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If you were a Trendseeker five years ago, you would have been all over the world of ‘Fast Fashion.’ Traditionally, the production cycle for clothing required at least six months from concept to production. Clothing retailers built their factories and marketing processes around that model and were comfortable with it.
However, responding to consumer demands for quicker (and vastly cheaper) access to catwalk fashions, fast fashion disrupted the traditional model and accelerated that process to just weeks. And, they did it with competitive pricing. Regular consumers could finally wear the newest trends within weeks of seeing them in the media rather than waiting for this year’s spring fashions to show up next spring.
Zara was an early contender in the fast fashion industry when they opened their first US store in 1990. They boldly announced they would take just 15 days for a garment to go from concept to completion. H&M, too, flourished by jumping on the affordable, fast fashion trend. Both of these companies greatly undercut the top clothing brands that had traditionally succeeded with their more trendy products. Fast fashion was a fast success with consumers.
But once again, Trendseekers spotted several movements and anticipated a new development. First, more and more research confirmed that millennial and Gen Z consumers were seekers of experiences, not stuff. In this vein, cultural influencers like Marie Kondo were teaching people to “love our stuff” and appreciate what we already have. We didn’t need to buy so much new stuff.
Second, viral images from around the world had begun to surface, images that showcased our waste piling up and polluting the environment. We saw pictures of waterways congested with garbage and sea creatures that had died after becoming tangled in or unknowingly ingesting garbage. The amount of waste we produce is now a key public concern (30%), second only to global warming (37%).
Where does fast fashion come into play with pollution? Partly thanks to Elizabeth L. Cline’s 2012 book Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, consumers learned about the huge, and negative, impact fast fashion has had on our environment. The availability of more affordable clothing has allowed more people to buy more clothes more often – and discard last season’s trends more quickly with more indifference. The increased production and discard of those clothes has led to increased pollution from their production and the decay of the synthetic materials over time.
Millennial and Gen Z consumers discovered that short-lived catwalk trends are simply not sustainable and are rebelling against them. After sitting on more than $4 billion in unsold product and reduced profits for six quarters in a row, H&M announced the closure of 160 stores, quite a fall for the world’s second-largest clothing manufacturer. In fact, 73% of millennials are willing to pay more for products that are sustainable. So long fast fashion.
Rather than embracing fast fashion, consumers of all ages and demographics are moving back towards investing in more classic styles which last longer. Uniqlo, the No. 3 player, is taking advantage of this new trend by focusing on “timeless basics.” Successful brands are now pivoting from trendy to stylish.
Disrupting a complacent industry with fast fashion made H&M and Zara the successes they are today but their complacency about the waste and pollution they created may be their own undoing. If they had paid more careful attention to ever evolving consumer trends, they might have spotted these trends early enough to adjust their business strategy and avoid the negative outcome. Complacency was their undoing.