May 11, 2017

Is Fast Fashion Sustainable?

The demand for cheap fashion choices has grown to immeasurable proportions.

Is Fast Fashion Sustainable?

For many of the world’s largest retailers, keeping up with this demand means producing materials through an efficient yet inexpensive supply chain, a challenge that requires resourcefulness and cost-cutting measures. But can such a model that caters to the whims of fashion trends sustain itself as the global economy shifts toward social and environmental responsibility?

The Global Social Enterprise Initiative (GSEI) at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business hosted a discussion on the sustainability of fast fashion on Wednesday, April 26.

The event began with a panel discussion featuring industry experts and leaders, moderated by Vishal Agrawal, assistant professor of operations. Among the panelists were Bennett Freeman, senior advisor at Know the Chain; Pietra Rivoli, professor of finance and international business at the McDonough School of Business and author of Travels of a T-shirt in a Global Economy; Shivika Sinha, director of digital marketing at Alex and Ani; and Lisa Thompson (G’15), founder and CEO of Ivy Citizens.

The Business Of Fast Fashion

The panelists offered their perspectives on environmental sustainability and corporate responsibility in the wake of the growing demand for inexpensive products. Attendees learned about how companies of all sizes should play a role in reforming how consumers buy, wear, and dispose of their clothes. The speakers also discussed how students, as part of the most powerful generation of consumers ever, can make a significant impact.

Freeman, who believes that supply chain transparency is critical, implored students to apply pressure on brands.

“As students and millennials, future young professionals, and soon-to-be powerful consumers, you need to demand that companies are more straightforward with you," he said.

Sinha was in agreement. “You as consumers do have influence. Don’t buy [an article of clothing] if you don’t know where it came from,” she added.

The panelists’ comments resonated with Ginny Page (MBA’17), who tries to be a socially conscious consumer.

"I try my hardest not to buy throw-away items; I buy clothes that might be a little more expensive but I know they're going to last me a long time," said Page. "For some companies, though, I question if the investments they'd have to make in order to pull away from the fast fashion industry are even worth it.”

Driving Engagement In A Down Economy

The discussion also focused on the challenge of maintaining ethical and sustainable fashion brands at a time when consumers are clutching their wallets. Ethical practices such as paying fair wages to workers or using environmentally sustainable fabrics typically results in higher prices to consumers. Given the price point of sustainable and ethical fashion, students learned about how a brand like Ivy Citizens champions its sustainability efforts without creating an image of unattainable exclusivity. 

For Thompson, this is especially relevant as she manages a line of athletic wear, a clothing category that many consumers already believe is reserved primarily for the wealthy.

“My company engages with nonprofits and schools. Even if a consumer cannot buy the items right now, they are engaging with the products. It makes for good will, good PR, and good relationships for when they can buy it,” says Thompson of her company’s community outreach and consumer engagement efforts.

Students As Advocates For Conscious Consumerism

The panel acknowledged that sustainable and ethical products cost more than other items. During the question and answer session, this was a clear concern for the students.

“In the wake of a terrible economy, and our collective student debt, what makes you think that what you’re saying to us now is really going to make us care about ethical brands?” Tahira Taylor (MBA’17) asked of the panel.

Professor Rivoli thinks that social media will be the catalyst in moving toward conscious consumerism. 

“Consumers only need to really know their own role in the supply chain to start caring,” Rivoli  said. “Tell your Instagram followers. Retweet to Zara. Get their attention. We need governments to enact policies. Demand your governments to do it. Run for office and do it yourselves. Your generation is so motivated. There has never been motivation like this before.”

The event concluded with a networking session during which students were able to interact with the panelists and share thoughts about their roles along the fashion supply chain.

Aditya Balachandar (MBA’17) believes that Professor Rivoli’s recommendations should go well beyond the fashion industry. 

“The discussion is applicable to dozens of other industries as well," said Balachandar. It's important to talk about how to manage a global supply chain that adheres to responsible practices. Companies need to work a lot harder to do so, but sooner or later they're all going to need to figure it out. Which means that we will figure it out.”