Looking trendy has never been so easy. Look around you—from the delivery boy to rural youth to the urban chic, everyone is well turned out in a pair of skinny jeans and sneakers.
Traditionally, fashion emanated from the catwalks and was dominated by luxury marketers like Gucci and Louis Vuitton. The advent of fast fashion retailers like Inditex’s Zara and Hennes & Mauritz AB (H&M) made it accessible to a larger audience at cheaper prices.
Today, every brand, from the in-house labels of etailers like Myntra and Amazon to some of India’s biggest fashion retailers like FBB and VMart to even local indigenous labels, is selling fashion, and at lower prices than even the fast fashion brands.
So, what happens when fashion is a given for every brand?
To start with, brands and retailers can no longer just depend on the safety of their brand names to get consumers to buy them. Even a strategy based purely on cheaper pricing does not serve well.
We have already seen the deteriorating margins and plummeting sales of retailers following the rise of etailing and also the year-round discount and promotion schemes.
In India, Shoppers Stop saw a decline in like-to-like sales in the March quarter as discounts began early in the December quarter. Globally, fast fashion major H&M’s sales have hit a wall. The Swedish retailer has reduced its store-opening forecast for a second time in 2017 to 385 from an initial forecast of 430 and 427 in 2016 as online competition forced mark-downs and reduced its profit margins, a recent Bloomberg report said.
The consequences of cheap and fast fashion are even more dire when we look at the supply chain. Remember the sweatshop Rana Plaza in Dhaka and its collapse in April 2013 which killed 1,134 people, mostly young women.
Five years on, while the overall safety conditions in Bangladesh have improved, there still is a lot that needs to be done. This includes improving working conditions, wages and hours at work, according to a recent Penn State University report.
This is true for India, which employs 45 million people in the garment and textile production sector as well. Following media reports earlier this year, Workers Rights Consortium (WRC), an independent labour rights monitoring organization focused on protecting the rights of workers in the garment industry, investigated a spate of violence and other abuse of workers at India’s largest garments manufacturer Shahi Exports Pvt. Ltd’s Unit 8 factory in Karnataka. The violence recorded at Shahi’s unit 8 was among the worst such cases that the WRC has encountered in recent years. A supplier of clothing to more than a dozen top US and European retailers like Columbia Sportswear, Abercrombie & Fitch (A&F), Benetton and H&M, Shahi is yet to implement the steps recommended by the NGO in its report (bit.ly/2tuPA0V).
In fact, in 2013, H&M had announced that its strategic suppliers should have pay structures in place to pay a fair living wage by 2018.
That commitment has now been watered down. Moreover, the retailer has turned opaque, which is a direct contradiction to the 2013 promise to report in a transparent way about the progress made, David Hachfeld of Clean Clothes Campaign, a global alliance dedicated to improving working conditions and empowering workers in the global garment and sportswear industries said in an April report.
However, there are retailers like denim maker Patagonia known for its use of sustainable materials; there is streetwear-inspired fashion brand Vetements which earlier this year created awareness of the industry’s problem of overconsumption and overproduction with window displays of dumped clothing at stores like Harrods.
In India too, retailers like contemporary fashion brand Anita Dongre’s Grassroots and Fabindia which work closely with artisans are leading the way. To be sure, catering to the millennials is not easy. This attention-deficit generation that’s grown up with smartphones requires constant newness to keep them engaged.
All the same, the youth are not completely out of whack. They prefer experiences over materialistic possessions. They are the green generation who are willing to pay extra for a sustainable offering. They can be lured with a good narrative. These are encouraging signs.