It is summer 2022, yet your wardrobe remains woefully in winter. You could take a stroll down 5th Avenue, head to Oxford Street or swing by Causeway Bay to check out the latest store catalogues. But with the rise of online shopping, especially during the pandemic, going to shop in person has become so blasé – so what do you do instead? You open Instagram or TikTok, look through the outfits worn by your friends and influencers (likely under key hashtags such as #haul on TikTok), make a purchase from an online shop such as PrettyLittleThing, Nasty Gal or Shein (who somehow albeit luckily always carry the latest trends, even before they hit the Zara stores), and boom, you’re good to go! When the next summer vacation comes along, you don’t even need to repeat the outfits you’ve just bought – these brands, using data from millions of shoppers like you, have already updated their whole inventory based on the latest trends so you can don a new look every time!
Welcome to the age of ultra-fast fashion. While the early 2000s marked the era when fast fashion brands (Zara, H&M etc.) made runway trends available in stores in a matter of weeks, the early 2022s will be remembered for how ultra-fast fashion made these trends available to purchase online in a matter of hours. With the rise of social media use for online shopping, influencer culture and data analysis capabilities, brands such as Shein or the Boohoo group are able to identify the moment an item of clothing is gaining consumer attention (either from the runway or as part of a look worn by a celebrity or influencer), manufacture it at scale and launch it on their site at the snap of a finger (at times, even overnight!).
To give credit where it’s due, ultra-fast fashion brands seem to have figured out how to maximise the use of data and technology (on both the front-end and the back-end) in fashion by leveraging e-commerce and social media (which now accounts for over 50% of online shopping) to target their desired customers, gain a strong following/customer base and achieve billions in turnover. On the front-end, these brands are building powerful brand and influencer partnerships to target a wide audience and supply a vast and regularly updated product collection while minimising overhead costs. On the back-end, they are taking advantage of improvements in trends / customer data analysis developed by tech giants like Google, Instagram and Tiktok (Shein was one of the first brands on TikTok and is the biggest customer of Google Trends in China), customer targeting tools and e-commerce capabilities (both consumer-facing as well as for internal enterprise management) to engage customers and offer a seamless shopping and payment experience.
All these gains – at what cost?
Despite these gains, ultra-fast fashion has given rise to a culture that is negatively impacting society and the environment like never seen before. Fast fashion was already notorious for its terrible impact on the environment and the workers – by making unsustainable over-consumption the norm, ultra-fast fashion seems to be pushing these negative impacts into 5th gear:
Impact on the environment: ultra-fast = ultra-plastic
As we saw with the rise in fast fashion in the early 2000s, ultra-fast fashion entails a huge environmental cost at every step of the fashion lifecycle, from manufacturing to post-sales recycling. At the manufacturing stage, the industry utilises nearly 100 million cubic meters of water (enough to meet the consumption needs of 5 million people) and contributes to 1/5th of the industrial water pollution due to dyeing and textile treatment. Ultra-fast fashion clothing is almost entirely made of new plastics (most online brands averaging less than 4% use of recycled plastics), meaning that such clothes, once dumped, will shed microfibers and toxins for a long time. Finally, while brands like Shein and Nasty Gal are gaining hordes of followers in developed countries such as the US, UK, Australia etc., it is developing countries who have to deal with the aftermath in terms of the piles of clothes that get dumped in such countries once consumers in the UK, US etc. have lost use for them. It has been standard practice in the clothing industry for several decades that clothes that don’t sell, are recycled or given for second-hand wear in developed countries are eventually sent to developing countries, where there is demand for such items due to local traders looking to make a quick buck by purchasing / trading whatever they can, and the local population (especially those from middle and lower-income classes) looking for cheap / affordable clothing. While this practice may have had noble beginnings (giving clothes to the needy and the poor), it has increasingly blown out of proportion in recent years such that supply far outweighs demand (more shopping = more dumping) and large areas of land in developing countries now house huge piles of discarded clothes. To get a sense of the magnitude of the problem, see the images below:
Most of the clothes shown in these images were either donated to charity, sold in the second-hand market or remained unsold, highlighting that, no matter how much is recycled/reused, the rate of clothing manufacturing has gotten out of control. Most of these clothes are also not sustainable or biodegradable so there is no safe means of disposal (leaving them in open air or underground will generate more air, soil and water pollution while burning releases toxins and carbon). Thus, developing countries are dealing with the mess that has been literally dumped on them by consumers all over the world.
Impact on workers: ultra-fast = ultra-unfair
Before we get into the bad stuff, it is worth noting that Shein has developed two key practices that I believe will positively impact the industry – its centralised “computer-supported, highly flexible supplier system” that allows for efficient organisation of the 100s of small production companies that work for the brand, and its quick data analysis capabilities that enable the company to order additional batches of a fast-selling items immediately, minimising the additional for existing employees and thus, enabling them to earn more by manufacturing items they are already familiar with.
Having said that and while these practices are noteworthy, they do not balance the overall terrible work conditions under which employees of such companies operate. Poor worker treatment and compensation is not new to the fashion industry – even before the advent of fast fashion, workers in the fashion industry, especially from developing countries, have borne the brunt of growing consumer appetite in the form of long hours, brutal working conditions and terrible pay/benefits, with no regard for their lives/standard of living. As recently as 2013, an 8-story building (Rana Plaza) collapsed and killed 132 workers in Dhaka, Bangladesh, putting a spotlight on the terrible conditions workers face in the fashion industry (sadly, the workers in the building were not just working for fast fashion brands but high-fashion brands as well, indicating that the industry as a whole is to blame). Ultra-fast fashion is making these conditions worse by increasing both the speed of manufacturing as well as the amount demanded – focusing on Shein specifically, which has a reputation for turning around over 1,000 new styles per day, a report by Public Eye revealed the gruelling conditions under which thousands of workers in Guangzhou have to work for the brand to be able to turn over its inventory and launch new styles / trends as quickly as possible: there is an entire area known as “Shein village” where workers toil away in narrow production sites with no emergency exits or safety procedures for 11.5 hours per day or roughly 75 hours per week and a pay that depends on number of items of clothing produced with no regard for quality. Shein absolves itself of any responsibility by enlisting production companies to handle the purchase of fabrics (from a pre-selected list of suppliers), oversee the production centres and complete delivery of items purchased – there are no audits conducted on the working conditions or quality of items produced and no contracts or perks in the form of benefits, insurance and other social conditions provided to anyone employed by the company. These working conditions also extend to employees working for the delivery arms of such ultra-fast companies – they tend to work 11-12 hours per day, their contracts are constantly in violation of labour law and their lifestyles are made to revolve around the work they do for very little compensation.
All in all, the rise in ultra-fast fashion is leading to worsening conditions for their employees and, without proper intervention and support, could lead to another Rana Plaza tragedy.
Impact to consumers: ultra-fast = ultra-high pressure
The least recognized impact of ultra-fast fashion is its impact on the human psyche. In recent years, and especially with the rise of social media, food delivery companies and Amazon, it has become the norm to consume more than you need instantly and with minimal effort, and ultra-fast fashion perfectly caters to and aggravates this behaviour change. Consumers are also increasingly favouring cheap, accessible and convenient ultra-fashion brands over established, well-made and sustainable fashion brands, driven by the brands’ ever-evolving product inventory and “perks” such as free returns, free delivery to home etc. – while some of these tactics are used by digital brands in general, their excessive use by ultra-fast fashion companies also drives consumers, especially new shoppers such as Gen-Z, into believing that they are getting a better service or better quality, which is rarely the case. Finally, consumers, especially from the Gen-Z, increasingly believe that they need to follow every trend that they see on social media and purchase clothes just to “be seen” regardless of need. Such a mindset is not only unsustainable in every sense (financially, operationally and environmentally) but also propagates a negative mental state by leading young adults to believe that they will never be/own enough.
Ultra-fast fashion and all its consequences influences a certain way of living, especially because it is what celebrities and influencers (drawn by brand partnerships with ultra-fast fashion brands) are doing. Such cues can have a lasting impact on human mind, especially on teenagers, and do not bode well for how such consumers will view themselves and/or adjust to other aspects of normal life.
What can we do now?
The clothing and fashion industry have long been perpetrators of untold damage to developing countries and the environment – what makes ultra-fast fashion unique is that, in accelerating the amount and speed of consumption, they are worsening the negative impacts of the industry that can have severe long-term consequences to society, the environment and the planet as a whole.
There are some efforts underway by governments and brands themselves to try and address the negative consequences of this industry and ultra-fast fashion brands in particular. From a regulatory perspective, as of March 2022, “the European Commission proposed new rules… that would set mandatory minimums for recycled textiles by 2030 and other changes geared towards replacing throwaway culture with a circular economy.” According to the new regulations, brands are required to adhere to new standards for manufacturing (including indicating how long a product should last, whether it is recyclable etc.) and new requirements for resale / recycling (including disclosing how many products are resold vs. sent to landfills). Consumers can also rightfully demand access to the above information so that they can be better-informed about their clothing choices – this will be especially beneficial for the segment of shoppers, particularly Gen-Z, that is passionate about sustainability and looking to make sustainable lifestyle choices. From a brand perspective, companies such as Shein and H&M are launching funds to manage textile waste and promote recycling – Shein is providing funding to organisations such as The OR Foundation to tackle “the enormous clothing waste problem at the Kantamanto Market in Accra, Ghana” while H&M is investing $100 million in a “promising new technology called the Green Machine that could allow consumers to recycle clothes we way we recycle Coke cans”.
While these are promising steps in the right direction, they are still relatively reactive measures that do not address the fundamental issue of overproduction that is embedded in the business model of fast and ultra-fast fashion brands. Given that consumer demand and appetite for such brands show no signs of stopping, despite the clear pitfalls of ultra-fast fashion, there is a clear need for more attention to be drawn towards the negative impact that ultra-fast fashion has on all stakeholders in society – from consumers to employees to the government – so that consumers can be made aware of the adverse consequences of their purchasing habits.
Nandini Mazumdar (MBA 2022) is a Co-President of the Tech & Media Club (and co-founder of the Fintech Community) at London Business School. Prior to the MBA, she completed her undergraduate studies in Econometrics and Political Science at New York University and worked at Mastercard Advisors, offering consulting and advisory services in the payments, fintech and technology sectors. Nandini is an intern for the Wheeler Institute, contributing to the creation of content that amplifies the role of business in improving lives.