From Fast Fashion to Sustainable Fashion: Environmental Injustice in the Fashion Industry

By Payton Mulvehill

As the world has globalized and international connections have grown in all areas of life,
the fashion industry has found itself changing dramatically given new global opportunities.
Every aspect of fashion production has spread around the world with each step of the process
based on economic convenience, often leading production, distribution, and disposal to be placed
all in varying countries or regions. These international retailers are able to access billions of
consumers at an extremely fast pace with frequent seasonal turnover at insanely low prices. This
method of production is commonly referred to as fast fashion, referencing the rapid distribution
and change of products. The increased popularity of fast fashion is highly attributed to
industrialization and the rise in digital communication, allowing for brands to access wider
audiences. Though globalization has opened up a massive consumer base and cheap prices, it has
also created copious environmental injustices and negative impacts. As these injustices have
come to light in recent years with issues being widely spread through the media and
environmentalism increases in popularity, the demand for sustainable fashion has become
prominent within the United States and global north. In this paper I will compare and contrast
two well known and highly successful fashion retailers, Zara, who is considered to be one of the
most clear examples of fast fashion, and Everlane, a company that is branded as environmentally
sustainable, priding itself in its transparency on sourcing and production. I will compare each
company’s general business model and the resulting consequences they have on the environment
as well as the aspects that they claim to resemble sustainability and how these factors influence
the fashion industry as a whole. Fast fashion is known for its low quality high volume business model.


This system was built to adhere to rapidly changing trends while remaining accessible to a large range of
socio-economic standings. However, in order to achieve these low costs, quality is sacrificed in
many areas of the process including labor conditions, environmental impact, and the physical
quality of goods. Production shifted to a far more unsustainable model in the mid twentieth
century; with the industry revolution and the accessibility of plastics came a completely new
array of textiles1 Materials became sourced from oil, ranging in acrylic, polyester, nylon and
other synthetics, and as the oil-based economy began to dominate, as did these materials. Oil
being an environmentally damaging and a non-renewable resource (a resource with a finite
supply,) society’s dependence on the substance poses many threats. The manufacturing of these
synthetics release emissions including volatile organic compounds, particulate matter and acid
gases such as hydrogen chloride. In addition, by-products are released into wastewater systems
from these polluting polyester plants. As a result of these factors, the EPA considers many textile
manufacturing facilities to be hazardous waste generators2 The extraction and general use of oil
releases a multitude of harsh chemicals into the world’s water supply, causing harm to wildlife
and ecosystems as well as polluting limited freshwater resources for drinking supply. Outside of
synthetics, cotton is a frequently used raw material for the fashion industry. Cotton, though
grown, still uses massive amounts of water in its production process leaving it with high
environmental damages. The environmental harm caused by cotton and synthetics do not end in



2 Claudio, Luz. “Waste Couture: Environmental Impact of the Clothing Industry.” Environmental Health
Perspectives 115, no. 9 (2007): A448-454. Accessed April 9, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4626880.
1 Perry, Patsy, Steve Wood, and John Fernie. “Corporate Social Responsibility in Garment Sourcing
Networks: Factory Management Perspectives on Ethical Trade in Sri Lanka.” Journal of Business Ethics
130, no. 3 (2015): 737-52. Accessed March 20, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24703535.



production. These materials have exceptionally low life cycles, this leads to higher consumption
as the products deteriorate and the need to purchase new items happens more frequently; this not
only increases the environmental harms in production but also the amount of waste that
originates from the fast fashion industry.
Though there are many examples of companies that fall into the category of fast fashion,
Zara stands out as a culprit as it is widely known for its mass global production and low cost and
low quality. Zara is a global apparel retailing chain owned by Inditex (Industria de Diseño Textil)
of Spain.3 The company experienced rapid growth in the early 2000s, having expanded from a
Spain dominant industry to having stores in the United States, Mexico and twenty different
European countries. Zara’s clothes are not designed to be long lasting pieces, neither in quality
nor in regards to style trends. The rapid turnover in stock allows the company to manufacture
products that adhere to the absolutely newest trends and be placed in stores and sold out before
going out of style, categorized as “clothes to be worn ten times.”4 This business model, though
highly profitable, has resulted in a massive increase in waste, both by the store themselves when
products go out of style before they can sell out, and from the individual consumers constantly
turning over their wardrobes to match current trends. In addition to waste, Zara’s business model
puts pressure on the nonrenewable resources present in the textile industry. Every part of the
process, production of fibres, production of pieces, global transportation, use (laundering), and
disposal, emit CO2 and various other toxic chemicals into the environment5



5 Ellen MacArthur Foundation, A new textiles economy: Redesigning fashion’s future, (2017,
http://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/publications). pp. 19
4 Aftab, M.A., Yuanjian, Q., Kabir, N. and Barua, Z. (2018), “Super responsive supply chain: the case of
Spanish fast fashion retailer inditex-zara”, International Journal of Business and Management, Vol. 13 No.
5, pp. 212-227.
3 Ghemawat, P., and Nueno, J. L. “Zara: Fast Fashion,” Harvard Business School Case (9 703-497), 2003,
pp. 1-35.



Zara and Inditex themselves not only create massive environmental harms, their strategy
has become a model to other textile companies, proving to dramatically increase in popularity
within the fashion industry. Worldwide clothing usage — the amount of times a piece is worn
before being discarded — has decreased by 36% compared to fifteen years ago.6 This decrease is
significantly larger in countries in the global north, such as the United States and Spain, where
companies like Zara have prominent markets and fast fashion is beginning to dominate the
industry. This shift in the industry has caused multiple international environmental injustices,
from plastic microfibre and chemical pollution in water systems to unethical labour conditions.
But with a globalized industry comes globally accessible information, consumers in the global
north have become enlightened to the negative environmental and social effects of the fashion
industry and demand has begun to shift towards ‘sustainable fashion’ a concept that companies
are rapidly attempting to capitalize on.
Large chains like Zara have advertised efforts to ‘close the loop’ encouraging the
recycling of consumers’ past purchases to go towards the fabric supply for future production7 In
addition to large chain stores working to create programs to improve their image, new companies
are coming into popularity branded as sustainable alternatives, popular brands include Girlfriend
Collective, Everlane, and Reformation. Though marketing themselves as a superior alternative
for their sustainable label, within the fashion industry, sustainability is very subjective in its
definition. There are no rules or regulations in place that would expect specific standards for an
organization to use the term ‘sustainable’ to define their product or organization. Consequently,



7 Bowman, Emma and Mccamon, Sarah. “Can Fast Fashion and Sustainability be Stitched Together?”
Nation Public Radio, (2019). Accessed April 20th, 2021.
https://www.npr.org/2019/07/27/745418569/can-fast-fashion-and-sustainability-be-stitched-together
6 Ellen MacArthur Foundation. pp. 19



many consumers are hesitant to believe that the companies using this term are truly adhering to a
sustainable standard. The Ellen McCarthy foundation in a report on their ideal new, more environmentally
friendly, textile economy puts emphasis on five key principles. These principles are as follows:
produce and provide access to high-quality, affordable, individualised clothing; capture the full
value of clothing during and after use; run on renewable energy and using renewable resources
where resource input is needed; reflect the true cost (environmental and societal) of materials and
production processes in the price of products; regenerate natural systems and does not pollute the
environment; is distributive by design8 In order to estimate the extent in which a company that is
branded on sustainability truly fits the term, I am going to apply Everlanes initiatives to the Ellen
McCarthy Foundation’s principles for a sustainable textile economy. Though not every company
that is built on a sustainable lense will be perfectly matched to the goals and efforts of Everlane,
the company has been used as a model figure for other fashion companies. Overall, being one of
the most well known for its transparency it places itself as a representative for what society will
expect for sustainability and the new textile economy.
Everlane’s retail website features an ‘about’ section where anyone can easily access what
the company defines as “radical transparency.” This section is broken down as ‘about us,’
‘stores,’ ‘factories,’ and ‘sustainability,’ each giving an overview of Everlanes goals and
environmental efforts in each respective area9 In regards to McCarthy’s principle to produce and
provide access to high-quality, affordable, individualised clothing, Everlane states that they put
trends aside in order to emphasize lasting products. They hope to create timeless pieces that their
customers won’t feel pressured to dispose of with the change of seasons. This eliminates a large



9 About Us. (2021). https://www.everlane.com/about
8 Ellen MacArthur Foundation. pp. 44-45



portion of the consumer’s role in fast fashion as it works to reduce waste and address the issue of
overconsumption and production. Objectively, Everlane does succeed in this area, many of their
products are what the fashion industry considers ‘basics’ meaning they do not adhere to short
lived trends or niche styles, instead they appeal to a wide range of consumers regardless of what
may be on trend. This ties into McCarthy’s second principle of capturing the full value of
clothing. Consumers are able to use clothing for its entire lifespan because of the quality of the
goods. As far as after use, besides their sneakers, there are no recycling systems in place to reuse
materials from purchased clothes to create new products. This is an area in which Everlane fails
to address a very important issue within fast fashion. The fashion company, though doing an
immense amount of work to create high quality products from ethical sources, still remains a
linear system meaning as their products increase in quantity as does their waste. The ideal would
be a closed loop system, recycling and reusing products, in addition to sustainable practices in
production and distribution.
In regards to renewable energy and renewable resources in the McCarthy Foundations
third principle, the Everlane website, though priding themselves in transparency, provides little
information on energy sources outside of their stores and offices in the United States. There is no
information about factory output and carbon emissions during the production process of goods.
In regards to renewable resources, Everlane’s website states many future goals for using only
organic cotton and recycled plastics, however their site does not express the details on how they
plan on pursuing these goals or their current emission levels. The effort is certainly there, but
there is certainly much more Everlane could be doing to source from more renewable textiles,
especially given their high prices for the sustainable label there is more they could be doing to
insure a low environmental impact from their products. The clothing companies best sellers


range from 30 to 200 US Dollars10, in comparison to Zara, who still has an extremely vast price
range, has tops as low as 7 USD11 With a significantly higher price, customers expect that price
to reflect the quality of the product, not only physically but the process of which the product was
made. People are paying for a sustainable product and there is therefore an expectation that more
aspects of the product and production process reflect that label.
Everlane, though priding itself for its sustainability, could still be putting more efforts
towards reducing their carbon footprint and using renewable energy and resources; their overall
business model paves the way for a far more sustainable approach to the fashion industry.
Emphasizing quality long lasting goods allows for consumers to reduce their waste and
consumption within the industry, ultimately reducing carbon emissions. Addressing waste and
the carbon emissions of companies has become extremely important as they disproportionately
affect the communities of the global south while producing products for the global north. Many
textile and clothing product production factories are located in countries with loose labor laws,
low minimum wage, and little to no carbon emission standards in order to capitalize on cheap
production at all levels. This injustice became more well known to the public after the events of
Rana Plaza in 2013. Rana Plaza is located within the garment district of Bangladesh, and due to
non-compliance with building safety regulations factories set fire and collapsed killing over one
thousand workers12 The international reporting of this incident revealed the multitude of poor
working conditions in garment factories to the general public in the global north and



12 Noemi Sinkovics Samia Ferdous Hoque Rudolf R. Sinkovics , (2016),”Rana Plaza collapse aftermath:
are CSR compliance and auditing pressures effective?”, Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal,
Vol. 29 Iss 4 pp. 617 – 649
11 Womans tops. (2021). https://www.zara.com/us/en/woman-tshirts-l1362.html?v1=1718817
10 Womens Best Sellers. (2021). https://www.everlane.com/collections/womens-bestsellersv2



communities began pushing for stricter regulations to be implemented13 In addition to poor
working conditions, communities with heavy economic dependency on textile factories become
hubs for polluted air and water as a result of poor environmental standards and regulations.
Consequently leading local communities to experience the entirety of environmental and social
harms within the fashion industry with none of the benefits. The products themselves are being
shipped to the global north entering the economy of richer countries and not returning to the
populations of the countries that host the industry factories in favor of their own economy.
Everlane and Zara continuing to produce clothing within companies with weak labor and
environmental laws will continue to perpetuate the injustices that have been expressed
throughout this paper. Despite Zara and Everlane having nearly opposite business models; Zara
creating products with short lifespans appealing to rapidly changing fashion trends and Everlane
looking to make wardrobe staples that will last both in regards to style and quality, both
companies could improve their sustainability by implementing higher standards in regards to
labor, carbon emissions, and textile sourcing. The issue with this expectation, however, is that
there are very limited legal expectations to maintain this standard. There is little to no legal
significance to the word sustainable14 Therefore it is extremely easy to question the legitimacy
of any company that comes to claim a new sustainable line or practice.
Both Zara and Everlane claim some level of sustainability, and as environmentalism
grows in popularity, companies will continue to claim it regardless of their true efforts towards
the issue, as it creates a positive inviting image for the brand. An environmentally friendly
fashion industry requires more than buzzwords like eco-friendly, sustainable, and ethical with



14 Mehar, Mehar. “The Deception of Greenwashing in Fast Fashion.” Down To Earth, 16 Feb. 2021,
www.downtoearth.org.in/blog/environment/the-deception-of-greenwashing-in-fast-fashion-75557.
13 Charpail, Mathilde. “Environmental Impacts of the Fashion Industry.” SustainYourStyle, 2017,
www.sustainyourstyle.org/old-environmental-impacts.



little to no legitimacy. Creating sustainable clothing is currently being treated like a trend, a
branding move to appeal to a new audience of environmentally conscious consumers within the
younger generations, businesses approach environmental efforts as a temporary image
enhancement opportunity and not a permanent investment in fighting climate change and
environmental injustices. However, it is difficult to say how one could implement a change in
mentality.
A business model like that of Everlane is a smart beginning in understanding where the
fashion industry needs to change. However, as long as industries are to prioritize profit over long
term sustainability or the treatment of their workers (at all levels of the industry) there will be no
motive to implement any necessary change. Thus pressure lies on forms of government to
enforce sustainable and ethical standards. There are agreements in place recognizing the issues of
textile production, but given that environmental injustices continue to occur, why are these
agreements insufficient? How can regulations be sufficiently enforced at a global scale given the
globalization of the fashion industry? Who will enforce these standards?

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