How design is turning the tide against ‘fast fashion’

Reacting against the excesses of ‘fast fashion’, clothing brands’ designs are looking towards durability and long-term consumer value as guiding principles, but marketing has its work cut out to educate shoppers and generate greater desire for these garments.

‘Fast fashion’, where clothes are designed to be made and sold cheaply then used for a short time before being replaced, has been the driving force behind some of the high street’s most successful brands in the past decade. However, an increasing number of retailers and labels are reacting against the trend in an effort to create lasting fashion instead.

Using recycled, responsibly sourced and more durable materials is becoming a more popular way of designing and manufacturing clothes, with Adidas, Jigsaw and Asos putting it at the forefront of their retailing efforts. But can designs that are made to last stand
up against a fast-fashion culture when consumers’ tastes change so frequently?

Asos’s website area dedicated to organic and fair trade garments, The Green Room, is generating increasing consumer interest, according to the online retailer. Meanwhile, Adidas launched a prototype running shoe last month by British designer Alexander Taylor, which is made from plastic retrieved from the ocean. Adidas plans to launch it next year along with other designs.

And designer Tom Cridland, who owns a men’s fashion brand bearing his name, has launched ‘the 30-year sweatshirt’ in a bid to go against fast fashion. He says: “Many retailers are making wardrobe staple garments systematically so that they will wear out after a couple of years, and people will go back. That is wrong.”

Anti-fast fashion campaigns

There is no shortage of marketing initiatives to raise the profile of fashion designs that shun the business model of cheaply made and quickly discarded items. Fashion Revolution Day is in its second year and took place on 24 April. It marked the second anniversary of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh, which killed 1,133 workers and injured more than 2,500 people.

It is a movement that encourages consumers to look at where the clothes they buy are made and to challenge brands to demonstrate transparency in the supply chain. Model Lily Cole, blogger Susie Lau, TV presenter and journalist Anita Rani and Eco-Age founder Livia Firth were some of the names that took part in a social media campaign asking brands #whomademyclothes.

However, research by international aid and development organisation Baptist World Aid Australia, which was published in April to support Fashion Revolution Day, shows many global fashion brands are continuing to put the profits of fast fashion ahead of designs that use ethically sourced materials, despite disasters like Rana Plaza.

The report assessed 219 major fashion brands on their policies, supply chain transparency, traceability, monitoring programmes and workers’ rights. It looked at what companies have been doing to ensure workers in their supply chains are being protected from exploitation.

Three quarters do not know the source of their fabrics, 91% of companies do not have full knowledge of the origins of their cotton, more than 85% of are not paying their workers enough to meet basic needs and just under half (48%) have not traced where their clothes are being made.

Jigsaw’s ‘For Life Not Landfill’ campaign promotes long-lasting design and manufacturing

However, some brands are making a concerted effort in their designs to reduce these numbers. Claire Hamer, sustainable fashion manager at Asos, says: “There is a growing interest and awareness from customers who want to know where their purchase is coming from; how it’s made and what it is made with, without this compromising fashion credentials. Sustainable fashion is moving to the mainstream. We are seeing this from sales and also increase in interaction across our social platforms.”

The market for lasting designs

Asos’s The Green Room, which launched in 2010, is today worth more than £6m in annual sales. The brand says it is one of the ways that it “promotes products that are made by manufacturers which use sustainable business practices”.

Items sold in The Green Room must be designed to satisfy at least one of the folllowing principles set by Asos: building communities, developing fair trade and alleviating poverty, and preserving craftsmanship and artisanal skills.

For example, the site features the brand Sika and its owner Phyllis Taylor, whose designs are sourced and handmade in Ghana. According to the brand, its clothes “maintain a fashion-forward direction in striking prints of a traditional Ghanaian woven fabric called Kente, which is conventionally worn by royalty”.

However, brands need to be strategic in planning these types of design initiatives as the practice is not mainstream yet and therefore can be costly, according to Hamer.

“Almost anything is possible with a planned approach,” she says. “At Asos, we are working with our supply chain partners to source more sustainable materials that meet our fashion credentials. As this is a growing market, costs can be prohibitive, but we predict this will ease up as sustainable sourcing becomes more mainstream.”

The cost to consumers of following fast fashion is a message that brands promoting lasting fashion are trying to convey. Shoppers could potentially be spending more since fast fashion trends come and go, despite the lower price of individual garments.

In Britain, 500,000 tonnes of clothes end up in landfill every year. That was one reason why Jigsaw set about designing clothes that promoted the opposite through its ‘For Life Not Landfill’ campaign, after noticing a movement towards people buying four or five staple products for their wardrobe rather than throwaway pieces. Jigsaw’s CEO Peter Ruis says: “Whether or not it’s driven by an eco-sustainable concern, I think that’s part of it. But also it has all got a bit too much. It’s like food waste and why people are moving away from big supermarkets towards buying little and often.”

The retailer is due to launch the second phase of the campaign in September and will be live for a month. The original message of long-lasting design and manufacturing will continue with new creative that shows vintage Jigsaw products sent in by customers coupled with modern Jigsaw designs – giving the idea that the brand is for life.

Adidas’s new running shoe. designed by Alexander Taylor, is made from plastic found in the ocean

“We had really good results from the [previous] campaign,” explains Ruis. “We did something provocative and it created a talking point that was more about ‘why buy clothes that you will throw away?’.”

The new creative follows letters and emails received by the brand from customers about Jigsaw designs that they still have in their wardrobes, which they wore to a wedding, for example, or were wearing when they met their partner.

Ruis says: “We are not pretending you will be wearing the same product every single year but it’s the idea that it will stay in your wardrobe and you will bring it out when a trend comes around. It’s driven by what our customers have said, which is the growing movement of saying, ‘I am proud that I’ve had this in my wardrobe for so long’.”

In the autumn, the brand is also launching a range of coats made from material offcuts.

Ruis, however, believes that there are many clashing messages in fashion that leave the consumer confused. He also says that arguing the case to drive demand for lasting fashion, and to set up the design and manufacturing supply chain to deliver it, is difficult.

“We try to do a slightly different message of sustainability, to create clothes that last and not peddle a message of ‘here today gone tomorrow’,” says Ruis. “Our message is about beautiful fabrics that are made to the highest level and selling a message of something that you will not wear for one season but you can hand down to friends or put in a cupboard and bring out three years later.”

Differentiation through design

This movement towards long-lasting design is the basis for Tom Cridland’s 30-year sweatshirt – a unisex sweater that promotes sustainable fashion – for which the designer raised funds on Kickstarter.

Cridland says the sweaters are handmade in Portugal using organic cotton by people who have been creating clothing for more than 50 years. He therefore believes the 30-year guarantee is a “very conservative estimate”.

The product is plain-coloured because Cridland did not want to create a garment that is at risk of falling out of fashion. “I will [create more on-trend designs] through future items of clothing that I will release through [the brand] Tom Cridland,” he says. “But as a standalone project I wanted to make an impact and say fast fashion is wrong.”

The design itself is important too, so consumers note a sense of difference when buying. Hamer at Asos says the retailer works with its designers to ensure there is a point of difference with the sustainable collections, and that each collection has its own inspiration, “whether it is a unique print inspired from an embroidered African fabric on Asos Africa, or ‘upcycling’ a new vintage dress for Reclaimed”.

“We also ensure the aesthetic fits alongside our trends for the season to ensure maximum impact,” she adds.

It is a trend that Hamer believes will increase elsewhere in the fashion industry. “Brands such as H&M and Reformation are bringing conscious collections to the high street globally,” says Hamer. “Luxury brands such as LN-CC and The Acey are providing a premium, curated collection of luxury sustainable and eco-friendly collections.”

Consumers also need to be engaged in what the brand is doing, so Asos uses its social platform to share stories; its Green Room Twitter account has more than 7,000 followers.

As more brands stand up to a culture of fast fashion, the hope is that consumers will see the value in lasting clothing designs. And as more collections and initiatives are launched, the desire from consumers will increase.

However, there is still work for marketers to do in building this demand, according to Ruis at Jigsaw. He says: “The problem with this whole debate is that there are marketing initiatives
in what we do but there isn’t a market in recycled fashion in its entirety.”

For him, fashion design needs to shift towards making clothes that last because “it’s that sense of ‘throwaway’ that creates most of the waste in the industry”.

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