We’ve all heard of and likely shopped at H&M, Forever 21, Zara, and other fast fashion brands, but many of us haven’t yet considered their stronghold over consumer shopping habits during the last 10 to 15 years.
These large, brightly lit, youthful-looking stores popped up almost simultaneously in the late 2000s with immediate success. Stocked with all the apparel you’d expect from a traditional retailer, these fast fashion brands promised diversity by significantly undercutting the price of goods at stores like Gap and Nordstrom.
Unfortunately, fast fashion also promised speedy supply chains that relied on outsourcing and often underpaid labor, an environmentally damaging manufacturing process, and easily discardable materials.
How did this happen? Taking a look at fast fashion’s meteoric rise can give us some clues as to why the industry’s practices are so unsustainable and what consumers can do about it.
The rise of ready-made fashion
Fast fashion wasn’t always possible under 20th-century manufacturing solutions. Brands had to work hard to produce ready-made clothing and it wasn’t until retailers moved production overseas for the cost of apparel fell dramatically.
Outsourcing labor to developing countries gave retailers in the US and Europe access to low-skilled, low-cost laborers who were unprotected by lenient laws and regulations. Further, the rise of globalization decentralized production networks opened trade routes and prompted vertical integration.
Before ready-made fashion was available, a woman in the 1950s could spend about $9, or $72 in today’s dollars on an article of clothing from a Sears catalog. Today, the same shopper could walk into Forever 21 and get a similar garment for about $12. That’s a stark difference, but there’s more to today’s fast fashion than price.
When it comes to durability, fast fashion isn’t built to last and brands like Zara are using that to their advantage. The retailer has a design-to-retail style of about five weeks and launches upwards of 20 different collections every year.
“It’s not just about clothing, it’s about a disposable society,” said Michael Solomon, a consumer behavior expert. Solomon argues that brands can be even more efficient now using artificial intelligence—a trend that has led to “ultra-fast fashion.”
Ultra-fast fashion is even speedier and it’s flourishing among online retailers. Coresight Research recently found that the DTC Missguided releases roughly 1,000 new products monthly while Fashion Nova launches 600-900 new styles every week.
Furthermore, Social media and influencer culture impact consumer shopping behaviors. Direct-to-consumer brands are outselling traditional brands on social media, but they’ve also captivated their audiences using symbiotic relationships with celebrities who turn fast fashion collections into instant trends.
In turn, influencers have an enormous impact on the fashion economy and they’ve affected how regular consumers think about the clothing they buy.
“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 for a story regarding Gen Z shopping habits.
Moreso, consumers who use social media platforms on a regular basis are open to scrutiny when it comes to their clothing choices. When 41% of 18-25-year-olds feel pressure to wear a different outfit every time they leave their home, fast fashion appears to be the simple solution.
There are, however, environmental costs and human rights violations that jeopardize the novelty of a $12 dress from Forever 21.
The environmental cost
When it comes to sustainable standards put in place by retailers and the industry as a whole, there’s a lot more that needs to be done to reduce emissions. In 2018, the global apparel and footwear industry produced more greenhouse gases than the UK, France, and Germany combined—approximately 2.1 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions.
According to McKinsey & Company, the fashion industry is on track to overshoot 2015’s Paris Climate Agreement proposed 1.5 °C global temperature rise by a huge margin. To align the industry with the Paris Agreement, annual emissions must drop by 1.1 billion tonnes over the next decade, but that’s not going to happen if fast fashion continues as is.
The report went on to conclude that “upstream operations” account for 70% of fashion’s combined greenhouse gas emissions. Specifically, production waste, materials production, and garment manufacturing systems need to change by 2030.
Right now, only 60% of garments are sold at full price because retailers have overproduced anything from single garments to entire collections. Manufacturing clothing with recycled fibers will be essential, but consumers also have the ability to affect supply and demand with their wallets.
The role of the consumer
Consumers overwhelmingly favor ethical and sustainable brands but fast fashion’s stronghold over affordable clothing cannot go unnoticed. Back in December 2019, the New York Times published a report on Fashion Nova that documented the retailer’s investigation by the US Labor Department for underpaying workers and withholding wages.
For an industry that’s built on overproduction, a report of this nature is hardly surprising. Fashion Nova releases hundreds of styles per week at highly competitive prices, and even when the report put the brand’s character in question, the industry felt no significant shockwaves.
In fact, the majority of consumers either misremember or forget that certain products are unethically produced.
“We don’t want to spend our days thinking about these things, even when sometimes they’re things we should be thinking about,” said Rebecca Reczek, author of a 2017 report by the Journal of Consumer Research. “So we often unconsciously, I think, look for coping mechanisms to make the presence of that information less difficult.”
Consumers are also often far removed from production cycles as retailers rely on middleman factories (often overseas) to produce clothing. Fast fashion brands have been quick to emphasize this distance when they’re criticized for perpetuating poor working conditions.
In Bangladesh, the collapse of the Rana Plaza in 2015 killed more than 1,000 garment workers. Retailers continue to outsource labor to Bangladesh, Ethiopia, India, and other countries that have lax labor laws and low wages, but again—consumers are at least one step removed.
Sustainability: A hot topic
Many of us want to be sustainable and ethical consumers, yet there continues to be a disconnect between the products we buy and their origins. A 2015 Nielsen survey reported that 66% of shoppers across the globe say they are willing to pay more for goods that are backed by environmental and ethical commitments.
That’s a positive indicator, but an “intention-action gap” perpetuates false promises over net-positive purchases. Even so, the largest fast fashion brands are taking steps towards environmental accountability and they’ll need to be held accountable by consumers.
In 2019, Zara pledged that it would only use recycled, organic, and sustainable materials in its clothing by 2025, but Zara and its competitors should be met with a healthy dose of skepticism, particularly in an era of greenwashing.
“Depending on who you talk to, the definition of what sustainable means will vary,” said Mark Sumner of the University of Leeds. “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.”
Sustainability is undoubtedly a hot topic these days, but when green buzzwords and pledges outweigh meaningful actions, retail models centered around accelerated production and overproduction aren’t going to change.
Thankfully, consumers have more tools, choices, and information at their disposal than they ever have. Whether it’s purchasing garments manufactured regionally, buying second-hand, or using resources like United by Zero, which provides sustainable alternatives to fast fashion, there’s hope for brands and their followers in the years to come.