This Season’s Collection is Second-Hand — and Purchased Online…

HandMHigh street fashion giant H&M has posted higher-than-expected earnings, and is optimistic that the fashion industry — valued at $1.9tn in 2019 — could reach $3tn by 2030.

The sector has been growing year-on-year for two decades, revolutionised by fast fashion: the seasonal cycling of styles from some of the world’s largest retailers. Companies are standing-by to replicate catwalk trends and designs — rapid-fire and cut-price. The garments are blitzed into stores as demand peaks, maximising sales. Companies such as H&M and Zara can turn around new items just two weeks after their global debut.

When consumers need to update their wardrobes, fast fashion is the go-to solution. The layout of stores and the marketing imply high-quality at low prices. But this instant consumer gratification has ugly repercussions.

According to Business Insider, the industry is responsible for 10 percent of total global carbon emissions — the same as all EU countries combined. Constant seasonal turnover means material waste. Around 85 percent of all textiles end up in landfill each year.

Consumers bought, on average, 60 percent more clothing in 2014 than they did in 2000 — and the items last half as long. Discarded clothing breaks down into microfibers — which harm aquatic life in rivers and oceans. Half a million tonnes of clothing will release the same number of micropollutants as 50 billion plastic bottles.

The rise in environmental awareness and a parallel drive for sustainability became entrenched during the pandemic. High-profile companies are finally implementing their promises to reduce their environmental footprint. H&M has pledged to shun coal-based fuels and use technology to make its supply chain more sustainable.

Beyond the ethical questions, the fashion industry has struggled over the past two years. Covid lockdowns saw sales plummet for brick-and-mortar retail establishments. Consumption habits changed: away with luxuries, in with necessities. Any company that failed to match the needs of the moment — identified by consultancy firm McKinsey as the trinity of outdoor wear, comfort wear, and online availability — saw sales fall.

Revenge buying — consumers seeking to “get their own back” for the years stolen by the pandemic by going on a spending spree — has caused minor sales spikes. But the overall recovery of the industry has been slow.

In its State of Fashion report, McKinsey notes that the return to formal events and in-person work roles has left people with the desire, or need, to spruce up their wardrobe. It also mentions the fact that 30-40 percent of Americans are now a different clothing size — prompting an equal-but-opposite sort of growth: the rise of the second-hand clothing market.

Reselling will play a bigger role in the wider industry. A report from online thrift store ThredUp showed the second-hand sector is expected to be worth $77bn by 2025 — a growth rate 11 times faster than the rest of the industry.

The overall shift to internet-based retail has benefitted some. UK-based online fashion distributor ASOS recorded a 46 percent rise in revenue at the beginning of 2021. In the UK generally, the high street apparel sector has been left to climb out of a £14.5bn hole, while online trade has blossomed. Research by Retail Economics found 52 percent of all transactions are expected to take place online this year.

The two-headed prong of sustainability and online growth will push the industry towards significant change. As priorities shift and consumers become more aware of the impact their purchasing choices can have, it’s a case of adapt — or go out of fashion.

By Yogesh Patel

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