Planned Obsolescence, and Other Open Secrets of the Fashion Industry

planned obsolescence fast fashion

Murky fast fashion ‘trends’ like planned obsolescence point to questionable practices within the industry

Today’s fashion industry is both high velocity and high waste, characterized by practices used for the sole purpose of driving the bottom line.

Vogue’s poor workplace practices that led to its chief Anna Wintour publicly apologizing for racism within the company, is just one of the several controversies that have emerged from the fashion industry in recent years.

More consumers are now driven to responsible and durable brands such as Hong Kong-based Chicks for their conscious shopping choices. Responsible fashion is not a throwaway catchphrase anymore, but a global necessity recognized by consumers and companies alike.

To understand where the fashion industry is still going wrong, here are four of the fashion industry’s most damaging open secrets.

1. Planned Obsolescence

Planned obsolescence, or what was known in the 1930s as ‘creative waste,’ is an old trick companies use to create recurring revenue, by intentionally designing their products to become obsolete.

Obsolescence is a massive sustainability problem, and in the fashion industry, this takes two forms.

The first is through perceived obsolescence, whereby fast-changing trends render old styles obsolete, driving unnecessary consumption. Fast fashion brands such as H&M or Zara put out anywhere between 12 to 24 collections every year, at least twice the industry standard.

Another way that fashion companies drive obsolescence is by producing poor quality items. Within a matter of weeks, customers find new clothing coming apart at the seams or losing color, soles coming off of footwear, or jewelry breaking apart.

Planned obsolescence is a huge driver of wasteful consumption. As more consumers are moving towards conscious shopping, they are now looking to buy from brands that promise quality and durability, often choosing to revert to the brand of their youth or their parents’ old-fashioned favorites like the aforementioned Chicks.

2. Environmental and Social Costs

Innumerable reports, studies and investigations have illustrated the fashion industry’s poor impact on the environment and labor, especially in countries of production.

10% of the world’s carbon emissions come from the fashion industry. It is also the world’s second largest consumer of water, and contributes 32% of microplastics in the ocean.

All this for unsustainably producing textiles, 85% of which end up in landfills each year.

From paying meagre wages and providing substandard working conditions, to even employing child labor, fashion companies are also notorious for abusing the labor resources of production countries, such as Vietnam, Bangladesh and Indonesia.

In response to these findings, major brands often respond with tokenistic acts of support. To bring change, consumers are now focusing more on reliable and sustainable brands that they can trust.

3. Reckless Production

To keep up with the very demand that they drive unsustainably and unethically, fashion companies engage in irresponsible production and high-velocity supply chain.

Their $2.5 trillion supply chain often moves more material than they need to maintain stocks. Inadvertently, unused material ends up as pre-consumer waste.

In fact, one survey reports this waste to be as high as 25%, with a Bangladeshi factory producing up to 300 tons of textile waste in one month alone.

These are high but conservative estimates- the reality could be far starker. The survey reports that “the volume of textile spill from factories in developing countries is being systematically underestimated.”

Coupled with planned obsolescence, this is how the fashion industry drives a vicious cycle of wasteful and negligent production and consumption. This is also why sustainable and ethical fashion choices have become a pressing issue amongst consumers today.

4. Incompatible Materials and Style

Consumers are often disappointed to find that fashion items such as clothing or footwear that they may have purchased, often ends up irritating their skin or giving them the infamous shoe bite.

Mass-produced fast fashion items use synthetic fibers, such as polyester which is made with petrochemicals. These are not only big pollutants, but have toxic, carcinogenic, and hazardous health effects.

Consumers also often find that clothing and footwear are simply not available for their body types, or that styles are widely designed to suit a small and specific number of bodies.

It is only recently, due to the pressures of the body image movement, that brands are now acknowledging the diversity in bodies and making clothes to suit them.

The fact remains that even today, people with bodies that do not fit the standards dictated by the fashion industry find that their shopping options are limited.

More than the fashion industry, the world needs to rethink what fashion means, and how consumers can stay fashionable without damaging the environment, contributing to unethical business, or putting themselves at risk.

Smaller brands recognize this as a growing cause for concern. Local and reliable brands, that put thought into employee and customer satisfaction in addition to the bottom line, can enable change by providing durable, ethically produced fashion that turns the trend.

Header image by Sayla Brown on Unsplash

This article was written in partnership with Chicks.

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