This is an article co-authored with me by Fabia Pryor, a sustainable fashion consultant and advocate. Fabia and I were both amazed and somewhat perplexed by a recent global clothing chain opening in Melbourne, and wanted to share our thoughts on how it happened, why it happened, and some of the things it signifies about fashion, retailing and shopping.
We hope you enjoy this co-authored piece!
What Are We Waiting For? The Slow Queues for Fast Fashion
The doors open
On Saturday 5 April, H&M opened its doors in Melbourne to an onslaught of customers, with queues around the block across the weekend and spanning into the week.
According to Daily Life: ‘On Monday, a spokeswoman for H&M told Fairfax Media that the new department store situated in Melbourne’s historic GPO building attracted more than 15,000 customers on Saturday, its first day of trade. She confirmed it was one of the best country launches in the retailer’s history.’
In times past, we may have seen such a huge line for the opening of concert tickets for a big band. In 1976, over 20,000 Australian fans lined up to see the legendary band ABBA. Madonna in 1993 held 3 sold out concerts reaching 145,000 people, while only last year US phenomenon Pink sold nearly 250,000 tickets to her Melbourne shows alone.
We love our music and we’ll withstand wind, rain, and the occasional hailstorm to get tickets to see our favourite artists play live.
Our love of live musical events is only rivalled by our love of gadgets. When Apple releases a new product, there are lines as long as the eye can see – blocks long – to get in and grab the latest must-have device.
Now this hype has extended to fashion and the opening of a clothing store. And one whose primary claim to fame is speed to market rather than innovation or quality.
The hype surrounding a fashion retail opening is not unprecedented.
Look back three years to Zara’s 2011 opening in Sydney, where reports claimed that: ‘Within three minutes of the fast-fashion icon opening at 9am, 80 per cent of the stock had been sold. Visiting Spanish executives were forced to work on the floor, de-tagging outfits and replenishing merchandise.’
What is going on?
So what is driving this frenzy amongst many Australian shoppers? Why are so many of us driven to be one of the first in store, to buy the latest look or to land that cheap fashion deal? What do we really think we’re buying?
At the opening of Zara in Melbourne, shoppers were reported as saying “I’m committed to the cause”, referring to her commitment to shopping we presume; and another as saying “Couldn’t miss the opening!” as though the experience of shopping in this store was a once-in-a-lifetime event.
It boggles the mind to imagine what these shoppers imagine they are going to find in these stores. Certainly we know it isn’t a unique or meticulously crafted item of clothing.
Amongst all the important questions this kind of shopping behaviour invites, perhaps the most important is this:
How can we rethink our approach to what we buy and shop more mindfully and more sustainably?
The challenges of fast fashion
While some of these stores have strong Corporate Social Responsibility agendas (H&M in particular) it begs the question, can fast fashion ever be truly sustainable?
This new wave of overseas labels hitting our shores brings strong corporate purchasing power and the ability to make clothing product at extremely low cost.
However, the low manufacturing costs evident in fast fashion are not solely down to purchasing power. A key focus of fast fashion is speed to market and high product turnover, with quality and design for product longevity often taking a back seat.
The challenge here is that fast fashion retail price points do not reflect the true costs of garment manufacturing. This leads consumers to develop a misconception of the true cost of clothing. As a result, smaller, independent labels, unable to compete at these prices, are squeezed out of the market.
We need to become better informed as consumers. Where is all this cheap clothing coming from? How is it even possible to produce at these insanely cheap prices? And who is really paying for it?
As Shannon Whitehead, a US writer, sustainable apparel consultant and designer says in her article, 6 Things You Should Know About Your Clothes, ‘Our bargain shopping, big sale seeking, cheap consumer mentality is directly related to the people making our clothing. Because we expect to be able to buy a shirt for less than 20 bucks, retailers are forced to find ways to lower costs and compete in a highly saturated market. This usually requires cutting corners in manufacturing overseas’.
In that same article, Ms Whitehead talks about the chemicals in our clothes, the slaves that make them (a direct quote), the impact our disposal patterns are having on undeveloped economies and social systems and the hideous role big retailers are playing in this unhappy picture.
These are issues the average consumer may not know, or even wish to know, about the true origins of the clothing they are buying, particularly in fast fashion outlets who boast their increasingly quick to market offerings.
Steps to more mindful and sustainable shopping
In the midst of this frenzied buying behaviour and fast fashion fanaticism, there is some light. There is a way forward. There are a number of things regular shoppers – yes, even you – can do to shop more mindfully and more sustainably.
Here’s our top 5 list of ways to shop more sustainably, and more mindfully.
5 sustainable shopping tips
- Reconsider fast fashion purchases and instead opt for slow fashion – clothing made with attention to craftsmanship, designed not just to suit a passing fad but to last for years.
- Shop for longevity not just for the now. A bargain isn’t always the deal it seems to be; spending more on an item that will last longer – both in style and construction – is a better use of money and resources.
- Support local independent designers, particularly those with Ethical Clothing Australia accreditation or other social/environmental credentials.
- If you are shopping at a fast fashion outlet, do your research. Some, like H&M, have far stronger sustainability initiatives than others
- Ask questions in-store. By asking questions we show fashion brands that we as consumers care. As Bruno Pieters (CEO of fashion label Honest By – the world’s first transparent company) says: Help companies become more sustainable, buy from brands that are in sync with your values, stimulate transparency by using your voice. When he is in a store he always asks the same questions:
- Made by whom?
- Made where?
- Made with respect for life?
- What am I paying for?
5 mindful shopping tips
- Know what you need before you go shopping. What legitimate wardrobe gaps do you have? What ‘connection’ pieces do you need that will expand your outfit choices? What else do you truly need – vs have a passing fancy for – to add to a truly working wardrobe?
- Never buy an item just because it’s on sale. If you wouldn’t consider buying it at full price, seriously consider leaving it behind or at least putting it back on the shelf for a few hours until your head cools and you can consider if you truly have use and need for it.
- Put shopping in its rightful place in your life. Of course it’s okay to enjoy the occasional shopping trip, just don’t make it your favourite or only hobby. Develop other interests, have at least two “shopping free” weekends a month, and start a list of “love to do” activities apart from shopping.
- Shop your wardrobe. It’s estimated that most of us wear 10 – 30% of our wardrobes, making the majority of items in our wardrobes wasted – unworn and unloved. Start wearing more of what you have and up style, give away/sell or repurpose those items you aren’t wearing.
- Buy less. You really do have enough already. If you’re reading this from the developed world that is. Our collective disposable attitude toward shopping is creating more problems we can poke a stick at and one thing we can all do is use our purchasing power wisely, including to say NO. There are so many more ways to use our dollars than buying another cheap dress or pair of shoes from a global fast fashion retailer.
About the authors
Jill Chivers is an advocate for conscious shopping and helps women who shop too much to stop, or at least cut down. She has a fascination with style and identity and the significance of clothing in our lives. Among other things, she worries about the problems of fast fashion and the unreal role models presented on reality television. www.shopyourwardrobe.com
Fabia Pryor is a sustainable fashion consultant and advocate. She recognises that fashion can be a force for good when designed and made with ethics and sustainability at heart. She works with designers and communities who use fashion to tell their cultural stories and for positive community development. www.pryorknow.com.