Covid, boycott, consumption… On its knees, fast fashion pays for an outdated economic model

Posted on November 22, 2021

It’s a strong symbol. The world’s number two in clothing HM closes its shop on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. Burdened by Covid-19, fast fashion is paying for its hyper-reliance on Asian and especially Chinese manufacturing. But the phenomenon could be more structural: consumption patterns evolve towards “less and better”. A line that forces the giants of fast fashion to reinvent themselves.

Has the golden age of H&M arrived? The fast fashion giant is going through a turbulent period that is questioning its economic model based on price cuts and overproduction. The world’s second-largest fashion conglomerate plans to close its shop on the Champs-Élysées just 11 months after settling there under criticism from Paris City Hall, which had entered an endless legal battle. The Swedish brand has opened an “information consultation” period with the social partners. The latter will determine the transfer of the 105 employees to another store, according to H&M.

The group wants to avoid a repeat of the nightmare of the closure of its only French warehouse in Le Bourget. While 153 jobs are to be cut, an employee representative tried to set himself on fire on Oct. 26. If H&M closes its stores – 350 of its 5,000 worldwide – it will be because it hopes to revive while the clothing sector is half-mast.

Boycott, Covid and purchasing

Burdened by the Covid-19 and the lockdowns, the stores are struggling to find their buyers. “As rising sea freight costs and commodity prices threaten the recovery in the trade sector, it is imperative to make the crucial Christmas holiday a success. The months of November and December account for more than 18% of total annual turnover in the fashion sector”, warns Yohann Petiot, general manager of Alliance du Commerce.

At the same time, some brands are undergoing a boycott phenomenon in China, causing their sales to fall. H&M lost 40% of its income in the country after it cut cotton supplies from Xinjiang, a Chinese region where the Uyghur Muslim minority is interned in forced labor camps. But the phenomenon is not just cyclical. Consumption habits change. In France, the market has fallen by 12% compared to 2019, notes the French Institute of Fashion (IFM), while “41% of French consumers say they will consume less clothing by 2021”, said Thomas Delattre, professor at the IFM, at the Institute’s annual seminar. As early as 2018, the director of the IFM observatory, Gildas Minvielle, cited a trend towards “deconsumption”, first for reasons of purchasing power, then for “environmental and ethical” concerns.

Shein, ultra-fast fashion

While they wait for fast fashion heavyweights such as H&M and Inditex, the parent company of Zara, to find a model that better meets consumer expectations (digitization, second-hand clothing, recycling, etc.), other players, yet less responsible and much frowned upon, a sensational entry into the wardrobes of the French. The online Chinese ready-to-wear brand Shein has risen to sixth in the ranking of the most spend-generating e-commerce sites in France. In the United States, the application even dethroned Amazon, in terms of downloads. Shein is ultra-fast fashion. “If fast fashion for Zara means a production cycle of three to four weeks, Shein manages to manufacture a garment from design to packaging in less than a week.,” writes the NGO Public Eye, revealing in a new investigation the underside of this board that is building its empire by violating human rights.

Dilapidated factories, blocked fire exits, workers working more than 75 hours a week… However, these practices violate Chinese law and Shein’s code of conduct. Difficult to reach – there is no press contact or phone number on the site – the brand finally responded to the NGO it needed “all supply chain issues seriously” and had no “no comments at the moment”

Marina Fabre, @fabre_marina

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