Forget Fast Fashion
It's Ultra-Fast Now
By Gemma Roper
Over the past 15 years, the amount of clothes made around the world has doubled. The growing middle classes demand more clothes, more quickly. If the fashion industry continues on its current path, it will use a quarter of the world’s remaining global carbon budget to keep warming under two degrees by 2050.
To be honest I feel pressure from social media to change my fashion buying habits… I feel shamed, which now makes me think twice about putting in another order.- Sofie Tooke, Content and PR Manager
Brands have started to realise that consumers are worried about the environmental consequences of what they buy and have begun to act to lower their emissions. H&M has introduced their “Conscious” range with products that include at least 50 per cent recycled materials. Some have accused these brands of greenwashing – introducing policies that make no real difference to look more appealing to consumers.
However, companies like H&M are no longer the biggest problem in the fashion industry. Enter: ultra-fast fashion. New styles appear every day, prices are mind-bogglingly low and there is definitely no attempt made to be climate-friendly.
The Chinese company Shein is at the forefront of the ultra-fast trend.
On Shein, there are so many new products that there is a separate page for new things added each day. On the 21st of April, there are 7805 new products you can buy. Nearly 5000 of them cost less than £10. A white off the shoulder crop top with a lettuce trim costs only £3.99.
On the homepage you are greeted by discounts, flashing signs and timers counting down expiring discounts - the carrot and the stick all at once. It seems to be a winning formula and the company was valued at $100 billion at the start of April, as much as the value of Zara and H&M combined. And more importantly, customers love it.
I have a real guilty pleasure for Shein. I absolutely love the stuff on there. Even if it wasn’t so cheap, I’d still shop there because you can find just about everything you could ever want or need.—Sofie Tooke
The company has been accused of copying designs by everyone from international brand Zara to small artists in England. The company prides itself on its ability to spot trending items, design them, make them and sell them as quickly as possible. As the company races to keep up with the latest trends, just 6 per cent of Shein’s inventory remains in stock for more than 90 days according to Professor Dilys Williams at the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at the London College of Fashion.
However, the environment isn’t the only thing paying the price for these ultra-fast fashion practices.
Jasmin Malik Chua, Sourcing and Labour Editor at the Sourcing Journal, says “I think that's a major criticism about the whole sustainability trend that really ignores workers by focusing on climate.”
India’s largest garment company agreed to pay an estimated £3 million in unpaid wages to workers in February this year, after months of pressure from consumers and activists. These unpaid wages were due to the company failing to increase wages after an increase in the minimum wage in India in April 2020. Some other countries have contemplated increasing their minimum wages to increase the pay for workers in their countries.
“A lot of countries are afraid to raise the minimum wage because they don't want brands to flee for cheaper countries,” says Malik Chua, “I think across the board there is an awareness they're concerned about their own economies and what will boost their economies the most.”
It seems likely that consumers are the ones with the power to influence brands’ decisions.
I think when it starts to hurt their brand, that's when they're going to take real action.- Jasmin Malik Chua
Brands want to make a profit and one way they could do this is to charge customers more so they can pay workers more. But would customers accept that?
"I genuinely think fast fashion brands put out some amazing clothes and people would be more than happy spending a little more to still be able to shop with the likes of Zara, ASOS, Boohoo, whatever it might be."Sofie
“I think in Primark and shops that are known to be cheap, I think it would be a good idea to reassess the prices of clothes and how sustainable it is, like how socially sustainable it is to be buying cheap clothes.”Sorcha
“If I had to choose between similar ethically and unethically sourced items I would happily pay around 20 per cent more.”Jacob
However, increasing prices would not guarantee that workers receive any more money. The company Birdsong estimates that of £1160 spent on fast fashion, workers receive only £11.60.
At the moment ultra-fast fashion is here to stay and it appears to be up to customers to hit the brake pedal.