Closing the gap between quality and sustainability in the fashion industry
Author: Melanie Fuerch, Sustainability Project Manager at PFI Fareast
In 1974 the New York Times reported the decline of quality in clothes. Manufacturers and retailers named four main reasons why this happened: First “a lack of inspection at every stage of production”, second “the dwindling supply of skilled labour”, third “a lack of pride on all sides of the industry” and last but not least “the built‐in obsolescence of women’s styles, done deliberately to encourage business, and concurred by the majority of women”. 
Such a headline is also befitting today. A study by Euromonitor about the volume sales trends from 2005-2015 , showed the number pieces of clothes sold is constantly rising due to cheaper and more accessible fashion (fast fashion), whereas clothing utilization per piece was declining at a similar rate. In times when the necessity to move towards a more sustainable fashion industry is highly prioritised, choosing quantity over quality is no longer viable.
Figure 1: Image sourced from Ellen MacArthur Foundation. (2017). A new textiles economy: Redesigning fashion’s future.
The definition of quality
Quality is defined as the evaluation of a product compared to a similar item, or prototype. When customers rate the quality of a product as not good, the customer becomes dissatisfied. This can have many negative consequences: from bad recessions, to complaints, returns and even the loss of the customer.
ISO 9000 and 9001 define an international standard for quality and guidelines for companies. Most companies also define their individual quality standards for their market positioning. Third-party organisations, like PFI, offer quality assurance with sampling and testing. The customer still has its own quality scoring system, which PFI can abide by. As shown in Figure 1 consumer quality assessment often differs greatly from the corporate definition. In 2019, a study drew attention to the fact that the customer’s sensitivity plays an important role. Therefore, it is necessary to pay more attention to the customers’ criteria in order to achieve a customer satisfying product quality.
Figure 2: Principle of the consumer-based quality scoring system. Source: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1558925019854773
Extending the definition of quality
In 2015, the ISO norm for quality 9001 was updated. The regulations now require leadership of the company to improve quality. Fibres2fashion explains: “Changes were necessary due to increasingly demanding customers, increased complexity of the supply chains, emergence of new technology, greater awareness for the need to address sustainability.” This increased consumer awareness has given rise to brands responding with alternatives to fast fashion: from eco-friendly materials and trends toward recycled content in new products as well as increased transparency throughout supply chains. There is still a way to go with only 27% of clothing currently recycled according to Ellen MacArthur Foundation and an increasing number of countries establishing supply chain laws to improve compliance throughout global supply chains.
Establish the new standards
When a garment is made from sustainable materials, like recycled polyester over virgin polyester, it is not automatically sustainable, if the quality and durability parameters of the product do not meet required quality standards. A sustainable garment needs to fulfil both aspects: sustainable sourcing and long-lasting quality.
Purchasing a new t-shirt every few months from a fast fashion brand may be cheaper in the moment. Due to poor quality and durability your product will soon be discarded in an unsustainable fashion, contributing to landfills of underutilized clothing around the world. Long-lasting, timeless designed garments need to be worn again over a longer time span, even if the price point is slightly higher. The investment in quality is an investment in sustainability. Patagonia aptly put it in an advertising campaign “Don’t buy that jacket” urging their customers to stave off buying what they don’t need, and consuming only what is necessary.
 Enid Nemy, The New York Times (1974): Declining Quality in Clothes: The Makers and Sellers Tell Why.
 Euromonitor International Apparel & Footwear 2016 Edition (Volume sales trends 2005-2015).
 Anja Connor-Crabb & Emma Dulcie Rigby (2019) Garment Quality and Sustainability: A User-Based Approach, Fashion Practice.
Nor Juliana Modh Yusof (2015), Quality Approaches of Mass-Produced Fashion – A Study in Malaysian Garment Manufacturing.[pdf] Available at: < https://www.researchgate.net/publication/313006281_Quality_Approaches_of_Mass-Produced_Fashion_-_A_Study_in_Malaysian_Garment_Manufacturing >
Romain Benkirane, Sebastien Thomassey, Ludovic Koehl, Anne Perwuelz (2019), A consumer-based textile quality scoring model using multi-criteria decision making. [pdf] Available at: < https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1558925019854773 >
Ellen MacArthur Foundation. (2017). A new textiles economy: Redesigning fashion’s future. [pdf] Available at: < https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/assets/downloads/A-New-Textiles-Economy_Full-Report_Updated_1-12-17.pdf >