Day C.(a), Beverley K.(b) and Lee A.(a)
a) School of Art, Design & Architecture, University of Huddersfield, UK
b) Ecodesign Centre, PDR, Cardiff Metropolitan University, UK

Keywords: fast fashion; quality; longevity.

Abstract: The findings of a systematic literature review on fast fashion and quality are presented. The key findings are that: (i) the term quality is predominantly used in the literature to refer to the perceived intrinsic quality of products; (ii) there is little supporting work which assesses the objective intrinsic quality of fast fashion products and, particularly, a lack of evidence that this differs for high-street contemporaries; (iii) there is a growing body of literature on the environmental and social impact of process-oriented qualities for fast fashion which contribute towards credence quality dimensions. Social impacts of fast fashion are well documented, but studies do not address whether these are significantly worse than other mass-market retail models. There is evidence that fast fashion has significant environmental impact throughout the entire product lifecycle, largely as a result of the decreasing lifetime of the products. However, the relationship between decreasing lifetime and intrinsic quality attributes is largely anecdotal; and (iv) extrinsic quality attributes are the subject of several fashion marketing studies, but their relationship to initial product life has not been robustly explored.

Introduction

The UK mass media is increasingly focused on environmental and social impacts of the production and disposal of fashion goods. The discourse on the fast fashion phenomenon is particularly critical, describing the outputs variously as ‘throwaway’ (Tibbetts, 2008), ‘shoddy’ (Hickman, 2009) and ‘poor quality’ (Watkins and Masters, 2013). It is commonly implied that ‘shoddy’ fast fashion products are increasing the volume of textile products discarded yearly (Beattie, 2008).

In writing this paper, the authors are not intending to act as endorsers of fast fashion, which is indeed of concern from environmental and social perspectives. However, in reviewing the academic literature, we have become increasingly concerned that there is little robust exploration of the relationship between fast fashion, quality and product longevity. Moreover, there is little consensus on what constitutes fast fashion and what designates quality.

This paper reports the findings of a systematic literature review which sought to identify what is currently understood about fast fashion and quality and propose future directions for research.

Method

A systematic literature review was carried out according to the methodology described by Seuring and Müller (2008). The Boolean operators ‘fast fashion’ and ‘quality’ were used to search a well-known academic database with access to thousands of peer-reviewed journals. The initial search produced 220 articles. Key aspects of what constitutes fast fashion were synthesized to provide a working definition, which was used to narrow down the literature. Articles were included in the literature review if they met the following criteria:

  • The main body of the article specifically referred to quality
  • At least two of the following features were evident in the business and retail model: speed-to-market processes in production and retail; short product shelf life; aimed at the youth market; and are focused on fast fashion brands, according to the wider literature consensus.

Descriptive analysis

Sixty-five peer reviewed journals published between 1998 and October 2014 were considered. The bulk of literature is from the period 2006-2014. Since 2006 there has been a consistent level of interest in the topic, with a median of 5.3 papers published yearly. In 2013, the number of papers published climbed to twelve due to the publication of a special issue on fast fashion by the Journal of Fashion Marketing and Management. Although the Journal of Fashion Marketing and Management was the most common source of publications relating fast fashion and quality, the subject matter has broad appeal, with articles being published in thirty-one different journals ranging from the Journal of Corporate Citizenship to the Journal of Economic Geography.

Definitions of fast fashion in the literature are both narrative (58% of the papers describe characteristics of the systems and products) and exemplary (69% of publications provide typical company names). Zara is the most commonly cited example of a fast fashion brand.

Quality attribute framework

Quality is an ambiguous concept that may be broken down into a number of dimensions. In this study, we use a modified form of the quality attribute framework developed by Fandos and Flavián (2006) in their study of product of designated origin (PDO) foods and apply it to the fast fashion literature. Figure 1 summarises the quality attribute framework.

Findings

Disciplinary representations of fast fashion and their relationship to quality attributes Fast fashion has attracted attention from diverse academic disciplines, but these may be synthesized into four main representations. The literature variously considers fast fashion from the point of view of: strategic operations management; strategic retail management; consumer experience; and ethics. Different quality attributes are relevant to each representation.

Quality attribute framework

Factors typically discussed in strategic operations management include just-in-time and leagile supply chains (Bergvall-Forsberg and Towers, 2007; Lopez and Fan, 2009), other aspects of global sourcing (Doyle, Moore and Morgan, 2006) and strategies for quick response to consumer demand (Bhardwaj and Fairhurst, 2010). Relevant quality attributes are, unsurprisingly, industry-facing, process- oriented and objectively measureable. In effect, the quality of fast fashion business operations can be defined in terms of the efficiency of the supply chain; getting the right product to the right customer at the right time and the right price.

In strategic retail management studies have explored product category management (Dewsnap and Hart, 2004), retail environment (Byun and Sternquist, 2008), traffic patterns, footfall and staff selection (Newman and Patel, 2004). The dimensions of quality applicable here are those related to service quality.

Within the consumer experience literature, brand perceptions (Cheng, Hines and Grime, 2008), purchase decision-making (Watson and Yan, 2013), use experience (Gabrielli, Baghi and Codeluppi, 2013) and disposal decision- making (Joung, 2014) have all received academic attention. Whilst both objective and perceived quality attributes are relevant here, perceived quality attributes related to service and experience predominate. These may be further broken down into the intrinsic and extrinsic attributes affecting consumer behaviour.

Ethical issues include human rights abuses in the supply chain (Taplin, 2014) and environmental impacts throughout the product lifecycle and particularly at disposal (Fletcher, 2010; Claudio, 2007). Many quality attributes are relevant here: objective process-oriented quality analysis can reveal supply chain issues; objective product-oriented quality and consumer-facing experience quality can support the arguments that it is the ‘shoddy’ nature of fast fashion which precipitates its disposal.

Ethical issues are also examples of credence quality attributes; whilst there is evidence in the literature that consumers are concerned about environmental and social impacts of fast fashion, there is limited evidence that it is having a significant impact on macro-level purchase behaviour (Kim, Choo and Yoon, 2013).

Prevalence of articles concerned with perceived quality attributes

Just over half the papers surveyed discussed the perceived quality of fast fashion products. Most papers reviewed address perceived intrinsic quality attributes of the product. These studies tend to employ small-scale convenience sampling methods and report qualitative findings (Birtwistle and Moore, 2007; Carey and Cervellon, 2014; Watson and Yan, 2013). The most common methods for data gathering are surveys, individual interviews and focus groups and are geographically localised. Most participants in the studies fall into the typical age range for fast fashion consumers, offering the potential for broader meta-analysis. Meta- analysis of existing studies could draw out existing trends and inform design of future studies.

Perceived intrinsic quality attributes may be cued at point-of-purchase and during wear. In the case of point-of-purchase, literature around consumer decision-making notes that consumers are willing to trade-off perceived intrinsic quality against price, an extrinsic quality attribute (Gabrielli, Baghi and Codeluppi, 2013). In the broader literature on quality attributes, most studies have found a positive relationship between price and perceived intrinsic quality (Lee, 2012). This assumption that ‘the higher the price, the better the quality’ is explored by Cheng et al. (2008), who note a difference in perceived identities of two high street fast fashion retailers with different pricing strategies. Extrinsic service-quality related attributes are also at play at point-of-purchase, such as fashionableness, availability and brand perception (Cheng, Hines and Grime, 2008; Choi, Lui, Lui, Mak and To, 2010; Hennigs, Wiedmann, Behrens, Klarmann and Carduck, 2013; Newman and Patel, 2004). However, these are rarely referred to in discussions of quality. This raises a question as to how researchers define quality. Only eight papers attempt to define quality and there is no consensus between them. It is therefore difficult to ascertain what consumers understand when asked to discuss the quality of fast fashion. This becomes particularly relevant when addressing the issue of longevity. If extrinsic quality attributes experienced in the purchase process contribute more to purchase decision than perceived intrinsic quality, we may hypothesise that the discrepancy between search quality and experience quality is such that the product ceases to satisfy the user rapidly. It is important, then, that the relative balance of quality attributes in the consumer decision- making process is explored within the context of product longevity.

Product longevity is also influenced by another intrinsic quality attribute – that of design, or style. Style obsolescence is a well-known concept and is central to the fashion industry. In articles examining disposal habits of fast fashion consumers, style obsolescence is a commonly cited reason for disposal (Bianchi and Birtwistle, 2010; Birtwistle and Moore, 2007; Joung, 2014). However, it is worth noting that there are a number of end-of-life options for fast fashion consumers, and the choice will affect product longevity. Analysis of clothing disposed via different mechanisms has shown that there is positive correlation between intrinsic product quality attributes and consumer interaction with the disposal process (Morley, McGill and Bartlett, 2009). For example, a garment that is damaged or stained is more likely to be donated anonymously to household waste recovery sites than taken to a charity shop. However, no such analysis has explored the relationship of disposal choices to intrinsic perceived quality attributes. Understanding how these affect the consumer’s concept of value at end-of-life is central to developing systems for enhancing fast fashion product longevity.

Objective and perceived intrinsic quality

Meanwhile, there is a dearth of evidence on the objective intrinsic quality of fast fashion products. In other words, whilst consumer perceptions of product quality are often explored, objective assessment of material and construction quality is lacking. A single paper was identified that undertook rigorous testing of fast fashion products (Fowler and Clodfelter, 2001). A second paper explored the relationship between expert perceptions of quality and technical performance (Apaegyei, McLoughlin and Omidvar, 2013).

In both cases, the product choice highlights the complexity of assessing intrinsic product quality for the fast fashion market. Whilst a particular brand is often defined as fast fashion, not all the products they offer have a short shelf life or are brought rapidly to market (Tokatli, 2008). Indeed, many retailers operate a variety of supply chain models, dependent on the product; for example, true fast fashion products constitute the minority of Zara’s retail mix (Lopez and Fan, 2009; Romano, 2009). For products designed to meet immediate market demand, lead times are short, and it has been suggested quality assurance processes may suffer as a consequence (Barnes and Lea- Greenwood, 2006; Tokatli, 2008). In the case of basic products, longer lead times would suggest that quality assurance processes are not compromised; however, in these cases quality may be affected by other measures designed to reduce costs, particularly raw material selection. Therefore, modes of failure may differ between basic and fast products. In existing studies, selected products (cargo pants and T-Shirts) fall into the basic item category.

A second point raised by the small number of technical studies is the indicative lack of relationship between product price and objective intrinsic quality. Fowler and Clodfelter (2001) compared products form two different price points in the market. No significant difference was seen in terms of objective intrinsic quality. In an industry where suppliers are working across different market sectors, this finding is unsurprising. Nor is the lack of correlation between objective intrinsic quality and price unusual. Previous research exploring the relationship between price and objective quality measurements shows that (in spite of strong relationships for some products) across categories the correlation is low, and sometimes even negative (Burton and Lichtesnstein, 1990). However, it has been asserted that the low quality of fast fashion products leads to their rapid disposal (Bianchi and Birtwistle, 2010; Joung, 2014), with no discrimination being made with regard to perceived or objective aspects. Further testing is necessary in order to determine whether products produced by fast fashion brands truly are of inferior intrinsic product quality to similar product categories from other high street retailers, and, indeed whether intrinsic product quality variability across a brand’s retail mix may be related to differences in supply chain design.

Process-oriented quality attributes and credence quality attributes: fast fashion and ethics

Fast fashion brands are often singled out for criticism for their environmental and social impacts (Arrigo, 2013; Claudio, 2007). There is a clear relationship between documented social impacts of fast fashion and supply chain optimization. Ensuring agility, responsiveness and resilience in a supply chain is typically achieved through flexible relationships with suppliers; cost benefits can be realised by sourcing from low labour cost countries. In the early days of fast fashion, leading companies kept supply chains local; however, geographic locality is no longer a necessity for quick response (Tokatli, 2008). The globalised supply chains in the fashion industry are notorious for unethical working practices: forced overtime; child labour; health and safety breaches; and myriad other abuses of the workforce. High profile issue such as Rana Plaza and the plight of Uzbekistan cotton farmers are factors which contribute to fast fashion avoidance (Kim, Choo and Yoon, 2013) and are credence quality attributes for fast fashion consumers (there is a significant attitude-behaviour gap for some fast fashion consumers). However, it should be noted that the rate of change of fashion has increased across all market sectors in recent years and we are yet to identify any rigorous study comparing the social impacts of different mass fashion business models.

Environmental impacts occur throughout the lifecycle of a fashion product, but the fast fashion industry is particularly criticised for waste issues related to the short lifetimes of the product. Ironically, although the low quality (by which we mean objective intrinsic quality) of the fashion products is often held responsible, it appears that performing well against process- oriented quality attributes and retail-oriented service quality attributes (i.e. being able to produce a cheap product in response to rapidly- changing consumer trends) may have a negative effect on perceived intrinsic product quality attributes and contribute to short lifetimes and sub-optimal disposal decision- making.

Recently attention has turned to activities being undertaken by fast fashion companies to address these criticisms. Studies have been undertaken on the corporate social responsibility activities of fast fashion brands (Arrigo, 2013; Hvass, 2014) which provide evidence of actions being put in place to reduce environmental and social impacts.

With regard to product longevity, slow fashion (Fletcher, 2010) provides a model for the system-level change that is needed in fashion to fully address the environmental and social impacts of short product lifetimes; however, wholesale systemic change is a slow process. In the meantime, more incremental approaches to reducing the environmental can deliver benefits for fast fashion brands. Extended producer responsibility (EPR) models have been proposed in which the company operates material stewardship over short initial lifetime products (Hvass, 2014; Niinimaki and Hassi 2011). EPR may, if implemented appropriately, allow for a more systemic approach to lengthening product lifetimes.

Conclusions

In reviewing the literature around fast fashion and quality relationships, we have found it difficult to find robust evidence of how the different quality attributes impact on product longevity. This requires greater elucidation if products and systems are to be designed to lower the environmental impact of fashion products. It is particularly ironic that, whilst criticism of the low quality of the products is usually based on objective intrinsic quality attributes, it may be the good performance against other quality attributes that drive short product-lifetimes.

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