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Fast Fashion: Cheaper, Trendier, and Better?An in-depth analysis of fast fashion and its untold stories
Choi Ka-bin  |  gabinchoi@yonsei.ac.kr
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승인 2014.10.31  18:33:54
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HAVE YOU ever opened a wardrobe in the morning and found nothing appropriate to wear? Does it mean there are notenough clothes in the wardrobe? Absolutely not. Ironically, the closet is full of clothes like black jacket that was bought carefree for a 70% off, a dress to wear after losing weight, and a denim jumpsuit which was once a “must-have item.” Every time we clean the closet, we firmly promise ourselves to be wiser consumers and to make reasonable purchase decisions next time. However, we, who are easily tempted by the word “SALE” written blatantly red and large, go into SPA stores on the way home again, while completely forgetting resolutions that we made only a day before. Have you ever realized that, like this, you are drawn into an invisible whirlpool of “fast fashion”? Let us take a look at these clothes that we tend to buy without much consideration. What are they, and how does the consumption of them affect our society, environment and us?

Fast fashion: the cheap and trendy

Nowadays, a new way of producing and purchasing clothes, called “fast fashion,” is expanding at an alarming rate. Clothes are now unprecedentedly cheaper than ever, and more and more consumers are buying clothes on the spot without much consideration. What exactly is the “fast fashion”? As the name suggests, fast fashion is a generic term for the production of fashion items that are designed, manufactured and circulated quickly, just like fast food. Since consumers often unhesitatingly discard clothes that were bought at low prices, fast fashion has also become a synonym for “disposable fashion.” Many people buying cheap clothes on the streets or on online shopping malls have also triggered the recent fast fashion phenomenon, but it is the SPA brands that are at the forefront of this fast fashion phenomenon. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, SPA refers to “Specialty retailer of Private label Apparel” and indicates a clothing company that is in charge of the whole process of designing, manufacturing, producing, distributing and merchandising clothes. Such autonomy allows SPA brands to “produce while selling” and not “sell after completing production.” The American company GAP, in 1986, first introduced this method of SPA brands. Since then, more companies are increasingly adopting this method to attract consumers.

The most distinguished characteristics of SPA brands are the trendy design, quick merchandise turnover, and low prices. The primary objective of SPA brands is to capture the most recent stylish fashion trends. The book *OVERDRESSED: The shockingly high cost of cheap fashion* describes such an episode: when the jacket that Madonna wore on the first day of her concert became popular, her fans managed to appear on the last day of the concert dressed just like Madonna, thanks to SPA brands’ fast merchandising. SPAs release approximately 40 to 60 sets of products each week and 70% of the whole products in the store are replaced within two weeks. For instance, the brand ZARA, the popular Spanish SPA brand, is managed based on the principle that newly-released products are to be immediately launched in all stores around the globe within 48 hours. Another characteristic of SPA brands is that they pursue economical strategies. They allow consumers to take advantage of fancy clothing styles at a relatively low price by selecting the most cost-efficient methods, while avoiding the high-cost distribution networks like department stores. With these characteristics, SPA brands stand at the forefront of “fast fashion,” and have flourished during the long-lasting economic recession that has persisted since the financial crisis that began in 2008. Not only the global brands, but also the domestic SPA brands such as 8ight seconds, MIXXO and Topten10 are expanding their influence over domestic fashion industry. The scale of domestic SPA brands has already reached beyond \190,000 million in 2011, \300,000 million in 2014, and now they are estimated to reach almost \400,000 million within a year or two. Although the whole fashion industry has become a victim of global recession since 2008, the fast fashion market was an exception and has shown an enormous growth rate of 56% per annum.

Changing consumption paradigms

Then, how did fast fashion become so popular nowadays? Not only are SPA brands cheap, but the technological developments of Internet, blogs, and social network services (SNS), have also contributed to the huge growth of fast fashion. Today, SPA brands must survive in the market by chasing after the latest trends, continuously searching for ways to attract potential consumers online. With portable personal computers, clerks at stores ceaselessly deliver information to head office about the popular products and consumers’ responses to newly-released items. As a result, SPA brands succeeded in capturing consumers’ tastes immediately, and the fast fashion market began to expand greatly.

With the birth of fast fashion, people with new consumption tendency, who are so-called *fast fashion-zok* also appeared. According to the EBS program “Our Sole Earth,” they are characterized to be 21.4 years old on average, go shopping 1.5 times a week, purchase approximately 78 sets of clothes per year, select products similar to those of celebrities, and yet feel that they lack clothes. With the advent of *fast-fashion zok*, there have been notable changes in clothing consumption paradigms. Firstly, the overall frequency of purchasing clothes has increased. It is estimated that the usual customer visit one SPA store about 17 times a year, while a consumer visits non-SPA brands only 3 times a year on average. Secondly, the production cycle of SPAs are no longer influenced by seasons unlike in the past. With all-year-around clothes available throughout the year, consumers also started to constantly shop for clothes. However, it seems that the increase in consumption does not always lead to rational purchase decisions. Since SPA brands release new products every week, consumers are easily misled in to believing that if they do not buy clothes on the spot, they would never have the chance to get them afterwards. Due to this misconception, people are prone to excessive purchases, while completely overlooking the fact that their closets are already full of clothes of similar styles. Finally, as consumers can purchase clothes at giveaway prices, there has been clear decrease in the value of clothes. People nowadays tend to consider clothes as something disposable. “Consumers no longer have to cling on to clothes. Once they walk out of the door, they can easily buy a great number of new clothes, and with this excessive accessibility, clothes have become something expendable and disposable,” says Jin Seon-ah, a fashion columnist. Similarly, according to an anonymous company in charge of disposing clothing wastes, the amount of seemingly new clothes, with price tag still attached, has increased in recent years.

Revealing the darker secrets of fast fashion

Although fast fashion has definitely brought a sort of revolution by allowing us to be at the forefront of up-to-the-minute fashion at a relatively low price, there are some unknown truths that should not be ignored. Quick circulation of SPA clothesmay turn into a double-edged sword. Lack of sufficient time to produce a great amount of clothes may cause quality deterioration. According to a report compiled by Manchester Metropolitan University in 2006, “Fast fashion companies, in fact, skip quality assessment such as fitting.” Consumers, too, may sometimes accept substandard products, tolerating them because of their low price. To borrow customer psychology expert C.W. Park’s words, “Because consumers are so surprised at how this cheap fashion is well-made considering its price, they tend to tolerate products that fall short on standard.” On the other hand, lack of time further makes it impossible to develop creative designs. Instead of leading fashion as trend-setters, most SPAs are busy chasing after trends. Actually, copying or slightly altering each other’s designs are openly being done. Not only do they imitate each other, fast fashion brands sometimes even reproduce fashion of the past. “Under the burden of creating new designs of clothes constantly,designers even replicate history. I surely noticed this when the representative 90s’ styles such as flower-patterned dresses, crop tops, high waist pants, and walker boots returned in the 2010s.”says Elizabeth L. Cline, a writer of *OVERDRESSED: The shockingly high cost of cheap fashion.*

A piece of further bad news is that fast fashion seems to contribute to aggravating global pollution. Operating in the most cost-efficient manner can be beneficial to consumers, but not necessarily to the environment. Since most SPA brands survive on low price strategy to attract thrifty consumers, they have to minimize costs as much as they can, which means that they are prevented from spending enough money on eco-friendly materials and minimizing environmental damage. In 2011, local Chinese clothing factory along the Yangtze River recklessly discharged wastewater with toxics and was caught by the global environment protection group Greenpeace. Later it was revealed that those factories were sub-contractors of one of the global SPA brands. In addition to the process of manufacturing, another huge pollution occurs when discarding clothes. As apparent from the graph, the growth of fast fashion market is proportional with the amount of clothing wastes. We often believe disposed clothes are recyclable, yet, there is no advanced technology to dissolve mixer fiber fabrics into its original condition for recycling. In order to reduce environmental costs and to dodge regulations, fast fashion brands are moving their manufacturing factories to countries where environmental regulations are relatively loose, such as Sri Lanka, Cambodia and Bangladesh. Such irresponsible attitudes of brands may worsen the current situation, and eventually, the damages of environmental pollution will quickly spread throughout the global networks of SPA brands. Nam Hoo-nam (Prof., Dept. of Fashion Design, Gangdong Univ.) said that, “The fast fashion trend, which instigates disposable habits, may eventually change the global climate.” Kim Mi-hwa (Secretary General, Korea Zero Waste Movement Network) added that, “Additional charges for environmental protection should be imposed on SPA brands.”

What makes matters worse is that in countries where environmental regulations are weak, labor rights are barely guaranteed, and SPA brands are moving their factories to such countries to reduce personnel expenses, which occupies most of cost of production. With little effort to improve working conditions and with the burden of manufacturing at a frantic speed, ethical practices can be simply ignored in workplaces. One of such tragic case took place on April, 24, 2013, when a factory located in Bangladesh suddenly collapsed, and 1,127 workers, who were performing overtime work to deliver products on time, were killed in this appalling accident. After the investigation, it was revealed that they suffered from heavy labor – 12 hours a day, 25 days a month – while receiving a monthly salary of only $50. However, the SPA brands in charge announced that they were not responsible for the accident and some companies had refused to sign the “Bangladesh Agreement” which was created to intensify safety regulations of the local factories. According to Orgdot, a social fashion enterprise, even though consumers spend $1,000,000 million on clothes each year, workers only take 3% of the total revenue. Nah Hyun-pil (Secretary General, Korean House of International Solidarity) said that, “In order to decrease the production cost per unit to the point that fast fashion brands demand, local factories have no choice but to lower workers’ incomes and let them work in sites without necessary safety facilities.”

 

Box 1. Slow fashion, a new trend of fashion

“Ethical fashion that respects the value of environment and the labor, is the most unique and stylish fashion.” says Kim Jin-hwa (Representative, Orgdot). Recently, slow fashion movement has arisen against fast fashion, blaming fast fashion and SPAs for not using eco-friendly materials. The primary objective of slow fashion is to minimize the negative effects on earth and humanity. At the same time, slow fashion consumers consider individuals’ tastes and preferences as the most important, and hence are less interested in the current trends. Here are some examples of slow fashion movement which is now spreading around the globe.

l  Consumers making hand-made clothes from their own

l  Enterprises’ recycle campaigns

- Collecting secondhand clothes from consumers and delivering them to refugee camps

-Using secondhand clothes to create new designs

l  Designers reforming clothes with additional secondhand pieces

*                *                *

 

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