“Fast fashion is not free. Someone, somewhere is paying the price.”
The title of this article was inspired by a quote from the British journalist and writer, Lucy Siegle, who specialises in environmental issues. She’s hit the nail on the head regarding the negative impacts of fast fashion and, as more consumers become aware of the effects that fast fashion has on small businesses and designers like me entering the apparel retail industry, I thought that I too should speak out.
What is fast fashion?
The term ‘fast fashion’ refers to that part of the industry which pursues bigger profits through the exploitation of resources (human and environmental) and the mass production of products that are often direct copies of those created by other designers.
As renowned multinational clothing retailers (won't mention their names) have become increasingly popular due to their low prices, fashion has been taken over by fast-growing capitalist businesses which are stripping the industry of its culture. The simple truth is that fast fashion is dependent on the mass production and distribution of low-quality apparel, contributing to excessive pollution and waste while supporting unethical factory working conditions and the use of non-sustainable materials.
How did this happen?
Previously, production was based on the four major fashion seasons: Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter. These traditional seasons are almost gone as a result of speedier production chasing new and rapidly changing trends. Fast fashion retailers frequently introduce new low-cost fashion lines multiple times in a single week, and this has an impact on smaller fashion businesses, not least because of the inevitable overproduction that results.
Intellectual property theft
It may come as a surprise to some of you that large fast fashion brands often target smaller companies and new designers to steal intellectual property (copyright designs), with which they mass-produce fashion items at low prices. Needless to say, this industrial-scale copyright infringement makes it difficult for small businesses to be able to control who produces, replicates and sells their work.
Quite simply, this practice means large fast-fashion companies are able to keep product costs down by only investing a little of their own money on product design. They are aware, too, that limited financial resources means these newer, smaller brands are less likely to take them on and sue them in court.
So, what can upcoming brands or young designers like myself do about it?
Don't worry, I do have a few tricks up my sleeve so that you can attract attention amongst the fast fashion brands:
Make your fashion brand stand out – Your target audience will recognise and appreciate your attention to detail if you specialise in a specific type of apparel that allows them to demonstrate their individuality. Identifying a niche market is one way to maximise the originality of your clothing line's products and to ensure customers remain loyal to your brand.
Pay attention to trend forecasting – Besides being cheaper, one of the selling points of fast fashion is that it changes quickly as big brands seek to predict trends closer to the point of sale. Independent retailers should stay two steps ahead of the competition by keeping a focus on longer-term forecasting, enabling them to source designs and inventory well in advance, without sacrificing quality. An eye to the future also reduces the need to respond to rapid changes in trends, as fast fashion does. Plenty of digital platforms and resources (accessed for free) like 'Trend Tablet', 'Fashion Snoops' and 'WGSN' exist to give fashion designers upcoming trend forecasts on designs, colours, fabrics, textures, etc.
Go year-round, with better quality and less stock – Don't overstock, and only offer a few styles every few weeks. This will keep you from losing money on items that don't sell. Also, avoid designing and making things for what used to be traditional Autumn/Winter and Spring/Summer seasons. Focus instead on ‘timeless’ pieces, ones that don’t go out of style for a long time, items that your customers can view as a good investment. With multiple shorter seasons, you can introduce smaller, new lines for each so the inventory overall remains fresh.
Be honest and success will follow – Make sure your brand's basic values align with those of your target market in order to maximise consumer sales and loyalty, and consistently reinforce those values through the brand's visual identity and products. If you want customers to choose your clothing line over fast fashion, show them hard proof of your commitment and live up to your promise to work for their best interests.
Small Business Saturday - a grassroots, non-commercial movement
Don't forget to become involved in Small Business Saturday - the first Saturday of December is dedicated to drawing attention to less well-known businesses. The idea behind the campaign is to celebrate small company success by encouraging consumers to ‘buy local’ and invest in their communities, whether online or in shops. The next 'Small Business Saturday' takes place on 2nd December 2023.
Orsola de Castro is a fashion designer, author, upcyclist (someone who recycles or reuses something to create something new) and co-founder of Fashion Revolution, an activism movement which works towards a sustainable fashion industry. Orsola once said, “Demand quality, not just in the products you buy, but in the life of the person who made it.” This I believe means that, as designers, we have a responsibility to try to make the world a better place by being passionate about what we do and how we do it. We need to be aware of:
Ethical concerns – fast-fashion is responsible for the exploitation, mistreatment, abysmal working conditions, low pay and mandatory overtime of front-line workers around the globe who are employed in supplier factories (sweatshops) where they are exposed to potentially toxic chemicals.
Sustainable fashion – not all brands and manufacturers are known for their environmental consciousness nor do they show a preference for using sustainable/vegan fabrics such as hemp, organic cotton and linen, and bamboo.
Intellectual property theft – there ought to be alternative legal options available to safeguard small firms from the theft of intellectual property, such as some kind of civil legal system supported by the government.
We need to start directing consumers back to boutique owners, independent retailers and local designers. It really does worry me that the fashion industry is becoming a monoculture dominated by a select group of major businesses. The business we love will, I believe, be more resilient if it embraces greater biodiversity and features smaller hubs of creators, styles, and fashion cultures.
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