Joining the ranks of foreign brands exiting Hong Kong during the pandemic-induced economic meltdown, British high street giant, Arcadia Group — the owner of high street brands such as Topshop, Burton and Dorothy Perkins, has closed down its last Topshop in Hong Kong some months ago. Last week, the group went into administration, putting thousands of jobs at risk and leaving shopworkers’ worried about their pension funds. Fashion sustainability advocates have rejoiced and labelled this as the “beginning of the end” for fast fashion industry, but the reality of the increased online sales of fast fashion groups like H&M and Boohoo paints a very different picture. So what is the future of the fast fashion industry? Is this actually the “beginning of the end” or is this the flip-side of the greenwashing coin and if so how do we overcome greenwashing?
After “severely impacted” sales across the group, which owns brand names such as Topshop, Topman, Dorothy Perkins, Burton, Evans, Miss Selfridge, Outfit and Wallis, the High Street fashion group has hired administrators from Deloitte to help give breathing space from creditors as it seeks buyers for all or parts of the company. This move has resulted in the halving of the group’s £800 million value.
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Fashion Sustainability Wins…?
Riding on the sustainability narrative that has taken most of the fashion community by storm, fashion activists have gone as far as calling the move “the beginning of an end” for the fast fashion industry. From Emma Watson (the face of sustainable red carpet fashion) being appointed as one of Kering’s Board of Directors to the Boohoo modern slavery scandal, the notion of green fashion has popped up on many brands’ radar. Even H&M, which is infamous and almost synonymous with its ill-handled and deadly garment factory incident, has jumped on the green bandwagon and launched its “Conscious Collection” back in April 2019. Megabrands including but not limited to Burberry and Gucci have also both taken the lead to introduce green marketing with giant luxury reseller The Real Real into its business plans.
While the communication of sustainable fashion is not in any way lacking but does this mean consumers, on the receiving end, are genuinely aware of the harm of the fast fashion industry and the greenwashing marketing ploy? Does this mean that consumers are less likely to purchase from companies that directly contribute to the degradation of the environment – or are they aware of what their favourite brands are doing behind their greenwashing tactics? Does Topshop’s imminent closure really translate into consumers’ increasing awareness of the unethical and non-environmentally friendly practices of the fast fashion industry?
Recent Sales Figures of ASOS, the H&M and Boohoo Group
Although it would be comforting to believe that the consumer trend has made a 180 degrees change — resulting in the High Street giant’s possible insolvency, the reality of fast fashion sales figures has painted a very different picture. To report a few but notable figures, ASOS UK sales has raised 18% at almost £1.2 billion and its customer base has raised by 16% to 23 million in the twelve months to August 31; another fast-fashion group, Boohoo has seen a 45% increase of online sales and an increase of a third of its customer base during COVID-19 in the six months to 31 August despite its previous Leicester slavery scandal; H&M Group reported $229 million in quarterly profits — bouncing back quickly from the 50% decrease in sales during the last quarter.
Like a lot of businesses, these fast fashion companies have taken a plunge during the peak of the pandemic (though some have faced closure), but these sales figures have quickly bounced back after the adjustment period where companies rapidly pivoted from their party and workwear. Though occasion and formal-wear have remained constrained since the virus, demand for casual and lockdown-relevant product categories has been strong.
The Facade of Being Sustainable
From the numbers and graphs, people may have slowed down with their spendings comparing with pre-covid times. Could a sustainability-induced-behavioural-change be used to explain this drop when we see the businesses of these big fast-fashion groups bounce back quicker than ever even during these trying times?
There is no denying that sustainability has become the new darling of the fashion industry by large but this has to be more than a consumer trend, greenwashing strategy or talking point for it to make a difference. To avoid buying into a trend or a greenwashing strategy, one should educate oneself about the concerned companies — what makes their products “sustainable”? By whose standards are their products “sustainable”? What else are they doing to make their business practice more “sustainable”? Are they being transparent? If they are being governed by an Independent Entity, does the Entity have the authority to penalise rule-breaking companies? These are some questions worth asking before buying into their greenmarketing.
Until these questions are answered, having a product or brand labelled as “sustainable” means very little and it doesn’t help if we contribute every major fast-fashion company closure or failure to the rise of sustainable-living until we have carefully and critically examined all factors at play. Slowing down fashion is something that can be achieved by most people (vote with your wallet, right?), but not everyone does it. Falling into the fallacy that a business is folding or suffering largely because of the increased awareness of green-living could potentially be dangerous and may wipe away or discourage further efforts in achieving the ideal sustainable fashion system.