University of the Arts, London College of Fashion, The Centre for Sustainable Fashion, London, United Kingdom
Keywords: quality; fast-fashion; Generation-Y; sustainability; durability.
Abstract: The fast-fashion phenomenon uses a production model that relies on a quick replenishment cycle of low quality garments at cheap price points (Levy & Weitz, 2008; Caro & Martinez-de-Albeniz, 2012). Therefore every month and in some cases every week, new stock is delivered into the store (Palomo-Lovinski & Hahn, 2014) meaning the opportunity for customers to purchase new garments is increased. In addition, the business system of fast-fashion actively encourages the over consumption of garments (Rissanen, 2013). This over consumption has an environmental impact, mainly due to the way in which garments are produced as it consumes a huge amount of the earth’s natural resources (WRAP, 2012) and they are not being renewed (Grose & Fletcher, 2012), nor are they being returned back into the system (McDonough & Braungart, 2002). Furthermore, many fast-fashion retailers are selling garments that are used fewer than ten times (McAfee, Dessian, & Sjoeman, 2004) in some cases even shorter lifetimes were recorded, with many items being worn only a few times before being discarded (Birtwistle & Moore, 2006). Conversely, fast-fashion garments are not made any differently than any other garment. Therefore, a study was conducted which observed and interviewed fourteen Generation-Y fast fashion customers whilst they assessed the quality and predicted the life spans of twenty-one fast fashion summer dresses. The results of the study will help examine how this group relates the quality of a garment to its length of life.
This paper will consider the relationship of quality and durability of fast-fashion garments from the perspective of the Generation-Y, fast- fashion female consumer. Therefore this will begin with an overview of the fast-fashion industry, which will lead into outlining its environmental impact. The consumer will then be considered in relation to what motivates them to select and consume fashion garments. Finally, quality and durability will be looked at with regards to the customer and the industry. It is within these sections where the specific research questions (RQ) will be generated. These will be considered by looking at some of the results of ‘Fast-fashion consumer quality assessment study’.
The term fast-fashion represents the part of the fashion industry that has four distinct elements; (i) on trend fashionable clothes, predominately for consumers under 40; (ii) affordable prices in the mid-to-low range; (iii) quick response time; and (iv) frequent assortment changes (Caro & Martinez-de-Albeniz, 2014). In addition, Fernie, et al (2004) outlined it as the business strategy that allows retailers to reflect current and emerging trends quickly. Furthermore, Hennes & Mauritz (H&M) suggests its global success is down to three factors: inventive design, the best quality at the best price, and efficient logistics (Tungate, 2008).
The efficiency of the logistics ensures that these inventive, best quality, at the best price garments are constantly available for the customer to purchase. Furthermore, as fast- fashion garments themselves are not high in cost, nor do they require a high level of psychological investment (Gabrielli, Baghi & Codeluppi, 2013) it is easy for the customer to have their demand met (Barnes & Lea- Greenwood, 2006).
These demands stem from the fashion customer consumption drivers, which are; hedonism, symbolism, self-esteem and how others perceive them (Brewer & Gardner, 1996) and the garment choices are limitless, accessible and always new (Ibid). This requirement for the ‘new’ is responded to through quick consumer-driven trends (Varley, 2001, Barnes & Lea-Greenwood, 2006) which can be replaced by the next trend almost immediately (Christopher, Lowson & Peck, 2004; Tungate, 2008). Resulting in the fast- fashion consumer being presented with an unprecedented level of choice and availability of garments (Birtwistle, Siddiqui, & Fiorito, 2003). However, this availability and choice means a short existence for the garment, as outlined by Kadolph (2007, p. 33) “many products have a short life span. Even basic goods may change as fashion changes or with the seasons of the year. Rapid product change is a given for many textile products. Rapid product changes make it difficult to conduct a satisfaction assessment.” Therefore this short lifecycle makes it difficult to confirm if the fast- fashion customer is satisfied with the purchases they make or even if they find the short lifecycle of benefit.
Fast-fashion and the environment
The fast-fashion system has two main ways it impacts the environment, the first being the production; through the manufacturing and finishing of the garments, and the second; being the ongoing need and drive for change which is at the heart of the consumption needed by the industry; which in turn fuels the production phase (Gertsakis & Neil 2011; WRAP, 2012). Due to the speed of replacement, there is limited opportunity to recoup the initial environmental impact of the garment, through an extended use phase (Klepp, 2005; Fletcher, 2008; Cooper, 2010; Gwilt & Rissanen, 2011). Subsequently, with the low cost of the garments and the industry having this fast re-purchase frequency, the garments are often seen as throwaway (Birtwistle & Moore, 2007).
“These mass-market practices have now become an albatross of expensive waste and excess, resulting in the fashion industry becoming entrenched in a series of bad environmental habits for an un- maintainable economic profit” (Palomo- Lovinski & Hahn, 2014, p. 89).
This consumption of Earth’s natural resources originating from fast-fashion represents one fifth of the entire fashion market share, and this amount is increasing (DEFRA, 2011). Subsequently, the resources, which are being used up within this activity, are not being renewed (Fletcher & Grose, 2012), nor are these resources being looped back into the system (McDonough & Braungart, 2002). Meaning that the cost of this consumption practice is ultimately being born by the environment at large. “In fashion…the cost implications of the growth model are mainly felt outside the corporation: by society at large, by workers and by the environment. Costs are experienced as increased pollution, resource depletion and climate change” (Fletcher & Grose, 2012, p. 126). However to reduce consumption and increase the length of time the garment is used for, rather than simply requesting the customer to buy less or do without (Palomo-Lovinski & Hahn, 2014), and having a better comprehension of the motivations that encourage and justify this over- consumption; would help enable a long-term and sustained change to be found (Soper, 2015).
The purchase motivators for this group as outlined by Noble, et al (2009, p. 626) are as follows:
- Assertions of freedom from parents
- Finding yourself
- To blend in
- To stand out
- Brand personality
- My personality
- Fashion knowledge
- Comfort of brands.
These themes are often used in conjunction with each other, for example Gen-Y are likely to be selecting their own clothing, are style conscious and shop within the value section of the market (Yip, Chan & Poon, 2012). The theme that would help the consumer decide the garment they want and when it should be discarded would be the consumers’ fashion knowledge (Noble, et al, 2009). Furthermore, how fashion knowledge relates to an understanding of a garment can be framed by the theory of intrinsic and extrinsic criteria; intrinsic being all of the aspects of the product itself and extrinsic, is all of the aspects that sit outside of the physical product (Jacoby & Olson, 1972). A study by Eckman, et al, (1990) outlined that when making a comparison of the extrinsic and intrinsic criteria; overall the intrinsic criteria’s’ were more often used and related to the evaluation of the garment; colour, pattern, style and fit. Subsequently, it was these attributes that had the largest affect on consumer purchase decisions (Ibid). In addition, Jacoby & Olsen (Ibid) showed that intrinsic attributes were more important than extrinsic attributes in shaping the customers judgment of quality. However, the main drivers for quality considerations by the fashion industry have not been the intrinsic, but the extrinsic (Fiore & Damhorst, 199, p.168).
Considering the work of Kincade, (2007, p. 30) who states:
“customers in general are uninformed about the quality or the standard of a garment, and in most cases there is a challenge for the ‘measureable’ industry standards meeting the customer’s interpretation who are somewhat ‘emotive’ and vague when they discuss quality”.
These contradictory comprehensions of quality, has resulted in a disconnection between the consumer and the industry. This is compounded by each individual consumer having their own way of approaching quality assessment, that is relative to their needs, aspirations and personal history (Hugo & Van Aardt, 2012).
Therefore, any new developments of quality assessment within mass-market fashion, has been from an industry and systems based perspective (Lo & Yeung, 2004), and have been developed to ensure constant improvement and alignment with competitive priorities, and not from the customer’s perspective (Birtwistle, Siddiqui & Fiorito, 2003; Christopher, Lowson & Peck, 2004; Kim, 2013) and the desired outcome is increased sales (Saricam, et al 2012). In addition, when the question of quality is approached from the position of the consumer, it focuses invariably on the higher end of the market and considers only high quality (Koskennurmi & Päivikki, 2005), and there is little evidence of the industry wanting to improve the level of quality, at the cheaper end of the fashion market.
Paradoxically, the level of industry quality standards, for modern cheap fashion have experienced (Cline, 2012, p. 90) a systematic ‘quality fade’. Resulting in the production and acceptance of lower quality items to be the norm. Resulting in the majority of consumers losing the ability to determine good quality over bad (Ibid). Furthermore, this lack of consumer quality assessment understanding, is specifically an issue for the Gen-Y consumer,
“Quality had been whittled away little by little, to the point where the average store- bought style is an extraordinary thin and simple, albeit bedazzled and brightly colored, facsimile of a garment. Yet I suspect few consumers born after 1980 have any idea of what they’re missing” (Ibid, p. 90).
Therefore, the Gen-Y customer is both unaware and unable to determine the level of quality they are entitled to, thus creating a situation where the quality can be continually reduced, to aid the speed of the fashion cycle (Ibid). This reduction of quality has been gradual, “In order to shave costs, fabrics have became thinner and lighter over the years” (Ibid, p. 89)
This intentional cost saving, through reduction in the weight of the textiles, serves as an indicator of a wholesale quality reduction since the early 1990’s. However it is not limited to the textiles, (Ibid, p. 89-90) “Cheap clothing skimps on such labor-intensive details as lining, gussets, stronger seams” this, as Cline suggests, is a noticeable decline of every aspect of the garments durability and quality, resulting in garments being made “for so cheap that you can not even wear it once and it falls apart” (Ibid).
RQ1: Can it be shown that the fast-fashion respondents each have their own interpretation of quality?
Therefore, the approach taken by the customer within the determination of quality and its impact on durability of the garment is neither reflective nor derived from the requirements of the industry, but of the individual (Stamper, et al., 1996, pp. 11-12).
“the concept of quality or value as a direct correlate of durability must appear foremost in the minds of many consumers during a casual discussion of the term, in fact aesthetic concerns actually dominate most traditional treatments of apparel quality…research studies of measured quality or consumers’ concepts of quality often focus on construction details, which are more closely related to the appearance of the garment in question and than its expected durable life. A hem that is uneven in length is just as durable in most cases as one that is perfectly aligned, but the perception is that the uneven garment is of poorer quality.”
As can be seen, this focus on the construction details, whilst uninformed about the nature of these details, displays an overriding willingness for the aesthetic to be perfect; and is prevalent over the item having the ability to last for a long time (Tungate, 2008). Resulting in the mass- market customer seeing the aesthetic level of the garment as the most important factor (Swinker & Hines, 2006:221). This results in system where the new look is the primary driver. Using Cooper (2010, p. 8) and adapting his work on product life-times to reflect fast- fashion consumption, it could be seen that the industry is based predominately on the ‘replacement life’ model, occasionally the ‘service life’ and rarely the ‘technical life’.
RQ2: Does this consumer group relate the quality of a fast-fashion garment to its durability?
The study consisted of observing and interviewing, fourteen Gen-Y female, fast- fashion consumers. Each respondent was observed inspecting a rail of twenty-one summer dresses and were asked questions about the durability; price; brand; quality; colour; textile and disposability of the dresses.
These categories represent a range of aspects which investigate how the fast-fashion consumers, relate quality to durability. However or this paper, specific response to the two RQ’s will be shown, as these are most related to the analysis of product lifetimes.
To provide a control measure and to ascertain any differences between the fast-fashion consumer a fast-fashion garment and textile- testing specialist, also took part in the study. All of the fifteen participants assessed the same rail of dresses purchased from fast-fashion stores in London during July 2014.
RQ1: Can it be shown that the fast-fashion respondents each have their own interpretation of quality?
For the quality assessment question (q), each of the respondents were asked to rank the dresses in order of quality, (position 1 being the lowest and 21 being the highest) each of the respondents’ moved the 21 dresses into a ranking that produced a individual ordinal scale for each. However, (see Chart 1. above) the final arrangements of the dresses was so highly varied, there was almost no duplication, agreement or consistencies shown within the respondents arrangements.1 The one notable agreement came when 43% of the respondents selected dress number 13 (see Figure 1) as representative of it being the highest quality.
Therefore in response to RQ1, the findings did show that each of the fast-fashion respondents did have a highly individualized interpretation of quality.
RQ2: Does the fast-fashion consumer see a relation to quality and durability?
As can be seen previously, when asked to ‘rank the dresses in order of quality (q)’ each of the respondents’ used an ordinal scale to provide a unique ranking. This was replicated, for the ‘rank the dresses in order of durability (d)’. The results were tabulated and the two distinct categories (q) and (d) were overlaid for comparison.
Table 2 shows the amount of adjustment (a) that took place between the ordinal scales for (q) and (d). For instance, if a dress was in position 4 on the on the (q) scale, and then placed in position 10 for the (d) scale then the amount of adjustment (A) would be 6. Therefore, the closer (A) gets to 0 (meaning no change of relative position) then the closer the respondent saw (q) and (d).
This was completed for each of the respondents and the overall mean value of (A) can be seen in the dotted horizontal line at 98 (A). Therefore, as the range is between 0 and 250 for (A) the mean being placed at 98, and with nine of the respondents positioned below 100, would indicate that the (q) and (d) are seen as having a correlation by this consumer group. Furthermore, as can be seen with R15 (red column) the industry specialist believed more strongly of a relation between (q) and (d) as it fell well below the mean value of the group, and was 4th lowest. The actual dresses selected can be seen within the triangulation chart (see chart 2 below). This shows the eleven of the twenty- one dresses, the industry specialist believed had very similar (d) and (q) values.
The two research questions returned a decent level of insight, which would justify some future effort into further investigation of the relationship between (d) and (q). However it is important to continue to ask these questions from the perspective of the consumer. There is clear evidence that the fast-fashion consumer in general, is unable to understand or even discuss quality from a unified perspective. Therefore one must question the motivation of the industry to enter into a debate around appropriate levels of quality, when the customer cannot currently comprehend or even measure it (Zeithaml, 1988). Subsequently, a possible avenue may be to continue and consider quality, durability but also price. As this would take into account the interests and motivations of all of the stakeholders. There are a few direct recommendations for potential future study from the work presented here, these are:
- For further investigation into the Gen-Y, fast-fashion consumers capacity to have a common and applicable interpretation of garment quality.
- How the fast-fashion consumer perceives the relationship, if any, between quality, durability and price?
- And finally, how might the industry respond to these three factors, if the customer views them as being intrinsically related?
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