Fast Fashion is Challenging the Retail Apocalypse Narrative
While the rise of online shopping has forced many retail stores to close, the fast fashion industry contines to grow. Madison Van Oort attributes this to their strong commitment to innovation and exploitation of retail workers.
In early 2017, Macy’s announced it would close nearly 70 stores nationwide and lay off almost 4,000 workers. The oldest of the closing locations had anchored downtown Minneapolis for over a century (originally as Dayton’s, then Marshall Field’s, and eventually Macy’s); when it shut down in March 2017, 280 employees lost their jobs. In the months leading up to the store’s final days, the Minneapolis Star Tribune and Minnesota Public Radio overflowed with local memories of the family destination, once a special excursion and now, a symbol of times past.
If you’ve entered a mall in the last year or two, you may have noticed that Macy’s isn’t the only retail chain closing shops around the country. Payless, The Limited, Wet Seal, JCPenney, American Apparel, Guess, and Sears are just some of the many retail companies shuttering hundreds of stores in recent months, if not liquidating all together. The phenomenon is so widespread many believe we’re on the brink of an imminent retail apocalypse.
Most analyses blame the mass closings of department and branded apparel stores on the rise of online retailing. If this were the only thing going on, preparing for the end of retail shopping would make sense. After all, how do you compete with Amazon? But I’ve witnessed first-hand the boom of another kind of apparel retail that deserves critical attention – fast fashion. Some people see Amazon's drive towards automation as potentially good for workers since menial labor will be done by robots, allowing humans to “move up the value chain,” but fast fashion is evidence that the opposite is happening. If we really want to understand this moment in retail capital’s evolution and its potential impact on workers, we mustn’t leave the fast fashion sector out of the equation – or relegate it to the province of pre-teens.
To me, this decline of retail signals not a final death, but rather its adaptation to the ever-changing circumstances that come with capitalism’s constant renewal. In fact, stores like Zara, H&M, and Forever 21 have in recent years become some of the world’s most successful companies, offering shoppers a ceaseless array of trendy, cheap clothing. Along with the likes of Amazon, fast fashion is dramatically altering the retail landscape. During a recent visit to a mall in Iowa (where my niece works at one of the few remaining department stores), I noted the disappearance of teen clothing store Wet Seal. Forever 21, which had occupied the space next to Wet Seal since the mall’s inception, was not only still open, but had in fact expanded, taking over the former Wet Seal storefront.
This pattern can be seen across the country. At the Mall of America in Minneapolis, Forever 21 grew to a staggering 80,000 square feet when it took over the old Bloomingdale’s space in 2012, and a two-story Zara opened just last year to wide acclaim. I was not surprised, then, to see a Minneapolis real estate developer waxing favorably of fast fashion’s future: “I think Zara would kill it [in the old Macy’ location]. You have to have a store that is unique so people will drive downtown and pay to park in a ramp.” Over in New York City, Zara is snapping up some of SoHo’s most expensive real estate, and in certain segments of the city, H&M’s density even outpaces Starbucks.
If industry figures prove correct, fast fashion will not be slowing down anytime soon. Forever 21 says it will add 300 stores in the next three years, and H&M aims to open 360 stores in 2017 alone. Last year, Inditex, Zara’s parent company, opened 279 additional locations and anticipates similar growth this next year. Meanwhile, fast fashion CEOs reap enormous profits. Forever 21 cofounders Do Won and Jin Sook Chang share a combined net worth of three billion dollars, leading Forbes to dub them “America’s most successful immigrants.” H&M’s main shareholder, Stefan Persson, is worth $20.7 billion, and at the top of the list sits Zara’s founder Amancio Ortega, worth $78.1 billion; for a short period in 2016, he outstripped Steve Jobs as the world’s richest person.
How exactly has fast fashion become so lucrative? Business analysts say fast fashion represents the “long-awaited realization” of just-in-time production in the apparel industry, “with items produced in small batches and within short lead times.” That is, their achievement derives not from innovative clothing designs (they’re regularly lambasted for ripping off both high-end and independent styles) or even from successful marketing campaigns – Zara in fact, barely advertises at all – but from their ability to offer a constantly evolving inventory of cheap stuff. Basic items are outsourced to garment factories around the globe while trendier pieces are made closer to company headquarters. Zara, based in Spain, makes many of its pieces in nearby Morocco, while some of Forever 21’s garment manufacturing happens in California (where workers are paid as little as $4 an hour).
Such practices keep fast fashion a step ahead of most older brands. The New York Times reported that many retailers struggled during 2015’s unseasonably warm winter, but fast fashion persisted as usual by rapidly re-configuring their offerings. Jesús Echevarría, chief communications and corporate affairs officer for Inditex, told the Times, “Designers try to react as closely as possible to customers’ demands and tastes throughout the season. Inditex is able to do this by producing items close to its distribution centers in Spain, with which the company has long-term relationships, and by delivering new shipments to all of its stores twice a week.” If customer tastes (or weather patterns) change, fast fashion can almost immediately alter its stock.
In addition to agile manufacturing, the quality of fast fashion garments is notoriously bad, keeping prices low while hooking in customers to persistent shopping. I, for one, struggle to find jeans that last longer than six months before falling apart. Just last week, in fact, I hopped on my bicycle, only to find that my comfortably stretchy H&M pants (which cost me $14, all I could afford on a graduate student budget in New York City), dramatically shredded across the thigh as I began to pedal. So the cycle continues.
Fast fashion thus feeds into what Jonathan Crary calls 24/7 capitalism, which has engendered not simply conspicuous, but indeed constant consumption. Multiple friends of mine have admitted to simply stopping in a store like H&M if they stay out all night and don’t have time to make it home before work. And I sometimes find myself wandering into these stores not because I’m looking for anything in particular, but because I never know what I might find. At such low prices, how could one afford not to? Of the Forever 21 in Times Square – where workers can be found around the clock – one online reviewer says, “This branch also stays open late until 2am. So it's a great place to go to when you're feeling a little restless during the night.” In this scenario, capitalism acts perpetually as both problem and solution, creating conditions of anxiety to which the only cure is more shopping. As the world falls apart, we can make ourselves anew, virtually whenever we want, with little consequence to our wallets.
In almost every other aspect, fast fashion comes with enormous repercussions. Journalists and activists regularly expose the horrific conditions of employees across the global retail supply chain. The brilliantly illustrated comic Threadbare, for instance, shows fast fashion’s ties to sex trades, as international NGOs attempt to “save” sex workers by funneling them into the garment industry, where dismal pay, long hours, and sexual harassment abound. Meanwhile, workers protesting against the garment industry have faced violent repression, including in Cambodia, Bangladesh, and Myanmar.
While nowhere nearly as overtly brutal, fast fashion is also reshaping retail labor inside its stores. As retail jobs at department stores and branded apparel chains evaporate, we can look to fast fashion to see what remains of apparel retail labor. Over the course of summers 2015 and 2016, I worked at two major fast fashion retailers in New York City and interviewed employees across the United States and in Canada. (Because retail workers occupy already precarious positions, I use pseudonyms for my coworkers and interviewees.) While there are of course some distinctions between individual stores’ labor practices (some Zara and H&M stores in New York City have unionized through the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, for instance), what I find most interesting is how the industry in general is imparting shared and distinct logic into the ways that millions of people shop and work.
Many fast fashion employees, especially in places like New York, barely scrape by. Not only do wages rarely rise above the minimum, but automated flexible scheduling, intended to parallel fluctuations in consumer traffic, creates hectic hours that change as often as the store’s inventory. Along with just-in-time manufacturing, fast fashion has harnessed big data to create a just-in-time workforce. In her exposé on workplace monitoring, journalist Esther Kaplan finds that Forever 21 only recently shifted to a primarily part-time, uninsured labor pool with its adoption of automated scheduling software Kronos in 2013. Indeed, flexible scheduling has become a political rallying point for labor activists. Yet despite laudable attempts by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to formally end on-call scheduling, retailers may continue to call in workers on their days off, asking them if they “want” to come in. During my own time working in the industry, I had the luxury of occasionally refusing such shifts, to which my manager would half-jokingly scoff, “I’m just trying to pay your bills girl!” And while I don’t doubt his personal interest in my well-being, his words obscured the ways in which fast fashion retailers themselves generate and exacerbate conditions of insecurity.
In contrast to the stereotype that the retail labor force is comprised of young people with few financial obligations (and therefore apparently not deserving of a living wage), many of my coworkers were well into their 20s, if not older, and juggled ever-changing schedules with school, a second job, and/or caretaking obligations. My coworker David once complained about this during one of our short 30-minute breaks. He leaned back in his chair, and in between sips of Jamba Juice, said he wished he could afford to move out on his own, maybe relocate to California. Instead, he lived with his mother in the grossly gentrified Williamsburg, and like many of my coworkers, had been promised promotions that never materialized. Some retail workers may only be working for “spending money” (which doesn’t go far, especially in New York City), but many others, like David, struggle to create a life of their own precisely because their jobs prevent them from doing so. As the work conditions continue to deteriorate and workers turnover as fast as the store’s inventory, the promise of proximity to trendy clothes and cool coworkers consistently lures in fresh blood.
Aside from the scheduling and wages, the daily routines of fast fashion labor likewise leave much to be desired. In the 1970s, Marxist political economist Harry Braverman predicted, “A revolution is being prepared which will make of retail workers, by and large, something closer to factory operatives than anyone had ever imagined possible.” With fast fashion, Braverman’s prophecy has largely come true, as any semblance of skilled selling or deep emotional work has transformed into a hectic kind of material labor, in which the demand of the garments take precedent over all else.
Fast fashion prides itself on bringing its customers new inventory regularly, and thanks to global logistics, retailers now ship clothes to their stores multiple times per week and race new garments onto the sales floor nearly every day. (Traditional retailers, in contrast, receive shipments from manufacturers just a few times per year.) With this supercharged inventory, the primary task of retail work is to manage a constantly shifting stream of stuff. Gone are the days in which a worker might actually possess intimate knowledge of the products they peddle, or when associates established rapport with repeat customers. Rachel, who worked at a Zara in LA, told me, “To me the biggest thing that was stressed was keeping the store clean… I remember even my first week there were a couple days I literally spent six hours folding pants. ‘Cause there’s like seven ways to fold pants. I had no idea!”
To keep the sales floor prepped for the flows of shoppers, workers spend much of their time returning garments to their proper location, a brutally Kafkaesque task. As Rachel described, “Sometimes, like, I would be doing go-backs and I would have a shirt in my hand and I would look for it for like 20 minutes. I would look at my friend and be like where the hell is this dang shirt. And he’d be like, it’s two feet [in front of you]. It’s right there. And I’d be like, ohhh, what? Just, of course it is. So it was hard to kinda know like every single thing.” Another Zara worker told me, “Honestly, I spend about 90 percent of my time just putting stuff back. Which is really hard because you don’t really know where anything goes.”
I smiled as I heard these stories, since I could relate. I often told friends that working in fast fashion made me feel crazy: I would wander in circles around my section, trying incessantly to find a blouse I knew I had seen just moments before. I would think I saw the blouse out of the corner of my eye, for a split second enjoying the rush of, ah yes, I finally found it! Soon I would discover that what I had located was not the blouse in my hand, but rather another cruelly similar design: a different white frilly shirt, or a top of the same pattern but in a tunic rather than a crop top style. Beyond that, the continuous clothing shipments – which industry executives highlight as fundamental to their business model – meant regularly changing floor layouts. “Do you work here tomorrow?” one of my coworkers asked toward the end of a stressful shift in a new section. I told her I didn’t, to which she replied, “Well that’s good, ‘cause if you did, you would get really frustrated. They’re gonna change it all around tonight.” The constant rush of the sales-floor sorting game comes with notable costs, including body aches, mental exhaustion, and sore, red palms from carrying too many garment hangers simultaneously.
In these settings, fast fashion employees can rarely provide extensive customer service, a source of the industry’s ongoing growing pains. One H&M reviewer in New York City writes, “Was all-but-bodychecked by people working the floor while I shopped. No one helped me reach an item that was high up, despite the fact that I was obviously trying for several minutes.” Another warns: “An angry little salesperson almost hit me with a clothing rack. Beware if you’re pregnant.” Customers regularly complain about the “lazy,” “rude,” or “unprofessional” workers, invoking a long history of denigrating a largely nonwhite workforce. Most customers fail to understand how in the current realm of fast fashion, service is an impossible demand; while shoppers may expect at least feigned emotional interactions, and while managers still verbally praise the power of upselling, most fast fashion workers simply do not have time.
During one of my shifts in the fitting room, a frail older woman hailed me for assistance. “Could you help me find this in another size?” she requested as she peeked out from the velvet curtain. “I’m so sorry, I can’t, I’m not allowed to leave the fitting room,” I told her. The customer furrowed her brow, showing frustration and disappointment not only with me, but with what retail had become. Even if I were allowed to help her, a line of shoppers, whose arms overflowed with potential purchases, awaited me, along with the mounting pile of unwanted goods that I needed to prepare to return to the sales floor. Retailers call this work of putting items on hangers, zipping zippers, and buttoning buttons “garment caring,” an apt description of the employee’s true target of concern.
While some of my interviewees claimed they would never shop in fast fashion after seeing how terribly the garments were constructed and treated, I found that one of the cruel upsides of this work, since we certainly didn’t get much in the way of wages or discounts, was that it transformed us into more efficient consumers. By wandering the sales floor for hours each day, I possessed a closer familiarity with the inventory than I could ever have just passing through. As a result, I probably purchased more garments from those companies while employed by them than I did at any other period in my life. My coworkers would regularly stash garments in the fitting room, away from ravenous customers, so they could nab them after their shift. Others I interviewed regaled me with stories of perpetual buying-and-returning schemes, as well as of putting items on hold until they went on sale. Managers occasionally turned a blind eye to such practices, perhaps because they encouraged the idea of worker-as-consumer (which both drove up sales and lowered the likelihood that employees would assert their rights as workers), but perhaps also because they too were known to participate.
If we are truly living through a retail apocalypse, we might say fast fashion is retail’s zombie, pushing the business of selling clothes to nightmarish extremes. I’m reminded here of social theorist Bruno Latour’s demand to “love our monsters.” The mistake of Dr. Frankenstein, Latour writes, was not that he created a monster, but that he abandoned it. Perhaps the worst thing we could do at this moment is to assume the fate of clothing retail – or the technology that has allowed it to morph into its franken-fashion form – is out of our hands, to resign and watch from the sidelines as ceaseless consumption, worker exploitation, and environmental destruction continue unabated.
Of course, it’s impossible to imagine any form of completely ethical consumption or dignified labor under capitalism. Even second hand clothing comes with its own fallout; thrift store CEOs take home huge salaries while exploiting disabled workers, sending only a small fraction of proceeds to charity and dumping unwanted garments on poor communities the world over. Not surprisingly, H&M offers 20-percent-off coupons to any customer who brings in a bag of recyclable clothing – a devious ploy for the company to profess its commitment to sustainability and convince customers their addiction to shopping actually does good.
But might there be more bottom up ways to rethink fashion futures? To harness what we have to help people survive and find life amidst a series of crises?
Already, customers regularly find ways to remake these sanctified spacious of consumption: throngs of queer teens transform the floor into their temporary runway, seeking refuge inside stores that simultaneously seek to commodify their creativity while policing them in surrounding “cleaned-up” shopping districts. And as I’ve written elsewhere, Black Lives Matter protesters consistently targeted retail spaces, staging die-ins and protests to bring attention to retail capital’s implication in the perpetuation of black death.
Additionally, many workers are using technology of their own to fight back, taking photos of their work schedules or using their own methods of accounting time worked as a tactic of disputing wage theft. My coworkers also regularly kept personal cell phones in their pockets, absconding to fitting rooms – often the only location in the store free from surveillance cameras – to send texts or take selfies as a means of informally taking back lost time. The more audacious have been known to appropriate clothing for themselves; one of my favorite anecdotes – presented to me as a warning during new employee orientation – was of a sales associate who, when caught stealing, blew kisses to her coworkers as store security escorted her out. Could this be what Latour means by love?