The Cost of Uber-Disposable Clothing
The price of beauty may be higher than you thought.
In the early morning hours, a truck pulls into a mall loading dock loaded with styles that had debuted on runways only weeks before, and items manufactured just hours before shipment.
Such is the state of the fast fashion industry model, which puts clothing on store shelves at an astonishingly rapid pace. Since the 1970s, fast fashion has revolutionized retail, transforming clothing into a good that has become almost as disposable as napkins. As soon as a trend burns out, customers can replace their $12 shirt with a newer, trendier one. Fast fashion fills a market niche — and fills it very well.
However, for all its mastery of the fashion supply chain, this industry progression has an ugly side.
A Case Study in Fast Fashion: Zara
Known for its seemingly endless stock of cutting-edge fashion, Zara’s customers can experience the best of the runway at a fraction of the price. Simply put, the Spanish retailer has mastered the art of fast fashion.
So how “fast,” exactly, is it? A rigidly coordinated distribution infrastructure allows Zara to ship its latest products to its European retail stores within a day, and to markets around the world within 40 hours. 450 million items are shipped out over the course of a year in bi-weekly batches.
Now for the “fashion” part. How does Zara seamlessly incorporate emerging runway trends into its ready-to-wear line? About 50% of Zara’s annual items are designed and manufactured in the middle of the current season, so the store has the flexibility to weave in trending styles and fabrics immediately. Most of this production is done in-house. According to Nelson Fraiman of Columbia Business School, Zara can turn a concept into an item on a rack in just 15 days, whereas the industry standard is a full six months.
But how is this supply chain model profitable? Relying on lightning speed and expensive air transport, Zara must find ways to offset these expenses in other aspects of the production and distribution processes. For example, the company ensures that its manufacturing costs remain incredibly low — a cost-cutting move that can have grave consequences for the laborers behind Zara’s fashion-forward designs.
In a typical fast fashion model, the journey to the rack begins on farms in third-world countries. Farmers barely eke out a living, selling cotton at bottom-of-the-barrel prices as companies attempt to extract the lowest prices possible. Once the cotton has been procured, garment manufacturing is often carried out at extremely low wages by sweatshop workers, who face difficult factory conditions and brutally long hours.
After these mass-produced clothing items arrive in stores, consumers excitedly buy the latest trendy, low-cost items. But after a few wears, the cheaply made garments inevitably begin to come undone. Once the item has gone out of style, it may be donated to a secondhand charity — or simply discarded.
Unfortunately, secondhand vintage shops are shockingly wasteful — only 10% of the clothes donated to charity are then resold by thrift shops. Most of the unsold clothes are shipped to countries like India or Haiti. However, so many clothes have been donated to these countries that the neediest people often don’t even want the clothing; so off to the landfill it goes.
With so many millions of articles of clothing produced each year, the trend towards disposable fashion is troubling, as it puts undue strain on a waste disposal system that is already over capacity. It is estimated that 40% of landfill mass is made up of disposed textiles; the U.S. alone throws out 11 million tons of clothing every year, and as fast fashion continues, this number is sure to grow.
So, while fast fashion is a marker of an incredibly controlled and fast-thinking supply chain, it comes with its own costs — something to consider on your next trip to the mall.