The Slow Fashion Business Model In A Nutshell

Slow fashion is a movement in contraposition with fast fashion. Where in fast fashion it’s all about speed from design to manufacturing and distribution, in slow fashion instead quality and sustainability of the supply chain are the key elements.

A quick timeline of how Slow Fashion came to be

By the 2000s a company who had been building up its supply chain for decades had become the mammoth of fashion. That company was Zara. Zara epitomized the fast fashion industry, as its business model sat on top of a few key principles (like fast following, low price, and variety) and a core objective: speed.

Fash fashion has been a phenomenon that became popular in the late 1990s, early 2000s, as players like Zara and H&M took over the fashion industry by leveraging on shorter and shorter design-manufacturing-distribution cycles. Reducing these cycles from months to a few weeks. With just-in-time logistics, flagship stores in iconic places in the largest cities in the world, these brands offered cheap, fashionable clothes and a wide variety of designs.

By fast following fashion trends, shortening the manufacturing cycle, and by setting up a just-in-time logistics serving its flagship stores, Zara became a behemoth:

Zara is a brand part of the retail empire Inditex. Zara business model, with over €18 billion in sales in 2018 (comprising Zara Home), and an integrated retail format with quick sales cycles. Zara follows an integrated retail format where customers are free to move from physical to digital experience.

As the 2010s came, a new trend started to shape the fashion industry. That was the social commerce trend. As in countries like UK, the penetration of e-commerce was high, some UK players, like ASOS led the way in this transformation, from fast fashion to ultra-fast fashion:

The Ultra Fashion business model is an evolution of fast fashion with a strong online twist. Indeed, where the fast-fashion retailer invests massively in logistics, warehousing, its costs are still skewed toward operating physical retail stores. While the ultra-fast fashion retailer mainly moves its operations online, thus focusing its cost centers toward logistics, warehousing, and a mobile-based digital presence.

The ultra-fast fashion business model was epitomized by ASOS, among others and it further prioritized on speed, and efficiency of the supply chain, with a strong online twist. In short, no more flagship stores to operate. The money that other fast fashion players like Zara were spending to operate these stores, were instead used by ultra-fast fashion players to run their online operations and further optimize manufacturing and logistics to serve a global audience:

ASOS is a British online fashion retailer founded in 2000 by Nick Robertson, Andrew Regan, Quentin Griffiths, and Deborah Thorpe. As an online fashion retailer, ASOS makes money by purchasing clothes from wholesalers and then selling them for a profit. This includes the sale of private label or own-brand products. ASOS further expanded on the fast fashion business model to create an ultra-fast fashion model driven by short sales cycles and online mobile e-commerce as main drivers.

From there another, further evolution, this time headed by China, came with real-time retail, a further “improvement” from the ultra-fashion business model, where timing from idea/fashion meme to distribution got shortened further:

Real-time retail involves the instantaneous collection, analysis, and distribution of data to give consumers an integrated and personalized shopping experience. This represents a strong new trend, as a further evolution of fast fashion first (who turned the design into manufacturing in a few weeks), ultra-fast fashion later (which further shortened the cycle of design-manufacturing). Real-time retail turns fashion trends into clothes collection in a few days cycle or a maximum of one week.

Among the players that most mastered this business model, SHEIN led the way:

SHEIN is an international B2C fast fashion eCommerce platform founded in 2008 by Chris Xu. The company improved on the ultra-fast fashion model by leveraging real-time retail, which quickly turned fashion trends in clothes’ collections through its strong digital presence and successful branding campaigns.

In parallel, with the fast fashion business models from the 1990s to the 2020s, an opposite movement has been developed.

A player that highly emphasized on the slow fashion movement is Patagonia, which as it highlighted on its Sustainable Apparel Coalition:

An apparel industry that produces no unnecessary environmental harm and has a positive impact on the people and communities associated with its activities.

The Slow Movement evolved in parallel with the fast fashion movement, as an alternative business practice. Indeed, as explained on Patagonia website:

Since 1985, Patagonia has pledged 1% of sales to the preservation and restoration of the natural environment. We’ve awarded over $140 million in cash and in-kind donations to domestic and international grassroots environmental groups making a difference in their local communities. In 2002, founder of Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard, and Craig Mathews, owner of Blue Ribbon Flies, created a non-profit corporation to encourage other businesses to do the same.

How does this translate into practice in terms of supply chain? As Patagonia highlights:

The purpose of Patagonia’s Supply Chain Environmental Responsibility Program is to measure and reduce the environmental impacts of manufacturing Patagonia products and materials. We implement our program at supplier facilities all over the world and cover a broad range of impact areas, including environmental management systems, chemicals, water use, water emissions, energy use, greenhouse gases, other air emissions and waste.

The attempt to build a more sustainable supply chain moves along a few key areas, what Patagonia calls a “4-Fold Approach to Supply Chain Decisions” which as the company highlighted:

This process includes screening potential new suppliers for the ability to meet our (1) sourcing, (2) quality, (3) social and (4) environmental standards. 

To execute on this, Patagonia built a Social and Environmental Responsibility team (SER) to make sure these practices are implemented.

Read Next: SHEINASOSZaraFast FashionUltra-Fast FashionReal-Time Retail.

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