Is fast fashion over? It seems that consumers are beginning to turn their backs on brands that trash the planet and exploit workers. Several of the worst offenders from an environmental and social perspective — ‘ultra-fast’ fashion brands that operate exclusively online — are struggling with declining sales. Some have gone bankrupt. Intuitively this seems allied to consumers’ growing awareness of climate change and social causes: McKinsey report that young people especially have begun to avoid brands that don’t align with their values. Even so, it may be too soon to celebrate the demise of fast fashion: the cost-of-living crisis may even help to revive the sector.
Times are changing
One sign that things are changing is that the mega TV show Love Island has mugged off fast fashion. Until this year the programme has been intimately associated with fast fashion sponsors including I Saw it First and Missguided. One contestant, Mollie Mae Hague, went on to become Creative Director of PrettyLittleThing, a brand accused of modern slavery and showing little regard for sustainability. Something these former sponsors of Love Island share in common is that all are notorious for producing the ultimate in disposable fashion — looks designed to be worn a handful of times before being discarded. No surprise then that inhabitants of the Love Island villa were so rarely seen in the same clothes more than once. Viewers were encouraged to copy contestants’ looks by buying equally disposable clothes on the Love Island app. Fast fashion and Love Island seemed well and truly coupled up.
In 2022’s summer of love, something is very different. This year, Islanders are pulling each other for a chat and getting the ick wearing preloved clothing. The show has partnered with eBay to source secondhand style. Love Island fans can shop a selection of pre-owned clothes and accessories inspired by the Islanders . This is a U-turn, given that the model and sustainable fashion editor Brett Staniland’s comments about sustainable fashion were edited out of last year’s series for fear of alienating sponsors.
A TV show changing its sponsor might not sound a big deal, but Love Island is not just a show: it’s a cultural phenomenon. The change from fast to preloved fashion is significant.
What else signals the end of fast fashion?
A survey conducted in early 2022 reported that more than half of people plan to give up fast fashion this year. Meanwhile, Google analytics shows that not only have searches for sustainable fashion doubled, when brands talk credibly about sustainability there is a positive impact on perceptions of their quality and innovativeness — both attributes known to drive purchasing. Vogue Business’s own survey of buying behaviour shows that fashion consumers are increasingly prioritising sustainability when selecting clothes.
Attitudes are changing, then. However, there’s often difference between what people say and what they do: intentions and reality don’t always match. If fast fashion is truly on its way out, that should be evident in sales trends. Fast fashion sales do include proof points that consumers are turning away from throwaway clothing. Boohoo’s Results Centre shows that revenue was down by -8% in the quarter to May 31st 2022. At the same time, Shein’s first quarter sales growth fell to 57% in 2022 in the US, down from a quarterly range of 105% to 264% the prior year.
Missguided, an ultra-fast fashion brand widely criticised for its £1 bikini, has gone into administration. The brand received Good on You’s lowest possible rating: “we avoid”. Missguided is rated very poor on both environmental impact and labour conditions, with the Environment Audit Commission singling out the brand as one of the least sustainable in the industry. The demise of Missguided can be counted a victory by those who’ve campaigned against exploitative fast fashion.
So, is fast fashion on its way out?
Despite all these indicators, fast fashion is far from dead. Shein’s sales growth may have slowed down, but its revenues were estimated at $16 billion in 2021. Primark reported sales growth of 59% in April 2022, to £3.54bn. This means that fast fashion is still selling in vast quantities.
Unsustainable fast fashion is still culturally relevant, too. Kim Kardashian currently has 320 million Instagram followers, receiving millions of likes for photos exhibiting her Skims lingerie brand, also rated as one to avoid by Good On You on the basis of its poor environmental and social performance.
In the context of eye-watering cost of living increases, shoppers are bound to look for low prices, and that’s something that fast fashion brands do deliver. People can’t be blamed for choosing Primark or Shein when prices of food, fuel and other necessities are spiralling. Despite the plentiful supply of affordable preloved clothes, this context could push people back to fast fashion brands, regardless of growing awareness of their environmental harms.
Even when people are aware of the negative impacts of fast fashion, it’s not always easy to step away from the lure of cheap new clothes. Fashion plays many roles in society: we use clothes to show others who we are, to display status and to gain approval from friends or on social media.
It’s fantastic news that eBay has partnered with Love Island, as this should help make preowned clothing a more acceptable — even desirable — choice for mainstream consumers. However, much more is needed to end the reign of fast fashion. Influencers with wide reach would need to endorse sustainable choices. Brands would need to execute more ambitious sustainability goals. Policy-makers would need to take action, too, to enforce extended producer responsibility (EPR) to force clothing companies to reduce waste and adopt sustainable practices.
Although 2022 may not spell the end for fast fashion, real change is happening. As people become more conscious of the consequences of buying habits, it’s inevitable that demand for sustainable ways to enjoy style will grow.