Symbolic of our consumer society, fast fashion can withstand Covid-19

Clothing and shoe stores are coming out of confinement and are already booking balances that are above expectations. The health crisis does not seem to have shaken the consumption model in this sector. Imports have risen staggeringly for 10 years, reaching 9 billion francs last year.

“Several customers told me that they felt a lack of effect during the confinement. They were very happy to come back to do their shopping!” Since the reopening of stores on May 11, this manager of a store in Lausanne, associated with a large ready-to-wear chain, has been pleasantly surprised. “Until the beginning of June, our turnover almost doubled compared to last year. Since then it has stabilized,” she says.

Paralyzed for two months by the closure of stores due to the health crisis, the big fast fashion brands (ephemeral fashion) such as H&M, Zara or Tally Weijl attract customers with attractive slogans and extensive promotional offers.

In order to sell as many unsold goods as possible upon reopening, the sale period has been brought forward. The goal is also to avoid having to keep collections that are likely to go out of style next spring. Surpluses are left to charities, or in the worst case destroyed. At Manor, “thanks to good promotions, we hope that this will not exceed 10% of the stock,” says a spokesperson.

Gradual recovery

The clothing sector has been one of the hardest hit by the pandemic. Inditex, the world leader in fast fashion and owner of the Zara brand in particular, saw its turnover fall by more than 40% at the height of the crisis.

Not enough to undermine the morale of the Spanish juggernaut, which last year generated a net profit of nearly 4 billion francs and revealed in March that it was pursuing its long-term growth targets, set between 4 and 6%, despite the crisis.

Textile sales are also picking up in Switzerland. The clothing import curve, which plummeted in March and April, has been on the rise again since May.

Admittedly, these numbers are partly explained by orders placed before the health crisis and blocked during delivery. But they illustrate a recovery that exceeds all expectations.

In the clothing stores in Switzerland we have a smile. Manor mentions “slightly higher turnover compared to the same period last year, despite fewer visitor numbers in the stores”. The same sense of “catching up” at Temps Forts, a clothing store near the Lausanne train station. “I was concerned, but it turned out that my customers needed to have fun,” the owner delights.

“The post-crisis effect, with the recovery buzzing, is promoting consumption,” said El Mouhoub Mouhoud, professor of economics at Paris-Dauphine University. “At the same time, there will be an effect of a lower consumption volume, linked to the fall in income,” he nuances.

Despite the caution advised at the end of the crisis, Swiss households are said to have saved 2,000 francs more than in normal times, according to a study published in April by Credit Suisse. A windfall of 12 billion francs, which clothing stores have undoubtedly taken advantage of since their reopening.

But is this recovery only temporary, biased by catching up and “pleasure purchases,” or rather a lasting return to normalcy? “That’s the question everyone is asking…”, confirms Philippe Moati, economics professor at the University of Paris-Diderot and consumer specialist.

“There will be no post-Covid miracle!”

So if there is caution about a possible economic recovery, one reality will not change: the urgency of climate and environmental issues. The voices, at the political level and in public opinion, who argued for a radical change in software before the crisis, see their convictions strengthened today.

I’m not sure if their calls for more ethical, environmental and responsible consumption will find wider public support. “Between the desire to consume locally, which is very real, and the act, there is a very large distance,” confirms Philippe Moati.

The textile industry, dominated by fast fashion, is also not a good candidate for relocation. The model, based on very attractive retail prices, forces brands to use low-paid workers, often outside Europe.

“There will be no post-Covid miracle!” says El Mouhoub Mouhoud, who is also a specialist in the phenomena of relocation and relocation. “Consumers with limited resources will not agree to pay a bulk T-shirt three times the price,” he adds. Retail specialist Nicolas Inglard drives the point home. “The majority of the textile market remains a discount and volume market”.

19 kilos of clothing per inhabitant per year

In Switzerland, the phenomenon of fast fashion is clearly visible in the customs statistics. Only 2% of household expenditure goes on clothing, according to figures from the Federal Statistical Office in 2016. Nevertheless, this amounts to 19 kilos of clothing and shoes that were imported per inhabitant in 2019, for a nice amount of 9.5 billion Swiss francs (import value). An amount that has continued to rise, especially over the past five years, and which cannot explain inflation or population growth.

How then to understand this dizzying progression? “The over-consumption of clothing is the result of a radical change in fashion since the 1990s,” explains Géraldine Viret of the NGO Public Eye. “Fast fashion brands want to produce more and more, faster and at lower costs,” she says.

In order to constantly adapt to the latest trends and consumer tastes and thus sell more, the Inditex group can renew its collections every two weeks – compared to 18 months in the 1970s.

For example, 7,000 tons of new trousers were imported into Switzerland last year, almost four times more than in 2000. The same applies to dresses, imports of which increased from 150 to 770 million francs in 20 years.

And yet a large part of this clothing is worn very little or not at all. The example of Zalando, a key player in explaining the avalanche of clothing sweeping across Switzerland, is striking in this regard.

The “Zalando effect” increases buying fever

Europe’s first online ready-to-wear platform, founded in 2008 and ubiquitous on social networks, has become a major player in the sector. “For about 5 years, online retail giants such as Zalando have also been adopting fast fashion business models,” notes Géraldine Viret. By offering unlimited, free returns of goods to its customers, the German wholesaler has even managed to breathe new life into fast fashion. And at the same time, stimulate the bulimia of purchases.

This “Zalando effect” is also reflected in the numbers: Since the German giant entered the Swiss market in 2015, parcel returns have reached stratospheric levels. Last year, two-thirds of the clothing that arrived at the consumer was sent back to Germany, according to the figures we analyzed.

In view of this unstoppable rise of e-commerce, the killers of fast fashion doubt whether the crisis can significantly curb the shopping fever. “On the one hand, a fringe of the population is striving for less frequent and more responsible purchases, including among young people,” notes Géraldine Viret. “But on the other hand, overconsumption habits are well entrenched and constantly fueled by brands. On platforms like Facebook or Pinterest, you can see and buy a piece of clothing with a few clicks, which is the ‘compulsive’ side of fast fashion.”

Indeed, the internet and social networks have become the new center of gravity for emerging clothing trends, quickly imitating generations Z and Y – the main targets of major brands. “We can speak of an unprecedented intercultural phenomenon, where fashion and clothing are displayed, commented on, fetishized and immediately distributed to two billion subscribers on TikTok”, analyzes Bertrand Maréchal, professor at the Haute École d art and design in Geneva.

Big brands like Zara make no mistake. Amid the Covid-19 storm, the Spanish group announced the closure of about 700 outlets (out of 7,500 in total worldwide). Goal: to stimulate online sales at the expense of stationery.

Zalando, for its part, announced on June 16 that it “expects a significant increase in its sales in the second quarter, thanks to the evolution of consumer behaviour, in particular a strongly growing preference for digital offers”.

When Zara and H&M organize the response by also offering free delivery, a new price war will undoubtedly start. This could increase the number of parcels in circulation, increasing the ecological footprint of fast fashion and increasing the number of precarious jobs in sorting centers.

Yoan Ritner

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