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 important 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.
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. It’s safe to say that editor was correct: fashion is a massive business.
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 throughout the world 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 articles, selling individual clothing items is not where the 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 the just mass-produced fashions to 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 prices aren’t terribly high, consumers should not object to wearing them only a few times, then discarding them when new fashions burst forth as expected. What could be wrong with that?
Unfortunately, there is a lot to criticize in the fast fashion 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 has to do with what happens with millions of copies of these clothing items that are mass-produced. 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. It should be noted as well 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 second-hand apparel—and it’s the rage. If there is a dominant trend in the fashion industry these days, its fashion resale. The sale of second-hand clothing was the initial basis for the creation of thrift stores 120 years ago. New immigrants, who were unable to find work, took to pushing carts through the streets of the cities where they congregated and asking for donations of clothing, which they sold. Like the Salvation Army, social mission groups expanded the idea of seeking, then selling donations, and thus created the first thrift stores.
Fashion resale of second-hand clothing has a colorful, varied history. Though scorned throughout the 20th century with varying degrees of animosity, resale clothing has been a resurgent positive. When materials to make clothing became unavailable during 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 online thrift shop’s birth. Thrift stores have blossomed on the Internet in remarkable numbers over the past 25 years. Savvy marketers have used social media, SEO, and engaging marketing to alert consumers to the endless possibilities fashion resale offers to creative souls. Since prices on fashion resale items 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 stand in opposition to 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 the sale of online thrift store apparel is 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. Leading the charge for environmental responsibility, surprisingly enough, is the generation known as millennials. A full 77% of Americans in this age group say they are intentionally seeking environmentally conscious apparel brands. Coupled with this, 40% of millennials shopped for clothing on thrift store sites in the past year.
Using social media and marketing campaigns intended to draw millennial consumers, many online thrift shops have successfully engaged with this socially conscious group. Prevailing fashion trends, it seems, have taken a back seat to prevailing environmental concerns.
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 interest in fashion resale going to wane when a new season of designer knockoffs sweeps into department stores? 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 thrift store 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. The idea of fashion seasons itself is getting a second look. Many of the most prominent designers have begun slowing or even dropping their scheduled semi-annual shows.
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 their own inhouse designers to produce 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 not sufficient to derail fast fashion, the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic also caused significant disruption globally 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.