the real cost of constant trends
Even if you don't know the term for it, you have encountered and been surrounded by the practice of "fast fashion," especially in the past 5-10 years. Fast fashion is the concept of mass producing trends seen on the runway or through algorithms used to scan online trends for a cheaper cost. Giant brands like Zara and H&M come out with new styles every few weeks, but betting on the new inventory to sell is a gamble. And with consumer's demand for what they want to be within their arms faster than ever, companies are having trouble keeping up. But technology is changing that with algorithms used to scan trends, and tech such as 3D design, virtual samples and digital fabric libraries that could be used to cut down on the cost of physical samples and shipping. Still, it is difficult for major companies to pump out trends as they're forming, but a new fashion company Choosy, is using AI to potentially tap into real time social "inspiration" instead of the usual taking trends from runways. Choosy, wants to remove the guesswork that other brands deal with to find what customers really want. Using algorithms, AI determines what styles are being talked about most, specifically on Instagram; by scanning comments on celebrity photos or other fashion accounts and putting out 10 styles a week made on a on-demand basis. Exciting and different, this idea of using visual search to discover trends isn't new. Forever 21 for example, uses visual search on their site where costumers can search a picture of something they like and compare it to similar items the brand carries.
While this seems appealing to always have some new and trendy clothing around the corner, everything comes with a price. Whether it be the ethics involved when copying independent designers, unfair labor practices or the immense amount of waste that damages the environment. Fast fashion attempts to predict what will sell out, but in the end, this creates a ton of waste when the inventory doesn't. And the fast part of "fast fashion" isn't exactly due to insight-fully crafted designs, but rather copying things that already exist by tweaking designer trends or worse, stealing from small independent artists and designers.
Which to be fair, copying what's done before is a common practice in fashion, the industry by nature survives on inspiration and cyclical seasons. Issues arise when big companies take from smaller brands, ones that can't fight for their art or designs. What makes this harder is that copyright laws in the US don't protect fashion designers the way they need to due to the fact that copyright doesn't provide rights for "inherently useful items," like bags and clothing. So the little tweaks that companies like H&M and Topshop make to runway trends aren't considered stealing. However, any type of clothing, accessory, etc., that has a distinguishing logo, brand name or original print, does fall under copyright and even that gets complicated. The only times these items are protected is when you can separate the creative elements from the clothing, and then the element or design can be protected. Again, this is useful, but mostly to companies like Gucci or Louis Vuitton, whose 'LV' initials have instant recognition (and trademark papers) and not exactly useful to independent artists using Instagram as their portfolio. Even though fast fashion brings trends to the masses for cheap, the little guys have trouble looking original which can be detrimental to their upcoming success.
Fast fashion has definitely hindered independent designers and thrived partially on copying similar items, but the damage done environmentally is an even bigger problem. Global production is now exceeding over 100 billion garments a year with productions having doubled in the past 15 years. In less than 20 years, Americans have also doubled the volume of clothing they toss from 7 to 14 million tons. For the case of transparency, initiatives have been taken where labels release end of the year reports on operations. Through this, it was learned that Burberry (among many other luxury brands) had burned almost $40 million in stock clothing, accessories and more when they didn't sell. Again, this is common practice, especially among more expensive brands that want to protect the brand's integrity instead of selling it at a lower price. Luckily, luxury labels have lower stock due to exclusivity and high cost, but what about the big companies like Zara and H&M, the ones consistently putting out cheaper, low quality supply? For starters, they don't have the same "integrity" that lux brands do, so they start by lowering the price and placing items on sale, but that eventually reaches a point of not working. Some companies give to charity and donate inventory to NGOs, some gets recycled and others are resold. But even with these three options, challenges come with each of them.
Donating seems like a great option, but there is a cost in needing people to go through clothes that can be usable, and even then, in the US we don't have the amount of people who need this excess clothing on the scale it's being produced. Plus, companies like Goodwill and Salvation Army that resell clothing only sell around 30-70% of the donated items. Recycling clothing seems like the end-all-be-all answer, but unfortunately, the nature of mixed materials used in clothing makes the recycling process that much more grueling. As for reselling through the Trans-Americas, these second hand clothes are passed through different countries until the worst of the worst lands in Africa, with many believing it's good quality. Instead, around 1/4 of that clothing is unsalvageable due to its poor quality with 30% of those t-shirts being used as rags or insulation. There are disagreements as to whether this is all bad considering we're giving only what we don't want or is no longer good to us, but others see that this trade creates jobs in reselling, cleaning, and repairing and tailoring.
This high rate of turnover caused by quantities of new clothes coming to market everyday is perpetuating a new standard. The "needed it yesterday" type of mentality is both a creative issue and an environmental catastrophe. Whether companies fall tone deaf to certain designs on clothing because of the quickness of the industry or use independent designers works as "inspiration" (or stolen property), creatively, fast fashion at best produces cheaper lookalikes and at worst, low quality knockoff's. Environmentally, the industry needs to slow down production or at the very least be smarter about production practices. Progress is being made though, with 12.5% of global fashion markets agreeing to hit 2020 environmental targets set by the Circular Fashion System Commitment, with some companies including Adidas and H&M setting more ambitious goals. New technology is also coming to light everyday, with new ways of getting rid of waste and creating better production practices. And with the help of social media, independent designer are getting a better hand when it comes to proving their creative property. There is still progress to be made when it comes to fast fashion, but to disregard it all together would be denying the inevitable.