Fast fashion is the practice of rapidly translating high fashion design trends into low-priced garments and accessories by mass-market retailers at low costs. There are a number of elements that are key to the fast fashion process, namely: the price of the garments and accessories; the method and timeline of manufacturing; the trend-based nature and disposability of the clothes themselves.
The fast fashion model has developed from a product-driven concept based on a manufacturing model referred to as “quick response,” developed in the U.S. in the 1980s. This moved to a market-based model of “fast fashion” in the late 1990s and the early part of the 21st century. (Wiley). It has since come to occupy a very profitable position in the market.
The fashion apparel industry has significantly evolved, particularly over the past several decades. The evolution of manufacturing and consumption has resulted in the intake of “400 percent more clothing today than we did 30 years ago. That shift from mid-market to fast fashion has also tracked a shift from domestic production to cheaper overseas locations from Hong Kong, to mainland China and now to even lower cost centers including Vietnam and Bangladesh.” (CNBC).
“The changing dynamics of the fashion industry have forced retailers to desire low cost and flexibility in design, quality, and speed to market, key strategies to maintain a profitable position in the increasingly demanding market.” (ResearchGate). Fast fashion retailers both meet and fuel this demand by marketing “apparel that may not be made with the finest quality materials to last a life-time, but that is cooler and far more affordable.” (CNN).
Elements of Fast Fashion
i. Price: The widespread availability of low-cost garments and apparel is a distinguishing factor for fast fashion retailers. “The fast fashion business model is based on reducing the time cycles from production to consumption such that consumers engage in more cycles in any time period.” Spain-based Zara, the world’s largest fast fashion retailer, has prices similar to those of the Gap: coats for $200, sweaters for $70, T-shirts for $30, and denim for $69. This is markedly more expensive than H&M, the Swedish-based company, which offers most coats for $69 (though some go for as low as $29), sweaters for between $29 and $34, t-shirts for $5.99, and denim for $19.99. Forever 21, the Los Angeles-based brand, is priced comparatively to H&M. It’s new concept store, Forever 21 Red, however, offers even lower prices, such as camisoles starting at $1.80, jeans at $7.80, tees at $3.80, and leggings at $5.80.
Irish retailer Primark offers some of the lowest prices in the industry. Its first U.S. store features a selection of jeans for $7, t-shirts for $3.50 and tank tops for a mere $1.60, prices that are lower than all of its fast-fashion rivals, analysts say. The retailer boasts prices that are 40% less than H&M’s and 75% less than Gap Factory stores’, according to analysts at Goldman Sachs.
Costs are largely reduced by taking advantage of lower prices in markets in developing countries. “In 2004 developing countries accounted for nearly 75 percent of all clothing exports and the removal of several import quotas has allowed companies to take advantage of the even lower cost of resources.” (Bruce, Margaret, and Lucy Daly. “Buyer behavior for fast fashion.” Journal of Fashion Marketing and Management). Workers in Bangladesh, where 80 percent of the country’s exports are apparel, currently earn the lowest minimum wage in the world, taking home about $43 a month. Chinese factory workers make slightly more: $117 to $147 a month. In contrast, American garment workers earn about $9 an hour, taking home $1,660 a month. (http://bust.com).
ii. Manufacturing Timeline and Availability: A significant point of differentiation between fast fashion retailers and non-fast fashion brands is the rapid rate of manufacturing. “The fast fashion business model is based on reducing the time cycles from production to consumption such that consumers engage in more cycles in any time period.” (Hines, Tony. 2001. “Globalization: An introduction to fashion markets and fashion marketing.”)
While the fashion industry largely operates on a seasonal calendar, fast fashion retailers deliver new garments and accessories to their stores every four to six weeks, sometimes even more frequently. Inditex brand stores (including Zara), for instance, receive deliveries of new clothes twice a week. This is significantly quicker than Salvatore Ferragamo, for example, which has centralized inventory and established computer links to suppliers , cutting the design-to-delivery cycle by 20 percent, to 10 weeks – making it one of the most speed-forward houses in the upper echelon of fashion.
The rapid speeds of delivery for which fast fashion retailer are known are largely based on the location of their manufacturers. For Zara and other similarly situated brands, “The trendiest items are made closest to home, however, so that the production process, from start to finish, takes only two to three weeks.” (NY Times). While manufacturing in local markets – such as Spain for Zara or Los Angeles for Forever 21 – may be more costly than more far-flung locations, such Bangladesh or Cambodia (which offer significantly cheaper labor), these higher labor costs are offset by greater flexibility. Items are produced in lower quantities and so, no extra inventory is left lying around and subsequently offered up at sale prices.
In addition to the widespread availability of fast fashion garments due to the brands’ rapid manufacturing turnaround times, their garments and accessories are physically widely available due to volume of goods produced and the companies’ penetration of the market both by way of e-commerce stores and brick and mortar locations. In 2012, Inditex, for instance, was making “840 million garments a year with around 5,900 stores in 85 countries, though that number is always changing – Inditex has in recent years opened more than a store a day, or about 500 stores a year. Right now there are around 4,400 stores in Europe, and almost 2,000 in Spain alone.” (NY Times, 2012).
Forever 21 “operates over 600 stores throughout the U.S. and in Canada, Europe, Japan, Korea, and the Philippines.” (Forbes). “H&M manufactures at least 600 million items each year and operates more than 3,200 stores in 55 countries. If you include its subsidiary brands, such as COS, that number jumps above 3,500 stores, and the company is expanding its locations by 10% to 15% each year.” (Quartz).
iii. Trend-based: As indicated above, the vast majority of fast fashion retailers stock trend-based garments and accessories, particularly those derived from the most recent runway collections at any given time. Due to the speed of manufacturing, fast fashion retailers are able to get their garments and accessories, which are commonly line-for-line copies of designer goods, to stores long before the actual designer. “Fast fashion poses a threat since its logic is based on copying the designs of high-end producers and quickly diffusing them—sometimes even before the high-end goods, which are based on a complicated and high quality supply chain, are distributed. As such, it mines the overall investment in style by design departments of high end producers.” (US News).
This model of manufacturing and marketing thrives on constant change and the frequent availability of new products. The continuous release of new, trend-drive products essentially makes the inventory a highly cost effective marketing tool that drives consumer visits, increases brand awareness, and results in higher rates of consumer purchases. One soruce reports: “Fast fashion companies have also enjoyed higher profit margins in that their markdown percentage is only 15% compared to competitors’ 30% plus.” (Hines, Tony. 2001. “Globalization: An introduction to fashion markets and fashion marketing.”). To keep customers coming back, high street retailers routinely source new trends in the field, and purchase on a weekly basis to introduce new items and replenish stock (Tokatli and Kizilgun 2009).
“It’s not uncommon for shoppers to wear items once or twice before discarding them. Sometimes, it’s not even a choice because the garments are so poorly made that they fall apart after only a few wears.”
iv. Disposability: Disposability plays a key role in fast fashion. “Fast fashion has paved the way for outright disposable fashion. It’s not uncommon for shoppers to wear items once or twice before discarding them. Sometimes, it’s not even a choice because the garments are so poorly made that they fall apart after only a few wears.” (US News).
Labor Concerns Associated with Fast Fashion
A number of tragedies have been directly connected to the production of fast fashion and its lower manufacturing and labor costs. In order to offer low cost clothing, fast fashion retailers source garments and accessories from factories in countries where labor costs are extremely low. For years, this was largely in China. However, “factory workers in China are increasingly pressing for higher wages. Companies have responded by moving production into places where wages are even lower, like Bangladesh.” (NPR).
India, Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Turkey, among others, have become popular locations for the sourcing of fast fashion garments and accessories. However, such countries largely lack the sophisticated manufacturing infrastructure of China. Per Maxine Bédat, co-founder of Zady: “Low cost means low regulation. Governments in today’s textile producing countries have little oversight into what happens in their factories.” (CNBC).
This extends to labor conditions and wages. The health of laborers “is affected by the chemicals used to produce the cheap fabrics made into T-shirts that are snapped up for $5 in Western stores.” (BI). Moreover, “in the rush to fill the void, tragedy has sometimes ensued.” (NPR).
Most significantly, in April 2013, “the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, in which more than 1,100 garment workers died, showed the lengths to which manufacturers will subvert zoning, labor and safety requirements to score contracts and keep inventories full of on-trend fashions at bargain-basement prices.” (Al Jazeera).
On the heels of the Rana Plaza building collapse, safety problems are still extremely widespread: “A recent inspection of Bangladesh garment factories was conducted in connection with the Accord for Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a legally binding agreement between international trade unions IndustriALL and UNI Global, Bangladesh trade unions, and international brands and retailers. The round of inspections took place at 1,106 factories used by 150 Western brands, and resulted in the identification of 80,000 safety-related problems. Per the Accord for Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, safety hazards were found in every factory inspected, with nearly 20 factories being labeled as bearing a heightened risk of collapse, and 110 other factories were deemed to have notable structural issues.” (TFL).
For over two years beginning in 2011, Zara was under investigation for the use of slave labor and sweatshop conditions in factories in Argentina and Brazil. In 2011, the “Spanish high-street retailer [was] accused of allegedly accepting slave-labor working conditions supplanted by more than 30 of its outsourced plants running in Brazil.” (Forbes). Bolivian immigrant workers “were caught in slave-like conditions in garment production for the Galicia-based company, which is part of the Inditex group.” (Forbes).
Less than two years later, “immigrant workers, including children, were discovered by the workers’ rights group, La Alameda, producing clothes for Zara in ‘degrading’ sweatshop conditions, investigators claimed […] They were not registered and they were living in terrible conditions. They had no official documents and were held against their will, they were not allowed to leave their workplaces without permission.” (Telegraph).
In October 2014, textiles mills in the Tamil Nadu area of India have been accused of employing forced labor and have been linked to major fast fashion giants including H&M, Primark and C&A. According to “Flawed Fabrics,” a report from the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations and the India Committee of the Netherlands, which was compiled “through a mixture of desk research and interviews with workers,” an array of core labor rights are being violated. Girls and young women are “being lured from their home villages [at as young as age 15] by false promises” and are working under “appalling, prison-like conditions” in which the women are often bonded. (TFL).
In early 2014, at least four people were killed and more than 20 were injured when police outside Cambodia’s capital opened fire to break up a protest by striking garment workers. Wages in the garment-manufacturing sector in Cambodia remain low by international standards. In October 2015, Government officials in Cambodia announced that they will raise the minimum wage for clothing workers by 9.4% to $140 a month, hoping to ease tensions in the country’s main export industry. The new wages take effect at the beginning of 2016, but the increase falls short of the $160 a month wage proposed by unions. (TFL)
Environmental/Sustainability Concerns Associated with Fast Fashion
Fast fashion is, by its very nature, “a fast-response system that encourages disposability.” (Fletcher 2008). With brands like H&M “producing hundreds of millions of garments per year,” there is a growing public consensus that the mass production of so much cheap clothing is an enormous waste of resources such as fuel and water. (NPR). As an industry, “Fast fashion depletes the Earth’s resources and uses slave labor all over the world.” (Vogue).
In addition to a lack of regulation in terms of working and safety conditions and wages, environmental and related regulations stemming from the use of chemicals and pollutants are lax in low cost centers of manufacturing. As such, “textile companies just keep engines roaring, running largely on coal, while they systematically dump their chemicals untreated back into their local water. This has all added up to the apparel industry being the second most polluting industry in the world, behind only the oil sector.” (CNBC).
And the side effects do not stop there. The increase in production of garments and accessories has lead to an increase in waste: “Inevitably, much of this excess finds its way into landfills. In the US alone more than 10.5 million tons of clothes end up in landfills each year, and even natural fibers may not break down easily.” (Quartz).
This blog is part of a month-long focus around sustainable fashion across HuffPost UK Style and Lifestyle. Here we aim to champion some of the emerging names in fashion and shine a light on the truth about the impact our appetite for fast fashion has around the world.
Garment factories in poor countries might look dirty and dangerous to westerners, but in fact, they are one of our best hopes for poverty reduction and human development.
The strangest thing about the debate about “fast fashion” and garment factories in poor countries is that it carries on as if there were no research on the subject. Western activists rail against “sweatshops”, but among researchers and economists from left to right there is a consensus that these jobs are the stepping stones out of poverty. All countries that have managed to industrialize its economy and combat poverty in modern times have done so by moving into such labor-intensive exports markets.
Again and again we are supplied with examples of bad working conditions and lousy wages in garment factories in Cambodia and Bangladesh. These countries are incredibly poor compared to the west, and it is easy to create a shocking impression by putting footage of poor workers side by side with footage of spoiled brats wearing their clothes. But that is just lazy sensationalism. If you want to improve the lives of the poor you must analyze how those jobs affect their situation and the economies of those countries.
In fact, few countries have seen such rapid progress as Bangladesh and Cambodia in the last decade, according to the World Bank. The number of extremely poor in Bangladesh fell from 44 to 26 million between 2000 and 2010, despite the population growing by 15 million. Since 2004, the level of poverty in Cambodia has more than halved, from 52 to just over 20 percent. It is “one of the best performers in poverty reduction worldwide”, according to the World Bank.
This is a stunning success in the countries that need it the most, and the export sector has been instrumental in bringing it about. It increases the workers’ productivity, and therefore also their wages and working conditions, which has been especially important for women. In a study from the International Food Policy Research Institute, the researchers show that the increase in Bangladeshi wages from the garment sector “dwarfed” the rise attributed to government programs.
In its report on Cambodia, the World Bank says that if more people are to benefit from this positive development, there is a solution that will make every critic of globalization think it is a typo: “Use the same working conditions that are found in the clothing factories and apply them to other industries.”
And the most important thing is that the new knowledge and technology these factories bring in facilitate the creation of new companies and industries. The garment industry in Bangladesh was kick-started in 1979 when a local entrepreneur and South Korea’s Daewoo trained 130 workers in modern production. In 1987, Bangladesh had hundreds of garment-export factories, exports had surged and 115 of the original 130 workers had left to start their own businesses.
Obviously even the best jobs in very poor countries look bad compared to what we are used to in Europe and America, but that is not the alternative in an economy at a low level of capital and education. As a worker I interviewed in Vietnam once put it, the main complaint to management was that she wanted the factories to expand so that her relatives could get the same kinds of jobs.
One may well bemoan the fact that progress is not being made even more quickly. I can understand that. I also want everything – now! But things are moving faster than ever, and it is happening because of the very industries the activists have reserved their special contempt for. The world needs more jobs like these, not fewer.
*This story first appeared on HuffPost UK Lifestyle blog here.
Cambodia-based eco-fashion brand Tonlé are all about zero-waste production. They are currently the largest ethical apparel brand in the country, offering fair wages and a secure working environment since 2013. Their motivations stem from what they refer to on their website as the “enormous global problem” of excess waste material when factories value profit over the environment. From the get-go Tonlé decided to make this waste fabric their main component in their designs. Around 90% of their materials are recycled from factories and 10% are from sustainable suppliers with the aim of having a minuscule environmental footprint and maximum social benefit. They say that through their production methods they save 22,046 pounds of materials from ending up in landfills, in comparison to the average manufacturer. Having recently launched a hugely successful new kickstarter campaign they are getting their beautiful and eco-friendly garments out to a wider audience.
Check out their campaign page and website for a full look at their work.