Will the Return of Fast-Fashion Impact the Future of Sustainable Fashion

by | 25 May 2021

Fast fashion’s original intent was to bring runway design trends to mainstream shoppers at an affordable price point. The concept made a splash in the 90s when apparel retailer Zara referred to fast fashion as the speed to market in which clothing was designed and shipped to stores. We’re pretty sure no one could have guessed how quickly the trend would inspire shoppers to turn over the contents of their closets.

With the absence of couture to mimic, the pandemic curtailed fast fashion’s popularity, accelerated the conversation around conscious consumerism, and brought much-needed transparency into supply chain operations. In 2019, we highlighted the efforts of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a global initiative that collaborates with companies like Apple, H&M, IKEA, Nike and Unilever to “accelerate the transition to a circular economy.” Since then, several startups and nonprofits have cropped up to monitor the fashion industry’s overall impact on the environment. Organizations like Sustain Your Style, created to inform fashion consumers about sustainable brands and retail marketplaces, and crowdsourced data from Fashion Revolution and the Open Apparel Registry, offer transparency into retailers’ supply chain facilities worldwide.

With so much concern about the future of sustainable fashion, we can’t help but wonder if consumers will change their minds about their post-pandemic wardrobes, sparking a fast fashion resurgence. One of the largest fast-fashion retailers in China, Shein, targets the fluid digital Gen Z shopper leveraging top Instagram and TikTok influencers to drive purchase decisions. Shein’s product line offers super inexpensive products–nearly half the cost of Zara and Uniqlo each week, which speaks to Gen Z’s expectations about retail value and choice.

In a recent survey of the most valuable fashion brands for 2020-2021, fast-fashion retailers Zara, H&M and Uniqlo ranked in the top 10, joining a long list of luxury retailers. Discussions about the future of fashion have already begun, with insiders suggesting Americans will be trading in their sweatpants for dressier ensembles and blending high-low fashion items. Celebrities have already taken to the idea of pairing fast-fashion designs with luxe accessories, and many have inked deals with fast-fashion retailers sending mixed messages on the importance of curbing the fast-fashion habit.

The reality is that the global fast-fashion market is lucrative. Analysts estimate its market value to exceed $43 billion by 2029. Last year, perpetrated by the coronavirus, the industry experienced a $2.1 trillion retail loss and is just beginning to recoup as non-essential retail reopens across the country.

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