On the June 9th 2010 acclaimed fashion designer, Vivienne Westwood, made an appearance on BBC London Radio to plea with shoppers to refrain from buying clothes for six months (Milligan, 2010). Westwood’s was inspired by James Lovelock’s The Vanishing Face of Gaia in which Lovelock explains problems relating the effects of industrialisation on the climate (Jones, 2009). Westwood operates at the centre of the fashion industry; a scene which thrives on the current neo-liberal consumerist paradigm. Very little thought has traditionally been given to the environmental and socio-economic impacts of this industry. However, as the nature of the consumer changes and as ethical, social and economic/resource pressures continue to mount these areas can no longer be ignored.
The global fashion and luxury sector generated revenues of £8,139 billion in 2008 while the UK fashion industry directly contributed some £21billion to the UK economy in 2009 and some £16billion through supporting industries (British Fashion Council, 2011). In the UK, the fashion industry has nearly a million employees and is the 15th largest industry alongside food and beverages. It is also a key area in providing opportunities for future generations (British Fashion Council, 2010) (Fashion United, 2010). Yet unlike the food industry, there is little legislation about product labelling and supply chain transparency (Siegle, 2008). The recent fast fashion trend has also raised the rate of textile consumption and waste (Massey, 2007).
“…the culture of “fast fashion” encourages consumers to dispose of clothes which have only been worn a few times in favour of new, cheap garments which themselves will also go out of fashion and be discarded within a matter of months.” (Select Committee on Science and Technology, 2008)
The textile industry was once big business in the UK but change in the nature of fashion companies also brought change in the structure of employment in the industry. Firms like Nike and Gap began outsourcing production at an early stage and by the early 1990s most fashion production had moved to the Far-East. Companies now focused on design, marketing and building brands not manufacturing products. Nike was a perfect example of this way of business. Factories were outsourced; margins squeezed and previous mark-ups of 100% became 400% as companies concentrated on brand building (Klein, 2001). At the same time, fashion retailers in the UK started to face pressure from supermarkets prompting a move to “high fashion, low cost items” (Ethical Fashion Forum). Just basing factories in the far-east was not enough. In order to maximise store visits and thus sales, the traditional Spring/Summer, Autumn/Winter calendars were no longer deemed adequate and mid-season collections were created to keep customers returning to shops (Ethical Fashion Forum).
Many of the industry changes are linked to a hyper-consumer lifestyle based on a neo-liberal marketplace actively encouraging consumption but ignoring the financial and ecological value of well-maintained ecosystems. Up until recently, environmental and social impacts of the industry had been hidden away from the public by relocating production to developing countries. Any externalities produce by fashion could be buried, denied or simply ignored due to distance and the lack of ownership of foreign based factories.
Globalisation has aided the rise of fast fashion and allowed it to churn out an increasing number of styles at a pace never seen before. Shifting production aboard to the Far-East enabled companies to take advantage of cheap oil and much cheaper labour. Moreover, at a time when Western Economies were tightening regulations around environmental issues, foreign companies used the promise of jobs (economic growth) to keep working standards low in places like China and The Philippines (Klein, 2001). Companies such as Topshop and Esprit now restock their stores with new products every four to six weeks. In the case of Zara, new stock enters as often as twice a week while “some fashion houses may offer as many as 18 collections a year”, a feat that puts enormous strain on factories (Barrie, 2010) (Ethical Fashion Forum). Zara is owned by Inditex, a Spanish conglomerate which also owns Massimo Dutti, Pull & Bear, Bershka, Stradivarius, Oyosho, Uterqüe and Zara Home, with net sales of 11,084€ million in 2009, the ecological impacts are significant (Inditex, 2010). To make matters more pressing, the Inditex model is also used in other establishments such as Mango, Primark and Uniqlo –attracting younger customers by adapting to the changes in lifestyles and attention spans brought about by mobile communications and social media (Barrie, 2010). Nonetheless, the conditions which allowed these enterprises to blossom are now causing problems.
 An externality arises from the production of goods and/or services where people or companies do not take full account for the activities related to that production. These can take form of the Co2 emitted from factories or the destruction of rain forests to make way for monoculture plantations.
 Topshop’s parent company, Arcadia which owns Dorothy Perkins, Miss Selfridge, Topman and Wallis, also refuses to join any ethical standards organisations (Crewe, 2008)