Is fast fashion on its way out?

November 2021 _ Fast fashion on way out
Main illustration by Isabelle Feliu

New fashion trends seem to drop in hot and fast, then in the blink of an eye, disappear never to be seen again. But it wasn’t always like that. The days where every piece of clothing was treasured, worn on the daily and repaired more times than you could shake a stick at, are well and truly over.

In recent years we’ve seen the ‘make do with what we have’ culture shift exponentially. Terms like ‘fast fashion’ have been introduced to the industry, a consumerist culture has swept across societies and wearing the same thing twice is a crime.

But in recent times, fast fashion has taken a relatively damaging hit and has been exposed to show what it really is. Unsustainable, harmful and at times ​​downright exploitative.

At one point in time, Fast fashion was the new black. And seemed like the only way to engage with the industry, but as we stand up and take more notice, we see things are beginning to shift.

So, is fast fashion currently on its way out, for good? Or are we years before the changes within the industry are made and that comes to fruition?

Let’s take a deeper look into fast fashion and what the future may hold for this rather novelty movement.

A quick recap on Fast Fashion

If you’ve read any of our previous articles, or perhaps you’ve dabbled in fast fashion before, you may have a bit of an idea of what it’s all about. Either way, let us explain a little more how fast fashion is defined (for us here at SAYE anyway).

Fast fashion is a relatively modern concept. It refers to cheap, trendy clothing, manufactured at breakneck speed (and often poorly-made) resulting in the need to purchase new clothes more often.

Like any story, the beginnings often date back far longer than we think, and has many emerging factors, but fashionista in the know, often refer to a moment in the late 80’s, when in the New York Times, a young Juan Lopez, Zara's head of US operations at the time, said:

‘Every week there's a new shipment from Spain, the stock in the store changes every three weeks. The latest trend is what we're after. It takes 15 days between a new idea and getting it into the stores’

A poignant statement that seemed to go on to pave the next 50 years of fast fashion prominence. Around that same time garment production accelerated at lightning speeds, there were more clothes, more seasons, a higher demand, and shopping quickly became a hobby.

Retailers also chose to take their manufacturing processes overseas, where the labor was cheaper. Distribution cycles were faster. Profits soared. Within a short period the number of garments produced would double and then triple. Where one person may have a few pairs of shoes to their name, they’d now have 10 to 15. This in turn encouraged consumers to treat clothes as disposable.

Much like the chicken/egg debate, was it the demands of consumers' that led to this transformational change in production? Or was the desire for retailers growth and maximizing profit the reason behind the shift in consumer culture?

Key changes across the landscape

The Pandemic: A positive step in the right direction, or not?

The pandemic provided sudden disruptions in travel and distribution, which meant the fastness of fast fashion was also brought to a halt. The Pandemic didn’t only affect the industry because of the lockdowns and restrictions, but the necessities and behaviours of a huge part of the population changed during this period.

Suddenly...

Spending money on new clothes seemed wasteful.
Buying necessities was more important.
Some people lost their income.
Others didn’t feel the desire to continually update their wardrobe, when they were more comfortable in wearing their pyjamas for 4 months.
In a recent report on the ‘state of the industry’, Sarah Willersdorf, a partner and global head of luxury from BCG said:

“The fashion and luxury industries together are the most negatively impacted of all in consumer goods. We are looking at sales being down 30%-to-40% globally. Most companies are just trying to survive by focusing on protecting their people and also their cash and liquidity”

The numbers are in, the fashion industry definitely took a massive hit in sales over the last couple of years, some say It’s strained the industry almost to the breaking point, but some people think this means that as a result, sustainability has fallen down the list of priorities, just when the industry needs to accelerate it.

“The best thing to come out of this very painful time is that we as individuals understand that our individual actions have societal consequences...” Willersdorf adds. “So while the virus is not directly related to sustainability, it is going to increase the focus on it”.

Even though countries are beginning to reopen their economies and go back to the way things were, we need to make sure that fashion doesn’t return to the way it was, that we take what we learnt, and put our learnings into action.

Big Fashion names recognising the need for recycling

It’s difficult to know the real intentions behind any retailer, but in recent times, some big leaders in the fashion industry have begun offering second hand reselling options, and we are here for it.

Companies like Zalando and Urban Outfitters have begun selling other brands’ merchandise online, with the idea of offering a virtual bazaar style experience.

Not only that, a number of companies, mainly Thredup and Poshmark have burst onto the market, selling vintage and secondhand clothes, and taking over the Gen Z and millennial market.

James Reinhart, thredUP Co Founder & CEO states:

‘We are in the early stages of a radical transformation in retail. Consumers are prioritizing sustainability, retailers are starting to embrace resale, and policy makers are getting on board with the circular economy’

And furthermore According to a recent report, 40% of thrifters say they’re replacing fast-fashion purchases with secondhand clothing, and this shift is expected to gain even more traction by 2030. Financial Times even stated that the ‘pre-loved clothing’ industry is, “expected to be worth $50bn by 2023’.

Basically the secondhand clothing market is booming!

Buying at brick and mortar shops is over

Sure, the pandemic hurried up the death of the brick and mortar business concept, but let’s be honest, it was already on it’s way out.

Retail employment was steadily declining in the UK over the three years leading up to 2018, H&M were shutting stores worldwide at a rapid rate during 2018/2019 and consumers were looking online to fulfill their shopping needs, all of this happened pre-covid.

Does this buy into the fast fashion is on it’s way out, theory? Maybe not, but it may be a factor in the whole picture, only time will tell.

The rise of alternative materials

In our last blog post - slow fashion is the fastest way to a more sustainable future - we showcased some incredible businesses that are changing the fashion landscape when it comes to the use of innovative and organic materials.

As these processes become more mainstream and the use of alternative materials are on the up, we believe that this will inherently affect the way in which both consumers and brands make decisions.

Directing the energy and interest to that of the material, the quality and the craftsmanship, and steering it away from the dirt-cheap prices and convenience will be crucial to the effort.

Is slow fashion the future?

It’s important to look beyond the present now, and imagine what the future holds? With the death of fast fashion, what would we have left?

The opposite of fast is slow. And we are all about it!

As more consumers become aware of the environmental and human costs of apparel production, we believe fewer will choose to invest in fashion that harms the world around us.

More people will continue to make informed decisions about the clothes they buy.
More people will boycott the retailers that make misguided decisions.
More of us will reflect on our relationship to consumerism.

It’s true that executives know that sustainability doesn’t scale, (at least not quickly enough to meet certain demands), but we believe sustainability is going to be essential to the long-term success of every company in the fashion industry.

And as it so often is, change, reform and innovation will fall to the younger generations.

They’ll be our inspirational leaders.
The ones to really make a difference.

So, it might be a slow death of fast fashion, but as we all gather together to make better decisions, fix mistakes we may have made in the past, we know that fast fashion will very soon be on it’s way out… and it will stay that way for good.

Questions we all need to ask ourselves

As we often like to do, we leave you with some questions, that we can all ask ourselves to simply enquire into how we are, and where we may be able to make small changes to create a big shift.

What is in your wardrobe?

How would you describe your clothes choices?

Are they made with money in mind, or do you like to purchase products based on quality?

Because remember, our clothes represent far more than expressing ourselves, they show what we value…

…and in the age of awareness, sustainability is the new fashion statement.

“We do not
inherit the
Earth from our
Ancestors, we
borrow it from
our children”

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