Over the last several decades, the fashion industry has grown into a large, globalized, highly complex system producing not only billions of garments each year and creating livelihoods for millions, but also producing severe negative environmental and social impacts. The industry as a whole is far removed from ‘good fashion’. Though many actors in the industry are making efforts to address these issues, initiatives are not adding up to industry-wide change. It seems fashion is stuck in an economic and power structure that encourages a ‘race to the bottom’.
Transitions are large-scale shifts in societal systems that emerge over decades. They occur in societal systems that face complex and persistent problems due to historical path dependencies and lock-ins. This report applies a transitions perspective to the fashion industry to map the system dynamics that keep it entrenched. The same perspective was used to collaboratively develop transition pathways to help actors in the industry move beyond the persistent problems by disrupting the status quo in fashion and transforming the global industry into something new. Several underlying systemic characteristics reinforce the persistency of problems in the fashion industry, including:
- Disconnected: The transactional relationships, fragmentation and unequal power relations that characterize the industry lead to collective irresponsibility, conservatism and risk aversion.
- Uncontrollable: The unregulated global apparel market, in which negative externalities can be produced freely, has led to a ‘footloose’ industry that moves production to wherever it is cheapest, with strong vested interests to keep practices opaque.
- Extractive & growth-driven: Extractive and growth-driven: When price is the major point of competition between companies, margins are squeezed to maximize profit, and sustainability is often considered a costly additional feature.
- Disposable: The global culture values consumption and individualism. Customers therefore demand quantity and novelty over quality and practicality, and they dispose of items quickly.
Four shaping principles are conditions for the transition to a future in which fashion is a force for good. The future fashion industry should be connected, with value chains that are transparent and traceable. These are characterized by reciprocal and long-term relationships between value chain actors, who treat each other as partners and share the ownership of risks and benefits in their value chain. The industry is held accountable and is no longer ruled by companies that are free to seek the path of least resistance in environmental and social issues because interested actors can hold it to account. Activities, processes and products regenerate rather than degrade ecosystems and communities. The industry adds value in the form of ecosystem services as well as high-quality employment opportunities, prosperity and equality. It is an industry where all negative impacts are internalized and materials are valued in a way that they can move from one product cycle to the next.
Fostering transitions is about creating interventions that play into existing dynamics of change, aiming to push efforts into a next phase on the transition curve, and breaking down the old while building up the new. The key is a combination of interventions: from scaling innovations to phasing out current practices. The movement towards a ‘good’ fashion industry is getting stronger, but there is a need to build alignment and focus on interventions with the greatest potential. The authors have co-created six transition pathways towards a good fashion future. The authors also suggested interventions that have the potential to accelerate or influence the transition along each pathway as well as some general recommendations for the industry as a whole.
The authors hope that the systems analysis and transition pathways developed in this report provide a framework for actors and initiatives to push the industry into more transformative efforts, which will accelerate a transition towards a good fashion future.