Fast Fashion Isn’t Dead Yet — And Could Find Retail Rebirth


So-called fast fashion has been a big player in retail for years, but that part of the commerce-and-apparel world is facing some serious challenges.

Fast fashion has traditionally appealed to younger consumers, but that appeal might be wearing thin (excuse the pun), at least according to an account published Wednesday (Jan. 30) from the Columbia Spectator, which covers news important to students at Columbia University and Barnard College in the global fashion capital of New York City. The issue behind that reported declined are increased concerns about sustainable commerce — concerns sparks in the most part by the ongoing and oncoming impacts of man-made climate change.

Organic Counter-Moves

“As both Columbia and Barnard have embarked on their own initiatives to promote sustainable practices in recent years, style-oriented individuals at both institutions have begun tackling climate change by challenging fast fashion,” the report states. Indeed, the trend has led one Columbia professor to start a company called Fixup that, according to the report, “hosts events and pop up repair shops staffed by theater artists who fix anything from furniture to clothing and jewelry.”

Students also are moving away from buying new fast fashion items — usually relatively inexpensive and reflective of the latest apparel trends — via social media activities, according to that Spectator report. “The Facebook group Buy | Sell | Trade at Barnard has over 7,000 members. This group provides an accessible, convenient option for students interested in buying and selling unwanted clothes to reduce clothing waste. This interaction can happen in as little as three steps: list, buy, and pick up.”

Chain Woes — and Some Growth

Other signs of distress in the fast fashion industry come from outside colleges.

Late last year, for example, fast-fashion pioneer Forever 21 filed for bankruptcy. The chain’s decline was a long-running phenomenon, as falling sales and decreasing foot traffic began to gin up rumors of it coming bankruptcy several months in advance of the actual event. The bankruptcy filing was a dim commentary on a trend that largely appealed to young women, and which has sat high in the world of retail for a good decade or more. Open for business for some 35 years, Forever 21 ended up operating 815 stores in 57 countries worldwide, Make no mistake: The chain’s problem wasn’t only about the apparent and ongoing decline of fast fashion, but about larger problems with attracting foot traffic to malls, where many of the chain’s stores were located.

Fast fashion is certainly not dead yet, even if reports of it dying are easy to find. In 2018 alone fast fashion as a segment of the apparel industry brought in over $35 billion. But as is often the case in the fashion world, things are in one day and decidedly out the next, and the emerging consensus is that fast fashion is on the way out.

Even so, “Forever 21 bankruptcy signals a change in consumer tastes,” The New York Times declared. The paper argued that the growing interest in sustainability among younger consumers — millennial and Gen Z shoppers who are quickly coming into their own —  has blasted a massive hole in fast fashion’s buy-it-today-toss-it-tomorrow point of view. As that report stated, consumers aren’t looking for items of clothing they can pick up on the cheap and dispose of without any real guilt over wasted money, because customers are increasingly concerned over feeling guilty about wasting resources and harming the planet with such a consumption pattern.

Retailers Not Giving Up

Fast fashion retailers are not giving up — well, not all of them, at least. A good third of consumers in the U.S. and U.K. think the fashion industry should have better corporate responsibility policies, according to recent eMarketer research, and such consumer desires are causing some retailers to try to fit into these changing times.

“For example, fast-fashion giant H&M uses sustainable materials and is implementing AI [artificial intelligence] to forecast demand, so unsold clothes don’t go to waste,” that report said. “In the larger scope of fashion, newer brands like Allbirds and Everlane have built their image around sustainable clothing, which could help cast a positive light on the industry going forward.”

Fast fashion and its fate offers a deep view into how younger consumers intend to relate to the retail world, and further changes in this part of commerce are worth close attention.



The How We Shop Report, a PYMNTS collaboration with PayPal, aims to understand how consumers of all ages and incomes are shifting to shopping and paying online in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our research builds on a series of studies conducted since March, surveying more than 16,000 consumers on how their shopping habits and payments preferences are changing as the crisis continues. This report focuses on our latest survey of 2,163 respondents and examines how their increased appetite for online commerce and digital touchless methods, such as QR codes, contactless cards and digital wallets, is poised to shape the post-pandemic economy.