Spanish apparel maker Zara is famed in the fashion world for starting a clothes production revolution. When most retailers were taking nine months to get a clothing item from the drafting table to the store, Zara was figuring out how to slash that time to a mere 15 days. The company made clothes so quickly that in 2005, Madonna fans showed up to a concert in knock-offs of the clothes the performer had worn just a few weeks earlier. Fast fashion was born.
Speed was a big part of the revolution, but so too was low cost and expendability. As quickly as fashionistas acquired new looks — fed in part by Zara’s production of a new collection every week, or 20,000 new designs each year — they were also tossing out the old. Why launder clothes when they’re so cheap to replace? On average, fast fashion customers discarded inexpensive dresses, shirts, and pants after wearing them as few as seven times. A limited shelf life was part of the allure.
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But a growing number of shoppers are having a change of heart. They are raising questions about the sustainability of the fast fashion model as awareness of the negative impact of a disposable culture grows. And they have begun acting on their environmental values as well as their personal styles.
Boosted by digital technologies, these options include sophisticated online outlets for reselling, renting, and repairing clothes. These business models reflect a fundamental rethinking of how we purchase clothing — celebrating upcycled clothes and creating a countertrend to fast fashion in the process.
How Textiles Became Perishables
Zara’s decades-long approach to fashion, made possible by integrating vertically and turbocharging logistics, has permeated the clothing industry. Other clothing manufacturers have emulated its model and seen similar success, including Sweden-based H&M, U.K.-based Boohoo, and Italy-based Benetton. The Chinese fast fashion company Shein (meaning “she inside”) is so popular that its app surpassed Amazon’s as the most downloaded shopping app in the U.S. in 2021. Shein uses digital technologies to control its production chain, continuously mining user data to see what customers are watching and liking, and offering iterations for sale.
The success of fast fashion helped double the size of the fashion industry between 2000 and 2014. In 2021, the