The demand on the global textiles-apparel-fashion industry to slow itself down has accelerated as the covid-19 pandemic rages on and people look for change. And it is not entirely without reason that the fast fashion segment has been bearing the brunt of all criticism. An overview.

The covid-19 pandemic has turned out to be a time for ideas, zillions of them. It is also, for the same reason, a time for conflicting ideas. Everyone has "definitive" ideas on changing the world. It is time to start from scratch, or to reinvent the wheel-depending on who you are reading or listening to. The assertions range from "the future has to be green/sustainable" to "xyz will now need to be the new normal." There are as many opinions in the textiles-apparel-fashion world as there are experts.

But much of these opinions and assertions can be narrowed down to "fast fashion needs to end" and that "fashion needs to slow down." The global textiles-apparel-fashion industry has been beset with problems and has for its part also been the source/reason for a plethora of problems ranging from the environmental to the social. All that has long been documented and acknowledged.

However, much of the ire one sees around in these pandemic times has been directed, correctly in most cases, towards fast fashion. Many of these, willy-nilly, disregard the fact that fast fashion as a marketing concept is a subset of the industry itself. The problem is bigger. And deeper.

Nevertheless, fast fashion has been hard hit by the pandemic. On July 7, H&M announced it would shut 170 of its stores across its global estate. The Swedish retail giant said that sales had dropped by a quarter in June as it was still "weighed down" by the impact of the pandemic and lockdowns in key markets the world over. This came in the immediate backdrop of the retailer reopening hundreds of its UK stores the previous month after the UK government gave non-essential shops the permission to pull up the shutters again. A company release said, "In the six month report, H&M Group has previously announced that on a global level, it will close around 170 of around 5000 stores around the world, across all of its seven brands, this will be alongside 130 store openings globally."

The previous quarter had been disastrous for H&M, with the turnover dropping by almost 50 per cent. CEO Helena Helmersson announced that more stores would close this year than initially anticipated and that fewer new stores would be launched. The announcement came with the warning that this would result in inevitable dismissals. It is obvious that H&M now wants to focus more on ecommerce wherefrom came most of its revenues during the various lockdowns across the world. "It is clear that the rapid changes in customer behaviour caused by the pandemic will further speed up the digitalisation of fashion retail," Helmersson set the tone for the future in the statement.

The message from Inditex, one of the world's largest retailers and owner of the high street brand Zara, has been similar. After reporting its first quarterly loss, the company in June said that it wants to close nearly 1,200 of its 7,412 stores worldwide. Inditex, like H&M and countless other retailers and brands, has been hit hard with sales down 44 per cent to €3.3 billion between February 1 and April 30, the first quarter of the company's financial year. It reported a net loss of €409 million during the quarter but online sales saved the day by shooting up by 50 per cent year-on-year during the quarter, and were up by as much as 95 per cent year-on-year in April. CEO Pablo Isla expected ecommerce to make up 25 per cent of total profits by 2022, up from 14 per cent.

Blame it on (fast) fashion

The adverse environmental (for example, waste generation) and social impacts (for example, squeezing garment workers) of fast fashion has been laid bare for years now. Going hammer and tongs at fast fashion, be it brands or retailers, is like flogging a dead horse. Such schools of thought turn a blind eye to the fact that it is in the nature of the fashion industry itself to be fast, and that the value chain processes are such that they cause environmental degradation by default and in many cases care two hoots for social justice up or down the chain.

The industry, in fact, had turned "fast" aeons ago when textiles production, and consequently garment making, clambered on an industrial scale in the 1800s-the Industrial Revolution. If anything, the process has accelerated since then, first during the manufacturing resurgence after World War II and then towards the last two decades of the twentieth century. The roots of "fast fashion" as a modern marketing tool can be traced to America of the 1990s when the marketing ploys of Zara caught the fancy of business journalists and industry watchers alike. There is no authentic source, but the genesis of "fast fashion" is frequently attributed to the New York Times which coined the term to describe Zara's way of doing things. The term was a media creation.

Since then, papers and studies galore have been generated on the way Zara and H&M manufactured, distributed and retailed their garments. They had lessons to teach members of industry, and were unabashedly emulated by innumerable copycats.

It was just that Inditex, H&M and a few others later in the day did it better than others. There were also many more who made hay during those days of misty-eyed fascination with fast fashion: real estate majors, logistics giants and consulting firms. It was as if fast fashion brands were the only ones that existed on this planet, and it is therefore no surprise that much of the ire today stands directed at them.

As the feverish clamour for holding fast retailers and brands accountable for their environmental and social impact gathers steam-in most cases rightly so, the discourse unfortunately misses the forest for the trees. The problem is not with fast fashion, but with fashion itself.

The need to slow down

Theories abound and there are many versions of the same truth. There are also many interpretations of the same problems and therefore the solutions being offered vary as widely. What, however, most agree on is that there is a need for the world-and by extension of logic the fashion industry too-to slow down. But this argument too is nothing new. The underlying principle of sustainability is that the world needs to slow down. Or, the planet will burn itself up.

The current environmental debates take off from the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), also known as the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit, the Rio Summit, the Rio Conference, and the Earth Summit that was a major United Nations conference held in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992. The agenda for this had been set much earlier-in December 1983 when Gro Harlem Brundtland was appointed by the UN to head the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED). The commission's seminal report, Our Common Future, in October 1987 said it in as many words: "...the 'environment' is where we live; and 'development' is what we all do in attempting to improve our lot within that abode. The two are inseparable."

It is worth recalling this excerpt from the document:

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It contains within it two key concepts:

?     The concept of 'needs', in particular, the essential needs of the world's poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and

?     The idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organisation on the environment's ability to meet present and future needs.

Any interpretation or solution cannot disregard this incontrovertible truth, or goal if you please. The interpretations and solutions can therefore be examined through this prism.

The foremost concept that has emerged over the years and gained currency during this ongoing pandemic is that of "slow fashion." Everyone agrees that there is a need for fashion to slow down. Who needs to slow down and by how much remains as matter of debate. Slow fashion is described as a way to "identify sustainable fashion solutions, based on the repositioning of strategies of design, production, consumption, use, and reuse, which are emerging alongside the global fashion system, and are posing a potential challenge to it." The term is nothing different from the underlying principles of "sustainable fashion." But, "slow fashion" as an alternative only to "fast fashion" does not stand. The latter is a marketing strategy, and the former is a way of living.

There are elements of the slow fashion concept that need to be examined, some even scrutinised minutely for anomalies or inconsistencies. Many of these are eminently feasible, while some are either simply idealistic or elements of sheer fantasy. Let's take a summary look at some of them.

The most strident demand on the fashion industry, particularly the fast fashion companies, is that for transparency. If companies have to go the sustainable way, they need to be transparent. No one is asking them to disclose business strategies or manufacturing secrets. But sustainability reporting would mean zilch if it is not transparent. This can work, and soon it would be the only way to work. In a world where any adverse reporting on social media can destroy a company's image in a jiffy, it would serve companies only in good stead if they remain transparent and, by insinuation, clean.

Companies will need to figure out how to make products that last. The fast-to-market is not equated with fast-to-landfill without reason. Just because a product is cheap to manufacture and easy to buy does not mean it needs to be discarded at the soonest possible. There are few who make products made to last, and most of them are tiny companies whose sales make little difference to dumping yards that get filled by the day. This will, in other words, need a radical shift in the mindsets of people running fashion companies. But are companies ready for a scenario where growth is destined to reach a plateau sooner or later? Will one take the lead, and the herd will follow?

Also, if brands are to produce less, that would mean outsourcing less to the small apparel-making countries. Those like Vietnam, Cambodia and others who were able to ease out of poverty to a considerable extent because they produced garments for fast fashion brands in the West would be adversely hit. The same argument holds for the fashion industry at large. Not an easy call to take.

Another idea that is frequently discussed is for the need to go local- manufacture/grow locally and consume locally as well. It might work in an ideal situation, but not otherwise. Not every country grows its own fibres or manufactures all of its own fabrics. It is for that reason that trade has existed since time, and it is for that reason that it will still do. Moreover, if say the US were to manufacture all its garments within its own shores, what would happen to exporters in Indonesia or Myanmar?

The more one delves into the subject, the more complex it becomes.

But it is not that nothing can be done-there are many that can be. Companies can diversify into rentals (of course, assuming that they make products that last much longer). They can make themselves responsible for collecting their own clothes once it is time for those to make for landfills or incinerators. They can eliminate everything that is environmentally harmful from the production process. They can take a cradle-to-cradle approach to make others accountable as well.

All that is feasible, and the "can" in the above assertions can be replaced by "should." What, however, they need to be prepared for is to cut down on growth.

This article was first published in the September 2020 edition of the print magazine.