Sneaky ways stores like H&M, Zara, and Uniqlo get you to spend more money on clothes

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  • H&M, Zara, Uniqlo, Forever 21, and Fashion Nova all rely on the lucrative business model of fast fashion.
  • Fast fashion allows stores to continuously sell a high volume of clothes for cheap prices - in other words, clothes are made for immediate consumption, rather than for long-term wear.
  • Our brain chemistry makes it difficult to resist low prices. The brain gets pleasure from new items, but also experiences pain when it considers losing money.
  • H&M outsources most of its labor overseas, to countries like Bangladesh, where the working conditions are difficult to oversee.

Daniel: So like Cardi B says, 'I like those Balenciagas, the ones that look like socks, right?

Narrator: Wish you could have the shoes that look like socks? Well, if you don't wanna spend $770 you can head over to Zara and get something pretty similar for about 60 bucks. Chances are, your closet probably has some H&M logos in it.

H&M isn't alone: retailers like Zara, Forever 21, Fashion Nova, Uniqlo, and so many more all fit the definition of fast fashion. The fashion industry is one of the largest industries in the world, and it's growing. Why is it so easy to buy cheap clothes at stores like H&M? Well it turns out, part of that irresistibly is in our brain chemistry.

Traditionally, the fashion industry has been organized into two clearly defined seasons: autumn winter, and spring summer. Fast fashion emerged in the late '70s and early '80s, at a time when trends became much more sought-after. Technology started advancing, manufacturing was outsourced overseas, and synthetic fabrics started to be incorporated a lot more into clothing. The original idea was simple: make runway fashion cheap, and available as soon as possible.

Researchers define fast fashion as a marketing tool to drive retail footfall. It allows retailers to make up-to-date product offers to their customer base frequently. Retailers create demand with a constant flood of new items. Fast fashion functions like this: designers travel to fashion shows and closely monitor platforms like Instagram, then immediately send off photos to get modeled. Materials get sourced and made overseas, stores get stocked, and H&M can do this process all internally, and all under a week.

The only way fast fashion can turn a profit is if they sell a ton of clothes, which they do. H&M's yearly sales in 2017 were $25 billion, and their CEO's net worth is $1.9 billion. In order for consumers to return and keep purchasing, the clothes need to be cycled through quickly, rather than invested in for long-term wear. It is for immediate consumption. It is to capture the look of the moment. It is not to linger in the wardrobe. So, back to Cardi B and the shoes that look like socks.

Daniel: So you go and you get the Balenciagas that look like socks.

Narrator: That's Daniel. Daniel went from the world of high fashion to combating the effects the industry is having on the planet.

Daniel: Everything is made from textile waste, and all of the other products in the store are made from recycled materials. So you go and you get the Balenciagas that look like socks, and it's only making money for the brand and the endorser. It's not functioning the way it used to, which was to buy into a brand because of the value, or the quality. It's buying into a trend to make money.

Narrator: Following trends is a uniquely human trait, and fast fashion retailers know that. That's why when you go into an H&M, all the designs seem new, and freshly updated. Unfortunately, it's impossible to ignore what's going on behind the scenes. Over the past few decades, fast fashion retailers have been accused of exploiting developing countries for cheap labor, cheap materials, and poor regulation of working conditions. In 2018, the rights group Global Labor Justice released a report detailing allegations of threats and abuse at Asian factories that supply clothes for Gap and H&M.

In a statement, H&M said:

This report clearly shows the need of continuously addressing these issues. The empowerment of women, economically and socially, is a way to prevent gender-based violence. Our position is very clear, and we actively support such development within the global textile industry. We do this by working to enable freedom of association, strengthening workers' voices, and the right to join or form a trade union, as well as bargain collectively.

So, why does this keep happening almost every year?

Anita: The bigger issue for fast fashion is that you have factories, suppliers, sub-contractors, sub-sub-contractors. And so the question is When you look at a global supply chain, how can a major brand know that the laws in a local jurisdiction are being respected? That's the bigger problem.

Narrator: Combine a poor ability to regulate working conditions and synthetic materials, and you can start to understand how a T-shirt can cost so little. The problem is, our brains have a really difficult time looking past a slashed price tag. A study done by researchers at Carnegie Mellon revealed that subjects who were presented items at discounted prices revealed reactions in three parts of the brain. When you consider buying something, the brain gets pleasure from anticipating a new item, but also experiences pain when considering the loss of money. However, when the price is low, there is almost no pain. So while it may feel good to get deals at H&M, the low prices help us forget the frequent news headlines, and in the end, we're already thinking about what we need next. Naturally, this yearlong shopping season is creating a lot of waste. The culture of trendy fashion leaves 14 million tons of textile waste in landfills each year.

Daniel: It's impossible for an entire item of clothing to be completely made from start to finish for the prices that things are sold for. It changes the consumer's perspective on the value of things, so it makes things that have a healthy value and a healthy appreciation for themselves, exclusionary. Fast fashion isn't sustainable, because sustainability inherently means something you're able to maintain doing at a certain rate or level. If we continue to demand new materials, and produce waste materials and byproducts at the rate that we're doing it, it will have catastrophic effects on the environment, worse than it already has.

Narrator: When things are cheap, we tend not to really care about them as much, or how they got here, or where they eventually end up.

Anita: Consumers need to educate themselves and when the price tag is really low they should be asking the question: Why is it so low? Again, people live on budgets, we understand that. But the question is: Is there a strong human rights policy behind that? And I think the larger issue for fast fashion is rather than saying I need 10 T-shirts at H&M and I'm gonna buy one and throw it out And not be sustainable as a consumer That I'm maybe gonna invest a little bit more, and buy less So there's really just an issue of responsible consumption And responsible buying.

Narrator: However, H&M says that it's moving toward a more sustainable future. According to its 2017
Sustainability Report, the company's goal is to be climate positive by 2040. So what does this mean? Well, for starters, it hopes to use 100% recycled or other sustainably-sourced materials by 2030, and move to a toxic-free fashion future. When asked for a statement, H&M directed me to its sustainability blog, which provides frequent updates on its efforts. So, what next? Well, at the risk of sounding cliche, real change comes first from the individual, but if you're like me, it's pretty hard to justify spending 100 dollars on a white t-shirt. With all things considered, it's up to consumers to choose what businesses they want to support. The money we spend determines where the industry goes, and right now, the fashion industry isn't going anywhere but up.

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