Cheap, trendy ‘fast fashion’ in demand, despite factory dangers


A woman walks past mannequins at a H&M store in Seoul, South Korea. (SeongJoon Cho/BLOOMBERG)
June 28, 2013

Cathy Anderson likes clothes — trendy, cutting-edge clothes that look as if they’ve come right off the runway. And she wants them now and she wants them at bargain prices.

Anderson, a 28-year-old District resident, could be a poster child for those who graduated in a down economy but still feel the need to look fashionable. Anderson, who worked at Cosmo Girl and People magazine’s StyleWatch, created Poor Little It Girl, a blog that focuses on items that are right on trend and relatively cheap, usually under $100.

Young men and women like Anderson have turned to stores such as H&M, Zara and the Gap. Inexpensive clothing has always existed, but these retailers have racked up huge sales by mastering the art of “fast fashion”: identifying hot designer trends immediately, ordering up inexpensive copies and stocking their stores with the look-alikes, often within weeks of their runway debuts. And they do so at a fraction of the designer price, making them accessible to a broad range of consumers. (These are not knockoffs in the traditional sense because no one is trying to pass them off as designer originals.)

“Fashion used to be . . . really an elite thing to do. Now it’s not,” says Daniel Benkendorf, an assistant professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

In April, a factory in Bangladesh involved in producing “fast fashion” collapsed, killing nearly 1,300 people and seriously injuring scores of others. Advocacy campaigns for safe conditions and worker protections swung into high gear. Protests, including one scheduled for Saturday at a Gap in downtown Washington, are part of an effort to urge — some would say shame — retailers into signing a legally binding accord aimed at improving safety conditions and standards in Bangladesh factories. H&M and Zara have already signed on; the Gap has declined and is pushing its own agreement. (On Thursday, the Obama administration also announced the suspension of U.S. trade privileges for Bangladesh, although this action does not apply to textiles.)

Have the revelations about the dangers to faraway workers turned off consumers — often educated and otherwise globally conscience consumers — from clamoring for the latest peplum top or high-low skirt?

Not really. Although profits for many of fast fashions’ biggest names dipped in the first months of the year, fluctuations in currency and diversion of money for long-term investments seem to be the most prevalent causes. And global sales at H&M have recently bounced back, with a 14 percent spike in the first two weeks of June, reports trade publication Women’s Wear Daily.

“They’re not the best fabrics, they’ll probably last a season, the seams rip, the material balls up; but for the moment we can buy it, it feels good,” says Jennifer Baumgartner, a clinical psychologist and author of “You Are What You Wear: What Your Clothes Reveal About You.” “Then we’re bored, and we start up again.”

Positive reinforcement for snatching up trendy clothes at bargain prices also drives some consumers. Haul videos — clips on YouTube showing shoppers brandishing piles of new purchases — can rack up hundreds of thousands of views. Public figures such as first lady Michelle Obama and Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge (a.k.a. Kate Middleton), are hailed for wearing inexpensive, fashionable brands including Zara and Asos, along with designer pieces.

Salvatore Giardina, an adjunct assistant professor of textile development and marketing at FIT, thinks customers would be willing to pay a little more for eco- and labor-conscious items. But not that much more. “Say, the competing T-shirt is $15 and yours is now $25; that might be not realistic,” Giardina says. “You’ll still sell them, but not at the rate which would make your company profitable.”

Benkendorf says another element in the rise of fast fashion — the cost-benefit analysis that shoppers conduct before a purchase — has shifted. “[We] still have the same reward, or potentially more reward because we can buy more,” he says. “Part of that risk is hidden from us because we aren’t really watching what is going on in those factories.”

The head-in-the-sand approach doesn’t cut it, worker advocates say. “Consumers have an important role to play in urging for change in the global garment industry,” says Liana Foxvog of the International Labor Rights Forum. “On the one hand, we can watch where we shop. On the other hand, we should very vocally be pressuring corporations to improve conditions in supply chains and accept their responsibility for their workers that sew the clothing these companies sell.”

But it will be tough to persuade shoppers to cut out fast fashion entirely. “I love mixing high-end with Forever 21 and thrift and vintage,” says Kara Perry, manager of resale store Buffalo Exchange in Georgetown. “It’s really fun. It’s really creative.” Perry frequently contributes to the chain’s blog with Instagram photos she snaps of her own outfits.

She says customers — especially in the District — are sensitive to how their garments are made, but the desire for what is current and on trend is not going to subside.

“I feel like people are too aware at this point that they don’t need to spend that kind of money on clothing,” she says, “And once the public is aware, there is kind of no taking it back. You can’t convince someone anymore to spend $300 on a silk blouse if you don’t have it. You can’t re-convince an entire society that it’s okay to spend that kind of money on one item.”

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