What is good for business is not necessarily good for the environment
Karl-Johan Persson, the CEO of fast fashion giant, H&M, caused a huge controversy when he said that if the global apparel industry moves away from fast fashion, there will be huge “social consequences.” Persson’s argument was based on the fact that so much fast fashion production takes place in lesser developed countries such as Bangladesh, providing millions of jobs in the process.
He suggested that while some people might want to move away from the fast fashion business model due to concerns over its environmental footprint, the benefits of doing so to the environment will be small. However, he claims, the social consequences will be massive.
Following this interview, Persson was criticized for defending fast fashion, which many believe is a damaging model which encourages over-consumption. It was claimed he was simply looking after his own business interests.
I have no views either ways about the motives of Persson but they certainly got me thinking. Whatever opinions one might have about his sentiments, the fact is that he has a point. And it is one we all need to consider.
From a purely economic perspective, one of the main benefits of the fast fashion model is that it has ensured continually high levels of production throughout the year. Indeed, if one was to draw a graph charting the rise of the fast fashion business model, it would run more or less in tandem with the growth and success of Bangladesh’s RMG industry. Faster fashion, demands faster production, faster turnaround and more orders. It keeps production lines running and, yes, this model has been providing millions of jobs – there is no doubt about it.
There was a time when brands might only put out one or two styles a year. Now they change styles throughout the year, often taking clothing from the catwalk to stores in a matter of weeks. This has been a remarkable story of growth.
From an operations standpoint, fast fashion requires a highly responsive supply chain that can support a product assortment that is always changing. Bangladesh has shown its ability to rise to the challenge here and is used as a sourcing hub for just about every leading fast fashion brand in the world.
That’s the economic side, and few people could argue with it. Has fast fashion created jobs? Yes. Has it increased the wealth of Bangladesh as a nation? Almost certainly.
The problem is that the world is changing and what is good for business is not necessarily good for the environment. Critics of fast fashion suggest it encourages over-consumption. Whether or not one goes along with this viewpoint depends on your personal perspective. I have no doubt, however, that we are seeing a global backlash against fast fashion, and it is one that potentially has implications for Bangladesh.
Many people are arguing for a shift to “slow” fashion – better produced clothing with greater durability and less styles produced each season. Will this happen? Such a shift certainly cannot and will not happen overnight but, over time, it is possible to see fashion bosses shifting their business models slightly. It is possible to see a move towards quality and a rationalization of product lines. Apparel brands might actually be forced into such moves as the environmental case for slow fashion grows stronger and raw materials such as cotton become scarcer or more expensive due to climate issues. None of this is beyond the realms of possibility.
My point? Bangladesh’s RMG sector needs to be ready. It is correct to suggest there would be dire social consequences if we shifted away from fast fashion, but that would only be the case if such a move was to happen overnight.
The key for Bangladesh is to evolve its production model slowly, with one eye always on the future. Millions of jobs depend on this wonderful industry of ours, but these job opportunities have only been provided because we have been able to fulfil an existing market need.
If this market shifts – if fast fashion slows down – then, yes, there are implications for Bangladesh. But they need not be bad ones. If orders were to fall to satisfy new types of demand, revenues needn’t fall provided we can extract higher value from each order.
So we need to ask ourselves, how can we remain relevant in a new production landscape where the focus moves from quantity to quality? How can we add value in production when we have previously been focused primarily on getting orders in and out the door as quickly as possible?
Our industry leaders should be watching developments in the fashion industry very closely right now. They need to be ahead of the curve. The world is changing, and the industry we are all so heavily dependent on could be changing too.
A shift away from fast fashion need not be a disaster for our country, but it will be if we are not ready to adapt to the changing demands of our retailer partners who, themselves, may be forced to change their business models due to reasons beyond their own control.
Mostafiz Uddin is the Managing Director of Denim Expert Limited. He is also the Founder and CEO of Bangladesh Denim Expo and Bangladesh Apparel Exchange (BAE). He can be reached at [email protected]