Sustainability and Fast Fashion

One of the many problems facing today’s world is our dwindling environmental resources. Though humankind has finally begun focusing on energy consumption, food usage, population, etc., the fashion industry’s part in resource consumption has been largely ignored. 15% of the fabrics used at all clothing manufacturing companies are wasted.[1] This is a major problem for the industry, because many vital water, energy, agricultural, and human resources go into the creation of these fabrics and garments.

The industry also suffers from a lack of fabric diversity, with polyester and cotton composing 85% of the fabrics produced around the globe.[2] This diversity problem puts pressure on the local industries and specific resources required to produce these fabrics. This makes the fashion industry as a whole “less resilient to changing global conditions in both business and the environment, and…[reduces] consumer choice.”[3] By time the foolish uses of fabric resources comes to the world’s attention, it will already be too late for the fashion industry to change its ways. In essence, it has put too many eggs in one basket.

The disposability of “fast fashion” brands – trendy articles of clothing that begin to wear after only 10 washes – is also a frequently ignored problem.[4] A great deal of time and resources is put into manufacturing clothing that will be thrown away within 6 months to a year, adding more waste to brimming landfills. At the moment, sustainable fashion is only a niche market. No sustainable company has created universally appealing apparel that enchants mainstream markets and brings sustainable fashion to the forefront. This means that the sustainable, mainstream fashion market is currently available for any company willing to innovate for the sake of the planet.     

Fashion’s environmental problems will not be solved until large, mainstream fashion labels begin to change their agendas and means of production to support sustainability. This is particularly true for “fast fashion” brands – such as Abercrombie & Fitch – who are one of the largest contributors of fabric waste and pollution in the fashion industry.[5] Abercrombie & Fitch’s – a currently damaged and controversial brand – would benefit from rebranding themselves as a leader in the sustainable fashion field and tackle global environmental problems facing the world today.
       Abercrombie & Fitch Co. (A&F) is a casual clothing retailer for both men and women. Their primary customer base is young women and men, ranging from pre-teen to college age (though they also offer a small line of children’s clothing). A&F sells a variety of sportswear, including casual t-shirts, jeans, shorts, outerwear, accessories, and some other assorted beauty products. They manage stores in the U.S. and internationally, as well as manage direct-to-consumer options.[6] In the fashion world, A&F is defined as a “fast fashion” brand, because their clothing is crafted around trends and is made cheaply so it may be tossed out and replaced by another item the following season. However, their high-end, popularity-based image allows them to sell their clothing at a slightly higher price point than other “fast fashion” companies like Forever 21 and H&M.[7] A&F markets their products as “All-American” and describes themselves as “the essence of privilege and casual luxury.”[8]

 

Another quality that makes A&F stand out from other “fast fashion” brands is its controversial approach to their products and target market. Recently, the brand has come under fire for several reasons. Its continual sexualization of young people has made it an unpopular brand among parents, feminists, and body positivists.[9] Sales associates at the stores are required to be young and attractive, so that they will appeal to the store’s target market. Much of the store’s marketing campaigns also revolve around sex, including catalogues that feature scantily clad men and women in “precarious positions,” as well as live, half naked models at some store locations.[10] Some of their clothing has been criticized for baring sexist slogans, such as “Who needs brains when you have these?”[11] Some of A&F’s t-shirts have also caused controversy for making racist remarks about Asians.[12]

In addition to these complaints, the exclusionary nature of the brand has ruffled some feathers with concerned parents and body positivism activists. A interview that Mike Jeffries – A&F’s CEO – gave with Salon in 2006 reemerged in 2013 and caused waves with the public. Jefferies stated that he didn’t make clothing above a size 10 because “good-looking people attract other good-looking people, and we want to market to cool, good-looking people. We don’t market to anyone other than that.”[13] This damning quote has haunted the brand ever since, joining the ranks of the brand’s many other PR blunders.

Rebranding would shake away the images of superficiality and sexism that have become practically synonymous with the brand. If A&F based their new brand around fashionable sustainability, they could completely revamp their public image, while putting themselves at the forefront of a new movement towards an environmentally friendly fashion industry.

The first step A&F would take towards re-inventing their image is changing the goal of their company. Rather than using the traditional “fast fashion” approach – selling more disposable clothing to rake in profits by numbers each season – A&F could redefine their industry by shifting towards sustainability. Though the ultimate goal of any business is to maintain itself and profit, focusing the brand on sustainability would actually achieve these goals more efficiently.[14] Producing sustainable products would place them at the forefront of a new industry and allow them to gain traction in the market easily. Their name is already well-known and they have an established reputation of selling fashionable clothing. Aside from changing their production methods, clothing materials, and other factors that will be discussed later, A&F could announce their new goals to the public by creating a new mission statement or logo. This would be only the first level of changes that the brand would undergo. After this goal-shift, A&F can begin to change the inner workings of their company to fall in line with these new goals.[15]

Immediately following a formal shift in goals, A&F can begin implementing their new mission by changing the rules of their company. Revising the rules of any system is incredibly important. It is one of the most effect leverage points, as it controls the processes and people within the system.[16] In the case of A&F, this would mean creating rules about the type of fabrics used and how they are transported. They could make rules that only allow clothing to be made from organic, pesticide-free fabrics and materials that have not harmed any animals during their creation. There could also be new rules that require the exclusive use of domestically produced fabrics and materials. This would reduce the amount of resources used during the shipping process. Such rules would completely change the way A&F is currently operated and would bring the company closer to the new sustainability goal.

Though adjusting the parameters of any system is one of the least effective ways of increasing efficiency, sustainability can still be promoted by changing clothing fabrics and structures.[17] Such changes would be reinforced by the new rules A&F has distributed to all of their manufacturing centers. Rather than focusing on disposable clothing made of polyester and cotton, A&F could diversify the fabrics used in its products. This would put less pressure on the regions that are usually needed to produce cotton and polyester, while also creating jobs in new areas of the country.[18] They could also select fabrics that require less laundry care, which would reduce the amount of water used in the wearer’s home on a day-to-day basis.[19] However, their green mission wouldn’t just end at fabric type. A&F would create new patterns and markers for their clothing with wider seam allowances and extra reinforcements. This practice would use fabric that is usually wasted during contemporary clothing production, while also increasing the wearable life of their clothing.[20] The durability and lifespan of these products contributes more to the sustainable lifestyle of the wearer than fabric composition. It reduces the amount of fabric waste in landfills and gets the most mileage out of the resources used to create the product. Rather than buying a piece of clothing and replacing it in a few months, wearers would be able to keep clothing for a longer length of time. Wide seams also render clothing easily alterable, allowing the wearer to adjust the piece to a new body size or current fashion trend.[21] This increases the clothing’s value for the wearer.

By becoming one of the first mainstream brands to focus on sustainability beyond fabric usage, A&F will be generating a positive feedback loop that will work in their favor. If they create sustainable clothing that is fashionable, durable, and easily alterable to fit with new trends, then they would likely build a fan base quickly. There is no denying that the fashion industry is – at its core – based around aesthetics and how these aesthetics project a particular image. At this point in time, most sustainable brands do not create clothing that appeals to trendy aesthetics or indicate status, two factors that are incredibly important in the fashion world. A&F has consistently associated their brand with status, and if they could combine this feature of their current brand with their new sustainability goals, then the company could make a significant profit.[22] The more sustainability becomes associated with status and beauty, then the more people would purchase sustainable articles of clothing to achieve this image. This results not only in a more sustainable world, but also more profits for A&F.  

Ultimately, these physical and conceptual changes to the brand will be incredibly beneficial. A brand’s ability to adapt to the current market, consider the global climate, and anticipate consumer needs determines its likelihood for survival. Currently, most fashion brands are unwilling to adapt to a changing market that is increasingly requesting fashionable clothing that wastes less resources during production, are made of sustainable materials, requires less laundering, and are structured to be durable and easily adapted to fit contemporary trends. Superficially, it may appear that making such changes would be detrimental to company profits, but this is not the case. In fact, A&F would be one of the first major brands to adapt to this growing market, making them a leader in the industry and ensuring not only their survival, but also their profitability. After all, adaptability to an ever-changing world is essential, as “any system…that becomes so encrusted that it cannot self-evolve, that…scorns experimentation and wipes out…innovation, is doomed over the long term on this highly variable planet.”[23]

 

Bibliography

 

Abercrombie & Fitch. “Our Brand.” Abercrombie & Fitch Co. Accessed May 3, 2014. http://www.anfcareers.com/page/Our-Brands.

       Claudio, Luz. “Waste Couture: Environmental Impact of the Clothing Industry.” Environmental Health Perspectives 9 (Sep 2009). Accessed May 3, 2014. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1964887/.

 

Fletcher, Kate. Sustainable Fashion and Textiles. New York: Routeledge, 2014.

 

Guillermo, Emil. “Humoring Ethnic America: Abercrombie & Fitch Still Doesn’t Get It.” SF Gate. April 3 2002. Accessed May 3 2014. http://www.sfgate.com/politics/article/Humoring-Ethnic-America-Abercrombie-Fitch-2847869.php.

 

Lepore, Merdith. “Abercrombie: How A Hunting and Fishing Store Became a Sex-Infused Teenybop Legend.” Business Insider. April 6 2011. Accessed May 3 2014. http://www.businessinsider.com/abercrombie-fitch-history-2011-4?op=1.

 

Meadows, Donella. “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System.” The Sustainability Institute, 1999. 

 

Perman/Reynoldsberg, Stacy. “Abercrombie’s Beefcake Brigade.” Times. Feburary 14, 2000. Accessed May 3,, 2014. http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,996083,00.html.

 

Rissanen, Timo. Shaping Sustainable Fashion: Changing the Way We Make and Use Clothes. Edited by Gwilt & Rissanen. London: Earthscan, 2011).

      

 

{C}[1]{C} Timo Rissanen, Shaping Sustainable Fashion: Changing the Way We Make and Use Clothes, edit Gwilt & Rissanen (London: Earthscan, 2011), 129.

{C}[2]{C} Kate Fletcher, Sustainable Fashion and Textiles (New York: Routeledge, 2014), 8.

{C}[3]{C} Fletcher, Sustainable Fashion and Textiles, 8.

{C}[4]{C} Rissanen, Shaping Sustainable Fashion, 128.

{C}[5]{C} Luz Claudio, “Waste Couture: Environmental Impact of the Clothing Industry,” Environmental Health Perspectives 9 (Sep 2009): accessed May 3, 2014, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1964887/.

{C}[6]{C} Meredith Lepore, “Abercrombie: How A Hunting and Fishing Store Became a Sex-Infused Teenybop Legend,” Business Insider, April 6 2011, accessed May 3 2014, http://www.businessinsider.com/abercrombie-fitch-history-2011-4?op=1.

{C}[7]{C} Stacy Perman/Reynoldsberg, “Abercrombie’s Beefcake Brigade,” Times, Feburary 14 2000, accessed May 3, 2014, http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,996083,00.html.

{C}[8]{C} “Our Brand,” Abercrombie & Fitch Co., accessed May 3 2014, http://www.anfcareers.com/page/Our-Brands.

{C}[9]{C} Lepore, “Abercrombie.”

{C}[10]{C} Lepore, “Abercrombie.”

{C}[11]{C} Elisa Doucette, “Is Abercrombie & Fitch the Newest Member of the Mean Girls?” Forbes, May 10 2013, accessed May 3 2014, http://www.forbes.com/sites/elisadoucette/2013/05/10/is-abercrombie-fitch-the-newest-member-of-the-mean-girls/.

{C}[12]{C} Emil Guillermo, “Humoring Ethnic America: Abercrombie & Fitch Still Doesn’t Get It,” SF Gate, April 3 2002, accessed May 3 2014, http://www.sfgate.com/politics/article/Humoring-Ethnic-America-Abercrombie-Fitch-2847869.php

{C}[13]{C} Doucette, “The Newest Member of the Mean Girls?”

{C}[14]{C} Donella Meadows, “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System,” The Sustainability Institute, 1999, 16.

{C}[15]{C} Donella Meadows, “Leverage Points,” 17.

{C}[16]{C} Meadows, “Leverage Points,” 14.

{C}[17]{C} Meadows, “Leverage Points,“ 6.

{C}[18]{C} Fletcher, Sustainable Fashion and Textiles, 9.

[19] Rissanen, Shaping Sustainable Fashion, 135.

[20]{C} Rissanen, Shaping Sustainable Fashion, 128.

[21] Rissanen, Shaping Sustainable Fashion, 135.

[22] Lepore, “Abercrombie.”

{C}[23]{C} Meadows, “Leverage Points,” 16.