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Fast Fashion Needs to Pivot to Stay Relevant

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Fast fashion is about to make a sharp turn. Right now, the industry is a vehicle hurtling down the highway at 100mph, leaving a path of destruction in its wake. Factories in Bangladesh are collapsing, entire communities' water sources have been polluted by dyes, and in a time when clothes are delivered to stores twice a week, it requires 5,000 gallons of water to produce a single T-shirt or pair of pants. If we continue to use water at this rate, our demand will exceed supply by 40% in 2030, according to a McKinsey & Company report. All in the name of profit. So, the fast fashion industry is about to make a turn, mostly at the behest of the socially conscious generation screaming from the backseat: we're going too freaking fast!

"Do people want it to be faster?" Andrea Bell, Think Tank senior editor for trend forecasting firm WGSN, asks. "We're already reaching the pinnacle. It's already so fast you can't make it any faster." With the biweekly restocking of stores and brands like Mango vowing to crank the speed up another notch, the next generation will look for different reasons to associate themselves with a brand.

Image: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

"The millennial customer does not believe in sweatshops," FIT associate professor of Fashion Business Management Shawn Carter tells us. "This generation is very conscious of doing the right thing... They are holding these fashion supply chains accountable for making sure that it's environmentally responsible, making sure it's not made in sweatshop factories."

As millennial customers continue to wield more leverage in the marketplace, these fast fashion companies are going to have to take even more drastic measures to add brand value heading into the future. "[The next generation] wants transparency with their retailers. I think that's going to be a huge added value in 2025," Bell says. For Bell, this means something like big box retailers (the Forever 21s, H&Ms, Zaras) embracing a burgeoning concept like "field to form"  — i.e. setting-up source materials near production centers, which allows raw resources to go straight from the field to the factory to the retailer.

"Do people want it to be faster? We're already reaching the pinnacle."

Fast fashion retailers could apply this concept by buying cotton fields and building factories in the U.S. Smaller companies and retailers such as Cone Denim and Alabama Chanin are already trying this in states like Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina, Bell says. However, fast fashion retailers could also benefit in myriad ways from "field to form." "It ticks a box for sustainability, it's more eco-friendly, and you can go in and make sure ethically, people are being treated fairly." These are all qualities that are great for brand image. However, Bell also points out the hidden advantage: saving on international shipping costs. "We keep hearing about how manufacturing is coming back to America, just because it's cheaper to ship locally than to ship from overseas."

So, while fast fashion fat cats — Zara's Amancio Ortega, briefly the richest man in the world this year, is currently fourth on Forbes' billionaire list with a net wealth of $73 billion — might remain the closest thing we have to Scrooge McDuck diving into a pool of gold, the ways they profit might change for the better.

Recycling initiatives suggest that this shift has already begun. H&M partners with companies like I:Collect, which gathers clothes at the retailer then recycles them, and Conscious collection, which uses organic fabrics and recycled materials. Requests for comments from H&M were not returned. Zara and its parent company Inditex also claim sustainability as part of its DNA. "Inditex is actively working on optimizing its resources to make any operation more efficient and sustainable," a spokesman for the retailer tells us. "For many years now, [Zara] has been operating an environmental policy and a global environmental management system that allows us to maintain the company's pace of growth while also meeting stringent environmental standards." Forever 21 declined to provide comment for this story.

"That's what 3D printing enables a consumer to do; to participate in the design process."

Fast fashion companies are profiting by giving customers exactly what they want. But by 2025, customers will be able to give themselves what they want, completely customized, all thanks to 3D printing.  "I think what you're going to have, and what's going to change fashion, [will be] more consumers designing what they want in partnership with these fast fashion retailers," Carter says. "That's what 3D printing enables a consumer to do; to participate in the design process."

Both of our experts envision a future in which anything you can imagine will be available through your local fast fashion retailer. "With 3D printing and things like that, you can, in 10 years, go in and say, ‘I like this bracelet, I'm going to make it and print it out in store,'" Bell says.

Ready-to-wear designers, who are moving at a similar breakneck speed, will do their best to resist the influence of the fast fashion. "I feel like everyone is trying to keep up with the speed to market and speed to delivery," Bell says. "At some point, fashion is going to have to say, 'I'm not going to chase it anymore.'"

Customers engaging with high-fashion and the customers engaging with fast fashion are usually two separate groups, which means high-end designers don't feel the same pressure to produce as retailers. "Couture is a process that will always be available for those who want art to wear," Carter says. "There's nothing like a Picasso — just like there's nothing like a Chanel or a Balenziaga — fast fashion's not trying to create that."

"Everyone is trying to keep up with the speed to market and speed to delivery."

The one large change that is rumored to affect ready-to-wear designers is the structure and purpose of fashion shows. Fashion shows currently exist to show off collections a season in advance, but WWD reports that at least one fashion week is considering changing that. The CFDA, the group that organizes New York Fashion Week, is conducting a study to find out if it should make shows more consumer-facing by presenting collections that are already in-store.

In some now-classic movies, 2015 was the future. A time when we should be riding real hover boards (that don't catch fire) and wearing self-lacing shoes. It seems as if the only industry we may have peaked in is fast fashion, though, where retailers immediately replicate the runway's most coveted looks and deliver them to stores twice a week. Now, it sounds as if we might spend the next decade recalibrating and finding the right tempo.

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