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Spanish apparel maker Zara is famed in the fashion world for starting a clothes production revolution. When most retailers were taking nine months to get a clothing item from the drafting table to the store, Zara was figuring out how to slash that time to a mere 15 days. The company made clothes so quickly that in 2005, Madonna fans showed up to a concert in knock-offs of the clothes the performer had worn just a few weeks earlier. Fast fashion was born.
Speed was a big part of the revolution, but so too was low cost and expendability. As quickly as fashionistas acquired new looks — fed in part by Zara’s production of a new collection every week, or 20,000 new designs each year — they were also tossing out the old. Why launder clothes when they’re so cheap to replace? On average, fast fashion customers discarded inexpensive dresses, shirts, and pants after wearing them as few as seven times. A limited shelf life was part of the allure.
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But a growing number of shoppers are having a change of heart. They are raising questions about the sustainability of the fast fashion model as awareness of the negative impact of a disposable culture grows. And they have begun acting on their environmental values as well as their personal styles.
Boosted by digital technologies, these options include sophisticated online outlets for reselling, renting, and repairing clothes. These business models reflect a fundamental rethinking of how we purchase clothing — celebrating upcycled clothes and creating a countertrend to fast fashion in the process.
How Textiles Became Perishables
Zara’s decades-long approach to fashion, made possible by integrating vertically and turbocharging logistics, has permeated the clothing industry. Other clothing manufacturers have emulated its model and seen similar success, including Sweden-based H&M, U.K.-based Boohoo, and Italy-based Benetton. The Chinese fast fashion company Shein (meaning “she inside”) is so popular that its app surpassed Amazon’s as the most downloaded shopping app in the U.S. in 2021. Shein uses digital technologies to control its production chain, continuously mining user data to see what customers are watching and liking, and offering iterations for sale.
The success of fast fashion helped double the size of the fashion industry between 2000 and 2014. In 2021, the fast fashion sector is expected to generate $31 billion globally, an increase of 22% from 2020 — which represents more than a full recovery of COVID-19-related losses — according to Research and Markets.
Youth are driving much of this growth. Spurred by YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, and other social media platforms, they want clothes that are both trendy and affordable. Sixty-one percent of Gen Zers (aged 24 and under) and 53% of millennials (ages 25-40) follow brands on social media, and a large number (49% and 38%, respectively) say they’ve made a clothing purchase based on a recommendation from a social media influencer, according to a 2021 survey.
Cycling quickly through the design-to-sale process is critical to the success of all apparel companies that employ the fast fashion model. Much like perishable produce in a grocery store, “old” clothing is quickly moved out to make room for the new, with merchandise discounted heavily or disposed of. The short selling cycle feeds an intense buy-it-now mentality because products don’t hang around.
The Take, Make, and Waste of Fast Fashion
Not surprisingly, the fast fashion model takes a heavy toll on the planet and its people. The textile industry is responsible for 20% of all industrial water pollution and 10% of carbon emissions. Extracting the needed resources comes at tremendous cost. Producing 1 pound of cotton uses, on average, 4,500 liters of water and up to 10,500 liters in less-efficient countries, such as India (a major cotton exporter). Growing cotton also is responsible for 16% of the insecticides used globally. Meanwhile, synthetic materials such as polyester are made largely from petroleum products, so producing them releases carbon and harms the environment.
Then there is the cost of manufacturing and maintaining clothes. Textile dying alone is responsible for 20% of all industrial water pollution, second only to agriculture. The more than 3,600 dyes used in fashion are poisonous, harming human, animal, and plant health. Meanwhile, approximately 35% of microplastics in the oceans come from people laundering their synthetic clothes.
And what happens to the textiles after all those resources are used to create them and all those contaminants are released into the environment? Some 87% of total fiber input used for clothing is put in a landfill or incinerated within a year.
Another issue is that poor working conditions for low-wage factory laborers routinely violate human rights. The Evening Standard reported in November 2017 on Zara factory workers in Turkey who secretly sewed notes into clothes to let customers know that they hadn’t been paid.
The 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in the Dhaka district of Bangladesh killed 1,134 people and attracted worldwide attention to dismal safety practices. The building housed five factories that manufactured apparel for brands, including Benetton, Primark, The Children’s Place, Walmart, and many others. When workers had complained about the massive cracks that were appearing in the walls days before the building gave way, they were threatened with losing a month’s pay if they didn’t report for their shifts.
After the catastrophe at Rana Plaza, the world’s attention focused on the need for better safety standards and a living wage for employees working in the textile industry. But according to a study by the University of Sheffield, “Whilst garment companies have made ambitious commitments to pay living wages in their global supply chains, they are falling short when it comes to meaningful action to implementing these commitments.”
Three Models for Slowing Down Fashion
As the world awakens to the consequences of unsustainable practices, new variations on old business models are generating more income by keeping textiles in the economy and out of landfills longer than under the fast fashion model. Resale, rental, and repair are all part of the circular economy, which seeks to extend the use of material products beyond what is typical.
Of course, the practices of reselling, renting, and repairing goods have been around forever. But all three are blossoming now because of clever applications of digital technology, customer engagement strategies, and platform models.
The Resale Model
People have long sold used clothing through flea markets, consignment stores, or nonprofit outlets such as Goodwill or Salvation Army thrift stores. The clothes may be gently preworn, but they’re offered at more affordable prices than brand-new items.
Online options for reselling clothes have blown open the market: An industry-sponsored report found that the resale sector grew 25 times faster than traditional retail in 2019. At this rate, the secondhand market could overshadow the fast fashion industry by 2030. This slower approach to fast fashion is clearly not just a fad.
Poshmark, an online social commerce marketplace that allows users to buy and sell new and used clothing, now boasts 50 million users. It went public on the Nasdaq in early 2021, with an initial valuation of more than $3 billion. Depop, another peer-to-peer social marketing app for selling and buying, targets a younger population, with 90% of its users under age 26. It was acquired by Etsy for $1.6 billion in mid-2021. (Etsy itself started as a community of craftspeople who were looking for an alternative to fast fashion.)
Online consignment store ThredUp takes a different approach. Instead of facilitating sales, the San Francisco-based company takes possession of clothes and manages all transactions. It sends people interested in reselling Clean Out Kits that include bags to fill with their used clothing and a shipping label to get the submissions to a processing center. Items are inspected for quality and then photographed and put into the online store. When an item is sold, the original owner can choose to receive a payout or a ThredUp store credit.
Customers are drawn to ThredUp’s attractive online portal, whose high-quality photography and design mimic those of traditional retailers. It boasts volume, with 15,000 new items posted every day. It has benefited from the decluttering movement fueled by influencers like Marie Kondo, author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, who have spawned a generation of consumers who genuinely believe that less is more and who are anxious to get possessions out of their homes. A new offering, called Resale-as-a-Service, has allowed ThredUp to capitalize on this trend by partnering with major retailers, such as Walmart, Gap, and Macy’s, which distribute the ThredUp Clean Out Kits in their physical stores.
The Rental Model
Generations of promgoers have rented tuxedoes for their big nights, and a smattering of independent stores have long offered rentals of bridal gowns. All of this was taken to the next level with Rent the Runway, an e-commerce company founded in 2009. It rents out apparel and accessories (eight to 16 items a month) through a monthly online subscription service and boasts the likes of actress-entrepreneur Gwyneth Paltrow among its board of directors.
Declaring openly that “we want you to buy less stuff,” Rent the Runway gives customers a “closet in the cloud.” Approximately 9 million subscribers can access a collection of over 15,000 styles. The service has grown more than 150% annually, and there is speculation the company will soon be launching an initial public offering.
Rent the Runway’s success has prompted brick-and-mortar retailers to try out the model. Urban Outfitters launched an $88-a-month rental service called Nuuly Rent in 2019 that offers items from its family of brands, which includes Anthropologie and Free People. Today, it also offers a resale marketplace called Nuuly Thrift for customers to sell to one another.
The Repair Model
The repair model takes back clothes to repair them before being returned to the owner or resold to others.
Patagonia has one of the most progressive repair models. It has long fought overconsumption and most businesses’ growth mindset, as demonstrated in its famous 2011 “Don’t Buy This Jacket” advertising campaign. In 2015, Patagonia’s then-CEO, Rose Marcario, wrote a manifesto for product longevity, titled “Repair Is a Radical Act.” She proposed that “the single best thing we can do for the planet is to keep our stuff in use longer.”
Patagonia publishes free repair guides for all of its products, and in addition to its 72 repair centers globally, it offers mobile repair stations at over 135 locations that repair items from any clothing brand. Since 2013, it has offered a program called Worn Wear, which offers customers an opportunity to trade their used Patagonia clothing for store credit and then repairs and resells those used garments. Within six months of opening, the program had generated $1 million in sales.
The company’s goals go beyond keeping items in circulation for longer. Its designers use the program to learn about and correct clothing flaws so that products require fewer repairs in the future. Patagonia seeks to build products that last lifetimes — the very antithesis of fast fashion.
This repair trend is pervasive in the outdoor apparel industry, whose customer market tends to care about the environment. The North Face launched its own repaired-goods line in 2018, called The North Face Renewed, while REI created a similar program, called Good & Used. A smattering of high-end brands also offer repair services, such as Eileen Fisher’s Renew program, which was launched in 2009.
Slow — but Not Easy
A large number of young buyers may be waking up to the environmental and societal costs of new clothes and seeking to match their styles with their values, but capitalizing on this market trend is not for the faint of heart. Slow fashion is costly to execute, and its margins are thin. Used clothing needs to be gathered, repaired, cleaned, and then redistributed. It is no wonder that many companies that pursue this business model either cater to the high end, where margins are robust, like Patagonia does, or to low-end resale companies, where volumes are large, like ThredUp.
The landscape is littered with companies that failed to capitalize on these sustainability-driven visions. Vancouver-based luxury apparel rental company Armarium discovered not only that the model’s shipping and dry cleaning operations are extremely expensive, but also that few people are willing to pay $300 to $500 to borrow high-end contemporary fashion. The company lasted only four years, despite a $5 million capital infusion from investors that included mainstream fashion retailer Tommy Hilfiger.
The environmental impact of these models can be high too. A recent study shows that greenhouse gas emissions that come with continually cleaning and delivering clothes in the rental model can be as high as those in fast fashion, depending on how many times consumers use the items.
In spite of these obstacles, many companies have figured out not only how to reduce the environmental impact of textiles, but how to make money doing so. It requires retailers to consider the environmental costs and social implications in the economic calculus and rethink the fast fashion business model.
Can Fast Fashion Be Made Sustainable? No.
Zara appears to have recognized the downside of fast fashion and has set goals to increase sustainability. In 2019, it announced that by 2025, 100% of its fabrics would be organic, sustainable, or recycled.
While admirable, this won’t fix the problem. Even if Zara’s textiles are made from “sustainable” sources, the company is catering to an insatiable market searching for the newest trends. The sources of supply aren’t the problem. It’s the waste created in the constant extraction, manufacture, and disposal of materials that are suffocating the planet.
As Earth warms, the appetite for fast fashion is certain to cool. Recent research by the Pew Research Center shows that millennials and Gen Zers are more engaged in climate change action than older generations. Some high-fashion designers, including Gucci, are offering explicitly “seasonless” clothes so that styles take longer to go out of fashion.
If fast fashion companies such as Zara are serious about tackling their environmental footprints, they must find a way to reduce waste throughout their supply chains, and at the end of a garment’s life. If they want to maintain their appeal to the growing numbers of socially and environmentally conscious consumers, they will need to grapple with something totally alien to their DNA: slowing a business model based on speed. Until they do, they will lose a growing segment of ecologically minded shoppers drawn to cleaner and more sustainable ways of expressing fashion creativity.
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