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You thought the pandemic killed fast fashion? Not even close

Chinese fast fashion companies have sprung up, copying the models of brands like H&M and Zara—and growing even faster.

You thought the pandemic killed fast fashion? Not even close
[Source Photos: wacomka/iStock and Zozulya/iStock]

By now, it’s clear that the fast fashion business model of creating cheap, disposable clothing is terrible for the planet. A few years ago it seemed like consumers might turning against brands like H&M and Zara, as their sales waned and stock prices went down. But the truth is that fast fashion is far from dying. In fact, new giants are rising.

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Chinese e-commerce brand Shein launched in 2008, mimicking European fast fashion brands’ approach of churning out of-the-moment styles at rock bottom prices. Now, Shein has exploded in popularity and is poised to outperform its competitors: In 2020, it doubled its sales to $10 billion, and by 2022, analysts believe it will overtake Zara’s revenues. In May, Shein was the most downloaded app in the U.S., beating Amazon. This year, Alibaba—one of the largest conglomerates in China—launched its own fast fashion e-commerce brand called allyLikes, which will compete directly with Shein.

These brands are targeting Gen Z shoppers around the world with cheap, fashionable clothes, but some retail analysts and environmental experts believe that unless they begin take sustainability seriously, young consumers will eventually turn against them.

The fast fashion model

H&M and Zara pioneered fast fashion in the mid-20th century by building supply chains that manufactured off-the-runway looks quickly and cheaply. They now dominate the fashion industry, each generating around $20 billion in annual revenue. Shein is quickly catching up and has been very successful at selling to Western consumers. The Economist reports that America is its biggest market, accounting for 35% to 40% of its sales, while another 30% to 35% comes from Europe. But there are many other brands in this space, from the newly launched allyLikes, to the U.S.-based Fashion Nova, to the U.K.’s Boohoo and Asos. These brands closely mimic early fast fashion models—but turn products around even faster and cheaper.

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Zara launches 10,000 new products every year; Shein drops 6,000 new items a day and allyLikes drops 500 a week. Both of these brands sell products that cost between $8 and $30, which is between 30% and 50% less than Zara and H&M, according to analysts. The Economist says Shein crunches data to determine what fashion trends are bubbling up, then leverages a network of factories to make small batches of products. If the item sells well, the company instantly makes more. Shein has more than 3,000 suppliers in China, and “has a reputation for having strong relationships with its suppliers, which tend to be small and mid-sized factories,” says Sucharita Kodali, principal analyst at Forrester, who specializes in retail. “Many retailers cancelled orders during the pandemic, but Shein paid suppliers for what they made.”

Unlike the original European fast fashion brands, Shein and allyLikes operate entirely digitally, which means they’re not weighed down by brick-and-mortar stores. This allowed Shein to thrive during the pandemic, while H&M and Zara suffered financial losses when foot traffic slowed or stopped entirely. At the same time, Shein has been smart about taking advantage of social media to sell products. It has more than 250 million followers across Instagram, TikTok, and other social platforms, and has brought on dozens of influencers who are famous for unboxing “hauls” of Shein outfits. And this year, Shein will debut a design competition show that will stream on its social platforms and be judged by a star-studded cast, including Christian Siriano, Jenny Lyons, and Khloé Kardashian.

Greenwashing and Gen Z

Over the past decade, H&M and Zara have made an effort to appear more eco-friendly by releasing reports about how they’re using more sustainable fabrics and manufacturing processes. Some experts believe that these brands were responding to growing consumer awareness about how unsustainable the fashion industry has become. “Consumers—particularly young consumers—appear to be more savvy about the environmental impact of fashion,” says Veronica Bates-Kassatly, an independent analyst who recently wrote the report The Great Greenwashing Machine for British sustainability consulting firm Eco-Age. “These fast fashion brands felt pressure to respond to them,” she says.

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Kassatly points out that Shein also talks about shifting to more sustainable materials like recycled polyester and organic cotton, but it’s unclear how sustainable the products actually are. Ultimately, she says it’s hard for the average person to parse through a brand’s environmental claims because they’re rarely verified by an independent third party.

We reached out to H&M for more details about its sustainability approach. “Our ambition is to go from a linear model to a circular one,” a spokesperson said. On our journey towards that we have set ambitious goals, such as using 100% recycled or more sustainable materials by 2030 and to become climate positive by 2040. We see it as a continuous journey where getting customers on board is key to achieve real change. Zara, Shein, and allyLikes did not immediately respond to request for comment.

Still, the main problem with fast fashion is the sheer volume of products it churns out. Much like H&M and Zara, Shein and allyLikes make clothes that are designed to be worn for a short period of time, then discarded and replaced with a new look. (Indeed, there’s an entire subgenre of videos on TikTok and YouTube, where people talk about the low quality of their Shein products.) This manufacturing engine gobbles up precious resources, like the cotton and oil used to make polyester, and emits greenhouse gases, which accelerates climate change. “It doesn’t matter how sustainable the materials are that you’re using,” says Kassatly. “If you’re wearing an outfit six times then disposing of it, you’re wasting resources.”

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Maxine Bedat, author of Unraveled: The Life and Death of a Garment and founder of the think tank New Standard Institute, says that there are certainly many consumers who simply don’t care about the environmental impact of their purchases. But there are many who do and are being misled. “When an influencer does a haul, and tells her followers that a shirt is sustainable because it is made from organic cotton, she doesn’t necessarily know that only 2% of the garment is made from that cotton,” Bedat says.

Regulation is Necessary

Bedat believes consumers can help shape the future of the fashion industry by calling out brands when they encourage overconsumption and engage in unsustainable practices. But she argues that we ultimately need more regulation in the industry. “Consumers are powerful, but we cannot rely on the market to fix this problem,” she says. “The government needs to step in.”

Kassatly says two types of regulation are necessary. First, consumer protection agencies need to hold brands to higher standards of accountability. As an example, an agency could forbid brands from marketing garments as recycled or organic unless 70% of their product is made from those materials. Second, governments need to regulate the use of unsustainable fabrics like oil-based synthetic materials (including nylon and polyester), which shed microplastics that enter our food chain. “We need to end the use of polyester, ” she says. “Fast fashion arguably wouldn’t exist without polyester, which is so cheap, it has allowed these brands to sell products at these low prices. Banning it would curb overconsumption.”

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Even though Shein and allyLikes are based in China, Bedat believes that regulations in the United States could rein them in. For instance, the federal government could prevent companies from marketing products on their U.S. websites as sustainable when they aren’t, and the Federal Trade Commission could ban deceptive ads on social media. Or the country could ban the import of garments that have a certain percentage of polyester in them. “With a clever use of regulations, the U.S. could have an impact on all brands that want to sell products in the country,” says Bedat. “But this would involve the government actually taking this problem seriously.”

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About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a senior staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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