If you’ve bought clothes in the past decade, odds are that at least one item came from a fast fashion brand. Stores like Zara and H&M, two of the largest retailers in the world, still hold a stronghold over most people’s shopping habits, even with the rise of online shopping brands.
These big, brightly lit stores seemed to pop up in malls overnight sometime in the late 2000s, carrying everything from skinny jeans to work blouses to cocktail dresses, often for significantly less money than stores like Gap or Nordstrom.
Still, these shopping behemoths aren’t without controversy. Their speedy supply chains rely on outsourced and often underpaid labor from factory workers overseas. The process is also environmentally damaging and resource-intensive, and to top it off, it’s hard to definitively quantify the industry’s impact.
More broadly, the blindingly fast pace at which clothes are now manufactured, worn, and discarded means that they’ve become more disposable, more commodities than keepsakes, and that shoppers are essentially conditioned to expect a constant stream of new items.
Meanwhile, most people aren’t always aware of fast fashion’s ongoing problems until a big news story breaks. With Forever 21 declaring bankruptcy in September 2019, some fashion experts say the industry has reached a “tipping point.” Data shows that customers are also increasingly driven to buy sustainable products. While the demand for fast fashion hasn’t completely dissipated, it’s clear that retailers need to adapt.
This raises some questions: How did fast fashion get so popular, and, as the industry is confronted with changes, what direction will it move in?
How fast fashion became the new normal
“It’s not just about clothing, it’s about a disposable society,” Michael Solomon, a consumer behavior expert, told Vox. According to Solomon, fast fashion’s development falls in line with globalization and the logistical efficiency of the 21st century. “Companies weren’t able to have such a quick turnaround time, and now with artificial intelligence, they can be even more efficient.”
In the 1950s, if a woman wanted to purchase a ready-made dress, she could spend about $9 (or $72 in today’s dollars) to order an item from a Sears catalog. Today, a shopper could walk into Forever 21 and buy a simple dress for about $12. The price of an article of clothing today — along with the cost of material, labor, and supply chain logistics required for its creation — is cheap, but it’s likely not made to last.
“IT’S NOT JUST ABOUT CLOTHING, IT’S ABOUT A DISPOSABLE SOCIETY”
Zara, which has been credited as having the first successful fast fashion business model, has a design-to-retail style of about five weeks and introduces more than 20 different collections a year.
Online retailers, which have been dubbed “ultra-fast fashion,” are even speedier: A report by Coresight Research found that the site Misguided releases about 1,000 new products monthly, and Fashion Nova’s CEO has said that it launches about 600 to 900 new styles every week. The rapid rate at which new capsule collections and trendy designs are being released only feeds into shoppers’ desire to buy more.