The Pandemic Exposes a Decline in Fast Fashion Sales

By Ellie W. ’21

From when Winsor canceled school back in March to today, three months later, students have been feeling bored, and others have been stressed and sad in quarantine. What better way to handle stress or sadness than therapy? Retail therapy, I mean. Buying clothes has always been a sort of instant gratification, but with store closures, finding that gratification has pivoted online. “I’ve spent way too much money on clothes this quarantine,” people are thinking, and “after all, there’s nothing better to do.”

Instant gratification from shopping is inextricably connected to fast fashion; fast fashion caters to people’s desire for immediate fulfillment and has become all the more convenient with the advent of online shopping. But, with economies shutting down, has fast fashion retained its appeal and, well, stayed fast? And, what cost has the pandemic placed on the fast fashion industry or on the workers themselves?

Despite the appeal of online shopping, especially with quarantine boredom, fast fashion sales have been declining since the pandemic shut the economy down. As Refinery29 reports, fast fashion giant H&M has seen a 46% decrease in sales. Likewise, in the first two weeks of March, Inditex, parent company of Zara and other fast fashion retailers such as Bershka and Pull&Bear, saw a 24.1% decrease in sales. So, why has the fast fashion industry suffered in a time where instant gratification and alternatives to boredom have reigned strong? 

First, while fast fashion shopping remains appealing, people no longer have occasions to buy clothes for – not only have big social events been canceled, but going out with friends is just not possible. Often, the impulse to buy clothing, specifically fast fashion clothing, is boredom, but that boredom can be satisfied just by browsing and even by adding items to a cart without ever actually making the purchase. Amelia Zhang ’21 says that while she has not “done any more online shopping than usual,” she has been “browsing a lot more, sometimes mindlessly, even when [she has] things to do.” Jenna Diioro, a 28-year old resident of New Jersey interviewed by Refinery29, “browses clothing online more than she used to — mostly out of boredom”, but “never quite pull[s] the trigger” on the purchase. This hesitation to make impulse purchases could be from the stress and seriousness of the pandemic, though that effect and pressure has declined as quarantine continues. It also could stem from financial reasons – many people have been laid off or fired and have to keep the financial consequences of impulse buying in mind.  

Additionally, fast fashion works by copying trends, often inspired by (or stolen from) celebrities out and about or from high fashion designers. While everyone is stuck at home, trends simply cannot evolve as quickly, and thus, neither can fast fashion. Sure, tie-dye and sweats (and tie-dye sweats) have had a big boom this spring, but it doesn’t come close to the fashion cycle that comes from designers’ releasing a spring collection.

Finally, supply chains have been disrupted by the pandemic. It’s no secret that fast fashion clothing pieces are almost always made overseas with cheap labor in countries such as Bangladesh, China, and Vietnam. China has, of course, been hit quite hard by the pandemic, and Bangladesh and Vietnam have certainly been impacted as well. Bangladeshi manufacturers have stated that with its economy shut down, the country could lose 10 billion dollars in export revenue.

However, despite fast fashion’s decline, it could easily come back just as strong, capitalizing off of people’s desire for something “new” after being isolated for months. This resurgence could result in exploitation for those at the bottom of the production chain, people working for low wages in poor countries whose employers and governments are trying to compensate for losses during the pandemic.

Reducing demand for fast fashion will help to reduce these exploitative behaviors on the part of fashion giants and governments. Alternatives to fast fashion do include purchasing from sustainable and ethically made clothing brands, though these brands are often very expensive. Thrift shopping is a budget-friendly alternative to fast fashion, though pretty inaccessible during a pandemic. Buying secondhand online from marketplaces such as Depop, Poshmark, and ThredUp are options too, albeit less affordable than thrifting. Ultimately, the pandemic has provided the start to fast fashion’s decline, and it is up to us to choose whether we want to support the extreme compensatory exploitation of factory workers or not.

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