H&M's Fast Fashion Is Too Slow for Today's Shoppers

CC BY 2.0. Mike Mozart

The retailer is struggling because it can't keep up with what the Internet offers -- even faster, cheaper deals.

H&M;'s recent woes of unsold garments and store closures have been hailed as a sign of positive things to come -- shoppers finally awakening to their consciences and realizing they don't need yet another pair of dirt-cheap pre-torn jeans made at slave-like wages in their closets. But Elizabeth Cline, author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, does not take that view. In fact, she sees H&M;'s loss of retail dominance as a very bad thing.

The problem, she explains in an article for the LA Times, is that the chain has become irrelevant: "Warp-speed, low-priced clothing is now ubiquitous and sales have moved online. H&M;, the founder of fast fashion, is now too slow."

Shoppers are not renouncing H&M;'s garments in favor of more expensive, ethically made garments. They've simply moved their shopping habits online, where prices are even lower, turnover is even faster, and quality doesn't matter in the pursuit of a certain look.

Cline writes that Americans bought an average of 68 new garments and eight pairs of shoes last year, at an average price of $19 each.

"Cheap fashion lovers are buying from digitally savvy, 21st-century-born chains like Boohoo, Missguided, and Asos. Another universe of smaller trendy brands and wholesalers revolves around eBay and Instagram, and young shoppers know how to find them. Then there's Amazon.com, which, having already rewritten the e-commerce rules on price and speed, will become America's largest clothing retailer, surpassing Macy's."

Meanwhile, brick-and-mortar stores are being shuttered everywhere, which Cline fears will result in a loss of accountability, not to mention the death of our main streets and suburbs (who knew we'd ever lament that?):

"One advantage for activists has been that H&M;'s huge brick-and-mortar empire made their efforts to hold it accountable on labor and environmental issues highly visible. As fast fashion moves online, bad actors will become harder to pin down and bad behavior more hidden from view."

So, it looks like we're headed down a path to a worse place than we're currently at. Consumption shows no signs of slowing; the amount of clothing waste generated in the U.S. has doubled in the past 15 years; and in 2015, "greenhouse gas emissions from global textile production outstripped those of all international flights."

It's a dismal prediction for a situation that's already bad to begin with, and, really, the only thing that can change it is consumers' attitudes. We need to stop buying so much stuff, and we probably shouldn't be buying it online.