It was 1989 when Zara landed in New York and the term ‘fast fashion’ was used for the first time by the New York Times to describe a new way of production which was breaking into the apparel market by offering consumers a continually changing assortment of clothing. Nowadays it is a business model based on offering consumers frequent novelty in the form of low-priced, trend-led products.
At the dawn of the new millennium, the rate at which new collections are designed and produced has accelerated in an incredible way. Moreover, fast fashion has made clothing repair unnecessary – since garments are discarded before they get damaged – or even impossible because these cheap garments are too flimsy. In a world where ideas and trends spread and change at a very high speed, fashion moves like a river in flood and if you don’t follow it continuously updating your wardrobe, you’ll stay behind. It’s not surprising to go to the mall twice a week and to find different clothes exposed, while a subtle voice whispers in your ear “buy it now because it won’t be here tomorrow”. Or maybe tomorrow those leather trousers that cost only 19.99€ may pass from being a “must-have” to completely outmoded.
However, the concept of planned obsolescence is not new at all. In the 17th century, king Louis XIV of France and his finance minister Colbert found a way to make creativity the new engine of the French economy. They introduced the obligation to produce and sell at least two clothing collections per year to the nobility and, under this condition, the seasons SS/FW were invented so that nobles had to change wardrobe at least twice a year. Soon, this structural obsolescence was psychologically absorbed and wanted by the court itself. The same mechanism is pursued today to make fast fashion brands grow by filling shelves with cheap clothes.
Just to give you an idea of how far it has come from the lavish apparel worn by a select few at the court of Versailles, fast fashion has provided a reason for total fibre production to approximately double from 2000 to 2019. On a per-capita basis, this means while 7.6 kg fibre/person was produced in 1995, that figure rose to 13.8 kg/person in 2018, an 82% increase.
In fact, more than 150 billion clothes are produced annually, enough to provide 20 new fashion items to every person on the planet every year. On the other hand, 80% of fashion products turn into “waste” and are thrown away within the first six months, enough to fill 1.5 Empire State Buildings every day. This high rate of consumption makes the fast fashion industry one of the most significant industries across the world, with more than $450 billion in sales globally.
The environmental and social issues
All this data represents only the tip of the iceberg, and we need to go back through the supply chain in order to understand why these clothes are so cheap and, above all, if this way of production is somehow sustainable and compliant with the goals established in the Paris Agreement.
Everything we wear has an embedded environmental cost in terms of energy, water, land and chemicals used. This depends on multiple factors. The fibres that are used and whether they were grown or made, the production methods involved, how they are processed into yarn, transported, dyed, printed and made into clothes. For instance, a polyester shirt has more than double the carbon footprint of a cotton shirt (5.5 kg CO2 vs 2.1 kg CO2).
Worldwide, textile production produces an estimated 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent (CO2e) per year, which is more than international flights and maritime shipping combined. By considering the full lifecycle of clothing, the industry has an annual carbon footprint that reaches 3.3 billion tonnes CO2e. According to Ellen MacArthur Foundation, if fashion continues its current path, it could use more than 26% of the global carbon budget associated with a 2°C pathway by 2050.
Regarding water consumption, the fashion industry consumes an estimated 79 billion cubic metres of fresh water annually, as estimated by the UK Environmental Audit Committee. The greatest quantity is used by the growing and production of fibres but dyeing, finishing and washing clothes play an important role too. Only cotton production, according to WRAP, accounts for almost 70% of the water footprint of fibre production for textiles. In fact, one kilogram of cotton – equivalent to the weight of a shirt and pair of jeans – can take as much as 10,000–20,000 litres to produce, depending on where it is grown in the world. Thus, it’s not a surprise that major cotton-producing countries such as China and India are already suffering from medium to high levels of water stress in certain areas.
In addition, all the chemicals involved in adding – for instance – rips and tears to jeans, make textile production responsible for high volume of water containing hazardous chemicals being discharged into rivers and water courses. By considering also oil to produce synthetic fibres, fertilizers to grow cotton and an immense number of accessories and packaging, including labels, tags and plastic/paper bags or containers which are wasted quickly, fashion is considered as the second most destructive industry to the environment, after the oil industry.
Furthermore, in order to understand how those fashionable leather trousers can cost only 19.99€, we should fly to Dhaka, Bangladesh, where – thousands of miles away from our favourite shops – 1132 garment workers lost their lives and more than 2500 were injured from a factory building collapsing in 2013. This tragic event – one of the deadliest disasters in the clothing industry to date – is not an isolated case, but it is a part of a tried and tested mechanism made of poor and dangerous working conditions, long working hours, child labour and low wages. Garment production is one of the world’s biggest and most labour-intensive manufacturing industries with estimates of those directly employed ranging from 25 to 60 million people. Every day in Dhaka, child laborers work in textile factories for 10 hours a day to earn US$ 1 with the threat of corporal punishment, while in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, more than 2000 young women can only afford to sleep on the floor of a factory that is producing clothes for shops in Europe and North America. This finally explains why fast fashion only takes a few weeks to get from the product design stage to the market, compared with six-month cycles in the traditional apparel mode. Moreover, in many of these low-wage countries such as Bangladesh, garment workers are deprived of rights such as unionism and collective bargaining and governments do not monitor factories for compliance with law and regulations. All these elements constitute for the fast fashion industry a serious problem related to social responsibility, which leads us to think that maybe this fast way of production is not so sustainable.
A possible solution: a blockchain-enabled circular supply chain management
The concept of circular economy (CE) can be applied to help deal with issues related to environmental degradation, resource depletion and production of waste. CE can be described as an economic system that replaces the ‘end-of-life’ concept with reducing, alternatively reusing, recycling and recovering materials in production/distribution and consumption processes. It operates at the micro-level (products, companies, consumers), meso-level (eco-industrial parks) and macro-level (city, region, nation and beyond), to accomplish sustainable development, thus simultaneously creating environmental quality, economic prosperity and social equity, to the benefit of current and future generations.
Recycling is already performed in the traditional linear economic model but the downcycle discarded items are used to make something with less value than the original; on the contrary, CE focuses on upcycling discarded items to make something with a higher value. Ideally, when all supply chain stakeholders work systematically to integrate the CE concept in the entire process, they can develop innovative business models which allow to achieve zero-waste by upcycling all relevant resources throughout the supply chain life cycle. This idea is called circular supply chain management (CSCM) and it is required for applying CE at a micro-level. However, implementing it brings the challenges related to culture, society, government regulation, technology – such as tracking how to upcycle materials over multiple life cycles across multiple supply chain stakeholders, circular economic framework and market.
Many approaches have been tested to deal with these challenges and blockchain technology (BCT) has received particular attention since it has shown rapid growth in supporting supply chain traceability, sustainability and information security and it is able to copemultiple CE challenges at the same time. This concept was first proposed by Nakamoto in 2009 and he defined it as a “technology using data mining and bitcoin techniques to develop data structure and encode the transaction of information”. The information within a blockchain will be stored online permanently, with high transparency and security. Therefore, all supply chain members, especially consumers, can access more information quickly from the upstream, such as aspects relating to design, raw materials and manufacturing process.
Before going into depth, it can be useful to clarify what a blockchain is. In a nutshell, blockchain is a system of recording information in a way that makes it difficult or impossible to change, hack, or cheat the system. It is essentially a digital ledger of transactions that is duplicated and distributed across the entire network of computer systems on the blockchain. Each block in the chain contains several transactions, and every time a new transaction occurs on the blockchain, a record of that transaction is added to every participant’s ledger.
Blockchain can be applied to enable fast-fashion circular SCM (supply chain management) in pre-production, production and post-production stages. It can help to mitigate the challenge of overproduction, which is directly connected to environmental and social issues.
In the linear structure, only two adjacent nodes have the proximity to partially share information, so information about demand from end-customers must be distorted (mainly amplified for bugger consideration) when going up to upstream suppliers. Thus, the linear system makes for a vast amount of waste from overproduction which can be significantly reduced by increasing communication and sharing information among the supply chain stakeholders. In addition, blockchain technology can be useful to meet the environmental and social responsibility challenge through supplier section and tracking supplier management. A potential supplier must be verified before it is permitted to access the blockchain and it must upload real-time data on the manufacturing process to the cloud database. Then, it is possible to audit the quality and safety of the use of chemicals, water and land during production and working conditions and workers’ status by collecting data such as light, humidity, temperature and working hours. In this way, customers – that are typically aware of what happens only at the retail stage – can have access to much more information and make a more aware choice. In addition, once they buy a garment, they can be tracked and authenticated to make the process of recycling and reusing these fashion products easier. In a blockchain-based system, manufacturers can identify which materials can be reused and management of materials reuse is indispensable in a circular fast-fashion supply chain. After washing and sanitizing, second-hand items can be resold, rented or donated to extend their active lifetime.
Analysing the data flow, three stages are identified: pre-production, production and post-production. Each stage involves different types of product-related activities or services, including demand forecast, product research and development, manufacturing process control, and product recycling. At the pre-production stage, data needs to be collected on demand, forecasting, inventory, logistics, and suppliers’ evaluation and selection. Data on working conditions, production processes and environmental impacts need to be collected in the production stage. At the post-production stage, data should include distribution, marketing, and usage processes. This data collection is mainly achieved using IoT technology: for instance, various smart sensors and IoT devices are used such as QR codes, RFID tags and readers, and GPS. The blocks constituting the chain are created when a product supply plan is generated and it contains limited information such as the product name, supplier name, product sales and demand information and product reuse information. Simultaneously, other data such as supplier qualification certification are stored in product-related and supplier-related cloud databases.
Fig. 1 The data flow in circular supply chain
From a supply chain perspective, the stakeholders involved are supplier, manufacturer, distributor, retailer, and consumer. They are linked through logistic activities and, in contrast to the traditional supply chain, the circular supply chain includes reverse logistics, which is responsible for the recycling and recall of the product for reuse. In order to ensure the integrity and the traceability of fast-fashion products in the whole life cycle, stakeholders would upload the relevant data, contributing to the creation of a transparent and credible environment for the product. Another important aspect is related to security, which is guaranteed since all the information is encrypted and cannot be accessed without permission and, above all, participants cannot tamper with data, either in the blockchain or in the cloud database.
Fig. 2 Stakeholders of the circular supply chain
However, the nature of this research is conceptual and needs further development for a small-scale pilot before being applied to a large-scale fast-fashion supply chain. Many barriers still must be overcome, such as lack of standard policy, software and hardware equipment issues, conflict of interests, lack of common interests and mutual trust. Regarding the issues related to stakeholders’ behaviour, future studies will need to investigate incentives, barriers and drivers.
The EU strategy to make fast-fashion industry sustainable
Circular economy looks a powerful path towards sustainability to follow also for the European Commission which announced that it would adopt an EU Textile Strategy in 2021. In the Circular Economy Action Plan, the Commission announced that the EU Textile Strategy would include the following measures:
- applying the new sustainable product framework, by developing eco-design requirements to ensure that textile products are fit for circularity, ensuring the uptake of secondary raw materials, tackling the presence of hazardous chemicals and empowering businesses and consumers to choose sustainable textiles and ensuring easy access to reuse and repair
- improving the business and regulatory environment for sustainable and circular textiles in the EU, by supporting the product-as-service models, circular materials and production processes and international cooperation for increased transparency
- providing guidance for separate textile waste collection, in line with the current Framework Waste Directive, which requires Member States to set up separate collection of waste textiles by 2025
- boosting the sorting, re-use and recycling of textiles, including through innovation and measures such as extended producer responsibility.
On 5 January 2021, the Commission published a roadmap that announced the strategy for the third quarter of 2021. According to the roadmap, the aim of the strategy will be to lay out ‘conditions and incentives to boost the competitiveness, sustainability and resilience of the EU textile sector’ and to address both the environmental and social impacts of the textile industry. In addition, the roadmap mentions the strategy will explore how to reinforce the protection of human rights across value chains. The roadmap was open for public consultation until 4 August 2021.
What can we do to reduce the impact of our wardrobe?
As customers, we can play a fundamental role, since demand comes from our needs or, better, our wish lists. The first thing we can do is, for sure, to reduce our consumption. We should avoid buying new garments if they are not necessary and if there is the possibility – even remote – that they will get lost in our wardrobe without ever seeing the light of the sun. Then, being a part of circular economy does not seem to be impossible: we can sell clothes we don’t wear anymore – there are a lot of useful websites that are all the rage – and we can buy second-hand items, which are, usually, of a finer quality with respect to the ones we buy at 19.99€. If we really need to buy something new, there are some guidelines that can help us to find a brand which produces sustainable clothes at affordable prices: for instance, some apps work as a compass, giving you data about brands’ social and environmental impact which are directly provided by the brands themselves, as described in blockchain based scheme. For sure, customers’ awareness cannot pass only through these actions which are not able to fight alone against overproduction if they are not supported by policy intervention. However, reducing the impact of our wardrobe is the only thing we can do in the meantime.
Environmental Audit Committee, Fixing fashion: clothing consumption and sustainability, 2019
World Resources Institute, By the Numbers: The Economic, Social and Environmental Impacts of “Fast Fashion”, 2019
European Commission, Circular Economy Action Plan: For a cleaner and more competitive Europe, 2020
G. Peters, M. Li, M. Lenzen, The need to decelerate fast fashion in a hot climate – A global sustainability perspective on the garment industry, Journal of Cleaner Production, Volume 295, 2021
M. Mrad, J. Majdalani, C. Chi Cui, Z. El Khansa, Brand addiction in the contexts of luxury and fast-fashion brands, Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services, Volume 55, 2020
B. Wang, W. Luo, A. Zhang, Z. Tian, Z. Li, Blockchain-enabled circular supply chain management: A system architecture for fast fashion, Computers in Industry, Volume 123, 2020