Faster and Faster

In the beginning, we all made our own clothes.

Or, at least, someone we knew made it. Hand made each garment; whether our mother, our neighbor, or our tailor, we knew where each piece came from. We might have known the person who grew the cotton, spun the wool, or skinned the animal.

When the industrial revolution hit, we outsourced textile production to the factory, and our clothes drifted away from us, both physically and spiritually. We transitioned to garments that were ‘off the rack,’ tailored to one of the many people shaped vaguely like each of us. The up side; more choice. We could be fashionable and on trend without being wealthy, all thanks to economies of scale.

Fast fashion began in earnest with stores like H&M and Zara, turning around inventory in a mere month. But this was just a stepping stone. When the internet hit fashion, it did so with the force of a second revolution. We sped from fashion seasons that lasted a month to weekly inventory shifts. Companies like ASOS and a host of smaller start ups like BooHoo make a killing turning over inventory without pausing for breath. Our ability to see new styles online and purchase vast quantities at relatively low expense has forever changed the way fashion works; even as some retailers continue to find success in brick and mortar stores, online-first and online only stores can put out more new clothing with less overhead. They can exploit niche interests, use data to judge when a product is selling, and satisfy the customer faster than ever before.

The problem here is satisfaction. Once we get our cheap, trendy new garment, we want another. And another. And one for each new season, which, of course, begins next week. The environmental and human toll of fashion is immense, from the people potentially exploited to make a good to the destructive effects of the pesticides used to grow the cotton to the fossil fuels used in shipping and in manufacturing. We have only succeeded in speeding this up; with weekly turnaround comes a culture of disposability, which wastes the resources that we have poured into each thread. But we are lured in by low prices.

I for one am not immune. I genuinely try not to buy clothes often, perhaps once or twice a year; but when I do, I go to H&M like (most) everyone else. It’s hard to beat the price.

The question now becomes; what does the future hold? How can fast fashion get any faster?

My theory is localized manufacturing. Maybe we will have, in each city or town, a factory capable of downloading specifications from the internet and making garments to order, bought from an online catalog by local consumers. Perhaps we will even 3D print each garment. What does this do to fashion’s impact? It certainly lessens the human toll of sweat shop labor, but will former laborers simply be left destitute? And while it might be possible to construct our local factories with solar panels and use sustainable cloth, this will raise prices, something consumers never want to accept.

In the end, we won’t know whether the internet will further our fashionable self destruction or provide a path out. It could do either. Today we see more and more disposable clothing bought cheaply online. But we could also turn to more high end products, or products made to order, utilizing the internet’s ability to reach unique tastes and eliminate overhead costs to bring down prices. After all, the internet is only a tool. Our human desires will determine wether we embrace sustainability, or continue to use the internet and fashion to satisfy our taste for the novel.

1 Comment »

  1. Mike Smith

    September 26, 2017 @ 2:56 pm


    I very much like how you brought in many pressures and concerns (and opportunities) facing society today into your discussion of the fashion industry. I know next to nothing about the fashion industry (my kids would say I know less than nothing), but I do know someone here at Harvard that you might ask about these issues. See Professor Fred Abernathy in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences:

    He did lots of the things we see happening today many years ago. I don’t know how much he keeps up with Internet trends, but he’s fun to talk to! No need to talk to him if you don’t want, but if you’re interested, I guarantee you learn something.

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