How online retailing is allowing fast fashion to thrive:

[Sarah George, 2020]

In the first of a two-part feature, edie's senior reporter Sarah George explores how booming profits for online retailers are driving a fast fashion mindset in the UK that could undermine efforts to champion sustainability in the fashion sector, unless business and consumers find their voice.

With business rates rising and more consumers choosing to shop online, it’s a tough time for bricks-and-mortar fashion retail. And that’s before you add climate protests, including XR’s call for a total fashion boycott, to the mix.

Between October 2018 and 2019, some 85,000 jobs were axed at UK retailers, with department stores House of Fraser and John Lewis and fashion retailers like New Look, Coast and Karen Millen among the worst hit. Just two months later, KMPG declared 2019 the “worst year for UK retail on record”.

Trends of falling fashion turnovers and profits were attributed, in part, to retailers’ failures to keep up with consumer demands for action on the many environmental issues the fast fashion industry is tangled with: it is estimated to account for 10% of annual global emissions; landfills or burns a bin lorry full of textiles every second; logs 2.4 billion trees every year and accounts for one-fifth of the world’s water pollution by industry.

Knowledge of these statistics – alongside equally damning findings around modern slavery and other human rights abuses of fashion supply chains – are growing as broadcasters dedicate more news coverage and documentary time to environmental issues and fashion magazines shift their narratives. Just last week, ITV’s investigation into clothing waste pollution in Ghana was one of its most-shared stories.

And it seems that this knowledge is changing not only survey results but buying habits, forcing incumbent fashion brands to innovate or lose out. The global secondhand fashion market reached a record $24bn in 2019 and is set to surpass $64bn by 2028. In contrast, the fast-fashion market, currently worth $35bn, will reach just $44bn in the same timeframe.

It may seem perverse, then, that Boohoo Group – owner of not only its namesake fast-fashion brand but also MissPap, Nasty Gal and Pretty Little Thing - recorded 37% year-on-year turnover growth in the UK last financial year. That’s despite the group facing bad press over sustainability issues ranging from carbon, water and waste to wage exploitation.

Similarly, InTheStyle, which began with just £1,000 investment in founder Adam Frisby’s bedroom, reached a record £40m turnover last year. During 2019, it stocked at least 20,000 lines at any given moment.

So, why are physical stores seemingly feeling the sustainability pinch so much more than their online counterparts?

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