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How Retailers Can Prepare For The Fast Fashion Backlash

Fast fashion, or clothing that is produced cheaply and en masse for disposable use, is on the decline. This means it’s time for a much-needed strategy change for clothing and accessory retailers.

In 1989, the New York Times first used the words “fast fashion” to describe the strategy that Zara, a clothing retailer, used to bring designs to life in under 15 days. This model has overtaken a large part of the clothing industry since, as it is highly profitable. Because shortening the time to market allows brands to capitalize on the latest buzz looks seen on TV and social media, it’s a model that drives massive sales – and massive waste as well.

However, consumers are becoming increasingly savvy about all the baggage of fast fashion. Behind the top that only costs $7.99 is a whole host of issues, stemming from environmental to human rights abuse to overconsumption. 

Fast fashion companies such as Zara and H&M contribute to 10% of humanity’s overall carbon emissions, according to a recent Business Insider report. Compromises in human rights and labor conditions have been associated with tragic disasters such as the 2013 Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh that caused 1,129 employees there to die. 

Consumer consciousness of these issues is growing. In the UK, for instance, over two-thirds of 16-24 year olds say they are trying to make more ethical fashion purchases, according to a Mintel survey. To weather this, retailers need to enact strategies to stay ahead of the upcoming pivot away from disposable fashion. 

To stay afloat in the years to come, clothing and accessory retailers – as well as those who are facing their own clothing line launches – must be prepared to both invest in sustainable trends, and know how to effectively message that to consumers who are beginning to care more than ever. 

Invest in Sustainable Trends

When fast fashion is on the decline, it makes sense to invest in items of clothing that shoppers will see as having longer shelf lives. Rather than chasing the latest trend, retailers should consider which items may be attractive to an audience who is looking for a piece that is immune to hype cycles. 

Retailers can expect that consumers will look for items they can wear both this year and in ten years, swap with friends, and even recycle. The trend of wearing something once for Instagram and then throwing it away is slowly decreasing. For instance, both the Duchess of Cambridge and the Duchess of Sussex are participating in the “Royal Rewear” cause. 

To meet demand for long-lasting looks, seek out timeless pieces that have remained popular for longer than a handful of seasons. 

For instance, style expert Kara Keigan notes in her recent blog post on large, round glasses that “Unlike other popular eyeglass frames styles, say cat eyes or aviators, round glasses have been around since the inception of eyeglasses.” 

Other examples include statement sleeves, ruffles and mid-length skirts, which Joanne M Kennedy, author for PIBE magazine, writes are “defying the odds and breaking away from the usual commandments of the fashion industry, lasting beyond their proposed shelf lives and evading to fall victim of the ‘fast fashion’ epidemic.”

As consumers begin to shift their buying patterns, retailers can anticipate and take advantage of this trend by providing items that have legs.

Commit to Communicating Sustainability

The next challenge retailers will face is in communicating their alignment with “slow fashion” to consumers. It’s critical not to simply stick a “sustainable” sticker on a storefront and assume that will be enough for consumers. 

Today there’s almost no federal guidance or regulation on which retailers can call themselves sustainable or eco-friendly. The result is that lots of brands now claim sustainability, and consumers grow desensitized to this messaging, making it less effective. “Fashion brands have few limits on what they can claim about a product beyond clearing the bare minimum of false advertising laws,” writes Danny Parisi in Glossy on the topic of “greenwashing.”

One way to achieve that trust and regain consumers’ beliefs is by getting a third party involved and receiving a B-corp certification.

B-corps, or benefit corporations, are “businesses that meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose,” according to the B-corp certifier’s website. In other words, it’s a corporation that has committed to doing good. This takes the messaging step a bit further and allows brands and retailers to communicate to consumers that they take their role in society seriously and can point to specific gains and metrics to prove it.

There are many ways to use B-corp messaging to prove that the retailer is truly sustainable. Retailers can pledge to use a percentage of sustainable materials, pay a fair wage to the employees who make the materials, outsource only to places with high standards for workplace safety. 

Consumers are reacting positively to this messaging shift, prompting more brands to take this route. According to research by McKinsey, the number of B-corps had risen to nearly 200 as of April 2018, compared with just seven in 2010.

In sum, it’s vital not to fumble the messaging. With a cynical and jaded pool of consumers who are tired of seeing the words “ecofriendly” without any meaning or additional context, B-corp certification allows retailers to gain back wary consumers with investments in sustainable trends.

The Fall of Fast Fashion Is Forthcoming

Famous fast fashion stores are in trouble like H&M and Zara, closing stores and reporting lowing revenue. Forever 21, which went bankrupt in several markets and closed stores in others, says “it wants to focus on the U.S. and making sure the quality of its clothes is up to par, which could win back shoppers,” according to CNBC.  Retailers who hoped to follow in their footsteps may see themselves facing similar woes. 

To avoid being part of the fallout, retailers must both walk the walk and talk the talk in order to reach consumers who are growing increasingly disillusioned with fast fashion.  


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