In recent times, there has been an increase in the use of the term “fast fashion” especially among the youth. Brands like Zara and H&M top the list. ‘Fast fashion’ refers to clothing that is inexpensive, trendy and rapidly produced. This kind of clothing is usually heavily inspired from celebrity culture and the ramps of fashion shows. According to MarketLine, a business information company, the global apparel industry has been growing at a 4.78% yearly rate since 2011. Now valued at nearly $1.4 trillion dollars (in terms of sales) in 2017, the industry shows no signs of slowing as the market is projected to experience 5.91% annual growth over the next three years. Simply put, this means that the average consumer in the world is now buying more than 1.5 times the amount of apparel they did just 6 years ago.[i] This article will decode the mechanisms that go behind making the fast fashion industry what it is today by looking closely at the working of one of the top players in the field, Zara.
The clothing company, Zara, has more than 2,200 stores in 96 countries and is the flagship brand of the Inditex Group. As of May 2018, it has a brand value of $13 Billion and sales of more than $18.9 Billion. [ii] Moreover, in an industry of apparel where the average rate of industry waste or unsold items is 20%, Zara stands at the lowest percentage of only 10% in waste stock.
The creation of an empire as large as Zara can be narrowed down to its most successful business strategy-centralization. Zara owns its entire supply chain- from design and production to distribution and retail. The timelines of its entire supply chain are set centrally. The loading of the trucks, delivery of the clothes, etc. happens at a fixed time that every single person in the supply chain is aware of. Products are delivered to stores within 24 hours, making it easy for the company to feed into the fast fashion demands of the customers as soon as they start ‘trending’. The clothes are delivered with price tags are already on, making them ready to be sold as soon as they reach the shop.
Another successful business strategy is that of demand forecasting. This involves making estimations about the future of customer demands using historic customer demand trends. Along with this, the company also follows what is known as ‘Just-In-Time Production (JIT)’. It commits six months in advance to only 15 to 25 percent of a season’s line. And it only locks in 50% refers to 60% of its line by the start of the season, meaning that up to 50% of its clothes are designed and manufactured right in the middle of the season.[iii] If a certain style or design suddenly becomes popular, Zara reacts quickly by designing new styles and getting them into stores while the trend is still peaking, satisfying seasonal demand and thus, profiting on changing customer preferences. Relying on these strategies, Zara has established itself as one of the most valuable brands of the world. However, a series of widespread acts of protests in 2017 by its workers revealed a side of the ‘fast fashion’ industry that often goes unnoticed.
The success of a fast fashion model depends on low production costs. This often translate into low-paid workers and unsafe working conditions in the clothing industry revealed to the world in 2017, when the workers at Zara started to slip notes claiming to be overworked with not enough pay in the company’s products. The company has also been sued multiple times for bad working conditions and accused of using both slave/ child labor, as well as exploiting Syrian refugees. It is important to note that these protests of exploitation aren’t limited to just Zara but are common in the ‘fast fashion’ industry.
These instances of exploitation aren’t limited to Zara. The deadliest garment-industry accident in history, the Rana Plaza collapse, occurred in Bangladesh. Bangladesh’s minimum wage is a measly $68 per month. In 2013, Rana Plaza, a building in Bangladesh that housed five garment factories, collapsed, killing more than 1,100 people and injuring thousands more.[iv] This tragedy was seen as a wake-up call, one that would permanently decrease the kind of exploitation that happens in the making of fast fashion clothing, yet, no significant action was taken. Only 17 brands signed the Apparel and Footwear Supply Chain Transparency Pledge and since then the several instances of industry fires, worker’s protests and complaints of exploitation have continued.[v]
In addition to the exploitation of its workers, the environmental effects of the industry suggest that ‘fast fashion’ is driving the society towards a bleak future. It’s a relatively recent phenomenon, but its rapid expansion over a short time—fast fashion retailers grew by 9.7% between 2010 and 2015—is deeply concerning from a sustainability perspective.[vi] Globally, we now consume about 80 billion new pieces of clothing every year—400% more than we were consuming just two decades ago. But at the same time, an average UK shopper only wears 70 per cent of what’s in their wardrobe and throws out 70 kilograms of textile waste annually. The reason- the ‘fast fashion’ industry. The growth of the fast fashion industry and its quick changing trends amounts for a massive growth in the number of clothes that are consumed and thrown away by people. A recent study by the Ellen McArthur Foundation found that one garbage truck worth of textiles is wasted every second. And the Copenhagen Fashion Summit reported that fashion is responsible for 92 million tons of solid waste dumped in landfills each year.[vii]The ‘fast fashion’ industry is the biggest in the world- accounting for 2% of the GDP. Unfortunately, it’s also now one of the biggest polluters in the world—second only to oil[viii].
It is evident that there is a need to rethink
the way in which we produce and consume fashion. There is a need for a globally
agreed, industry wide minimum wage and safety standards along with punitive consequences
for brands that don’t meet these expectations. The “No-waste” economy that has
gained popularity in the food industry needs to be applied to the fashion
industry, as well.[ix]
We need action at each stage of the supply chain, starting with sustainable
sourcing of fabrics, through to design, exploration of possible alternatives to
distribution, and recovery and recycling of clothing. There is a new wave of
‘Circular Fashion’ that is coming up which focuses on increasing the use of
recycles raw materials in the fashion industry. However, there is also a need
of this awareness among consumers as well- to buy clothing of materials that
are sustainable and not for ‘use and throw’. The inexpensive clothing that the
fast fashion industry claims to sell comes at the cost of its workers. The
trends it claims to make accessible to the consumers comes at the cost of the
environment- and there is thus an immediate need for it to slow down, because
these costs aren’t something the world will ever be able to afford.