Fast Fashion Juggernaut Rolls Along

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, 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.

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  1. Pespi

    How high would a tariff need to be to force the United States to onshore its garment industry?

  2. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

    That ship sailed during the Kennedy administration when, IIRC, 1 out of every 8 American jobs was in the textile and apparel industries.

    1. Fraibert

      And, before outsourcing, we had domestic sweatshops instead making up that industry. (Some of my father’s aunts worked in them in NYC back in the 1950s/60s.). We need a big change in the approach to mass-produced clothing to make it ethical, which would require higher quality and higher prices, accompanied by cultural treatment of clothing more akin to durable good than as a disposable aesthetic.

      1. CalypsoFacto

        We need a big change in the approach to mass-produced clothing to make it ethical, which would require higher quality and higher prices, accompanied by cultural treatment of clothing more akin to durable good than as a disposable aesthetic.

        There are diminishing returns to mass production above a certain point. In order for clothing to be treated as a more durable good, it needs to actually fit properly and remain usable for far longer than fast fashion and most mass produced garments made in the last ~30 years are capable. Fit has been reduced to a marketing problem (find your ideal customer and design fit to their specifics) rather than a research (no recent anatomic longitudinal studies on USians in recent decades, and they’re definitely getting larger) or a size standardization issue. Durability is not possible when majority of garments are constructed of 2-30% spandex or other elastic.

        We should reserve mass production for certain classes of goods, within far smaller quotas (like 250-450 garment runs instead of 10k+). Everything else can be made by thousands of small companies employing 3-8 people creating garments to fit (fully custom) or to measure (tailored from a mass produced block) – an apparel Mittelstand, focused on quality for their market niche rather than trend cycle for global distribution/competition. We should also restrict the usage of elastics to parts of the garment that can be repaired (eg waistbands that can be replaced instead of spandex fabric) and restrict/reduce/outlaw usage of synthetic fabrics.

        We probably have enough manufactured but unworn goods to last a few hundred years of picking/salvage/cheap use, for those who don’t care about the stuff above, aren’t going to iron their clothes no matter what, or don’t want to/are unable to pay 2-3x fast fashion prices for apparel made to fit.

        1. Carla

          “We need a big change in the approach to mass-produced clothing to make it ethical, which would require higher quality and higher prices”

          I really think we need higher quality and higher prices for almost all tangible goods, and it would result in our needing fewer THINGS, which would be good for us, and for our planet.

    2. Lunker Walleye

      Jerri-Lynn, thank you for writing about textiles and fashion. I always enjoy your articles about the subject.

      In my lifetime in the U.S., we have gone from stylish, beautiful textiles and garments for the average person to rubbish.

      Mother used to buy suits and coats from Montgomery Ward or Sears that had better yarns and fabric quality and excellent construction details superior to most high end labels that are offered these days. Since I have a background and education in design, it is so depressing to find it increasingly difficult to find decent garments. Like others who have written here, I go to second-hand or lower-end stores to find tolerable garments. They are becoming scarce as hens’ teeth. A few years ago I came upon a store at our local mall. Most of the goods were made in Vietnam and were stylish, cheap but sewn quite well. Some garments were made of natural fibers but most were not. That store shuttered in under two years.

      As a silk painter, I have bought China silk for the past 20 years. The price of goods keeps climbing and now we are reading that new tariffs will probably push these import prices higher. The weight (momme) of the silk crepe seems somehow to be altered with new finishing techniques, though maybe someone can educate me on that.

      So-called “Fast Fashion” is the just more proof of the decline in quality of so many goods and is contributing to the destruction of our environment by using precious resources and then dumping finished items that nobody wants.

  3. ambrit

    Tying this in with the post about Amazon ‘taking advantage’ of the Post Office; what happens to fast fashion when shipping costs go up? How much price increase would be acceptable to the buying public? Add in shrinking disposable income and we have a question of limits. At root, can sweatshop workers be squeezed any more?
    As a Geezer, my idea of ‘fast’ fashion is the Thrift store. Quick in, quick out and ‘holistically’ ripped jeans.

    1. susan the other

      I know, Ambrit. I’ve always loved thrift stores. Life long. Let somebody else break in those levis, just patch the butt and off you go! My favorite stuff, stuff I still wear because it went out of style so long ago nobody can even remember, are some corduroy car coats and a great little leather Eisenhower jacket with a collar to die for. I used to tell my daughter that if she didn’t have much money for clothes she should invest in a good used jacket because it won’t make the rest of you look shabby and it covers you up nicely. It’s a shame there isn’t a big online thrift store movement. Recycling stuff that could be worn for many more years. It’d put online fast fashion-statement clothes out of business. It could. It is certainly not a fashion-statement if you have no choice – it’s just another uniform.

      1. kareninca

        “It’s a shame there isn’t a big online thrift store movement. ”

        Our local Goodwill store in Silicon Valley has horrible quality clothing, at very high prices. For years I’ve gone in every few months, and almost never found anything. There is another thrift store seven miles away, and it is even worse. And I am not fussy. But I recently found “” online. I wouldn’t say it is fabulous, but I can get the sorts of basic pieces of clothing that I would like to be able to get from Goodwill. And I got my father in law some really gorgeous dress shirts for very little – in other words I got what you’d hope to be able to get from Goodwill. So although the online thrift store movement isn’t big, it does exist.

        1. ambrit

          In a similar vein, I miss the good old outdoor swap shops or yesteryear. The old Thunderbird Drive-In in south Dade county Florida was a large and vibrant place on Saturday mornings. Doing a fact check I see that it is still an ongoing ‘event.’
          The best clothes bargains we find are from those smaller Thrift stores that are attached to local ‘charity’ groups. These places get the contents of houses of older people who have ‘departed this vale of tears’ and didn’t have ‘hip’ or ‘sensible’ heirs.
          Years ago, when we were traveling through the American Deep South in an old Airstream trailer I had a short time job in an “upscale’ restaurant on Sanibel Island Florida. One of the ‘busboys’ was a stocky blond punk woman who collected several trunks of old fifties clothing from local garage sales, estate sales and thrift stores. For the summer she would ship this over to London and sell it at one of the citys outdoor swap meet venues. She said that she had financed her trips to Europe for several years this way. She said, this being early ‘punk’ days that; “The louder the better.”

    2. Carla

      Love this Goodwill store portion of the thread. When my daughter was 13, I put her on a “total allowance.” I think it was maybe $75 a month. Out of it she had to pay for all of her own clothing, school supplies (not books –those were provided by the public school) birthday gifts for friends, any trips to movies, lunches if she chose to buy them at school rather than packing her own, and incidentals. If she ran out of cash by the 2nd or 3rd week, there was none forthcoming until the first day of the next month. She started packing her lunch and shopping at thrift stores immediately. I also noticed that if she got a spot on a piece of clothing, she fastidiously treated it immediately. Her best friend’s mother said to me “My daughter leaves her clothes on the floor and couldn’t care less. Your daughter takes such good care of her clothes!” I told that I thought it was because my daughter purchased her clothes with “her own money.” She has since thanked me for that lesson learned in her teen years.

  4. Masonboro

    Fast fashion? Never heard of it (I’m old but not that out of touch) but it sounds like one of the dumbest ideas imaginable. Sounds like a fad among affluent status displaying youth (look what I can afford and you can’t !). Exact opposite value of every person my lower middle class self has ever known.

    1. JBird

      Profit using neoliberal capitalistic looting is the reason. Lots of money is spent getting people to buy cheap crap that’s fashionable for the moment. Also because people are getting poorer, they are less able to buy the more expensive good quality clothing, even though, long term, it is cheaper, and just like good bookstores, stores that sell quality clothing are getting hard to find. The choice is either easy to find cheap junk, or very expensive quality hard to find clothing that one can’t afford on minimum wage.

      There is also the process of buying out companies that make good clothes and then slowing crapifying the product while still selling at the same price. I have seen that with shoes. I find a good shoe maker, or brand, and a few years latter it gets bought out and the junking begins. And have you noticed the quality of jeans?

      Just like I enjoy, and want, good bookstores with plenty of good books on every subject, but both publishers, and sellers, have been driven out of business, sometimes by “investment” firms, the same is happening with clothes. There is an ongoing movement to buy American, or local, and quality, and there are writers and bloggers on it as well. The blogger’s site I just linked too, has a list of American companies that make good clothing in America, and I think she has mentioned a few European companies making quality clothing.

    2. FriarTuck

      As someone who worked at Old Navy (a Gap store) from 2005 through 2008, I saw the transition of “quality basics” to “fast fashion” first hand.

      Essentially, I saw it as pursuing a (large) market base of exceptionally fickle consumers who, depending on the fashion trends, could make or break the bank. The far less glamorous field of quality basics, while more stable, was much harder to make a large profit due to so many competitors being in the space. Large risk, large short term reward.

      The problem being, of course, is that you left the basics market behind for other companies to gobble up. I remember customers coming up to me in person asking me, “where’d all the good t-shirts go?”

      Now the only place you can find “quality basics” are kickstarter campaigns for the “ten year hoodie,” which is equally unsustainable.

  5. Ignacio

    I wouldn’t be aware of the fast fashion thingy if I hadn’t seen Jerry Lynn posts. The question on what’s to be done is uneasy. As consumers, we commonly have one or two Aquilles’ heels. For some it is clothing, for others tech, cars, bikes, books, single-malts, tobacco etc. The point made here, e-commerce as a facilitator of excess consumption applies not only for clothes, but for all kinds of stuff. Let us weight in the complexities of production and distribution chains and it is a nigthmare to have a nice life cycle assesment (LCA) on every thing we buy or consume. Domestically, we are completely unaware of the water footprint, CO2-associated emissions and the cost of disposal/recycling of all that stuff. Well, we have the energy labels for appliances, we know how many gallons per mile the car consumes but this is the tip of the iceberg.

    For a primer, if we want proper taxing and pricing extensive and certified LCA should be applied to clothes and the rest of stuff. That would help to decide what to do.

  6. Summer

    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.”

    Maybe that’s exactly what they are: a version of human processes, but without the accountability?

  7. sharonsj

    I would love to buy sustainable, preferably organic clothing, but I can’t afford it. And I bet that half of America can’t afford it either. Maybe younger people are willing to buy the current fashions, but older folks and those in “flyover country” don’t give a damn. And even higher-priced clothing is badly made. Couldn’t these reasons explain the decline in the industry?

  8. Enquiring Mind

    My kids laugh at fashion now because they see near-identical articles of clothing in several stores. The commodity aspect is not lost on them, and the manufacturers err by trying to pretend that they have anything special to sell. Rag trade is a term that never goes out of style.

  9. Norb

    Human extinction will hinge on how technology is integrated into social functioning.

    Think of paper. Once scarce, humans did not waste it and the creative energies directed with its us had to be focused and purposeful. With mass production technologies, paper is now ubiquitous. However, this ease of production was not accompanied with a proper sense of purpose or any long term principle of its sustainable use. The result is waste on a massive scale.

    Fabrics offer a similar comparison. The ease of mass production is not counterbalanced by a sense of purpose, so massive waste is inevitable.

    Think of food production. Production is not a problem, but distribution is. The goal is not to put food into the mouths of hungry people, but to use hungry people as a means to achieve monetary wealth.

    Same with healthcare delivery. Use sick and suffering people as a means to achieve monetary wealth. The primary goal is not to relieve suffering, but to exploit it.

    Think of plastics. They are a cheeper alternative to other materials and can be formed into a multitude of shapes, but cannot be reintegrated into the greater environment, so they are in one way incongruous to a sustainable life. A species cannot survive tens of thousands of years while producing plastics as part of its lifecycle. The toxic buildup will eventually make life impossible from the simple fact that it cannot be recycled into the environment, so the broader landscape will fundamentally change- to human detriment.

    Humans have been given Eden and insist on reducing it to Hell.

    Happy shopping!

  10. drumlin woodchuckles

    Well, what are we supposed to do with the information in this article and in the comments? We are not supposed to say anything to any fast-fashion buyers we know or see, because that would be “fast fashion shaming”. So what exactly even is the point of knowing about this?

  11. RMO

    Douglas Adams seems to have been prophetic – though he saw the fall of society involving footwear specifically rather than clothes in general:

    A little while back I found out that the small Italian shoemaker that had made the shoes and boots I had bought of my fiance (now wife) on her birthdays was no longer going to be making anything – the (also small and Italian) company that supplied some of the materials needed had gone out of business due to market share loss to large competitors. The large companies don’t supply what the shoemaker needed for the styles they made and methods they used. Another example of the ongoing crapification of everything I guess.

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