Over the last year, “ultra-fast fashion” has become a popular term among actors working in the field of sustainable fashion. Essentially it means that fashion is designed and produced for ultra-fast consumption, ideally ending up in the compost. The most probable material for this would be paper or cellulose, which is derived from trees. By creating paper-like clothes that do not necessitate any washing, the clothes are worn only once or a few times (or as long as they can hold) and thereafter discarded, preferably by placing them on a household compost to become mulch. The idea is fast fashion without guilt.
However, there are many challenges and uncertainties that need to be resolved before this concept can be approached as merely a thought-provoking idea that helps us understand our present fast fashion system and its challenges. Here follows a background to the concept.
Origin of the concept “ultra-fast fashion”
A year ago, a special afterwork event on sustainable fashion was held in Stockholm, Sweden. The event was arranged by Hybrid Talks and consisted of a panel debate with leading thinkers in the field of fast and slow fashion. In direct association to the debate, a more intimate side-conversation was held with some of the panelists, led by Ulf Skarin (Veckans Affärer) and Elin Frendberg (CEO of Swedish Fashion Council). One of the panelists was Professor Rebecca Earley (at University of Arts London), whose team has been leading the research on fast and slow fashion over the last decade, and more recently exploring different speeds of fashion, including “ultra-fast fashion”.
Below is an excerpt from the interview of CEO Elin Frendberg with Professor Rebecca Early. The interview was recorded in full length (available here). It sheds important light on the concept of ultra-fast fashion, its origin and the main reasoning behind:
Elin Frendberg: “Speeking about different speeds in fashion, tell me what is that?”
Rebecca Early: “Well we have all heard of fast fashion, right, and we may have heard about slow fashion as well. My team and I are really keen to understand what that really means. Because it doesn’t take sort of very much poking around and what you actually see is that people are consuming products that are made very, very quickly in traditional sort of manufacturing processes, and buying those garments with not very much money and not owning them for very long before they discard them. So this is going on all the time and this is fast fashion. But actually, quite often, those materials are going to be around for an awful long time. It may have taken long time to grow them if they are natural fibers, it may have taken years and years to create oil and polyester. So we have this problem where we are looking at fast fashion but we are actually using slow materials. Polyester is the one that hangs around an awful lot because it is basically a plastic. So, you know, if a fashion brand is bringing out something bright, colorful and shiny, and you are going to buy it that season, you may not want to wear it the next season. And so that polyester shirt could go into landfill. It might go into a secondhand shop. Eventually, it will go. If it goes in landfill, that is where it lasts two hundred years. And as it decomposes, as it rots, as it degrades, it will emit toxins into the soil and gases into the air and actually we are wasting a valuable resource.”
Elin Frendberg: “But how can ultra-fast fashion be sustainable?”
Rebecca Earley: “We think that there could be better materials to use for maybe a younger consumer that does want to change their identity more often than perhaps old ones like us. You know, but it is true, people sort of settle into a sense of style, they have the time to look after things, they have the money to buy beautiful quality maybe later on in life, and the younger generation, a lot of them, they just want to be out with their friends, looking different, feeling good, and that is where a lot of the fast consumers are. So, if we look at them and if we look at their needs, I think we need a whole different pallet of materials to feed that sector, ones that could be made compostable. Actually what about domestic recycling? What about putting clothing into your compost heap? What about having other loops or sort of charities and collaborative consumption models? What about keeping these products going in the right places? It is all about the materials going into the right place.”
Should “ultra-fast fashion” be made a reality?
As expressed in the interview with Rebecca Earley above, the original idea behind the concept “ultra-fast fashion” was not to promote speedier consumption of fashion products, but rather to question the choice of materials that are being used in today’s fast fashion industry. Thus, instead of surrendering to the idea that we need to feed certain consumers’ desire to consume faster, we should focus on a very different set of questions. The relevant questions to ask are rather:
What are the actual drivers behind today’s fast fashion consumption? Whose needs are we actually serving by introducing ultra-fast fashion at large scale? Is it possible to find other more long-lasting solutions for sustainable and circular fashion consumption? Perhaps the clues can be found in the mindsets of today’s fashion consumers, specifically in their underlying beliefs. One such common belief is that “we must refresh our style and update our wardrobes in order to become approved of by our peers and by society”. Our basic human fear of not being accepted as we are, of rejection by others, and of exclusion from the group, is driving our behavior to try to fit in by adjusting our attitudes, behavior and looks to those of our peers and of society at large. Abandoning such fear-based beliefs and behaviors could become a key solution for achieving a healthy and sustainable symbiosis between humans, societies and the Earth.
Thus, if the reason for ultra-fast fashion is to serve our desire for the new, varied, and socially approved, we should instead go back to ourselves and ask more fundamental questions about self-perception, self-acceptance and self-love.
“Ultra-fast fashion” – a rapid way to consume resources
One of the main problems with ultra-fast fashion is that it is not adapted to the speeds of Nature. It takes time for trees to grow and become large enough for felling, and it takes time for cellulose material to decompose and become mulch. These time-dimensions also need to be considered in the equation. And even though the paper-like clothes are recycled into new paper-material, it would still take energy and other natural resources to fuel these recycling processes.
Any type of fashion cycle – whether ultra-fast, fast, slow or ultra-slow – requires the input of natural and human resources, in terms of water, energy, plant- or oil-based materials, minerals, labor and time. Most people would agree that we need our existing resources for more vital matters, such as feeding our growing populations, building secure housing, and developing vital infrastructure, particularly in the face of continued climate change and future unpredictability. Our ecosystems provide not only “goods” for us to harvest but also life-supporting functions, including climate regulation, oxygen production, erosion control, and biodiversity support.
Although ultra-fast fashion would consume significantly less resources than today’s typical fast fashion industry, still resources will be required. Just like any other “fast” fashion, ultra-fast fashion would be a rapid way to turn natural resources into “waste”, even if the inherent material eventually becomes mulch. Thus, instead of focusing our attention and resources on developing ultra-fast fashion, why not create broader support for “ultra-slow fashion” among today’s consumers?
“Ultra-fast fashion” – to promote a critical mindset
It would be my professional call to peers and the industry that the concept of ultra-fast fashion remains as it was originally intended, that is, a thought-provoking idea that raises questions about the materials being used in today’s fast fashion industry and what materials should ideally be used for any faster consumption still at work. Possibly, for the shorter term, it may be used as a temporary solution in the form of paper-like materials, being less resource demanding, less toxic and more degradable than today’s typical fast-fashion materials and thus better suited for fast overturn. Yet, over the long haul, our central concern should be to support and encourage a rapid transition to slower forms of fashion consumption using long-lasting materials, quality constructions, and more timeless or universal designs – in the face of heavily pressured natural resources and climate uncertainties.
Article written by Dr. Anna Brismar, CEO/Owner of Green Strategy. All photos sourced from Unsplash.com