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Unravelling fast fashion: Is the future sustainable for brands like Boohoo?


From supply chain scandals, greenwashing probes and a momentum towards sustainability, can fashion brands like Boohoo keep up with the demand for sustainable alternatives? 

Despite the damaging headlines on how fast fashion is destroying the planet and the evolution of the environmentally-conscious consumer, the fashion industry isn’t slowing down any time soon in the North.

Once dubbed Cottonopolis for its roots in the cotton industry, Manchester has cemented its position as a Northern fashion hub, hosting retailers such as N Brown Group, Boohoo, Missguided and Castore. 

“One of the great things about the North West and Manchester, in particular, is it has a lot of digital talent, in digital marketing and digital sales acquisition,” Catherine Shuttleworth, founder at Leeds-based agency Savvy Marketing, told Prolific North.

Although Boohoo announced its pre-tax profits fell from £124.7m to £7.8m for the 12 months to February 28 – attributed to a rise in returns and impact of Covid – the group reported a boost in revenues up to almost £2bn.

With a shift towards sustainability sentiment, fast fashion hasn’t veered off-trend. The fashion industry in the UK has an estimated value of just under £55bn according to Statista, as discarded clothing continues to pile up in bulging landfills.

ITV’s Love Island opted to challenge the status quo and ditched its usual fast fashion sponsor in favour of eBay for its most recent series, with contestant Tasha Ghouri recently following in the show’s footsteps by bagging a major deal with eBay to become its first pre-loved ambassador.


But what’s driving this change? “The consumer is changing,” Shuttleworth explained. “The fast fashion shopper is growing up a little bit.”

At Savvy Marketing, the agency carries out research with a shopper panel each month. She explained that after the cost of living crisis, 80% of shoppers are concerned about sustainability.

“The days of saying ‘I’ll buy something and wear it once’ are changing because that consumer is becoming massively sustainability focused.”

Probes into misleading ‘green’ claims and Boohoo sustainability

After a quick scroll through social media, it is still awash with influencers showing off their latest fast fashion hauls despite widespread criticism.

“It’s not over and done with, their rise has been unbelievable,” said Shuttleworth.

“The growth has just grown and to expect that growth to continue is a bit naive really. Their growth was always going to slow at some point but there’s a number of issues now that will impact their growth. It will be about how they pivot and change with the consumer to keep up with them.”

Boohoo has become a “big player in the market”, she explained. To keep up in an increasingly competitive market, brands need to have the right product available at the right time, as well as investing in technology and react to the “changing demand from the shopper”.

The Manchester-headquartered online retailer is one of the brands that have been “really smart” in response to this, she explained. 

Boohoo Group, which has 13 brands under its belt including Dorothy Perkins, PrettyLittleThing and Oasis, launched its sustainability strategy called Up.Front, Fashion Ready for the Future, last year.

Boohoo's Up.Front, Fashion Ready for the Future strategy.
Boohoo’s Up.Front, Fashion Ready for the Future strategy.

The strategy outlines plans for better terms for its suppliers, improvements to how the brand will manufacture clothing and reduce packaging waste alongside measures to reduce its carbon footprint. 

Boohoo Group CEO John Lyttle said: “As a business we think everyone should be able to buy clothes that make them feel great at a price they can afford, including more sustainable ranges. But we know that the fashion sector has a big impact on the environment so we are working hard to understand our impact and take the right course of action to reduce it.”

The fashion brand has since deployed a number of sustainable initiatives following the release of its strategy, including a partnership with CottonConnect to launch a new sustainable cotton clothing range.

Boohoo's key sustainability achievements in 2021.
Boohoo’s outlines its key sustainability achievements in 2021.

As fashion brands race to keep up with the urgency of sustainability to reel shoppers in, they face being dragged into the headlines once again – for all the wrong reasons.

Boohoo is one of three fashion brands, which includes Asos and Asda’s George range, currently being investigated by The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA). 

The investigation was launched due to concerns over whether eco-friendly claims about products, such as Boohoo’s current ‘Ready for the Future’ range, are misleading consumers and claiming to be more sustainable than they actually are.

In a statement, Sarah Cardell, interim Chief Executive of the CMA, said the CMA will be “scrutinising green claims” and will take enforcement action if the companies are found to be misleading consumers.

“This is just the start of our work in this sector and all fashion companies should take note: look at your own practices and make sure they are in line with the law.”

In response to the investigation, Boohoo Group said in a statement that it will continue to work “collaboratively with the CMA” and is “committed to providing its customers with accurate information on the products they buy”.

“Fast fashion will fall – but not just yet”

As established fashion retailers face deeper scrutiny, there has been a surge in popularity for charity shop bargain-hunting and pre-loved clothing platforms from Vinted to Depop, as well as emerging online fashion start-ups.

Harriet Noy, the founder of Manchester-based student ‘zero-waste’ marketplace app Hazaar, wants sustainable alternatives to take on the fast fashion industry but warned of the barriers in place

Harriet and the team at Hazaar.

“I do feel very positive that fast fashion will fall – but just not yet,” she said.

Sustainable fashion is still yet to offer the same perks of fast fashion – expense and convenience. “When there was a Boohoo scandal there was so much uproar about that but then at the same time Boohoo profits quadrupled.” 

This, she explained, potentially highlights an attitude behaviour gap – where consumers say one thing but do another. 

“Sustainable fashion is still not as easy as fast fashion and I feel like only at the point where there are direct substitutes in terms of cost and in terms of accessibility and convenience, will fast fashion fall.

“As more options are cropping up, those barriers are getting broken down and people are buying a lot more sustainably. There’s still a long way for it to go, so I think fast fashion and sustainable fashion are co-existing at the moment.”

“Students are the changemakers”

Noticing that there were no dedicated marketplaces for students to buy and sell between each other, Noy decided to launch Hazaar.

Through digitalising car boot sales, creating drop-off points located around universities and enabling students to buy and sell items through the app with QR codes, she hopes to tackle the impact of fast fashion.

Hazaar ‘zero-waste’ marketplace app
Hazaar ‘zero-waste’ marketplace app

“Students are the changemakers,” said Harriet Noy. “There’s definitely a shift in people buying less clothes, borrowing from friends more and not looking for fast fashion. However, a lot of young people still buy from Shein.” 

According to investment bank Morgan Stanley, it predicts global fast fashion giant Shein will hit staggering revenues of $20bn this year.

Sustainability is not the only goal for consumers, they are now looking at how brands are operating at a deeper level – whether that be factoring in how a company treats its employees, where products are sourced or if the influencers promoting products are trustworthy.

“You’ve got to gain shoppers’ trust. I think for the fast fashion market that moves at great speed, it is a bit of a challenge,” added Shuttleworth.

Although it’s no surprise that there’s a “massive boom” in businesses that trade in pre-worn clothing, the next generation of shoppers have plenty of choice at their fingertips and are looking for change – wherever that might be. 

“The impact Shein will make in fashion, you will see grow and grow and grow. These shoppers also look for newness, different platforms, so they’ll move away to other things.”

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