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The Age of Fast Fashion: How Consumer Behaviour Has Changed and How It’s Impacting Our Environment

By January 10, 2022September 6th, 2023No Comments
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Olivia Jane Norris, Sales Development Representative.

Olivia works in AMPLYFI’s sales department, engaging with prospects to showcase our market-leading technology. Prior to joining AMPLYFI, she has spent her career working in the retail and environmental sectors.

Fast fashion comprises cheaply and rapidly mass-produced clothes that aim to keep up with ever-changing fashion trends on the high street. Its business model enables consumers to buy a higher volume of clothes due to their low-cost and for demand to be fed through rapidly changing fashion lines and ranges. Experiencing rapid growth, the fast fashion industry has boomed in recent years, with the UK market alone seeing a steady rise. Clothing industry statistics show increased spending on clothing over the past 15 years. In 2005, households in the UK spent about £30 billion ($39.4 billion USD) on apparel rising to around £60 billion ($78 billion USD) in 2020; nearly doubling in 15 years. In recent times, 2018 and 2019 witnessed particularly strong growth.

Using AMPLYFI’s AI-driven research platform, DeepInsight, that uses machine learning to analyse massive volumes of structured and unstructured data to uncover hidden links, trends, and opportunities, I have set out to discover more about the fast fashion landscape as it stands today. How much is the industry transforming current fashion practices? How has consumer behaviour changed in recent years and what role does social media play in this? And, finally, how is all this impacting the environment? 

Today, the average US citizen can afford to buy 70 pieces of clothing each year, an amount that, due to the rise of mass-produced, low-cost products, and clothing outlets, represents less than 3.5% of their yearly spending budgets. In the last decade, the fashion industry has experienced a growth in sales from fast-fashion giants such as Boohoo, Shein, and Fashion Nova, with Chinese retailer Shein alone generating $10 billion in 2020. These companies have seen particular success with their target market of predominantly females under the age of 35.

In the modern world, it has become critical for many to stay in tune with the ever-changing trends we see prevalent in our society and media, especially in the world of fashion. In my experience, for example, I have previously placed importance on keeping myself relevant with these trends and staying up to date. With a higher number of trends emerging and at faster rates than before, the fast fashion industry has seen a massive shift in advertising and marketing channels, particularly with the rise of social media and influencers.

In 2010 there were 970 million users of social media. Fast-forward to July 2021 and this number had passed 4.48 billion. For many consumers, it is hard to imagine a world without social media as it becomes increasingly ingrained into our lives. Alongside the rise of social media over the past decade, social media “influencers” have become increasingly popular, with many companies employing “influencer marketing” as a new channel for advertising their products. When I scroll through my news feeds on social media, it now seems to be primarily advertisement-based content, with social media platforms having evolved from posting awkward selfies to money-making platforms that enable users to monetise their content and create a new class of celebrity. This trend that I have observed is reflective of a shift in the industry, with 67% of brands now using Instagram for influencer marketing; a key factor in the industry witnessing growth of $13.8 billion in 2021.

Using AMPLYFI’s DeepInsight platform I have been able to better understand the relationships between different fast fashion retailers and their use of influencers. DeepInsight provides users with an unrivalled, searchable view of the world, connecting them with information held across the Deep Web – data that is hidden in silos, undiscoverable by standard search engines, and often sitting behind paywalls (as long as you have a subscription!). It “machine-reads” all content for any given topic or subject, faster than any human can, sorting, tagging, and analysing all the information inside each document to deliver clear and concise insights.  For this assessment of the fast fashion industry, DeepInsight was particularly powerful in revealing historic topic trends and the linkages between them. The results indicate that Boohoo has the strongest online connection to Instagram, with Forever 21 showing the weakest presence (see Figure 1 below). 

The fashion industry has traditionally relied on celebrity endorsements to promote products, so what has caused this boom in influencer marketing using ‘everyday’ people? It is generally acknowledged that the public finds the average person to be more relatable and they have clearly proved successful in driving product sales. In turn, this has changed consumer behaviours with constant, and often unknowingly or indirect, advertising increasingly influencing spending patterns and choices. As a result of social media continuing to drive fast fashion culture and the need for goods to be immediately available through next-day delivery etc, the global market is increasingly demanding that fashion retailers develop new collections and ranges, and produce and distribute products faster.

When observing this trend, I then considered what else is changing as a consequence of the rise of fast fashion. The answer, perhaps an obvious one to many, is the impact on our environment. The real question here is how significant its impact is. Interestingly my findings were a mixture of what I already knew about the industry, as well as new discoveries made using DeepInsight that left me questioning why we aren’t doing more to limit the impacts of fast fashion. For instance, is it acceptable for retailers and consumers to stay up to date with and constantly drive fashion trends when their actions are causing significant environmental damage? These impacts could eventually leave us all victims of fashion. Figure 2, generated using DeepInsight, shows its analysis of fast fashion, influencers, and sustainability. The trends that it generated in analysing tens of thousands of documents indicate that news around the topic of “Fast Fashion” peaked in the last quarter of 2019. Over the same time horizon, the key topic of “Sustainability” followed a similar trend. However, the trend of “Influencers” being mentioned in documents clearly lagged behind both the “Fast Fashion” and “Sustainability” debate. This insight suggests that influencers merely follow, reflect, or react to what is being discussed in the news rather than drive the fashion agenda which is the common perception of their role. Whilst they have been undoubtedly successful in opening up new indirect marketing channels for retailers to drive sales, it is apparent that they are acting more as an echo chamber to what is being discussed in other media concerning fast fashion and sustainability rather than being at the forefront of driving the debate and bringing about change. 

Intrigued by this insight, I explored the results further. As an individual, I like to think of myself as both environmentally and fashion conscious, and was shocked by some of the insights that I was able to learn from diving deeper into the results. Using our Deep Web search engine, DeepResearch, for example, enabled me to make discoveries beyond what I, as an industry expert, already knew. At times, the insights were alarming. For example, just one way we are impacting the environment by buying into fast fashion is its impact on our waters and pollution. According to a 2018 study, the apparel and footwear industry contributes to over 8% of the entire global pollution. Furthermore, it takes roughly 2,700 litres of water to produce one cotton t-shirt. To put that into perspective, this is enough water to sustain an individual for 900 days (or two and a half years). The demand that the textile industry places on the world’s water resources is set to grow as the population grows and will be exacerbated if we continue to follow patterns of overconsumption. Measures such as Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance (ESG) investment standards and metrics are increasingly shaping how companies operate and should drive improvements in efficiency, working conditions, and sourcing of sustainable materials. But what will shape consumers’ behaviours and preferences? Perhaps there is a crucial social role for influencers here.

Fast fashion requires about 8,000 synthetic chemicals to transform raw materials into textiles, many of which eventually infiltrate our freshwater resources. Alongside these detrimental effects on the environment (the fashion industry is the second-biggest consumer of water and is responsible for 8-10% of global carbon emissions – more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined), the industry also has a significant social impact; the fashion industry as a whole is one of the most labour-intensive industries. A 2020 US Department of Labor report found evidence of forced and child labour in the fashion industry in Argentina, China, Indonesia, and Turkey amongst others. Profiteering often means that sales and rapid production are prioritised over human welfare. The majority of manufacturing is located in low-income countries and comprises young people, primarily females. In addition, 80% of the 75 million people working in fashion supply networks are between 18 and 24, with many workers paid below the national living wage. Garment workers making clothes for international brands in Karnataka, a major clothing production hub in India, say their children are going hungry as factories refuse to pay the legal minimum wage in what is claimed to be the biggest wage theft to ever hit the fashion industry. This has a detrimental effect on workers’ quality of life, their environment, and their families. It means they are unable to cover basic living costs and live off low quality meals. Addressing the balance between consumers having the latest fashion trends and workers’ well-being and livelihoods is vitally important to offset the negative impact the industry is having.

Despite the growth of ESG and other global initiatives such as the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, in recent years a trend of greenwashing has emerged. Greenwashing can lead to detrimental practices and meaningless promises such as some carbon neutrality commitments, failing to take material action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and continuing harmful practices. ESG measurement and compliance ensure companies comply with regulatory standards and investor expectations designed to protect the environment, ensure the well-being of workers involved across supply chains, and encourage sourcing of sustainable raw materials and energy supplies. With fast fashion increasingly the norm and consumers generally unaware of the detrimental impact that it has on the environment and working practices, what will drive the industry to a position where the pursuit of profit can be achieved without the detrimental side effects on our environment and society?

An area where fashion supply chains have significant scope for improvement is in the reduction of waste. Typically 35% of material input ends up as waste, whilst only 1% of materials used to produce clothing are recycled. Most fashion giants are now refreshing their collections weekly which places increasing pressure on fashion-conscious consumers to stay on-trend. To move forward, we should start questioning where we shop, buy less, and focus more on the quality and provenance of products rather than just be lured by their low cost and “up-to-dateness”. A lot could be achieved by identifying greenwashing before buying and seeking environmental certifications such as the Global Organic Textile Standard label (GOTS) and the IVN Best certification which is awarded by the International Association of Natural Textile Industry (IVN). Alongside this, any initiatives that help clothes retain their value for as long as possible, such as a circular economy in fashion, will be important. I believe this will all be part of the changes needed to the fashion industry’s sustainable future. Key to this will be a change in the role of influencers towards bringing transparency, highlighting issues, educating consumers, and encouraging more ethical and sustainable buying behaviours.