Fast-Fashion Apparel Chains Feel Pressure to Move towards Sustainable Fashion

H&M is an apparel company known for its fast-fashion. Source: Google Images

For many years, consumers have been into the fast-fashion trends of the clothing industry, in which apparel is cheap, trendy, and quickly replaceable. Fast-fashion companies that have thrived with this model, such as Zara, H&M, and Forever 21, are now challenged by a change in consumer preferences. Consumers, especially millennials, are now increasingly looking for apparel that will last longer and is produced more sustainably. The traditionally fast-fashion companies are feeling the pressure to adapt to these changing consumer preferences, as they are already seeing the effects this holiday shopping season, according to a recent Bloomberg article.

Though fast-fashion companies continue to thrive, they are now seeing millennial customers increasingly willing to pay higher prices for higher-quality clothing elsewhere. According to Deloitte LLP, consumers this holiday season are shopping at small niche retailers more than ever. Some such retailers are Zady and Everlane, two online companies with missions to provide quality products and increased transparency. Zady, for one, has a vision to “combat the fast-fashion craze,” and emphasizes the quality and sustainable construction of its clothing. The emphasis on quality, sustainability, and cost transparency makes consumers more comfortable paying the steeper prices.

Consumers are becoming less interested in buying-into clothing trends, and more interested in buying clothes that will last them a long time, according to Jennifer Baumgartner, a clinical psychologist and author of “You Are What You Wear: What Your Clothes Reveal About You” (Bloomberg). This means they are not only looking for higher-quality clothing, but are also choosing clothes with classic and timeless styles over the seasonal, trendy styles that fast-fashion retailers are known for.

Consumers are increasingly choosing classic styles over trendy styles, as they look for long-lasting apparel. Source: Google Images

U.S. consumers are also increasingly looking for apparel that is sustainably produced, in terms of materials used, waste produced, and overall environmental impact. While they are willing to spend more money on high-quality clothes, many are also choosing to buy used or recycled clothing to minimize the environmental impact of their purchases. According to a Euromonitor International survey, 14% of U.S. consumers look for apparel and accessories made from natural materials, which is 1.1% higher than the previous year, and the purchase of reused or recycled clothing increased by 2% this year.

The fast-fashion companies such as H&M and Zara have already begun responding to these changes in consumer behavior. For instance, H&M began placing used-clothing recycle containers in its stores in 2013, and has introduced a line of clothing made from sustainable materials. Similarly, Zara has recently launched a line of sustainable apparel made from materials such as recycled wool, organic cotton and Tencel. Both companies have managed to keep affordable median prices for these sustainable collections. Despite some changes being made, sustainable fashion still represents a very minimal portion of these companies’ business models. A more aggressive pull away from fast-fashion and towards sustainable fashion might be necessary for these companies to continue thriving.

From a marketing management perspective, here are some questions to consider:

  • Research other sustainable apparel companies and their sustainability efforts.
  • Do you believe the trend towards sustainable fashion will be long-lasting or short-lived? How might this affect the changes the fast-fashion companies should make?
  • Why is it important for companies to understand consumer trends?