How has fast fashion flipped the fashion industry upside down?

It is incredible how the fashion industry has flipped entirely in the last few decades. According to Dana Thomas’ book Fashionopolis, in the 1980s the average American bought twelve items of clothing a year. This average has now skyrocketed to sixty-eight pieces a year, largely due to a change in consumer behaviour. Typically, an individual will buy items that fit the current trends seeking a low price, and often with the tendency to dispose of an item after only wearing it a few times. This is largely due to influential players who have developed the fast fashion business model, where a typical 4 season structure became a fifty-two season one, with new clothes coming in weekly rather than as the seasons changed.

Inditex is the largest brand behind the fast fashion model, owning many high profile labels such as Zara. The brand’s business model cuts the typical twenty-one month process down to only four months through the use of quick response manufacturing. Here, designs are copied quickly with the fabrics and materials at hand, and are then immediately distributed across their stores. In particular, the ‘vertically-integrated supply chains and sales-oriented pricing’ (Attire) has caused large controversy within the fashion industry, with many claims that the ideas of legacy brands are being stolen. However, legal action is not a viable choice as knockoffs are not considered counterfeits.

The introduction of fast fashion has also increased the level of competition within the industry. Within recent months brands such as Forever 21 have gone bankrupt, due to what Forbes deems their failure to stay ‘relentlessly relevant’ like other brands such as Zara and H&M. They were able to outmanoeuvre their competition through ensuring they were customer oriented and acted in the interests of their consumers, adapting to the change in clothing standards and providing the appropriate solution to the changes within the industry.

The fashion industry has also gained a significant boost over the years due to the rise of social media. Brands can use aspects of behavioural economics such as herding and impulsive behaviour to influence buying habits, thus making consumers spend where they may otherwise not. The importance of following trends has risen greatly over recent years, especially as brands collaborate with celebrities and influencers who have to appear current. As more consumers seek to copy the fashion seen on the celebrities they follow, fast fashion brands are able to benefit as they act quickly to provide the appropriate clothing ranges. It has also benefited from the development of mobile applications, making their items more accessible to consumers through the appeal of convenience. The general rise of online shopping has also benefitted fast fashion companies. As households have not been able to shop in person because of COVID-19, it is brands with a pre-established online presence that have been able to profit, such as Boohoo and Fashion Nova.

However, fast fashion is not without its many environmental concerns. The Guardian reports that the fashion industry produces more emissions than ‘all international flights and maritime shipping’ combined, while ‘less than 1% of the material used to produce clothing globally is recycled’. In addition, the materials used to manufacture clothes are not sustainable, requiring large volumes of water to produce clothes that are often only worn several times. As a result there has been an increased backlash against fast fashion institutions. Their responses have failed to satisfy concerns, as many believe they are intentionally ambiguous, wanting to reduce negative press rather than engaging in actual change. In particular, the term ‘green washing’ has emerged, where brands claim they are introducing more ‘sustainable’ products that are ‘eco-friendly’ yet are not honest with their consumers, so as to create the appearance of responsibility[MC1] . Yet as consumers continue to purchase from fast fashion brands, it is evident that environmental concerns have not damaged their reputation heavily.

Overall, as suggested by Attire,  ‘the economy of the fast fashion industry is almost entirely linear: once material is used for a piece of clothing, it will most likely never be anything else.’ There has been an increased awareness in recent years as to the amount of waste produced by the fashion industry, but further action is needed. Greater regulation must be introduced in order to ensure there is not increased waste from this sector[MC2] , reflecting how fast fashion has changed public attitudes towards common practices in the industry.

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