At the core of our current fast fashion system is a business model that aspires to never-ending growth — and overproduction and overconsumption are both the enablers and drivers behind this growth.
The rise of slow fashion narratives, though, has encouraged us to pause and ask: what if another kind of fashion system is possible? We begin to realize that if this fashion system premised on growth was created, then we can also unmake and remake the system into one that prioritizes the wellbeing of the planet and people.
In fact, Bain & Company released a recent report that argued that a successful luxury brand will have separated growth from volume by 2030.
Since our current fast fashion system is underpinned by a wasteful and extractive linear business model of take-make-waste, shifting away from this means that we need to change the fundamental aspirations of the business of fashion.
With this in mind, alternative sustainable fashion business models that are putting people and planet at center stage and redefining fashion aspirations from the ground up are on the rise. These alternative business models are contributing to systems change in the fashion industry by offering new blueprints for sustainability, sufficiency, prosperity, and growth.
What Do We Mean By Systems Change In Fashion?
When it comes to creating a more just and sustainable fashion, we often talk about the need for systems change. Put simply, systems change is a shift away from economic growth at all costs — it’s about realizing that the fundamental business practices the fashion industry is based upon are unsustainable and must radically change.
The reason that the fast fashion system continues, is because the true cost of the fast fashion system is often not felt by those who are profiting from it. Therefore, those in power are not compelled to transform the system.
Instead, the costs are shouldered by garment workers who work in precarious conditions and are unable to break out of cycles of poverty, communities with polluted waterways and mounds of clothing from waste colonialism, and all the natural life sources that are harmed by fashion’s environmental impact.
Kate Fletcher, in her paper titled ‘Slow Fashion: An Invitation for Systems Change’, describes slow fashion as “a different worldview that names a coherent set of fashion activities that promote a variety and multiplicity of fashion production and consumption and that celebrates the pleasure and cultural significance of fashion within biophysical limits.” At its core, Fletcher sees slow fashion as a vision of the fashion sector built from a different starting point. Essentially, slow fashion is a system change.
What Is The Role Of Fashion Businesses In Systems Change?
At the core of changing the fashion system, we need to rethink the way we operate and reimagine the types of business models that are regarded as aspirational.
This includes how businesses value the environment and the people within their supply chain. For example, the Fashion That Works Production Coop, based in New York, is advocating for dignified work for all garment workers. “We are a worker-owned and managed cooperative. Through collaboration and teamwork, we hope to provide a new model for the fashion industry by supporting the next generation of fashion makers and raise the collective consciousness to demand dignified work for all,” the Fashion That Works Production team tells Conscious Life & Style.
Ultimately, to be a part of the change, we need fashion businesses to critically question what values they are promoting to encourage a shift away from short-term thinking and never-ending growth.
This shift requires a change in how we perceive prosperity, which has recently been described as the embracing of “sufficiency”.
Sufficiency describes a focus on wellbeing rather than monetary outcomes, advocating for equity and fairness for people and the planet, having enough for a healthy and meaningful life while avoiding excess, and a collective sense of commitment and responsibility.
In simple terms, this means that we cannot simultaneously exist on a planet with finite limits and continue to infinitely produce, consume, and waste – and call this prosperity.
Fashion businesses promoting sufficiency will work within planetary boundaries and create strategies that actively seek solutions for managing demand and reducing volumes of production and consumption.
We desperately need new models for fashion, and this is what sustainable fashion business models can offer.
Sustainable Fashion Business Models Reimagining Our Fashion System
Alternative fashion business models are business strategies and structures that acknowledge the value that fashion is a medium for expression, storytelling, and creativity while also understanding that this value shouldn’t create harm.
Sustainable fashion business models offer alternative blueprints for a fashion system by creating new metrics for success and prosperity.
But, what does this actually look like in practice? Here are a few alternative sustainable fashion business models reimagining our fashion system:
As Ngozi Okaro of Custom Collaborative shared in a recent Conscious Style Podcast episode, “a worker cooperative is like any other business, except for the people who work in the company, also own it and make all important decisions. This is a really important way to not only provide people with ownership opportunities but to also spread values of democracy in collective work.”
The women from the Fashion That Works Production Coop met through Custom Collaborative’s Training Program. “We chose to incorporate as a worker-owned cooperative because we wanted to create a business that matches our values.
As a worker cooperative, we are equal partners in the decisions and management of our organization. And, we have a direct share in the profits and losses of our business,” the Fashion That Works Production team explains.
Creating a fashion business where the makers are the ones that also run, own, and profit from the manufacturing means that the business will be inherently more ethical and equitable.
A social enterprise is a business that has a core focus on creating positive social impact. In the fashion industry, social enterprises are often artisan-led and allow for the preservation of traditional skills.
For example, the Ethical Fashion Initiative uses the social enterprise model to center the work of artisan communities across the global South, and connect these artisans with global fashion brands. The profits made from social enterprises are invested back into the artisan communities, allowing for the creation of dignified work and the preservation of artisanal skills.
Waste-Led Design And Upcycling:
While fast fashion thrives on newness and overproduction, working with “waste” is a powerful way to go against the status quo while reaffirming the value that fashion can add to our lives.
Non-New Ownership Business Models:
Many slow fashion practices satisfy our desire for newness, without us having to buy any new clothes. A few examples include buying secondhand, renting, and clothes swapping. Instead of encouraging consumption, fashion businesses using circular fashion business models that go beyond ownership are encouraging a sharing economy that allows us to make the most of clothing that is already in circulation.
Take a look at these online secondhand stores or look into some of the online clothing swap platforms offered by Nuw, Swopped, Swap Society, and The Fashion Pulpit. If you want to give rental a go, check out ByRotation, Tulerie, and Wardrobe.
Service-Based Business Models:
To change the fashion industry, we don’t just need to change how we buy, but how we look after what we already own too. Taking a stand against big fashion’s overproduction and overconsumption means finding ways to make our clothes last so that we can wear them for as long as possible, and fall in love with what we already own.
Service-based slow fashion business models help us to do just that by providing various services that help us get years of wear out of our clothing, such as tailors, mending services, and sustainable stylists who help you find your own personal style.
Made-To-Order Business Models:
One of the things that defines the fast fashion business model is the unsustainable speed. Made-to-order slow fashion business models challenge this by only producing the garment once a customer has placed an order. This means that customers will need to expect a longer lead time before getting their order so that the garment can be made, but this approach reduces waste, as only garments that are ordered are produced.
Made-to-order fashion business models also instill an appreciation for the time and effort that goes into making clothing, remind us that good things take time, and challenge us to step away from the mindset of instant gratification that the fast fashion industry has tried to engrain in us.
Permanent Collection Business Models:
Fashion marketing is constantly trying to convince us that we need the next best thing. But, some fashion brands are choosing to truly embrace the ethos of quality over quantity by only producing one collection per year.
This is a bold slow fashion statement in a fast fashion-dominated world that cycles through trend cycles and fashion seasons faster than we can keep up with. These brands choose to prioritize creating clothing that will last for many years, and styles that can be worn across seasons — a true act of slow, considered fashion.
Why Small Is Beautiful with Sustainable Fashion Business Models
Small businesses often champion some of the most innovative solutions.
What each of these sustainable fashion business models has in common is that they are inherently more localized and do not have the desire to scale to the level of fashion corporations. These artisan collectives, independent brands, and small businesses offer a blueprint for how to get creative within planetary boundaries and prosper without having to exploit people.
While it could be argued that these sustainable fashion business models are too small to be replicated and scaled, perhaps this is exactly the point – there are limits to growth and we should be able to embrace the creativity that comes from working within certain limits.
The localized nature of many of these alternative business models also means that they are more in tune with the needs and contexts of the communities they work in, allowing them to act with more care and consideration for their contexts.
Even if the business model is based on production, smaller businesses inherently produce less than fast fashion corporations, because they have a better sense of what their customers want and can avoid the waste that accompanies mass production.
Sometimes the impact and prosperity of a business is not about how wide it reaches and how big it can grow, but rather on the depth of change that comes from creating long-lasting, loyal relationships within a community. This is exactly the ethos of sufficiency.
Promoting a shift towards sufficiency, instead of wasteful growth may seem counterintuitive to the function of business and the very valid concern about financial sustainability for many small businesses. As a business, wanting to contribute to systems change in the fashion industry does not mean forgoing the desire for financial sustainability. Rather, it means making sure that the values underpinning the business are contributing to the collective wellbeing of people and the planet.
Shifting toward a mindset of sufficiency for well-established fashion corporations will require a radical transformation. But many smaller brands are already practicing sufficiency.
Perhaps a sustaianble future of fashion is less about finding scalable one-size-fits-all solutions and more about a tapestry of small brands each doing what they can in their local contexts.
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About the Author
Stella Hertantyo is a slow fashion and slow living enthusiast based in Cape Town, South Africa. Stella finds solace in words as a medium for sharing ideas and encouraging a cultural shift that welcomes systems change and deepens our collective connection to the world around us. She is passionate about encouraging an approach to sustainability, and social and environmental justice, that is inclusive, intersectional, accessible, and fun.
Stella holds a B.A. Multimedia Journalism from the University of Cape Town, and a PGDip in Sustainable Development from the Sustainability Institute. She currently works as a writer, editor, and social media manager. When she is not in front of her laptop, a dip in the ocean, or a walk in the mountains, are the two things that bring her the most peace.