Could climate-conscious shoppers kill fast fashion?

Fast-fashion companies such as Zara could be at risk if climate-conscious shoppers start buying less clothing.
Fast-fashion companies such as Zara could be at risk if climate-conscious shoppers start buying less clothing.
Image: Reuters/Caitlin Ochs
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With shoppers today worried about climate change and deeming it cool to care about the planet, fast fashion could find itself at risk.

Chains like H&M, Zara, and Asos have been extraordinarily successful churning out huge volumes of low-cost clothing, but that model is also the crux of their environmental problems. Producing the growing volume of clothes sold globally each year consumes huge amounts of resources, pollutes waterways with dyes and chemicals, and emits large quantities of greenhouse gases.

For now, shoppers continue to buy up cheap fashion, and many who say they want sustainable products still make purchase decisions based on price. But investment bank UBS believes a consumer backlash could lurk on the horizon.

“In the case of fast fashion, we think it possible that changes in consumer behaviour—along the lines of ‘flight shaming’ or shunning plastic—will eventually crystallise as the negative environmental and social impacts become more widely recognised,” the firm said in a new research note to clients. It envisions different scenarios where sales of cheap, high-volume clothes could decline 10% to 30% over the next five to 10 years.

UBS emphasized this is not its “base-case” prediction for fashion, and it comes with a big caveat: The firm does not “yet have evidence” that sustainability considerations are moving shoppers to buy less. But it said it has seen customer attitudes change quickly in other industries, with repercussions for companies. In the US, for example, sales of full-calorie sodas plummeted over a 20-year period as the health risks of sugar were publicized and government took action.

Will fast fashion go the way of full-calorie soda?

UBS imagined four different situations that could disrupt fast fashion. In the most radical, a widespread shift in consumer attitudes toward clothing, comprehensive government regulations, and changes in how fast-fashion companies themselves produce clothes would speed change in the industry, causing a 30% drop in unit sales of high-volume, low-value clothing in around five years.

That version of events, however, would require some big turnabouts in behavior. Right now there is little government oversight of fashion’s supply chain, and little indication companies themselves will sacrifice sales for sustainability.

The scenario at the other end of the spectrum would entail slower change in consumer attitudes, incremental steps by companies to reduce the clothing they produce, and limited regulation by authorities. Under that model, UBS predicts unit sales of fast fashion could still fall 10% in 10 years. The other scenarios fall between these opposing visions.

In any case, companies that emphasize sustainability, as H&M has done, “may in the short term take market share,” it said.

The likelihood of any of these situations coming to pass is hard to gauge. While clothing consumption has plateaued in the mature US market, it is growing globally with middle classes flourishing in emerging economies like China and India.

Companies are implementing programs to reduce their impact, such as sourcing more sustainable raw materials or launching recycling programs. But UBS and many experts agree these efforts generally don’t offset the volume of products they make.

Many shoppers remain unaware of fast fashion’s impact, meanwhile. UBS surveyed 3,000 consumers across the US, UK, and Germany. It found 58% of respondents said they didn’t know about fast fashion’s environmental impact.

On the other hand, 54% said they personally knew someone who had changed their shopping behavior because of sustainability concerns. (It asked about other people’s behavior so respondents would be more likely to give an honest answer, rather than provide the one that was most socially acceptable).