Fashion Rio week in January 2008 looks like any other Fashion week. Fashion Weeks can be found in more than 40 cities around the world, such as Oslo, Kiev, Lahore, and Berlin. The first fashion week took place in New York City in 1943 when Americans could not visit Paris to see the latest fashions (because of World War II). The organizers wanted to attract attention to American designers. The most prestigious fashion weeks take place annually in Paris, Milan, London, and New York.
Tehran’s fashion week began in 2006 and features modestly dressed women in brightly colored and print hijabs, jilbabs, abayas, and other traditional Islamic outfits.1 Sixty designers were featured in India’s 2006 New Delhi Fashion Week, attracting 160 buyers (of which 70 were international) and bringing in $50 million dollars in revenue.2 Fashion Weeks offer opportunities to highlight national and international designers and to attract media attention and tourist dollars. The proliferation of fashion weeks around the world is only one aspect of the globalization of fashion.
The fashion industry faces many of the same challenges as other industries, such as outsourcing, intellectual property and piracy, environmental challenges, and the loss of local styles/goods.
International trade in apparel reached $276 billion in 2005, about 2.7 percent of the world’s merchandise trade.3 In 2005, Americans bought one billion garments made in China, which is about the equivalent of four garments per U.S. citizen.4 Increasingly, clothing manufacturers are locating their factories in China and in other low cost manufacturing hubs; even high end companies, who used to take pride in manufacturing their product locally, are taking part in this trend.
Many of these high-end companies used to be small, family-owned businesses with an exclusive clientele. In the late 1980’s these companies were bought out by huge conglomerates, made into billion-dollar global brands producing millions of logo-covered handbags, scarfs, and clothing items for the middle market. The prices were kept relatively high with the claim that they are still handmade by European artisans. This claim is no longer true although the companies try hard to mask that fact.
Some high end companies rip out “Made in” tags for clothing to be sold in Europe, since Europe does not require these tags. Other companies manufacture the items in China and then add small accoutrements, such as buttons, in Europe, to claim that they are made in Europe. Others hide the tags in hard-to find places, such as pockets.5
In Italy, another interesting trend is taking place in the city of Prato, where Chinese workers are relocating and setting up factories with low cost labor and long hours (similar to factories and sweatshops in China). Most of these Chinese workers are undocumented and cannot read Italian; their numbers have quadrupled since the 1990s. Italian newspapers contain stories decrying their presence and the downward wage shift they bring. Some claim they are stealing jobs; others say they are creating and filling new ones. Eighty percent of the customers for these Chinese-run factories are wholesalers from Europe who enjoy the convenience of buying locally, while selling designer clothing and handbags (such as Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci, and Prada) with “Made in Italy” tags. Prado acknowledges it would be bankrupt without the Chinese laborers and factories. 6
While Prato’s situation has been covered for years by BBC, Der Speigel (German newspaper), Business Week, the New York Times, and others news outlets, their plight has yet to garner enough world-wide attention to force the Italians or the clothing manufacturers to change the situation.
Intellectual property and piracy
Fashion designers in the U.S. are not protected under intellectual property laws, except for use of brands and logos. European laws offer more protection to clothing designers. The Internet has facilitated the process of copying and producing designs within hours of being shown on runways. Many companies, such as Zara and Forever21, are built upon copying current fashion trends and selling similar looking products, with cheaper fabrics and lower cost.
Zara for instance has started a new trend of “fast fashion,” in which new products are offered within two to four weeks of conception. Clothing items stay in the stores for only a brief period and then are replaced with new ones. Ten thousand designs are produced per year. A constant flow of information flows through their supply chain from the customer to the store manager to the market specialists and designers, all the way through distributors and warehouse managers. The retail stores convey information via customized handheld computers so that buying trends can be known instantaneously. This model of business has been very successful for Zara whose customers visit their stores seventeen times per year instead of the average four, leading to less money being dedicated to advertising and therefore higher profits.7
Clothing designers whose designs are pirated and sold at lower prices want change. Many of the pirated designs hit the stores before the original ones. The Council of Fashion Designers of America has been lobbying for a copyright protection and have thrown their support behind the Design Piracy Prohibition Act, a U.S. Senate Bill which is currently in committee.
Some in the fashion community do not support the bill claiming that fashion has always been about copying and that many of today’s trends are just adaptations of earlier ones. Copying allows for more widespread adoption of a style and drives business. Others believe that even if copyrights are given to clothing designs, the amount of lawsuits would skyrocket so that no entity (designers, corporations, etc) would be able to function. In the end, it is quite hard to draw the line between a knockoff and an item that was just inspired by the design.
Environmental challenges can be found in all levels of the supply chain. Synthetic fabrics, such as polyester, found in many cheap clothing products, require an energy-intensive production process in factories. Manufacturing these fibers release large amounts of emissions, including volatile organic compounds. Other environmental challenges include the release of pesticides in cotton crops in the U.S. and worldwide.
The trend of “fast fashion” also leads to lots of waste, as old fashions come out of style and clothing items are thrown away. Americans throw away 68 pounds of clothing and textiles per person per year.8 An increasing number of Americans are donating clothing to thrift stores and charities. Companies are being created to recycle the clothing textiles since thrift shops cannot keep up with the supply. Trans-America Trading Company, one of the biggest U.S. textile recyclers, use the clothing textile fibers for stuffing for upholstery, insulation, and to manufacture paper products. While recycling is usually viewed as a good thing, when clothes are sent to developing countries (especially in Africa) it displaces locally-made clothing that cannot compete with free clothing from the West.9
Environmentalists are seeking to mitigate the environmental impacts of the garment industry. One innovation is ecofashion, which seeks to identify and stop environmental problems throughout the whole life-cycle of a clothing item. Many companies are looking into using organic and sustainable cotton in their products. Walmart is the world’s largest buyer of organic cotton clothing. Another retailer, Patagonia, sells fleece made from postconsumer plastic soda bottles; the company estimates that from 1993 to 2006 it saved 86 million soda bottles from ending up in the landfill.
Governments are involved in regulating environmental hazards from clothing production. The Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) requires an EU states to label chemicals used to manufacture clothing items and the associated hazards.10
From environmental waste to intellectual property concerns to outsourcing and slave labor, the fashion industry needs to deal with many of the negative challenges of globalization. Most of these problems are not new and the fashion industry has been trying to address them for years. In an industry where the bottom line matters, many of these issues will continue to arise. Non profit watch-dog groups must continue to highlight abuses so that companies and sheltering governments will be shamed into action.
1 “2nd national fashion show opens in Tehran” Payvand’s Iran News. January, 18 2007.http://www.payvand.comnews/07/jan/1214.html.
2 Emling, Shelley. “Big 4 fashion weeks get new company.” International Herald Tribune. October 3rd, 2006. http://www.iht.com/articles/2006/10/03/features/Rweeks.php?page=1
3 Apparel & Textiles Industry Globalization Continues, 4/27/2007 http://www.plunkettresearch.com/AboutUs/News/tabid/351/Default.aspx
4 “Waste Couture: Environmental Impact of the Clothing Industry.” Environmental Health Perspectives. Volume 115, Number 9, September 2007. http://www.ehponline.org/members/2007/115-9/focus.html
5 Galloni, Alessandra. “Breaking a Taboo, High Fashion Starts Making Goods Overseas.” Wall Street Journal. September 27th, 2005. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB112778111480452812.html?mod=home%255Fpage%255Fone%255Fus
6 Ehlers, Fiona. “Made in Italy at Chinese prices.” Der Speigel. September 7th, 2006. http://www.spiegel.de/international/spiegel/0,1518,435703,00.html
7 Ferdows, Kasra and Michael A. Lewis and Jose A.D. Machuca. “Zara’s Secret of Fashion.” Harvard BusinessSchool Working Knowledge. February, 21st, 2005. http://hbswk.hbs.edu/archive/4652.html
8 “Waste Couture: Environmental Impact of the Clothing Industry” Environmental Health Perspectives. Volume 115, Number 9, September 2007. http://www.ehponline.org/members/2007/115-9/focus.html
* Picture was taken by Shanghai photographer Nick Lui.