Forever 21

Fast fashion was once the great disruptor for brands and retailers, but as the sector has grown, so have the problems of some of its biggest players.

With luxury seeing a rebound, ath-leisure on the rise and consumer sentiment shifting toward higher-quality basics, at least among Millennials, retailers like Forever 21, Express, Charlotte Russe and even Gap Inc. are starting to lose online market share, according to a new report by industry tracker Hitwise.

Forever 21, for example, has seen a 31 percent drop in online visits since 2014, when it ranked number one in the fast-fashion market. Similarly, Gap has seen visits fall by 43 percent.

It’s not only outside sectors that are taking back some of the ground lost to the rise of fast-fashion, but direct competitors that have been quicker to “innovate through challenges,” like increasing price competition, while others are now “caught in a tailspin,” according to Hitwise.

Retailers that have seen more online visits since 2014 include H&M, with 22 percent growth, Torrid with 243 percent growth, Zara with 71 percent growth and Uniqlo with 470 percent growth.

Hitwise in part attributed Uniqlo’s rapid gains to “forward-thinking executives who have moved away from endless trend cycles and disposable fashion and focus instead on simple, useful and timeless wardrobe basics at a reasonable price.”

But the fast-fashion industry overall is looking at some negative changes, as Hitwise said total online visits to the biggest retailers fell 15 percent between the 2015 and 2016 holiday seasons and noted that 19 percent of online searches for fast fashion relate to the environment, ethics and sustainability.

Hitwise pointed to the release of True Cost, a 2015 documentary on the garment industry that focused on the life of low-wage workers in developing countries and the broader environmental impact of fast fashion as one cause for increased consumer concern.

The deaths of textile workers from factory fires and collapses is also thought to have given shoppers pause around the broader impact of fast fashion and “whether demand for cheap clothing is driving corner-cutting in worker safety,” Hitwise said.

“This ethical question remains unresolved for the fast-fashion industry, and will likely lead to shifts in priorities for many fast-fashion brands in the future,” the company added. “For brands willing to innovate in their manufacturing procedures, transparency and sustainability initiatives, this could offer an opportunity to differentiate.”

H&M, which was discussed directly in True Cost, is one retailer looking to combat these negative associations with a recently launched campaign to collect and recycle clothing, although the company has long used organic cotton.

Spanish fast-fashion retailer Mango is another, which in March launched Mago Committed, a collection of “sustainable” clothing for men and women made from organic and recycled fibers and dyed with eco-friendly inks. At the time Mango Committed was revealed, the company said other plans to bolster sustainability were in the works.

Although moves, however slow, to an environmentally sustainable and transparent business are positive fast-fashion retailers looking to move with the times, Hitwise said “the success of these programs remains to be seen.”

Affordable clothing will always have a market, but financial pressures and consumer priorities are undoubtedly casting doubts around the sustainability of fast fashion at its current scale,” the company said.

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