By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She now spends much of her time in Asia and is currently working on a book about textile artisans.
The fast fashion juggernaut just keeps rolling, rolling, rolling along.
The latest casualty– one of the sector’s pioneers.
As Elizabeth Cline wrote last week in the LA Times in H&M’s woes mean fast fashion is getting worse, not better:
Fast fashion giant H&M has lost its luster. Its stock price dropped more than 40% in the last six months. It will close 170 stores this year, more than it has in two decades. It suffered a string of PR missteps, including launching an ad campaign viewed as racist and getting caught incinerating tons of leftover goods. Then last week the news broke that the company is sitting on a staggering $4.3 billion in unsold apparel.
The internet is flooded with schadenfreude over H&M’s woes, and proponents of a more sustainable fashion industry are projecting victory into the chain’s decline. But do H&M’s troubles reflect the fact that shoppers are buying fewer pre-ripped jeans or jumping ship for more ethical and sustainable clothing brands?
Hardly. The chain is becoming irrelevant because warp-speed, low-priced clothing is now ubiquitous and sales have moved online. H&M, the founder of fast fashion, is now too slow.
Cheap fashion lovers are instead buying from digitally savvy, 21st-century-born chains like Boohoo, Missguided, and Asos. Another universe of smaller trendy brands and wholesalers revolves around eBay and Instagram, and young shoppers know how to find them. Then there’s Amazon.com, which, having already rewritten the e-commerce rules on price and speed, will become America’s largest clothing retailer, surpassing Macy’s.
Why, does this matter? Well, as I’ve written before, the $3 trillion global fashion industry ranks second only to the oil industry in the harm it inflicts on the environment (see Fast Fashion: Magical Shift in Consumption Patterns Will Save the Planet?). This cycle continues to accelerate — at the expense of sustainability concerns (see Faster Fashion Cycle Accelerates.) So much so that Bloomberg touted burning H & M clothes rather than coal to fuel a Swedish power plant (see Reduce, Reuse, Recycle: Why Burning of Fast Fashion Clothes to Fuel Power Plant is Troubling).
Yet even more troubling is that H & M is now hurting not because consumers are opting for more sustainable alternatives– or forgoing excess consumption of fashion entirely — but because it can no longer keep up with those operating on what’s become the cutting edge where the tactics it pioneered are now deployed.
Consumption Pattern Fairies Not Riding to the Rescue
What is to be done?
There’s too much magical thinking going here along the lines that changed consumption patterns– whether based on geography or demographics– will somehow magically make the problem disappear. I debunked the geography canard in Magical Shift post I cited above so I won’t bother repeating those arguments here except to summarize: just because Chinese and Indian consumers currently rank sustainability as a major concern does not mean that the global appetite for low-priced apparel that embeds huge environmental costs will necessarily shift much when these consumers account for a larger proportion of global demand.
Nor are the espoused preferences of millennials taking the bloom off of the fast fashion rose and shifting consumption patterns either, according to Cline.
What Does the Future Hold?
On a tangential point, The New York Times reports last month in To Avoid More Racist Hoodies, Retailers Seek Diversity:
Every once in a while, tucked into the stream of speedily made garments rushed into stores, designs with shockingly bad taste stand out: a shirt comparing women to dogs at Topman, symbols of the Holocaust on a top at Zara, a slogan that trivializes sexual consent on a piece at Forever 21, or words like “slave” and “slut” used as decorative details on T-shirts at ASOS and Missguided.
Brands, even as they offer mea culpas, rarely explain how such blunders come to pass. But problematic designs seem to repeatedly slip past layers of buyers, designers, stylists, marketers and managers before being caught by consumers.
The solution to make sure the company doesn’t promote offensive products? Why more diversity, of course, according to the NYT account:
Several companies have pledged to diversify hiring, retool corporate guidelines and initiate other measures to prevent mistakes from going out the door.
But another fast fashion retailer Zara has gone one step further– and jumped onto the Artificial Intelligence (AI) AI bandwagon, as a way to ensure it doesn’t offer offensive products. I am not making this up. The NYT first mentioned the point, and Alternet followed up in Fashion Retailer Zara Has a Dubious Solution to Prevent Racist and Culturally Appropriated Products and weakly applauded the move:
Zara’s choice to rely on an algorithm to scan for potentially offensive content is a step in the right direction, but algorithms aren’t always reliable: remember when Google Photos labeled African American users “gorillas?” Or when a Nikon camera insisted that Asian subjects of photos were blinking? AI technology does not have the best track record, and has a pattern of contributing to existing biases.
Kate Crawford, an AI researcher at Microsoft, and Meredith Whittaker, a researcher at Google, told the MIT Technology Review that bias may exist in algorithmic products in all sectors. “It’s still early days for understanding algorithmic bias,” they said. “Just this year we’ve seen more systems that have issues, and these are just the ones that have been investigated.”
Here it seems the algorithm fairy is going to compensate for or outright prevent these appalling decisions by the people who design, produce, and market these products..
Yet reifying algorithms is no solution either. Again, according to AlterNet:
Cathy O’Neil, a mathematician and the author of Weapons of Math Destruction, similarly told the MIT Technology Review, “Algorithms replace human processes, but they’re not held to the same standards. People trust them too much.”
Holding Companies to Account
Ironically, as retailers like H&M shutter stores, and more sales of fast fashion migrate on-line, it will be more difficult in future to hold companies to account. Over to Cline again:
Though H&M is still synonymous with fast fashion, it is actually among the least bad of the major fashion companies. It nears the top of most rankings on worker rights and sustainability issues. One advantage for activists has been that H&M huge brick-and-mortar empire made their efforts to hold it accountable on labor and environmental issues highly visible. As fast fashion moves online, bad actors will become harder to pin down and bad behavior more hidden from view.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that if H&M fails, fast fashion will soon follow. The fashion industry isn’t slowing down. Alas, it’s still speeding up and its toll on workers and the environment grows by the day.