsustainable practices and unethical working conditions. From global cotton supply chains to pollution from textile factories, the need to improve the industry in favor of both people and the planet is pressing.
Bard MBA student Kirstie Dabbs spoke recently with author Elizabeth Segran about their shared passion for building a sustainability-centered future for the fashion industry. They discussed the unchecked growth of the fashion industry’s business model, possibilities for regulations, and how to inspire systematic change in global fast fashion.
Segran writes about design, with a particular focus on the fashion industry as a senior staff writer at Fast Company Magazine. She also recently authored a new book, "The Rocket Years: How Your Twenties Launch the Rest of Your Life." In it, she discusses how all kinds of decisions that we make in our 20s — from career to love to family — have the greatest impact on how our lives play out.
There are 8 billion humans on this planet, but a lot of the data suggests that we're making about 100 billion articles of clothing for them.
Kirstie Dabbs: What inspired you to begin writing about the fashion industry and climate change?
Elizabeth Segran: In a lot of ways, the work I did for "The Rocket Years" is extremely relevant to the conversation about the fashion industry and climate change. The decisions young people make, the activism they pursue and the ways they think about building a career can all center around trying to solve some of these problems and having a real impact.
Collectively, young people need to be involved in being part of the solution here. I have a lot of hope that we can change this industry, which is causing so much disruption to the planet.
Dabbs: As you dug into the fashion industry’s environmental footprint, what were some discoveries that jumped out at you?
Segran: I was really surprised about exactly how much we're overconsuming in the world of fashion. There are 8 billion humans on this planet, but a lot of the data suggests that we're making about 100 billion articles of clothing for them. Plus, if you think about how those clothes are spread out around the world, people in many places don't own that many clothes. So the vast majority of the clothes being manufactured are going to countries like the United States.
Then, when you think about how many resources go into making every single garment, including the $5 shirt from H&M, it adds up. There’s an enormous cost in natural resources like cotton and wool, and there’s a massive impact on the climate because a lot of carbon is involved in manufacturing nylon and polyester.
There's just so much waste in this industry. Clothes are made at such low cost that we go into a store or we go online, and we fill our carts with clothes that look fashionable right now but that we essentially treat as disposable. In a few months, maybe a few years, all of those clothes will end up in the trash.
Dabbs: Can you speak to the discrepancy between the population growth rate and that of the fashion industry?
Segran: The first part of the problem is that fast fashion has created a new way of interacting with clothes that make them pretty much disposable. The second part of the problem is that companies are measured by how quickly they can grow — investors want to see constant growth. This means that, for a fashion brand to continue growing, it either needs to sell clothes to more customers or needs to sell that same customer more clothes.
The fashion industry is growing at a rate of about 3 to 4 percent a year, but the human population is only growing at a rate of about 1 percent. We can see why we've gotten to the point of such massive overconsumption.
Dabbs: How do you hope to inspire systemic change through your work?
Segran: Sustainability reporters like myself have been talking about the environmental impact of the fashion industry, and over many years there've also been reporters consistently writing about human rights abuses in the fashion industry. It's so clear now that those two things are connected. A lot of environmental destruction happens when we're using inexpensive materials, and on the other side of that, we're also using inexpensive labor to keep costs low.
I've written a lot about how farmers, particularly in India and Bangladesh, who are responsible for so much of global cotton production, are exposing themselves to toxic chemicals. A lot of the time, those chemicals end up in the ground water and poison entire villages. That's one of the human costs we see along the chain in order to get these inexpensive materials.
Even if you ask a brand to regulate its environmental impact throughout its supply chain, that brand may just not have access to information about what's happening lower down in the supply chain.
There’s also the factory part to consider. We know that conditions in factories in many parts of the world are terrible, but because people are so desperate in those countries for work, they’re willing to work under awful conditions for very low wages. All of that for a $5 shirt we aren’t going to wear many times.
I'm asking consumers who read my stories to think about how they participate in this system. A lot of people struggle to understand exactly how the supply chain works, so I’m educating them about where abuses are happening and how they can call out companies for their bad practices.
It's also my job to find out about companies that are doing things slightly better so that consumers can use what I call wallet activism to have an impact on the market. Investors and companies see what the trends are in terms of consumer spending and may adjust their behavior to respond.
Dabbs: Is there a case for regulating the global fashion industry?
Segran: This is a really important topic and one that I don't think has been wrestled with enough. Part of the reason that the fashion industry is still largely unregulated is that the supply chain is really spread out. There are brands that don't even know what the conditions are in factories because they work with middlemen who help them source products.
Even if you ask a brand to regulate its environmental impact throughout its supply chain, that brand may just not have access to information about what's happening lower down in the supply chain. So this is actually a very complex issue. Plus, even today we don’t have very good ways to measure environmental impact. We know that the industry is creating a lot of waste, but we're not exactly sure how much.
On the other hand, we're beginning to use more circular models, where you might buy an article of clothing and after wearing it for a couple of years, send it back to be recycled and turned into new garments. Developing interesting models through innovation is a great way to move the industry forward.
This Q&A is an edited excerpt from the Bard MBA’s May 1 The Impact Report podcast. The Impact Report brings together students and faculty in Bard’s MBA in Sustainability program with leaders in business, sustainability and social entrepreneurship.