How It Impacts Retail Manufacturing

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Table of Contents

What Is Fast Fashion?

Fast fashion describes low-priced but stylish clothing that moves quickly from design to retail stores to meet and capitalize on trends. Collections are often based on styles presented at Fashion Week runway shows or worn by celebrities. Fast fashion allows mainstream consumers to purchase a new look at an affordable price.

Fast fashion resulted from cheaper, speedier manufacturing and shipping methods, the consumer’s appetite for up-to-the-minute styles, and increasing purchasing power, especially that of young people. Fast fashion challenges the established clothing labels’ tradition of introducing new collections and lines on an orderly, seasonal basis.

Key Takeaways

  • Fast fashion describes low-priced but stylish clothing that moves quickly to retail stores, with new collections being introduced continuously.
  • Innovations in retailers’ supply chain management make fast fashion possible.
  • Zara and H&M are two giants in the fast fashion field.
  • Fast fashion offers affordable prices and instant gratification for consumers.
  • Fast fashion drives waste, unfair labor force treatment, and harmful environmental pollution.

Understanding Fast Fashion

History

Shopping for clothing was once considered an event for which consumers would save over time to buy new clothes periodically. The style-conscious could get a preview of the styles to come by reading fashion magazines and seeing fashion shows that displayed new collections and clothing lines several months before their appearance in stores.

In the late 1990s, as shopping increasingly became a form of entertainment, discretionary spending on clothing increased. Fast fashion emerged, offering cheap, trendy knock-off garments, mass-produced at low cost. Consumers could wear something similar to what they saw on the runway.

Growth

Fast fashion was boosted by innovations in supply chain management (SCM) among fashion retailers. The assumption is that consumers want high fashion at a low cost. Fast fashion follows the concept of category management, linking the manufacturer with the consumer in a mutually beneficial relationship.

The size of the fast fashion market is projected to reach $197 billion by 2028.

Fast Fashion Leaders

Major players in the fast fashion market include UNIQLO, GAP, Forever 21, Topshop, Esprit, Primark, Fashion Nova, and New Look. Two of the leaders are:

Zara: Spanish retail chain Zara, the flagship brand of textile giant Inditex, is synonymous with fast fashion. Due to its short supply chain, Zara’s designers can have a finished piece appear on store racks in as little as four weeks. Or can modify existing items in as little as two weeks.

Over half of its factories are located near its corporate headquarters in A Coruña, Spain. It produces more than 11,000 pieces annually versus an industry average of 2,000 to 4,000 pieces.

H&M: Founded in 1947, Sweden-based H&M Group (short for Hennes & Mauritz ) is one of the oldest fast fashion companies. As of 2024, H&M Group operated in 76 countries and had over 4,200 stores.

H&M Group functions like a department store, selling clothing, cosmetics, and home furnishings. It does not own any factories but relies on independent suppliers for its products. H&M production offices oversee suppliers with state-of-the-art IT systems that track inventory and communicate with corporate HQ. The factories that it works with are based all over Europe, Asia, and North America.

The traditional clothing industry model operates seasonally, with Fall Fashion Week and Spring Fashion Week showcasing looks for the four traditional seasons. Fast fashion labels produce about 52 micro-seasons a year—or one new collection of clothes a week meant to be worn immediately.

Advantages and Disadvantages

Advantages

  • Profitable for manufacturers and retailers: The constant introduction of new products encourages customers to frequent stores more often, which means more purchases and growing revenue. The retailer does not replenish its stock—instead, it replaces items that sell out with new items.
  • Quick to consumers: Fast fashion enables buyers to get the clothes they want when they want them.
  • Makes clothes affordable: Smart, innovative, imaginative new clothes and fun or even impractical items have become more affordable and widely accessible to all consumers.

Disadvantages

  • Decline in domestic manufacturing: Fast fashion has contributed to a decline in the U.S. garment industry, where labor laws and workplace regulations are stronger, and wages are better than in other countries.
  • Encourages a “throw-away” consumer mentality: Fast fashion has been called disposable fashion. Many fast fashionistas in their teens and early twenties—the age group the industry targets—admit they only wear their purchases once or twice.
  • Bad for the environment: Critics contend that fast fashion contributes to pollution, waste, and planned obsolescence due to its cheap materials and manufacturing methods. The garments can’t be recycled because they’re made predominantly of synthetics (over 60%).
  • Unregulated labor practices: Manufacturers in developing countries with little regulation may not oversee subcontractors, enforce workforce rules, or be transparent about their supply chain.
  • Intellectual property theft: Some designers allege that their designs have been illegally duplicated and mass-produced by fast fashion companies.
Pros

  • Profitable for manufacturers and retailers

  • Offers fast, efficient delivery

  • Makes clothes affordable

Cons

  • Decline in domestic manufacturing

  • Encourages “throwaway” consumer mentality

  • Negatively impacts the environment

  • Unregulated labor practices

Impact on the Environment

Consumers may find it difficult to avoid products manufactured by companies that practice fast fashion. However, they can investigate fast fashion brands to see if they use sustainable processes and support fair labor practices. They can determine for themselves the impact that fast fashion may have on the environment and people who work in the industry.

Shopping for clothes at secondhand stores helps to reduce the amount of garment waste and to extend usage.

According to statistics from the United Nations Environment Programme and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation:

  • The fashion industry uses 93 billion cubic meters of water per year.
  • It takes 3,781 liters of water to make one pair of jeans.
  • Of all the wastewater in the world, 20% is from textile dyeing and is highly toxic—many countries where clothes are made have reduced or zero regulations for wastewater disposal.
  • Microplastic fibers used in clothing make their way to the ocean, amounting to about 500,000 tons—close to 50 billion plastic bottles.
  • Fashion manufacturing emits more than 10% of global carbon emissions.

What Is Slow Fashion?

Slow fashion—a concept first introduced in 2008 by fashion and sustainability consultant Kate Fletcher—uses environmentally friendly processes and materials through mindful manufacturing, focusing on quality rather than quantity. Mindful manufacturing, an idea championed by 3D printing company Stratasys, is the concept of developing more efficient production, sound chemical and solid waste disposal practices, reusable materials, and recycled packaging.

What Are Some Fast Fashion Examples?

Some examples of companies in fast fashion are Stradivarius, Victoria’s Secret, Urban Outfitters, and Zara.

Who Benefits From Fast Fashion?

Consumers who enjoy the latest fashion with the advantage of low prices benefit, but the primary beneficiaries are investors, owners, and other stakeholders who profit from the practice.

The Bottom Line

Fast fashion increases consumer spending and profits. It satisfies the consumer’s need to participate in a fashion trend. However, critics say the industry contributes to climate change, pesticide pollution, and waste. The debate around fast fashion and its alternatives will continue as long as consumers seek to buy the latest styles at low prices and rapid replenishment rates.

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