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What is Wrong with Fast Fashion?


Dakota Murphey shares her second exclusive for WhichPLM readers this year, and advocates for brands to become more purpose-driven and sustainable in 2021. Dakota has more than a decade of experience in business growth, working independently as a business consultant for a number of years.

‘Fast fashion’ has been increasingly shaping the retail landscape for the last decade or so. The term refers to the consumerist phenomenon characterised by an insatiable desire for new clothes, which retailers have happily responded to by getting the newest trends into the shops as quickly and cheaply as possible. The result? Over the last 15 years, garment production has roughly doubled.

Of course, this seemingly unstoppable demand for new, cheap clothes being available at an ever-faster pace is a global trend. But did you realise that UK customers buy nearly 30kg of new clothing every year? We have the highest consumption rate in Europe, per capita and by expenditure.

The end of fast fashion?

Some voices are declaring that we are now seeing the beginning of the end of fast fashion, as consumers are becoming more conscious in their choices. The pandemic has changed how consumers think. But is this the only shift that is occurring? And how can retailers respond to cement brand loyalty?

Let’s take a closer look.

The detrimental environmental impact of fast fashion is undeniable. The fashion industry is the second biggest polluting industry (after oil), emitting a whopping 1.2 billion tonnes of carbon every year globally. What’s more, the impact of each garment goes far beyond manufacturing, since every wash contributes to the release of microfibres into our oceans, to the tune of 0.5 million tonnes per year. And that is in addition to the huge amount of water needed for textile production.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, consider the longevity of each garment, or rather the lack of it. Hundreds of thousands of tonnes of clothing are discarded each year in the UK alone, with 80% of it ending up in landfill where it can take up to 200 years to decompose.

Then there are the ethical implications of labour market conditions in developing countries such as India, China, Bangladesh, the Philippines and Vietnam where wages are routinely too low to enable an acceptable standard of living with basic facilities. Furthermore, rumours are rife of forced and child labour that is often involved in the creation of fast fashion.

New market dynamics

Fashion marketing expert Achim Berg of McKinsey & Co believes that fast fashion can survive but only if clothing brands can adapt to the new market dynamics. In a recent report, he said: “Automation and data analytics have enabled a new breed of start-up to adopt agile made-to-order production cycles. Mass-market players will begin to follow suit, aiming to respond more rapidly to trends and consumer demand. The result is likely to be a rise in just-in-time production, reduced levels of overstock and the rising importance of small-batch production cycles.”

Agility is likely to be central to brand success in the future, and this favours smaller operators and brands based on outsourced trends and fads rather than large fashion houses and traditional retailers. “Leaner, more agile challenger brands will emerge, with smaller production runs catering to more promiscuous consumer segments. Word of mouth from trusted influencers, scarcity and exclusivity will be the order of the day.”

Storror is a case in point. Known and revered as a professional parkour and stunt performance team, their recent launch of a clothing and training shoe range has created an iconic niche brand under one umbrella.

Sustainable shopping

Greater awareness of climate change and associated environmental issues has majorly affected consumer behaviour when it comes to clothing retail. Fashion shoppers are now more discerning than ever about the sustainability credentials of their purchases and the brands they buy from. A recent study by GlobalData found that nearly two-thirds of UK consumers would consider the impact on the environment in their choice of product and retailer, rising to 70% among the under-34s.

Most large UK retailers seem to have taken this on board, with sustainability statements and initiatives being promoted on websites, and more sustainably and responsibly sourced clothing ranges appearing on shelves. Clear and consistent marketing is a must if both customer awareness and sales of sustainable clothing are to be boosted.

Here are some encouraging examples:

  • H&M Conscious is a collection made with eco-friendly fabrics and more sustainable production methods in an effort to reduce the company’s environmental footprint. The collection is backed by a strong sustainability page that encourages customers to recycle unwanted garments at H&M stores in exchange for a discount for future purchases.
  • Denim is notorious for the huge quantities of water required to create a pair of jeans and Levi’s are now declaring their commitment to sustainability through the whole design and manufacturing process, including working towards using 100% sustainably sourced cotton for their jeans.
  • Outerwear brand Patagonia uses sustainable materials, follows fair-trade practices and monitors its supply chain to ensure it is safe for the planet, workers and consumers. The company helps customers repair their clothing with DIY repair guides and product care advice, and encourages recycling of old garments and even buying items second hand.

And it’s not just younger consumers who have developed a passion for social and environmental causes that is now a key driver for decision making – critical mass may have been reached for all age groups. Fashion brands who reject the need to become more purpose driven are likely to lose out big time.

Lydia Mageean Lydia Mageean has been part of the WhichPLM team for eight years now. She has a creative and media background, and is responsible for maintaining and updating our website content, liaising with advertisers, working on special projects like our PLM Project Pack, or our Annual Publications, and more.Joining mid-2013 as our Online Editor, she has since become WhichPLM’s Editor. In addition to taking on writing and interviewing responsibilities, Lydia has also become the primary point of contact for news, events, features and other aspects of our ever-growing online content library and tools.