When Hollywood’s finest buy into a trend, then you know a global shift is afoot. In February this year, stars such as Jane Fonda, Margot Robbie, Saoirse Ronan and Lily Aldridge opted to either re-wear old gowns, borrow their frocks or don new creations made from repurposed material.

For the uninitiated, ethical clothing is fuelled by supply-chain concerns such as fair trade and workers’ rights, sustainable production and resources, environmental impact and animal welfare. In short, buying ‘ethical’ clothes means eschewing cheaper fast-fashion brands in favour of mindful choices.

Internet searches for ‘sustainable fashion’ tripled between 2016 and 2019, according to global consultancy McKinsey. While, in 2018, the United Kingdom’s Ethical Consumer report noted that ethical clothing increased by 19.9% and buying second-hand clothing for environmental reasons increased 22.5%. Similarly, the Global Fashion Agenda’s 2019 Pulse of the Fashion Industry report found that 75% of consumers surveyed viewed sustainability as extremely or very important, with 50% of consumers planning to switch from their preferred fashion brand to a competitor due to social and environmental reasons. Over 33% of consumers had already made this switch.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that big brands in the US$1.5 trillion (according to Statista) global fashion and apparel market are taking notice.

Environmental impact remains a core concern for ethical shoppers. 

Fast fashion under fire

McKinsey’s The State of Fashion 2020 report outlined a range of sustainable options being rolled out by big brands. “Zara this year pledged to use 100% sustainable fabrics by 2025, joining H&M which earlier committed to using 100% recycled or sustainable materials by 2030, among a host of broader sustainability commitments by the company. Adidas has committed to phasing out virgin polyester by 2024,” said the report.

However, as the McKinsey authors observed, all this action and rhetoric is swathed in grey. “Nothing is black and white, unfortunately,” the report quoted Nina Marenzi, founder of The Sustainable Angle, as saying. “It’s huge shades of green, really. That makes it very difficult because it lends itself very easily to greenwashing and misunderstanding…that can be quite confusing for the consumer.”

And yet the rise of the ethical consumer – driven by a younger generation of shoppers – seems increasingly clear about where to draw their green line. And why.

Major drivers

The environmental impact remains a core concern for ethical shoppers. The Global Fashion Agenda leadership forum estimates that in 2015 the textile and clothing industry around the world generated 10% of global carbon dioxide emissions – or 1,715 million tonnes – and 92 million tonnes of waste. And the number is on the rise.

...it is time for fast fashion to find ways to refit, repair and remodel.

At the same time, labour issues continue to blight big-name brands from Gap to Prada and Puma. Australia’s 2019 Ethical Fashion Report, which tracks issues like wages, gender inequality, responsible purchasing practices, child and forced labour, and the exposure of workers to hazardous chemicals, notes that just 5% of the 130 companies assessed could demonstrate paying a living wage to workers. “For the majority of workers in the fashion industry, wages are so low that it leaves them, and their families, trapped in a cycle of poverty,” said the report.

GIBS senior lecturer Dr. Jill Bogie says that “even in South Africa’s highly unionised environment, the abuse of labour through long hours or difficult conditions has not, historically, been uncommon”.

This issue goes all the way back to Nike in the 1990s, says Bogie, referring to the overseas sweatshop scandal that pushed the athletic footwear and clothing brand to adopt a more ethical approach.

“But ethical is not only the labour side, even though this is still very troublesome,” says Bogie. “Ethical has developed over the past 10 years or so in terms of the actual fabric and the materials that go into products. Where are these materials sourced and how are they produced – for example what chemicals and dyes and glues are used? This connects to issues of the circular economy, because some of those things – like materials – don’t just require changing your supply chain but fundamentally changing your business model.”

This, says Bogie, is where the debate gets really interesting.

A new approach to business

The circular economy, which focuses on the continual use of resources and the reduction of waste, is a growing interest for a number of GIBS students, says Bogie. “There isn’t a lot of academic research and even academics refer to the Ellen McArthur Foundation which has become the ‘go-to’ place to understand how companies can do circular economy, and fast fashion is just one of those,” she says.

The Ellen McArthur Foundation hypothesises that “by moving to a circular system the industry can unlock a US$560 billion economic opportunity”. But this would mean new business models and collaboration across the entire value chain, from production to sourcing to marketing. There is no shortage of solutions being touted by the Foundation, from short-term clothing rental models, the production of high-quality staples and tapping into the growing resale market.

However, this would mean moving from a fast fashion model geared towards “knocking off styles from high-end fashion shows and delivering them in a short time at cheap prices, typically using lower quality materials,” according to a 2019 European Parliament briefing paper, Environmental Impact of the Textile and Clothing Industry.

...nothing is going to challenge the use of polyester...at scale...

And this raises questions about how brands can radically change a business model so diametrically opposed to the ‘slow fashion’ ethical clothing ethos.

Baby steps

According to Jackie May, founder and editor of sustainable living magazine Twyg, and a member of the Fashion Revolution movement, “Fast fashion is all about growth. And how do you change that business model on a sustainable basis? How does Mr Price adapt their business plan to a slower consumer and slower fashion trend, which I think is vital going forward? Is it possible? That is the question everyone is grappling with.”

Until fundamental issues like sustainable raw materials are addressed, this is likely to remain a challenging conversation, she believes. “As someone said to me about H&M and all the money that is being spent on innovation in fabric, nothing is going to challenge the use of polyester [a controversial synthetic material] at scale,” says May. “Polyester makes up 60% of fabrics… It’s cheaper and easier.”

But these are not insurmountable obstacles, as some companies are already showing by rolling out innovative repair and resale options.

“Eileen Fisher [the US women’s clothing brand] has take-back and repair lines, and Nudie Jeans repaired 55,000 pairs of jeans in its own stores in 2018, with 32 repair shops around the world,” noted The SustainAbility Trends 2020 report. “In the United Kingdom, Ted Baker, along with luxury fashion platform Farfetch and outdoor clothing brand FW, will explore how new closed-loop business models — including resale and repair — could help reduce waste and boost profitability under the ‘Circular Fashion Fast Forward’ project [which enables brands to share learnings in an effort to find ways to commercialise opportunities within the circular economy].”

Understanding the levers of change

The likes of the Circular Fashion Fast Forward project highlight the value of retailers as a key part of this change process. But, digging deeper, Bogie stresses that within retailers themselves key buying departments must be brought on board to change not just the rhetoric but the decision-making processes supporting buying decisions.

This is why a strategic approach to the problem, which considers all the pressure points and the complete supply chain, is so critical to affecting change. “Fashion is not a simple supply chain; you have haberdashery, personalised printing, chemicals and so forth, but if you are collaborating and working with non-profits…if you delve into the facts and the figures and are prepared to spend time working out the details, then, yes, you can do these things,” says Bogie.

While the journey towards a more ethical fashion industry will not happen overnight, awareness is building – not least of all from the A-list activists in Hollywood.

“This is a long-term endeavour. It’s not a simple fix,” says Bogie. “There are things you can do to stop wasting, and you can design things differently and you can actively use cotton from different suppliers, but you then need to deal with the complex stuff. That longer-duration stuff means working with science-based targets and building this thinking into your core strategy.”

Bogie’s advice is to collaborate, to share and to learn from industries and individuals across all supply chains, to find out what works and apply those changes. In short: it is time for fast fashion to find ways to refit, repair and remodel.

Proudly (and ethically) South African?

In 2019 South Africa’s textile industry unveiled a collaborative ‘masterplan’ between cotton, textile, apparel and footwear producers, retailers, government and labour to help revive the flagging local sector by halting illegal imports, addressing low sector wages and driving a sustainable agenda to consumers. Big players like Woolworths, the Foschini Group, Pepkor and Mr Price undertook to purchase 65% of locally produced goods by 2030 (up from 44% in 2019).

Jackie May, editor of sustainable living magazine Twyg, believes the masterplan’s sustainability focus is a positive move for a sector which has shed more than three quarters of clothing manufacturing jobs since 1994.

“Sustainability is inherent in the way most people live in Africa, and how people have lived for centuries, so we are looking back at their knowledge and relearning those skills,” she says. “One of the big buzzwords in my conversations with academics and fashion experts is ‘cultural sustainability’ and what these fast fashion brands have done to cultural sustainability. In a way these [fast fashion] companies have recolonised Africa. How do we reclaim our indigenous identity?” 


·       The fast fashion mainstay of the US$1.5 trillion global fashion and apparel market is being challenged by the rise of ethical clothing buying.

·       Consumers are interested in sustainable fashion, and willing to abandon established brands in favour of social and eco-conscious options.

·       Brands like H&M, Adidas and Zara are making sustainable commitments, but deeper change is needed across the entire fashion supply chain.

·       Advocates of a circular economy believe opportunities are on hand if big brands are prepared to affect strategic change and collaborate.



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