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Is the “See-Now, Buy-Now” Fashion the Ultimate Villain for Sustainability? Not Necessarily

It used to take six months for fashion industry powerhouses to stock collections presented during fashion week. But fashion week this year is all about “See-Now, Buy-Now” - the instant gratification of wearing what you loved on the runway during last week’s show. Until recently, this strategy provided the more innovative players, such as H&M and Zara with an advantage over some of the higher end brand names, but

September 2016 opened the floodgates with the entry of Ralph Lauren, Burberry, Tommy Hilfiger and Tom Ford. See-Now, Buy-Now is all the rage, perfectly serving our growing attention deficits spurred by our digital reality, with the likes of Instagram and Twitter. Who’ll remember what they wanted to buy today in six months time?

As fashion week wandered from New York City to its European hubs, the limelight in New York City turned to Climate Week. For many attending this week’s events, fashion is the industry that has come to symbolize all that is broken in our culture and the culprit to the greatest threats to humanity in our era - climate change and natural resource depletion. For many environmentalists, the fashion industry is guilty of conditioning many to feel an unrelenting urge to replace their wardrobe on a seasonal basis - it’s the ultimate example of a throwaway society - a business model bent on creating waste systematically. And thus, reactions of sustainability-minded folks to the See-Now, Buy-Now trend have ranged between disgust and “I give up” hand waving. After all, we could easily get by with just a couple suites - rotating between one we wear and one we wash. But no one I know meets this puritan standard and for good reason: what we wear means so much more than any technical function that clothing may serve. Clothing is perhaps the strongest, most immediate visual message we can send our surrounding and this form of communication is simply to important for social beings to give up. Assuming we’ll refrain from using this powerful form of communication and assuming we wouldn’t use the most advanced tools technology has to offer us to make our personal fashion statement, is simply beyond optimistic. Thus, See-Now, Buy-Now is quite likely here to stay.

But there’s another side to this new form of instant gratification that mustn’t be overlooked. It creates a growing burden on the fashion industry’s supply chains, notoriously known for their global reach. A typical T-shirt may start in the cotton fields of the United States, crisscross 4-5 countries in Asia or South America on it’s way from thread to shirt, only to land back on the shelves of an American chain store. Will it be feasible to maintain such supply chains with See-Now, Buy-Now? Can a tortuous journey be achieved at the right price point? I predict that as this trend gets adopted more broadly, supply chain constraints will be tested to their limits, creating a growing competitive advantage to those that have skillfully set hand on locally sourced materials, developed on-site production capabilities and optimized close-knit just-in-time logistics. Can this be achieved? Absolutely. We know already, that if designed correctly, fashion could be fully recyclable, allowing most of the materials - from fabrics and dyes to rivets and sequins, to remain in the technosphere - serving cycle after cycle of See-Now, Buy-Now customers. We also know that production automation is changing the equation on the value of distant cheap labor and sweatshops. While some technical challenges remain, there isn’t an insurmountable technological barrier for See-Now, Buy-Now to become a sustainable, circular economy. Without extreme localization, it is hard to see how the fashion industry overcomes the death spiral of decreasing sales and tightening profit margins they’ve been subjected to since 2008. It is now up to the innovators in the fashion world to create the compelling business models that breakthrough the current trends, plan for obsoleteness and recover last year’s materials for the sake of this year’s creations. It’s time for the Circular See-Now, Buy-Now to hit the runways.


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