eCommerce: Fast Fashion Pros and Cons

Fast Fashion Analysis: Fast Fashion Versus Fair Fashion

Fashion and eCommerce have been linked since the emergence of online marketplaces. There are undeniable advantages to the convenience of shopping for clothes online, including the ability to choose from a wide range of products and find the best deals on stylish items. But low prices come at a cost. Our analysis looks at the details.

Article by Nadine Koutsou-Wehling | October 27, 2023


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Despite the challenges of fitting clothes online, the missing hands-on sensation of feeling materials, and – most of all – waste concerns, fashion online sales make up a considerable portion of worldwide eCommerce revenues. Consumers continue to flock to online platforms in search of the best deals on trendy clothing, and the market continues to evolve, most lately relying on a hybrid model to more conveniently integrate offline and online shopping experiences.

The global online fashion market and its fast fashion players are facing criticism, but not all is bad by default. However, the problems, particularly related to the inherent trade-off between affordability and sustainability, do not have ready-made solutions. Here is why.

What Is Fast Fashion?

Fast fashion, much like its culinary counterpart fast food, operates on a swift production cycle, aims for rapid consumption, but ultimately leaves all parties dissatisfied. Fast fashion refers to a modern, yet simple retail approach.

It emphasizes speed and low-cost production, allowing fashion trends to be swiftly translated from the runway to retail stores. Fast fashion brands often employ cheap labor and prioritize profit over sustainability and ethical practices. This business model encourages consumers to purchase large quantities of clothing, resulting in a disposable fashion culture with negative environmental and social impacts.

Fast fashion revenues are soaring, as evidenced by online retailer Shein, which is projected to reach US$36.5 billion in net sales by 2023 with its domain. Shein's main market is the United States, which accounts for about half of its revenues.

Origins of Fast Fashion

The approach is not new, but nowadays it has become an economic behemoth. Originated in Spain in the mid-20th century, Spanish entrepreneur Amancio Ortega Gaona popularized this method with his company Inditex in the early 1960s, positioning the fashion retailer Zara as one of the first and most famous brands to adopt this strategy.

Zara's ability to swiftly introduce new clothes into the market after opening its store in New York in the 1990s left a lasting impression on other fashion brands. This approach, combined with eCommerce, further accelerated production speed, attracting companies like Vans and Levi Strauss to adopt the model in pursuit of increased customer demand. Fast fashion has significantly evolved – it is faster; hence, technology and logistics have advanced to another level.

Fast Fashion Also Has Its Advantages in eCommerce

Despite the media's primary focus on the downsides of the fast fashion model, there are also benefits to making clothing affordable and accessible to a vast segment of the global population. 

Cheaply produced garments can be sold at prices that even lower-income consumers can afford. The advent of eCommerce further enhances this accessibility. As the styles are attuned to current trends, it reduces the impact of classism among consumers, allowing them to participate in the latest fashion trends at prices that suit their financial capabilities. One example is the recent trend of "quiet luxury" on social media and online fashion outlets, which ironically makes available a style of clothing that originally derives its appeal from its inaccessibility.

Statista's 2023 consumer survey revealed that most respondents across all income categories in the U.S. look for special offers when shopping online. Interestingly, the importance of dressing well increases with income, but still holds some significance for those in the bottom third income bracket, at 35%. Only a small percentage of high-income individuals completely avoid fast fashion (18%), with this percentage being even lower across all other income tiers.

Fashion Attitudes Among U.S. Online Shoppers, by Income

Fast Fashion Creates Jobs, But...

One advantage of outsourcing labor to developing countries is that garment factories often offer safer job alternatives than farming or prostitution. China exemplifies a country that utilized cheap labor to significantly reduce its poverty rate between 1981 and 2010. Now, after decades of producing goods for the West, Chinese businesses are launching their own products, tailored to Western tastes. Shein is one such example, with its heavy social media marketing and real-time demand monitoring model, refining the fast fashion model in its 6,000 Chinese factories. 

On the other hand, fast fashion's affordability often comes at the expense of garment industry workers, who work for wages below the poverty line. In many cases, safety conditions are insufficient, and allegations of child labor are not uncommon.

The market for garment factories is further said to be oversaturated, decreasing their bargaining power, as brands can simply switch suppliers when problems arise. Moreover, the industry is known for copying designs from high-end and small enterprise businesses, which reduces the profit they make for the effort they put into creating styles.

The Age of eCommerce

Shein's successful business model, while not entirely novel or unique, has sparked renewed criticism of the fast and disposable fashion trend. The company's staggering product variety, at 20 times that of competitors like H&M and Zara, brings the problems associated with this high-output model to light, notably its harmful effects for the environment.

Fast Fashion is Bad for the Environment

From production to consumption, each step in the fashion supply chain presents environmental hazards with cumulative negative effects. Manufacturing clothes in large amounts results in higher water usage and pollution, particularly when it comes to dyeing and producing yarns and fibers.

If clothing is sold at prices that do not deter consumers from leaving items unworn and eventually discarding them, it can encourage a throwaway mindset, contributing to landfill problems. The Statista chart shown above reveals that never wearing bought clothing is common among 24% of high-income and 17% of low-income online shoppers in the U.S.

If a significant proportion of consumers are not actively utilizing the clothing they purchase (like the chart suggests), it could show an oversaturation of the market or an unsustainable level of production. Especially when items are purchased for only a few dollars each, never wearing the clothing may not feel like wasteful behavior and pieces are easily forgotten. Another problem is that the return effort may not be worth the low cost of the items, making it more profitable for companies to throw away returned – and essentially unworn – products.

Paradox: The Disconnect Between Production and Consumption

Although many consumers express concern about the negative impact of their fast fashion consumption, the gap between their attitudes and behaviors persists, a phenomenon known as the "fashion paradox". A Zalando survey conducted in 2021 highlights this divide. While a majority of users state their desire to avoid contributing to landfills and recognize the value of second-hand shopping, significantly fewer say they regularly shop second-hand (25%) or repair their clothing (23%).

Attitudes Toward Sustainable Fashion Among Gen Z and Gen Y in Western Europe

Fast fashion retailers like Zara, H&M, Shein, Mango, Forever21, Topshop, Primark, and others leverage social media marketing to make their clothing appear more desirable and attainable, aided by influencers promoting their products. This, combined with affordability, easy accessibility, and trendy designs, particularly appeals to young consumers or those in economically challenging situations, who may not be able to afford more sustainable options or believe such alternatives aren't fashionable enough.

Customers Demand: Fast Fashion Needs to Change Now

Research suggests that consumers are generally skeptical of sustainable business practices due to numerous instances of companies exploiting changing mindsets for profit while maintaining the status quo. However, businesses can genuinely embrace this new way of thinking to avoid negative publicity and build trust with a broader customer base. Here is how: 

  • Offer Sustainable Options at Competitive Prices: For a business to be environmentally sustainable, it must operate without contributing to the long-term depletion of natural resources. This can be achieved by using biodegradable fabrics and providing clear and simple explanations to customers about what fabric descriptions entail. Product labels that succinctly indicate the level of water and carbon usage during production, as well as the recyclability of products, allow consumers to make informed choices about their purchases.

  • Reducing Waste by Improving Packaging and Engaging in ReCommerce: ReCommerce, especially popular among young people, is a sustainable alternative to sending cheap, barely used or items in good condition to landfills, which often happens for cost reasons. Brands can bolster their image by participating in the circular economy through initiatives like enhancing packaging for easy product returns and offering repair services. These steps not only reduce waste but also mitigate the issue of purchased items never being worn.

  • Leveraging Technological Innovations to Reduce Returns: With advancements like AR and VR technology, customers can now have a virtual try-on experience, helping to counter some of the drawbacks of eCommerce that may leave them dissatisfied with their purchases. In addition to helping shoppers assess whether they like the style of the clothing they are considering purchasing, augmented and virtual reality try-ons are engaging and fun, ultimately encouraging more users to try products.

  • Ensuring Ethical Labor Practices and Protecting Design Originality: Ethical labor conditions include fair wages and safe working conditions across the supply chain. Maintaining transparency about these production processes not only reinforces consumer trust, but also conveys the company’s commitment to ethical standards. Moreover, engaging with emerging talents from small and medium enterprises (SMEs) not only encourages design originality but also provides a platform for unique styles. 

reCommerce Is Better Than Fast Fashion

Fast fashion is a hot topic that was recently reignited by the emergence of ultra-fast fashion brands which brought the strategy of relaying customer demand to production facilities to an entirely new level, outperforming established brands in terms of quantity and price.

Although this business model has its upsides, such as enhanced efficiency of production capabilities and offering up-to-date fashion trends at affordable prices to everyone, there are significant drawbacks to this business model that overall outweigh the positives. Businesses can address the environmental and ethical problems of the fashion industry by using recyclable and biodegradable materials, adopt a reCommerce strategy, and support regulatory moves toward the ethical trading with garment factories in developing countries.

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Fast Fashion Analysis: Key Takeaways

The convenience and accessibility of fashion eCommerce is attracting more and more consumers to online platforms. In particular, affordable styles with trend-based collections produced in an immediate customer response model, the so-called fast fashion business model, continues to attract global attention. There are arguments for and against it, some of which are included in our key takeaways below.

Fast fashion is a production model that is based on producing large quantities of inexpensive and trend-driven clothing rapidly. 

The strategy’s main advantage is democratizing fashion through affordability and accessibility, its weaknesses are the environmental harm of cheap materials and production, as well as unethical labor practices and exploitation of garment factories. 

Businesses in eCommerce can find solutions by using biodegradable materials, reduce waste through efficient packaging and a reCommerce and/or repair strategy, as well as committing to fair labor practices, which can also help boost their brand image.  

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