Is fast fashion fast enough to keep up with consumers?

Is fast fashion fast enough to keep up with consumers?

September 18, 2023
5 min read

Fast fashion refers to clothing that is mass-produced in short order to capitalize on current fashion trends. This usually entails using cheap, synthetic materials that lack durability in order to keep prices low, hence the items are generally not worn very often or kept very long and ultimately, commonly end up in landfills. Fast fashion retailers such as Shein, Zara and H&M have historically found adoring fans who love being able to get ‘on-trend’ items at rock-bottom prices, especially appealing in an inflationary environment. It makes them feel like they’re getting a luxury item without the premium price, and according to Mintel’s clothing research, this gives 74% of women a thrill, rising to 81% among Millennial women. By shopping at fast fashion retailers, customers accept the tradeoffs that come with this decision – they are essentially prioritizing cost over quality and over optimal eco-friendliness.

Consumer trends and preferences are shifting rapidly. While shoppers are always going to appreciate a good deal, they are increasingly less willing to support fast fashion in its conventional sense. Sustainability is important to clothing shoppers (two-thirds of women agree) and this is only set to rise. It’s also a considered factor in the clothing shopping journey now as nearly 6 in 10 Gen Z women said retailers’  and brands’ sustainability efforts influence whether or not they choose to shop there. This can be a threat or an opportunity for companies. For fast fashion retailers, it’s a threat, at least right now. 

Consumers’ tolerance for the negative aspects of fast fashion is waning and hence, many fast fashion retailers are facing much scrutiny and customer resistance which is causing them to pivot and redefine themselves and their offerings. So how do fast fashion retailers maintain their place in the industry and avoid being labeled as the black sheep? Here are three important steps brands should take now:

1. Share the details, don’t hide them 

Consumers are paying attention to retailers’ sustainability efforts and are keen to learn from brands. Companies must overcommunicate with clientele and be incredibly transparent with them, letting them decide how much information they want to absorb.

Primary interest centers around the type of materials used in the garments (e.g. Are they sustainably sourced? Are they recyclable?) – 54% of 18-34-year-old women care about this; more than a third are interested in the impact on the environment (e.g. liters of water used, carbon emissions); 26% would like to see a breakdown of the costs involved to make a clothing item (e.g. workers’ salary, material cost); and 2 in 10 want details about each step in the production process (e.g. by who it was made and where).

2. Empower consumers to do their part 

A growing number of eco-conscious consumers are genuinely ambitious about improving their own eco-footprints and in fact, look to retailers to lead the way. This is a big opportunity for fast fashion houses – getting consumers involved in the bigger picture goal of protecting the environment makes consumers feel closer to a brand, and portrays the brand in a more authentic light. Fast fashion leaders are already quickly opening repair shops and services to help consumers extend the life of their garments. Mintel research shows that a quarter of Gen Z women have already used such services as a defense mechanism against inflation while half of women are interested in instructions on how to sustainably care for an item (e.g. wash on a low cycle, use a laundry bag to capture microfibers) and one third said they may favor retailers who offer advice on how to extend the life of a fashion item (eg repairing tips at in-store or online events).

Fast fashion retailers are also jumping into the burgeoning circular economy, and so are shoppers as nearly six in 10 women 18-44 said they are much more open to buying preowned clothing than they used to be, with 22% doing so specifically in reaction to inflation. Consumers also want to see more online sizing tools being offered in order to cut down on the number of returns as well as more items made from upcycled waste and innovative plant-based materials such as mushrooms or cacti.

3. Reward desired behaviors 

Although consumers are well-intentioned when it comes to shopping sustainably, the reality is that other factors like cost, fit, and style often win out during checkout. Consumers are aware when they do this and almost feel guilty sometimes about wavering from their values. As mentioned, they want to improve their own eco-footprints but sometimes need a little push to do so. Rewards and incentives can be a highly motivating way for fast fashion retailers to provoke the shopping behavior they want to see from consumers. Four in 10 women 25-44 said rewards for sustainable behavior such as discounts for recycling items would influence their retailer preferences. This presents a fine opportunity for retailers to improve their loyalty programs to incorporate rewards for sustainable behaviors but also offer rewards that are, in and of themselves, sustainable such as a recyclable tote bag. 

What we think

One thing fast fashion retailers have going for them is their ability to be, well, fast to market. They must embrace and apply this same sense of urgency when it comes to sustainability and providing proof of progress. Any company can set empty goals and talk the talk, but those that can actually show measurable progress and genuine intention to change can win not only share of wallet but share of heart.

If you are interested in speaking to one of our experts about the fast fashion phenomenon, please contact us today.

Diana Smith
Diana Smith

Diana Smith is the Associate Director for Mintel’s US Retail and Apparel Reports. Diana writes reports and explores trends in the retail and apparel categories.

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