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Fast fashion, Explained

Despite its environmental and labor costs, shoppers love fast fashion. Will that ever change?


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Racks of pants and shoes at Forever 21

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

If you’ve bought clothes in the past decade, odds are that at least one item came from a fast fashion brand. Stores like Zara and H&M, two of the largest retailers in the world, still hold a stronghold over most people’s shopping habits, even with the rise of online shopping brands.

These big, brightly lit stores seemed to pop up in malls overnight sometime in the late 2000s, carrying everything from skinny jeans to work blouses to cocktail dresses, often for significantly less money than stores like Gap or Nordstrom.

Still, these shopping behemoths aren’t without controversy. Their speedy supply chains rely on outsourced and often underpaid labor from factory workers overseas. The process is also environmentally damaging and resource-intensive, and to top it off, it’s hard to definitively quantify the industry’s impact.

More broadly, the blindingly fast pace at which clothes are now manufactured, worn, and discarded means that they’ve become more disposable, more commodities than keepsakes, and that shoppers are essentially conditioned to expect a constant stream of new items.

Meanwhile, most people aren’t always aware of fast fashion’s ongoing problems until a big news story breaks. When Forever 21 declared bankruptcy in September 2019, some fashion experts said the industry had reached a “tipping point.” Data shows that customers are also increasingly driven to buy sustainable products. While the demand for fast fashion hasn’t completely dissipated, it’s clear that retailers need to adapt.

This raises some questions: How did fast fashion get so popular, and, as the industry is confronted with changes, what direction will it move in?

How fast fashion became the new normal

“It’s not just about clothing, it’s about a disposable society,” Michael Solomon, a consumer behavior expert, told Vox. According to Solomon, fast fashion’s development falls in line with globalization and the logistical efficiency of the 21st century. “Companies weren’t able to have such a quick turnaround time, and now with artificial intelligence, they can be even more efficient.”

In the 1950s, if a woman wanted to purchase a ready-made dress, she could spend about $9 (or $72 in today’s dollars) to order an item from a Sears catalog. Today, a shopper could walk into Forever 21 and buy a simple dress for about $12. The price of an article of clothing today — along with the cost of material, labor, and supply chain logistics required for its creation — is cheap, but it’s likely not made to last.

Zara, which has been credited as having the first successful fast fashion business model, has a design-to-retail style of about five weeks and introduces more than 20 different collections a year.

Online retailers, which have been dubbed “ultra-fast fashion,” are even speedier: A report by Coresight Research found that the site Missguided releases about 1,000 new products monthly, and Fashion Nova’s CEO has said that it launches about 600 to 900 new styles every week. The rapid rate at which new capsule collections and trendy designs are being released only feeds into shoppers’ desire to buy more.

Furthermore, because of social media, the average person can now publicly document their life in outfits. The rise of influencer culture and marketing has opened up a niche for fast fashion brands, specifically online retailers, to flourish. Thanks to social media’s constantly changing, visually-driven nature, brands have developed a symbiotic relationship with popular celebrities and influencers, like the Kardashians, who have the ability to turn whatever they wear into an instant trend.

These influencers, in turn, drive the fast fashion economy and affect how normal people think about their own clothing choices. “When I’m dressing to go out, I’m dressing to be seen, which is weird to say because we’re not influencers,” a 20-year-old college student told the New York Times in a story about Gen Z shopping habits.

Through visual platforms like Instagram, anyone’s sartorial choices can be scrutinized. Wearing the same outfit twice then starts to seem taboo. According to a 2017 survey commissioned by the London sustainability firm Hubbub, 41 percent of 18- to 25-year-olds feel pressured to wear a different outfit every time they go out. Another survey, commissioned by the Barnado’s charity in 2019, found that British people will spend up to 2.7 billion pounds on clothes during the summer that’ll only be worn once.

Fast fashion, then, appears to be the simple solution to appease our desire for novelty. It’s much easier to avoid outfit repetition when clothes only cost $20.

Why it’s been easy for consumers to turn a blind eye to the costs of fast fashion

Fast fashion has democratized luxury trends for everyday shoppers (who now have the option to dress like their favorite influencers), but it comes at a cost not reflected in its price tag. In December 2019, the New York Times published a report on Fashion Nova, the flashy online retailer of the Instagram age, revealing that factories that were making Fashion Nova garments were under investigation by the US Labor Department for underpaying workers and owing them millions in back wages.

That revelation is hardly surprising, given how the brand releases hundreds of styles a week at ridiculously low prices. Fashion Nova — and the collective fast fashion ecosystem — was condemned and criticized online, but the report seemed to create no significant shockwaves. Celebrities and influencers — like Cardi B, Amber Rose, Janet Guzman, and other high-profile “Nova ambassadors” — who helped build the retailer’s reputation still endorse it, and people continue to shop from the brand.

These revelations don’t seem to make much of a difference to a majority of shoppers, likely because they have few other affordable options and the fashion industry at large outsources clothing production to keep prices low.

In fact, it’s rare for a fashion retailer to lose a large portion of its customer base over poor labor practices, although public attention can pressure it to improve. Most customers have a selective memory when it comes to buying from exploitative companies: Research has shown that most either forget or misremember products that are unethically made. People also tend to prioritize ease of purchase and price of an item over sustainability, according to a 2018 report that surveyed nearly 700 shoppers ages 18 to 37.

Clothing retailers also can shirk responsibility through the nature of their production cycles: They often rely on middleman factories (both overseas and domestic) to produce clothes, which allows them to conveniently distance their brand from wrongdoing. It’s a distinction fast fashion companies are quick to emphasize, especially when criticized for perpetuating poor labor conditions.

Cardi B performing at the release party for for her Fashion Nova capsule collection
Fashion Nova sponsored an event to celebrate the release of Cardi B’s capsule collection. (Presley Ann/Getty Images)

For example, in 2017, the Los Angeles Times reported that underpaid factory workers in Los Angeles successfully filed wage claims to receive back pay for their work. Most were producing clothes for Forever 21, but the company managed to avoid paying the claims, thanks to a state law that places the burden on middleman companies. The Times’ report on Fashion Nova revealed similar complaints from workers, but the company has denied the claims as “categorically false.”

These cases are a step forward for underpaid American workers, but in reality, they make up a small percentage of laborers who will get properly compensated for their work. Since the collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh — an accident that killed more than 1,100 people, most of whom were garment workers — apparel retailers have pledged to ensure safer labor conditions for supply chain workers. Still, retailers continue to outsource some of their clothing production to firms in countries like India, Ethiopia, or Bangladesh that have lax labor laws, where wages can be low and working overtime (without additional pay) is common.

Modern-day consumers are also steps removed from the labor that’s poured into their clothes. “We always knew someone who was in the garment industry ... so you had a person related to what you were wearing, and you thought about them,” Dana Thomas, journalist and author of Fashionopolis: The Prices of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes previously told The Goods. “Once we removed that emotional investment from the equation, we cared less about our clothes. And so then we started treating them like fast food.”

A move toward sustainability

The rate at which we’re producing apparel is not sustainable for the environment. While there is no official research fully encompassing fashion’s environmental impact, the industry is one of the world’s most resource-intensive industries. The production of polyester textiles alone emits about 706 million tons of greenhouse gases a year, and hundreds of gallons of water go into making a cotton garment.

Within the past decade, changing consumer attitudes, particularly toward sustainability and corporate transparency, have pushed companies to reevaluate their labor practices and environmental impacts. A 2015 Nielsen survey found that 66 percent of shoppers worldwide say they are willing to pay extra for products or services from companies with social or environmental impact commitments. Yet there still is, as the Harvard Business Review coined it, an “intention-action gap” between what consumers say and what they purchase.

Experts think fast fashion doesn’t hold the same appeal to shoppers as it once did. A 2019 McKinsey report suggests that there’s greater interest in rental and secondhand clothing, and that the resale market has the potential to be bigger than fast fashion in 10 years.

Solomon, the consumer behavior expert, thinks the time is ripe for what he calls “a green revolution” among shoppers. The last time that happened was in 2007, he said, but when the Great Recession hit, people started to care more about their pocketbooks than the environment.

“Right now, the fast fashion companies I know are very worried about this, and they’re making changes,” Solomon said. “If you even look at Macy’s, a traditional retailer, they’re now selling used clothing in stores. That’s a huge change.”

While even the biggest fast fashion brands are moving the needle towards sustainability, shifting customer opinions have yet to pressure them to completely change their ways, said Kate Nightingale, founder of the fashion consulting firm Style Psychology.

According to Nightingale, research shows that customers are not likely to change their shopping habits out of concern for the environment: “We don’t have much of a choice in being environmentally friendly in our purchases. We are almost conditioned by the fashion industry to keep buying and buying new things every season.”

Through annual reports, H&M has shown notable improvements in the material it sources, renewable electricity used in stores, and the expansion of its clothing recycling program. However, the Swedish retailer still struggles with excess inventory — the retailer was accused of burning tons of unsold clothes in 2017 — and the environmental impacts of its production process. (In fact, it’s common for fashion retailers across the price spectrum, from Louis Vuitton to Urban Outfitters, to destroy their inventory, a practice that’s been heavily criticized by shoppers.)

In July 2019, Zara’s parent company, Inditex, pledged that it will only use sustainable, organic, or recycled material in all of its clothing by 2025. Some people were skeptical of the plan’s impact and saw it as an example of greenwashing, since Zara didn’t promise to produce less clothing or slow down its manufacturing process.

It’s clear that retailers can no longer avoid addressing questions about their environmental efforts, but their motives are typically received with a healthy dose of skepticism.

“Depending on who you talk to, the definition of what sustainable means will vary,” Mark Sumner of the University of Leeds told NPR. “Sometimes you can reduce one particular environmental impact and, at the same time, by the actions you’ve taken, you’re actually increasing the impact somewhere else.”

As green buzzwords and sustainability pledges grow more common, consumers and critics need more convincing — especially from fast fashion brands, whose business model centers on speedy production. The pace at which these companies are improving is not enough to alter the DNA of the fast fashion economy, said Nightingale, the fashion consultant.

The fashion industry is changing. But is it changing fast enough? The 2020 McKinsey report on the state of fashion predicts that revenue growth will slow and that sustainability will continue to be a hot topic. It’s no longer enough for even the largest fast fashion retailers to idly exist without a sustainable mission statement. Whether that mission carries any weight to consumers could determine the brand’s future. Now that sustainability is at the forefront of many people’s minds, it’s easier than ever to sniff out an inauthentic pledge.

“Brands need to realize the impacts they have on people’s lives and behaviors,” Nightingale said. “If brands commit to doing business differently, people will start changing how often they buy. They just need to be given a good enough reason to participate.”

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This post originally appeared on Vox and was published February 3, 2020. This article is republished here with permission.

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