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How Can Fast-Fashion Slow Down Without Sacrificing Sales?

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It took a pandemic for society to slow down and reevaluate priorities, and fast-fashion brands and retailers are feeling pressure to do the same.

The Clean Clothes Campaign, a nonprofit dedicated to improving working conditions for garment workers, reported that three out of five fashion items end up in a landfill each year. Such statistics highlighting fashion’s wastefulness are landing on the radar of consumers and organizations alike. Waste was a focus of the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in November and the impetus of a first-of-its-kind bill introduced in New York state to hold the biggest brands accountable for their impacts on people and the planet.

The industry is preparing to make big changes, but according to retail intelligence platform Edited, the changes don’t need to be so daunting.

Smaller assortments

For one, brands and retailers could adopt a “less is more” approach and act strategically about new product drops. Limiting the number of trend pieces included in a drop and better identifying products that are likely to sell takes pressure off the supply chain as well as the surrounding environment.

Edited reported that bottoms are a hot item throughout the U.S. and U.K., with the category representing 15 percent of products in stock and making up 19 percent of sell outs. The data indicates that the category—which includes popular items like loose jeans and sweatpants—could be a strategic investment for retailers looking to stock items more mindfully.

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Fewer products doesn’t always translate to a revenue hit. Despite having a reduced assortment of offerings, some companies reported an increase in sales during the pandemic. Though Q4 2020 arrivals were down 6 percent and 9 percent at fast-fashion sister brands H&M and Monki, respectively, their parent company H&M Group reported an 8 percent increase in net sales during the same time period. Other fast-fashion retailers like Inditex’s Bershka and Fast Retailing Co.’s Uniqlo reported a similar pattern.

Strategic pricing

Reconsidering discounting can also help give businesses a boost without adding to production levels. Denim heavyweights have followed this strategy in recent years, with Guess adopting a model pricing items based on perceived customer value. In Q2 2021, Levi’s took a similar approach and actually increased prices by 5 percent across all geographies and channels, accounting for a gross margin increase of about one point. Fast Retailing Co. recently announced it too would review and increase prices on select items in light of the rising costs of materials and logistics.

While discounting can be an effective strategy for moving inventory, if it’s not done strategically, it can actually tarnish the perceived value of the brand—as was potentially the case for U.K. fast-fashion retailer Pretty Little Thing, which offered “discounts up to 100 percent” during Black Friday.

Edited reported that the holidays’ discounting sweet spot was between 30 percent and 40 percent off the original price, with 34 percent of sell outs occurring within that bracket. Still, the firm warned that companies must carefully select promotional items, as bestselling items can vary by season, year and region.

Sustainable appeal

Fast-fashion and sustainability aren’t opposing forces. The two can coexist, and many fast-fashion retailers are adopting more sustainable strategies to lessen their impact at scale. Irish chain Primark caught the attention of denim heads when it debuted its first collection made in accordance with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Jeans Redesign guidelines last year. The line includes men’s, women’s and kids’ jeans made with a mix of organic and recycled cotton and without metal rivets, which can often pose recycling challenges at end of life.

The initiative comes on the heels of the company’s September 2021“Primark Cares” sustainability strategy vowing to produce more durable clothing by 2025, make products that are recyclable by design by 2027 and source more sustainable or recycled materials by 2030.

Sustainable clothing sometimes is often expected to cost more, as sustainable fibers and ethical wages for workers translates to a higher price tag. However, the price disparity could go relatively undetected with the surge in cotton and logistics prices across the board. Additionally, surveys have shown that environmentally conscious consumers—namely, Gen Z—are willing to spend more for sustainably made apparel.

Edited also argues that sustainable apparel isn’t always more expensive for consumers than its conventional counterparts. It reported that Asos’ private label in the U.K. offers an eco-friendlier assortment of women’s dresses, T-shirts, outerwear, all-in-ones and swimwear with a lower-than-average price point.

Secondhand boom

The secondhand market has seen a surge in popularity and is expected to continue to take over the fashion landscape as nostalgia and sustainability drive purchases. According to a report from secondhand e-tailer ThredUp, the fashion resale market is poised to more than double in value from $24 billion in 2019 to $51 billion in 2023.

Edited recommends borrowing elements from the booming category in the form of in-store collection or buy-back schemes. It also suggested retailers incorporate different messaging in their marketing strategy to promote re-wearing their bestsellers or tailoring items instead of buying new.

“Even once an item has been purchased, it is still the retailers’ responsibility to ensure it’s diverted from landfills,” the report stated. “Fast-fashion brands need to provide options for products at the end of their lifespan or if a consumer wants to retire it.”