Perhaps you remember that scene from a popular movie about fashion design. In response to a snicker from a novice assistant, the haughty fashion editor explains in withering detail just exactly how vital fashion and the clothing industry are to the world economy. Of course, that movie was released about 15 years ago, and the figures have changed.
It's safe to say that editor was correct: fashion is a massive business. Just to stay up-to-date, it's important to note that the global fashion industry annually brings in about $3.5 trillion. In the United States, around $380 billion was spent on apparel and shoes in 2017, the most recent year for which the numbers have been tabulated.
Fashion also has a reputation for being controversial and confrontational. This is borne out these days by a struggle between two different elements of the clothing industry: "fast fashion" and "fashion resale." What are these two forces of fashion, and should the average person—who seldom watches fashion shows—really care?
As most of us know, the fashion industry revolves around seasons. Several times a year, major fashion designers worldwide hold shows in which they premier their latest creations: lovely models gracefully parade down runways in stunning outfits.
Each designer has a single theme expressed in some way in each article of clothing worn by the models. For the designers of these fashion brands, success means their pieces catch the imagination of critics and the public at large. While few of us can afford one of the designer's luxury items, selling individual clothing items is not where big money is made in this business model.
When a design catches the public's eye, fast fashion companies, with fashion brands like Zara and HM, pick up the trending theme and use it to make similar apparel items, for which the original designer is often paid a royalty.
These fast fashion reproductions are comparatively inexpensive to purchase. After all, fast fashion companies cannot expect their customers to pay large sums of money when, in three months, six months, or a year, the new fashion season will result in previously mass-produced fashions that have grown out of style.
The market for this type of apparel is large. Who doesn't want to wear clothes that look just like the most current, fashionable designs on earth? Since the resale value prices aren't terribly high, consumers should not object to wearing them only a few times, then discard them when new fashions burst forth as expected. What could be wrong with that?
Unfortunately, there is a lot to criticize in the process. For starters, apparel is being created by garment workers in underdeveloped nations that are intended to be obsolete within a year. On the face of it, this is wasteful, but the greater issue is what happens with millions of copies of these mass-produced clothing items.
Many people are surprised to learn that clothing and textile production is the second-largest producer of pollutants globally, trailing only the petroleum industry. The carbon footprint of textile producers exceeds that of all shipping and international flights combined.
Concerning those mass-produced fast fashion outfits, it's estimated that half of them will be thrown away within a year. We should also note that 75% of all our clothes will end up being burned or buried in a landfill.
Now that we know what fast fashion is, what is fashion resale? Fashion resale is a clever title for secondhand apparel—and it's the rage. If there is a dominant trend in the fashion industry these days, it's fashion resale.
The sale of secondhand clothing was the initial basis for the creation of thrift stores 120 years ago. New immigrants, who could not find work, took to pushing carts through the streets of the cities, where they assembled and asked for donations of clothing, which they sold.
Like the Salvation Army, social mission groups expanded the idea of seeking, then selling donated clothing and thus created the first thrift stores.
Fashion resale of secondhand clothing has a colorful, varied history. Though scorned throughout the 20th century with varying animosity, resale clothing has been a resurgent positive.
When materials to make clothing across the supply chain became unavailable during the two world wars and the Great Depression, the popularity of clothing resale through thrift stores grew more acceptable. With the advent of synthetic fibers used to make cloth in the 1950s, consumers who could not afford the new fashions flocked to thrift stores to acquire discarded fashions.
However, nothing boosted fashion resale's desirability like the Internet and the birth of online thrift stores. Online resale has blossomed on the Internet in remarkable numbers over the past 25 years.
Savvy marketers have used social media, SEO, and engaging marketing as resale platforms to alert consumers to the endless possibilities fashion resale offers to creative souls. The new wave of marketplaces allows anyone to buy and sell secondhand products giving unwanted fashion items a second life.
Since prices on fashion resale platforms are far lower than the original retail costs of these garments, consumers tend not to be reluctant to purchase and experiment with different clothing styles.
These two forces—fast fashion and fashion resale—seem to oppose one another in the world of global fashion preeminence.
One stands for rampant, unapologetic consumerism focused on replicating a particular trending look. The other champions sustainability, responsibility, and individuality. It would stand to reason that such oppositional forces would not coexist in an industry of winners and losers.
Oddly, the emerging victor seems to be fashion resale. While resale websites are growing dynamically—increasing by almost 50% in sales year after year—fast fashion's growth has slowed to 2% a year.
The word most often used by fashion market observers to describe the current state of the conflict between fast fashion and fashion resale is "disruptor." Resale apparel is derailing the growth of fast fashion as a business model.
The dynamic behind this shift seems to be concern about sustainability. Surprisingly enough, leading the charge for environmental responsibility is the generation known as millennials, who make up a decent part of why thrifting has become so popular.
A full 77% of Americans in this age group say they are intentionally seeking sustainable clothing brands. Coupled with this, 40% of millennials shopped for clothing on thrift store sites in the past year. Buyer behavior is changing, and a secondhand item can hold as much cachet as something new amongst this group of eco-conscious and increasingly influential consumers.
Using social media and marketing campaigns intended to draw millennial consumers, many fashion resellers have successfully engaged with this socially conscious group. Prevailing fashion trends, it seems, have taken a back seat to prevailing environmental concerns. Giving a still wearable garment new life has become trendy again alongside the acceptability of going thrifting.
What should be expected, then, regarding this conflict between these two forces of fashion? Will concern over sustainability give way to fashion interests and allow fast fashion to overcome the disruption of fashion resale? Is the surprising growth in offering resale fashion going to wane when a new season of designer knockoffs is stocked in store?
The somewhat surprising answer is, "No."
Most seasoned watchers of fashion trends have projected fashion resale to continue increasing its market share. An oft-repeated prediction is that fashion resale will overtake fast fashion in market share by 2028 or 2029.
Some experts who follow the resale market closely express the belief that, by 2022, the pre-owned marketplace—both online and brick-and-mortar—will bring in about $41 billion. Almost half of that amount will be in fashion resale.
Contributing to this trend, major fashion design houses have begun to back away from their frequent seasonal fashion shows and more consciously consider their environmental impact. The idea of fashion seasons itself is getting a second look.
Many prominent designers have begun slowing or even dropping their scheduled semi-annual shows. While many emerging designers are starting off with sustainability in mind.
This portends poorly for fast fashion companies. By design, fast fashion producers have a productivity window that depends entirely upon the big design houses producing new styles to be copied. Fast fashion never relies entirely on its in-house designers to create new, impact styles. Since their designs copycat the prestigious designers, no one would place great stock in their in-house fashion renderings.
As if changing social mores and shifting designer inclinations were insufficient to derail fast fashion, the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic also caused significant global disruption in the fashion design schedule.
Beyond exacerbating the already slowing schedule of runway fashion shows, the pandemic seems to be having the effect of increasing existing trends. This is to say that the growing awareness of the need for sustainable apparel is actually increasing and may prove to be an obstacle too great for fast fashion to overcome. In summary, it looks like pre-loved pieces appealing to the eco-conscious, and our sense of style won't go out of fashion soon.