These 1.3 billion people could test brands’ addiction to fast fashion

Image result for These 1.3 billion people could test brands’ addiction to fast fashionStarting a decade ago, in my early twenties, I spent several months every year in India doing fieldwork for my PhD. As I visited various parts of the country, I observed a distinct shift in the clothing shops that lined the streets in larger cities. Next to stores that sold Indian outfits–such as brightly colored saris, tunics, and a traditional pantsuit called a salwar kameez–you could find American and European brands, like Levi’s and H&M. Many women mixed Indian and Western styles, wearing colorful cotton tunics with jeans, for instance.

Western fashion brands–from Tommy Hilfiger to Nike to Zara–have recognized the enormous opportunity the Indian market opens up, and have been rushing in to woo Indian consumers. India’s economy is expected to grow 8% a year until 2022, and the Indian middle class is expected to expand at 19.4% a year over the same period, outpacing China, Mexico, and Brazil. According to a report by Business of Fashion and Deloitte, India’s fashion market will be worth $59.3 billion by 2022, making it the sixth largest in the world, on par with the U.K. and Germany.

India’s meteoric growth is dovetailing with a growing awareness of how the apparel industry’s pollution–from plastic waste to carbon emissions–is reaching a breaking point, both in the country and globally. A Nielsen study from eight years ago showed that Indian consumers were already becoming more conscious of environmentally friendly fashion practices, and this awareness is only growing. Groups like the Worker Diaries, which advocates for the welfare of workers in the region, and Fashion Revolution India, which pushes for sustainable and ethical practices in fashion, are helping make ethical and sustainable issues more visible. “India has a huge influence on how our fashion is made globally. We are also a huge consumer market,” Fashion Revolution India writes on its website. It encourages Indian consumers to ask fashion companies to explain where their clothes come from through social media–and reports it has received responses from over 1,000 brands so far.

And even as America pulls out of the Paris Climate Agreement, India has doubled down on its commitment to joining the other nations of the world in cutting carbon emissions. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi said it would be a “morally criminal act” for the world not to confront the looming threat of climate change. India is the third highest polluter in the world after China and the United States but is committed to absorbing 2.5 billion to 3 billion tons of CO2 through planting trees, achieving 40% renewable energy by 2030, and reducing the intensity of greenhouse gas emissions based on its GDP by a third below its 2005 levels. According to a recent United Nations report, India is on track to meet the first two of these goals ahead of this deadline, reflecting the government’s dedication to averting a climate disaster.

It’s important to note that on a per capita basis, India is still only the 128th in terms of emissions, and 300 million Indians don’t have access to electricity. As its economy grows, more people will move into the middle class and have access to goods that contribute to the world’s pollution, including fashion. As the number of consumers grows, it’s arguably a critical time to introduce eco-friendly products.

As fashion’s biggest European and American brands enter the Indian market, selling sustainability is not just the ethical thing to do–it also makes good business sense. This is part of the reason that global giants are pitching themselves to Indians as eco-friendly brands. At the same time, as they rapidly expand, it’s become clear that to truly tackle the looming threat of climate change (to which the fashion industry contributes mightily), brands need to rethink not only what they are selling customers, but also how much.

[Photo: Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg/Getty Images]


The American denim brand Levi’s was one of the earliest American fashion labels to enter the Indian market in 1995. The brand has been working to lower its environmental footprint globally, by reducing carbon emissions and using lasers to finish jeans instead of chemicals. Sanjeev Mohanty, Levi’s managing director for South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, says that Indian consumers are aware of the importance of such sustainable practices and are more likely to shop from brands that make clothes ethically.

“As far back as 2011 (when the Nielsen study was conducted), the Indian consumer was already more interested in energy efficiency in manufacturing, and related practices such as the use of recyclable packaging,” he tells me over email. In its stores Levi’s broadcasts messaging about its sustainability goals, like its plan to reduce carbon emissions across its offices, retail stores, and distribution network by 40% and use 100% renewable sources in its own facilities by 2025, or its new technique for finishing jeans that requires less water–which it made it open source, in the hopes of saving 50 billion liters of water by 2020. Those goals show up in Levi’s products, too: All Levi’s and Docker’s products have a tag that says “Wash less, wash in cold, line dry, and donate when no longer needed.”

H&M, a Swedish brand, is a far newer player in the Indian market. In 2015, it opened its first store in New Delhi, but now has more than 40 stores throughout India. It’s not only in big cities, where wealthier, more globalized consumers live. It is also in smaller cities, and targets lower-middle class Indians by offering clothes at prices that are affordable to them.

H&M is working to introduce the concept of fast fashion in India–but it’s making the case that inexpensive, on-trend clothes can be made ethically and sustainably. The company says it is working to use entirely recycled or sustainably sourced materials by 2030, and totally offset its carbon footprint by 2040. Part of this approach is to respond to customer demand and sell more products to eco-conscious Indians.

For instance, India is one of the largest producers of cotton in the world, and many Indian consumers will be familiar with the horrific stories of entire villages in the Indian countryside being poisoned by the chemicals used in the cotton-growing process. By 2020, H&M aims to source all its cotton sustainably–which it defines as using organic cotton, recycled cotton, or cotton certified by the Better Cotton Initiative, which helps farmers grow cotton in a way that reduces environmental stress.

Like Levi’s, H&M uses its tags to stress its efforts. “When Indian consumers see green tags on garments (which explain how eco-friendly they are), they are starting to understand what this means, and thinking, ‘Oh this could be good for me,’” says Elin Astrom, H&M India’s sustainability manager. “Talk about sustainability and circular fashion has gained a lot more attention here over the past few years.”

The science of fabric recycling is still in its infancy. Organizations–including the H&M Foundation–are working to develop technologies that will be able to separate the many fibers that are used in fabric blends. But H&M is already working to collect clothes from customers, which are either given to people who will use them or taken apart to be recycled. In 2017, the company collected 17,771 tons of textiles. It has recycling bins set up at all 40 Indian stores, and Dhatri Bhatt, H&M India’s head of communications, says they have been popular with customers. “We’ve been pretty encouraged by this response,” she says. “Customers across the country have been bringing their old garments to recycle them.”

[Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint/Getty Images]


Yet the industry’s fatal flaw is that it is built on a business model of selling more and more clothes to customers faster and faster. According to data from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which helps companies and governments transition to a circular economy, the number of times an article of clothing is worn before it gets chucked out has declined by 36% since 2000, with many consumers discarding garments after just seven to ten wears. And in that same period, the number of units of clothes sold annually has doubled from 50 billion units to 100 billion units. “The reason we see so much waste happening is because we’re producing more and more, and wearing the clothes less and less,” says Francois Souchet, a project manager at the Foundation.

Rather than selling more clothes that are marginally more sustainably made, a truly earth-changing solution would be to encourage consumers to buy fewer, more durable products. This may seem radical, but we’ve seen it work for brands like Patagonia, which mends customer’s well-worn garments to extend their life, and Eileen Fisher, which eschews fashion trends to encourage customers to wear the same outfits season after season. While these brands haven’t grown as fast as their more popular fast fashion counterparts, they are both successful, profitable businesses. A more radical approach to sustainability, both in India, and around the world, is for fashion brands to make durable products in classic styles.

As they expand into India, global giants have a chance to rewrite the book on fast fashion. What would happen if these brands sold Indian middle class consumers a fundamentally different vision of fashion than the one they’ve sold elsewhere in the world? What if instead of idealizing newness, they instead focused on quality, durability, and classic looks that never go out of style? That would be a much more effective approach to sustainability than a simple recycling bin.


Could social media emerge as a new critical infrastructure sector?

Social media has become an important conduit for official and emergency government communications with the public. With such communications having the power to critically affect national security, social networks have become a hacker’s paradise and need to be taken more seriously.

US President Donald Trump’s official Twitter account is one example of how social media is now a popular channel for engaging with the public in realtime. At the more extreme end of the scale, recent events in Hawaii and Japan saw false missile alerts sent due to human error, causing populations to spiral into turmoil. These incidents highlight how social media accounts are becoming part of the critical infrastructure that governs our day-to-day lives.

It’s clear that communications, or mis-communications, of this kind have the potential to wreak havoc. But the question is: should the use of these social media accounts — like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn and more — for official and emergency purposes, be regulated by legislation?

“Until these platforms are officially treated as critical infrastructure, we should consider applying the same cybersecurity practices followed by the energy, water, gas and ports industries.”

In Australia, telecommunications carriers are subject to the Telecommunications Sector Security Reforms (TSSR), while other critical infrastructure falls under the recently introduced Security of Critical Infrastructure Act (2018). This act is primarily focused on major infrastructure assets like power and water, that supply essential services to more than 100,000 people.

In both the TSSR and the act, scope is given for the relevant minister to direct a provider or intermediary “to do, or not do, a specified thing that is reasonably necessary to protect networks and facilities from national security risks.”

Under the Security of Critical Infrastructure Act, the relevant minister can also nominate additional industry centres for inclusion, provided the minister is satisfied there is a risk that the assets or services could have a prejudicial effect on national security.

Top of the priority list currently are airports and data centres. It’s possible the minister will declare social media communications as subject to the act, but, at this stage, it’s unlikely.

Top-grade cybersecurity practices essential

So, what should governments be doing when it comes to securing social media accounts used for timely or sensitive communications? Until these platforms are officially treated as critical infrastructure, we should consider applying the same cybersecurity practices followed by the energy, water, gas and ports industries.

Government personnel operating social media for official or emergency purposes should undertake a review of how their accounts are managed. Hardening communication platforms should include stepping up password management practices. This will help eliminate the chance of delays to the delivery of critical information or the exploitation of accounts for nefarious purposes, such as issuing false or misleading information.

“To strengthen these platforms against both external and internal attacks by unauthorised personnel, government departments should treat their social media accounts as privileged.”

Hackers know the value and vulnerability of social media today, and are already hijacking official accounts. In 2017, a rogue Twitter employee shut down Donald Trump’s Twitter account for 11 minutes in an act of protest.

Disgruntled employees aren’t the only risk – hackers could use any one of several social engineering techniques, such as phishing, to gain access to passwords for social media. If they did so, they’d be able to issue false statements on a public social media account, potentially causing fear and panic.

Government personnel within specific departments or offices commonly share access to social media accounts. This means that potentially dozens of people throughout an agency have access, admin or editing rights on these platforms. Not least, passwords for these accounts are usually shared between team members, rarely changed, and often re-used across a number of accounts.

Any account with a shared or re-used password can be an easy target for a hacker or corrupt insider. There is also rarely a record of which team member published each post — increasing the possibility of a false alert being deliberate and untraceable.

Just two minutes after the missile alert was issued on Twitter in Hawaii, the governor was told it was a false alarm. While other government officials rushed to assure the public there was nothing to worry about, the governor did not tweet for more than 17 minutes. The cause of his silence? He forgot his username and password.

To strengthen these platforms against both external and internal attacks by unauthorised personnel, government departments should treat their social media accounts as privileged. That way, simple acts of forgetting, sharing or re-using passwords won’t cause delays, such as what happened in Hawaii.

Privileged account security tips

As best practice to properly secure and protect social media accounts, government departments should employ privileged account security, including:

  • Arrange transparent access: To make it harder for hackers to find and exploit credentials, authorised users must be able to seamlessly authenticate access to an account without having to remember passwords. This allows for immediate access in emergency situations, such as the incident in Hawaii.
  • Remove shared credentials: Use a digital vault to store passwords and remove the accountability challenges of shared logins. Users will then need to login individually for access to shared social media platforms.
  • Automate password rotations: Continuously changing privileged credentials safeguards against attackers using retired passwords. Regularly automating password changes can also update access privileges, reducing the possibility of an outsider getting their hands on valid credentials.
  • Review account activity: For visibility of individual users’ activity across social media accounts, a record of events can be created. This way, posts can be linked to authorised users, and rogue employees can be more easily identified.

Governments the world over are reviewing their critical infrastructure safeguards and national security precautions. As we continue to see in situations such as those in the US, Hawaii, and Japan, the public has developed a huge level of trust in communications distributed by government organisations.

Social media has become a credible and dependable medium for official communications, and it’s clear these platforms are neither inherently secure nor infallible. It’s critical to re-think how any medium used for official and emergency communications is treated and secured.


How Technology Could Revolutionize Online Shopping In The Near Future


How often are you satisfied with the size and fit of your online purchases? In the past few years, return rates for clothing purchased online have reached close to 40%. In a poll reported on by BBC, 56% of respondents who purchased clothing online six months prior to May 2016 said they had returned at least one item. Apparel Magazine reports that 70% of all online clothing returns are caused by problems with fit.

In the U.S., online apparel sales accounted for more than 25% of overall apparel sales in 2017. But why do people shop online even though they have to return clothing that does not fit? How many more people would shop online if they could be certain about fit and size?

As retailers play with free delivery and free returns even if it hurts their business, the cost of returns continues to grow along with the rate of returns. Currently, each order sent back costs retailers from $3 to $12.

The number of returned goods also has a negative impact on the environment. The destruction of unsold and returned garments, especially in the luxury sector, has caused people to ask questions. The fashion industry is known as one of the largest polluters in the world.

Based on my research into the struggles of today’s retailers and what I’ve learned founding a company that develops 3D body modeling technology, I believe that solving fit problems could result in growth in the number of online shoppers, reduced returns and less waste. Thankfully, I’ve been observing innovations coming out of the technology sector that could help make significant progress in solving this industrywide issue.