How fast fashion fails us

Trying to look like Poppy Delevingne comes at a cost.

Trying to look like Poppy Delevingne comes at a cost. Photo: Getty images

Shopping at Zara is never easy. Whichever psychobabbler recommended retail as a form of therapy has obviously never stepped foot in one of its 1600 stores.

Overwhelmed by choice, you want to gorge like a 6 year old before a pick ’n’ mix display. When you finally commit to a few items, a disorderly sea of clothes awaits you in the change room. The shop girl hands you a number as she tosses hangers onto a teetering pile approaching avalanche status. Having stepped in to buy a skirt for work, the pulsating electro beats get the better of you and you soon leave with a pair of palazzo pants for $39.99, several pieces of floral denim and a statement necklace that, in hindsight, you should’ve dumped in the bargain sandal bin shortly before approaching the checkout.

Offering a similar fast fashion experience in all of its outposts ­- from Seoul to Salamanca - the ubiquitous clothing chain is strides ahead of its main competitors. With its sights set on global expansion, they’ve already set up shop in Kazakhstan and have plans to add 400 new stores in China, plus two more in Australia by next September.   

As Slate explains, the secret to Zara’s success is its supply chain management. While most clothing retailers commit to 40 to 60 per cent of their stock six months in advance, Zara only commits to 15 to 20 per cent. How do those numbers add up? At the start of each season, Zara has only half of its stock manufactured, while everywhere else has already got 80 per cent of their collections locked in. The majority of Zara’s factory power is therefore reserved for producing clothes in the middle of the season. Customers want high-heeled sneakers? They’re on the conveyor belt. Balmain did quilted leather biker jackets? They’ve already been loaded into trucks. As one commentator observes, “The turnaround time is miraculous: as short as two weeks from an idea in a designer’s head to a garment on a Zara store’s shelf.”


This gives the retailer an immense amount of flexibility. As The New York Times reports, the company was even “able to tilt the in-store inventory from equestrian themes to black within two weeks of the September 11 terrorist attacks.” The shop’s staffers are also trained to monitor consumers’ reactions to garments. If someone comments on an ill-placed zipper or colour preference, this info is fed back to Zara HQ and adjustments are made to the next shipment. The stock changes every week, meaning, that skirt you spotted the other day probably won’t be there by next Tuesday.  

Through peddling this business model, Zara has completely changed consumer psyche. Our demand for fashion of the disposable, trend-driven kind continues to grow, forcing other designers to adapt. Though fashion houses have traditionally committed to producing two seasons a year – Fall and Spring – Zara has essentially sped up the fashion cycle. We’ve come to expect the Zara level of choice and trendiness from higher-end retailers, who are now producing up to six seasons a year, plus capsule collections and limited-edition collabs.

Zara keeps up with the demand, but only just. The retail giant has attracted criticism for shoddy quality and “slave-like conditions” in its factories. The life of the garment is short. The Peter Pan-collar blouse, which seemed so enticing on the mannequin, just doesn’t hold up when you find it in a crumpled synthetic heap at the back of your wardrobe a few months later. And knowing the factory worker may have been paid 10c to make it kinda takes the shine out of finding such a bargain.

Though Zara is an easy target for any criticism of fast fashion and mega retailers, its story represents a disturbing trend in the way we consume. As Tank editor Masoud Golsorkhi says, “Sometimes it’s actually cheaper to throw away clothes than to wash them. That has got to be wrong.”

Yes, not all pay packets can afford the ‘real deal’ in designer wares, but consider the real cost – ethical, cultural and environmental – before you put it on the counter.