A group of people standing outside a H&M storefront

Is Fast Fashion Running on Borrowed Time?

With shopper demand slowly waning and conscious consumerism at all-time highs, is there a viable path forward for fast fashion?

Fast fashion was a true cultural phenomenon. Shoppers were finally able to access the latest trends but at laughably low prices, a scenario that encouraged overconsumption in both the American and European markets. While this business model initially seemed like a breakthrough within the world of apparel, the ugly truth behind fast fashion has recently come to light, and the reaction from shoppers has been significant.

The Rise and Fall of Perishable Apparel

A shopper walking down a sidewalk holding multiple bags filled with fast fashion clothing

Fast fashion gained significant traction in the late 20th century when material and labor costs were inexpensive and supply-chain efficiencies were high. Brands like H&M, Primark, and Zara took advantage of these conditions by continuously pumping out trendy apparel at rock-bottom prices, and shoppers simply couldn’t get enough. With a seemingly endless number of yearly collections, the pressure was high for shoppers to constantly cycle clothing through their wardrobes, and since they paid next to nothing for it, shoppers often didn't think twice about tossing apparel they bought less than a month prior.

Speed defined the fast fashion movement not only on the consumption side of the spectrum but on the design side as well. During the beginning of the fast fashion movement, it was commonplace for a garment’s time to market to hang around the 6-8 month range, but fast fashion brands like Zara were pumping out new products in a mere two weeks, truly a sight to behold for the apparel industry. 

Another sight to behold was fast fashion being worn by some of the most influential figures of the time, further driving up the hype around these brands and solidifying their place in the world of fashion. The late 1990s and 2000s were a golden age for fast fashion, but this euphoria was about to come to a screeching halt. 

The aftermath of the Dhaka factory collapse

It wasn’t until the year 2013 that the manufacturing practices surrounding fast fashion would come under a magnifying glass. The shocking Dhaka factory collapse in Bangladesh brought to light the significant issues regarding poor working conditions and exploitation by brands during the production of fast fashion. Soon after, concerns regarding sustainability also surfaced with news stories detailing the excessive textile wastes, carbon emissions, and water pollution created during the manufacture of fast fashion.

The response to these revelations was the rise of the slow fashion movement. Shoppers everywhere were pledging to reduce their consumption habits, invest in durable and sustainably-made apparel, and reject the fast fashion business model. While this shopper-led movement was formed over a decade ago, it has only grown in strength and influence, especially with the emergence of newer, more socially conscious age cohorts.

Evolving Stakeholder Expectations

Demonstrators protesting fast fashion

Conscious consumerism is at an all-time high in 2022. Shoppers view sustainable production practices as a critical factor when choosing the products that will occupy their wardrobes, and many shoppers have also severely reduced their consumption rates for apparel. Another top priority for shoppers in 2022 is ethical production practices, specifically surrounding the treatment of workers and their communities.

Shoppers want to feel good about the clothing they wear and are more than happy to pay a slight premium for ethically-sourced threads.

While younger generations have led the charge for sustainable fashion, older generations are also making the sustainability shift in meaningful ways. Gen X shoppers have been actively choosing to patronize sustainable brands in recent years, likely due to the trickle-down effect from newer generations urging their parents and grandparents to make an impact with their spending habits. As both Millennials and Gen Z start to become parents themselves, their values will undoubtedly be imprinted on their children, a scenario that ensures a continuous cycle of conscious consumerism.

When looking at this clear and lasting shift in shopper sentiment towards sustainability, fast fashion brands are at risk of losing a significant amount of their shopper base by continuing to use existing production methods. To be fair, the demand for cheap clothing is unlikely to subside anytime soon, but as material innovations and production practices continue to evolve, it may not be long before we see sustainable clothing lines that can compete with the fast-fashion pricing model.

Can Fast Fashion Brands Ever be Sustainable?

hands holding sustainably-made apparel, a counter to fast fashion

In recent years, major fast fashion brands have made sustainability pledges that include shifting to sustainable materials as well as the inclusion of renewable energy sources for production.

For example, Zara pledged that by 2025, all of its eight brands will only use cotton, linen, and polyester that's organic, sustainable, or recycled. The fast-fashion giant also stated that renewable sources will power 80% of the energy consumed by their distribution centers, offices, and stores. Finally, Zara also plans to transition to zero landfill waste which is likely their most ambitious goal present within this pledge.

Similarly, H&M has set a research-based target to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. They also plan to use 100% recycled or sustainable materials within this timespan.

While these are great initiatives, the timelines surrounding them are somewhat lengthy, and in the case of H&M, this is only a target goal, nothing more. There's also the simple fact that a fast fashion business model in any modicum is inherently questionable and will require dramatic changes to fall in line with the sustainability requirements of shoppers and the environment. 

Finally, it's worth mentioning that the majority of fast fashion retailers also offer some form of free returns for their shoppers. With issues such as size sampling and size confusion remaining rampant within the world of apparel, the environmental impact of these issues will continue to grow until fast fashion brands address the potential shortcomings of their sizing strategies.                                                         

Sustainability Will Lead to Long-Term Success For All Brands

While fast fashion still holds a powerful influence within the world of apparel, rapidly evolving consumer preferences are forcing the hand of many brands to make a shift to sustainability. Whether fast fashion brands could make such a pivot successfully has yet to be seen, but as stakeholder resolve remains strong, this shift undoubtedly will play a critical role in the long-term success of fast fashion.

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