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Extinction Rebellion: will it triumph over fast fashion?

Marcus Jaye
15 October 2019

If things weren’t getting hard enough for “fast fashion” retailers along comes “Extinction Rebellion” (XR). Protests the world over are warning of impending doom and attempting to ostracise those who continue to shop at brands and retailers vilified for producing clothing that is deemed to be disposable.

While the traditional high-street has struggled, both here and in the US – where Forever 21 has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection – the winners of the fashion internet, such as ASOS and Zalando, appear to be slowing. Recent profit warnings and falling share prices have put a wobble in this bright spark of retail.

While ASOS is expected to show an uplift in revenues this week, could this be the peak for these types of retailers? Is the much-publicised message of Extinction Rebellion cutting through to the buying public and will this prove to be a tipping point for fast fashion?

Morgan Stanley recently said the volume of clothes shoppers buy has plateaued. "We suspect it's primarily because consumers are now buying clothing in such large quantities that they get very little marginal 'utility' from any additional items,” it said.

Retailers such as Primark, H&M and Boohoo rely on large volumes with small profit margins. Is this slowing more a result of saturation rather than the start of a boycott of fast fashion brands for environmental concerns?

“There is some very muddled thinking around the debate on how to make the 21st-century world more environmentally-friendly,” says Eric Musgrave, fashion industry commentator and former editor of Drapers. “I am sure the fashion industry is wasteful, but I’d like to know which large-scale industries are not. Who, for example, ever talks about mass-produced furniture, or pots and pans? I am not an apologist for the fashion business, but it is seen largely as a frivolous unnecessary luxury, not a necessity, hence it is an ‘easy’ (or some would argue ‘legitimate’) target,” he says.

I see no desire from the mass of the British public to change their buying habits. It would be wrong to confuse problems that may have risen at individual companies like Quiz and ASOS with overall trends.

“Too often overlooked in all this analysis is that the UK is a very troubled economy, with little sign of it improving any time soon. We have had 11 years of austerity and many people do not have much money. Asking them to forgo the pleasures they derive from cheap fast fashion is the epitome of wishful thinking,” he says.

Fast fashion is here to stay for decades to come – within the sector there will always be winners and losers. And ask yourself, seriously, what lasting impact on fast fashion did the grim Rana Plaza disaster in Dhaka in 2013 have?

“The fast fashion firms will not adjust their model. If some disappear, others will appear to take their place. Finally, I await the explanation from Extinction Rebellion and the like about what all the many millions of people who earn a living in the fashion supply chain will do if it were to shut down tomorrow,” Musgrave says.

Fast-fashion retailer Quiz, a fast-growing newcomer to the market, recently announced lower sales in the first half of the year in the face of a “very challenging” high street. The retailer said its stores and concessions had suffered weaker-than-expected sales over the six months to September after a slump in footfall. Quiz reported that total group revenues slipped 5% to £63.3 million during the period, as online growth (7%) failed to offset its high street decline.


The entire fashion industry seems quite content to push all the heat onto these fast fashion retailers. Now public enemy No.1, fast fashion has become a scapegoat for the fashion industry in general. Arguably, all fashion is fast and in its nature it is disposable. People are being forced to question their purchases and asking themselves if they really need them, but is it significantly changing behaviour?

As part of Extinction Rebellion’s #XR52 weeks of direct action, it is urging people to #BOYCOTTFASHION for a whole year, in order to disrupt business-as-usual and send a message to government, industry and public alike that enough is enough.

Extinction Rebellion

But will the message cut through? “It will take something big for there to be a significant shift, e.g. the ‘Blue Planet’ plastic straw moment,” Olly Rzysko CMO and retail adviser says.

Kathryn Bishop, deputy editor, LS:N Global, adds that the movement does lack a figurehead the public can relate to: “On Question Time last week, an audience member said David Attenborough spoke to her more than XR activity did. Sadly…”

It appears people are still buying clothes in volume, but we reached a peak a few years back. Kantar data suggests consumers in the UK are buying 50 items of clothing a year, up from 20 items in the 1990s but down from 52 three years ago. In the US the figure is estimated to be as high as 65 items a year, compared with between 40 and 50 in the 1990s and almost 70 in 2005.

"Put simply, consumers would rather spend their marginal dollar on, say, going out for a meal, than on buying a 60th item of clothing in a year,” Morgan Stanley analysts Geoff Ruddell, Kimberly Greenberger and Maki Shinozaki said in their report.

"It is our contention, therefore, that the apparel markets in many developed countries may now be entering a lengthy period of structural decline,” they said. The main catalyst for increased consumption was falling prices. "If clothing volumes are plateauing in developed countries, the only way the apparel markets there can grow is if clothing prices go up," the report said. "But [potential US tariff impacts aside] we think it more likely that they will continue to fall... as production continues to shift from China to lower-cost countries in the region (such as Vietnam and Bangladesh)," it said.

US clothing prices have fallen by 0.8% a year since 2001, while UK prices fell for 13 consecutive years until 2010. Volumes in the UK have more than doubled since 1998 and US volumes have grown almost 50 per cent since 2001, driving 28% market growth. "Expecting consumers to buy clothing in ever-larger volumes, in response to ever-lower prices, was never likely to be sustained in the very long term," the Morgan Stanley report said. The allure of buying has also gone with consumers already own so many clothes that each new item they purchase doesn't spark happiness, the report also said.

Personal stylist Elsa Boutaric has a focus on sustainable fashion and helping people build a sustainable wardrobe, and spend less. She says of Extinction Rebellion: “I think it is definitely raising awareness of the issues surrounding fast fashion, and putting it into the minds of the consumer. Publishing reports, stats and figures of the actual effect that the message is having has the potential to be more valuable in driving change.”

Is this the tipping point for fast fashion? “Consumer behaviour patterns are changing and, though we still live in a generation of convenience, consumers are looking for more sustainable and ethical options than a cheap pair of jeans and shoes,” says Boutaric. “People shop on ASOS because it is a viable option compared to other online shops, so when their customer base moves away to look for sustainable alternatives, they don’t have anything to fall back on.

“ASOS is middle market, combined with high street and doesn’t really have a place in the future of fashion unless it learns to adapt, and this is what it is going to have to prove it can to do both its customers and its investors in order to secure its future,” she says.

Nonethless, Boutaric says the challenge for all fast fashion retailers is adapting their business models. “The disadvantage they (fast-fashion retailers) have is that they deliver huge volumes on low margins, so would need to change their business model drastically. This isn’t easy to do when you have developed a position in a marketplace and it would mean working with new designers and increasing their prices. This not only has the potential to reflect badly on their own brand, but also the designers that they work with," she says.

“They would need to introduce charitable angles or work with ethical designers without damaging their reputation or losing their market. Also, they would need to manage their stock and not have so much go to waste sitting in warehouses waiting to be sold. This could mean a change in manufacturers and distributors which could prove costly and time consuming. There are several factors that businesses would need to consider, and not all of them will survive,” she says.

“There has certainly been a shift, and it is being driven by consumers and some brands are struggling to keep up, but others are adapting and thriving,” says Boutaric. “I don’t think it’s a case of reducing their consumption, it’s more consumers buying more ethical options. More people are only buying what they need, or shopping charity shops, or attending clothes swaps. Buying new seems to be a new slur, unless it’s from ethical brands and designers,” Boutaric adds.


ASOS is partnering with charities to sell secondhand products on its Marketplace

To be fair to ASOS, which doesn’t really sit in the cheap throwaway end of the market, it does support a number of charities and offers sustainable brands and designers. Just this week it announced an extension to its charity shop initiative whereby a number of leading charities, including Barnardo’s, Save the Children, Traid, Oxfam and British Red Cross, will make a number of seasonal, second-hand fashion products available on its Marketplace in the run-up to Christmas. ASOS will not take a commission from any of the items sold.

Such initiatives should appeal to its conscious 20-something consumers, who, we are told, care more about the environment than older generations. Nonetheless they are fast fashion’s most enthusiastic buyers. At first, there seems to be a big disconnect here, though it can perhaps be explained by the fact that young people are both short of cash and under pressure to look good on social media in an ever-changing array of outfits.

Nonetheless there could be a perfect storm brewing for fast fashion with the activities of XR. If the organisation connects with young people’s behaviour it could be significant. A swing away from this type of consumption could be detrimental to these giants of fashion.

Fast-fashion retailers are starting to make green noises with second-hand stores and shifting to sustainable fabrics and production methods, for instance, but investors think long term and will need to feel confident that these retailers will continue to grow and be profitable.

One thing is certain, brands and retailers will want to distance themselves from the term “fast fashion” and its negative connotations, particularly if there is a groundswell of support from the general public for the Extinction Rebellion protestors.

However, fast fashion is the OxyContin of the fashion industry and going cold turkey could have some serious side effects.

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