While internet shopping only accounts for about 20 percent of UK clothing sales, the influence of online-only retailers is only growing.
Online brands – including Pretty Little Thing, Miss Pap and In the Style – have come to epitomise the UK's lust for fast fashion. Advertised almost entirely through social media or during TV shows like Love Island, these brands are popular largely because they're able to respond to trends – which change seemingly every other week, thanks to social media – without the overheads of traditional brick-and-mortar businesses, allowing them to sell each item for half the price of the original.
As a result, the turnover of items on these brands' websites is incredibly fast, with new styles uploaded almost constantly: an endless carousel of jogging bottoms, wrap dresses and, for some reason, loads of stuff made out of organza. This would be fine if it weren't for the fact the trend-led nature of these items often means they get little more than a few wears before they end up in the bin. In fact, in a survey of VICE's Snapchat audience – which is mainly made up of 18 to 24-year-olds – 23 percent said they have bought an item from a fast fashion brand and only worn it once before chucking it.
One of the biggest online-only fast fashion brands is Boohoo – part of the Boohoo group, which also owns boohooMAN, PrettyLittleThing, Nasty Gal, MissPap, Karen Millen and Coast, and last year made sales of over £1 billion. To investigate the turnover of new items on fast fashion websites, VICE UK selected Boohoo.com as a case study.
Over the course of one week, from the 11th to the 17th of February, we monitored the items uploaded to Boohoo's "New In Today" section, counting each individual piece of clothing. In cases where a single item was made up of more than one garment (for example, a pyjama set consisting of two garments – a top and bottoms – but sold as one item), each individual garment was counted. In cases where items uploaded were not wearable (for example, party or beauty products), they were not counted.
Overall, we counted 772 garments uploaded over the course of the week, which works out at a daily average of 116 individual garments.
We then worked out the daily average upload of each type of garment and plotted that on the graph below.
To stage the photos of one day's worth of uploads, we supplied equivalent items rather than buying everything on Boohoo. Where an item uploaded was a dress, we supplied a dress to be photographed; a top for a top, trousers for trousers, and so on.
As you can see from our employment of the Jamie Oliver Method – dumping everything onto a table to illustrate the grotesque gluttony of man – 116 individual garments is a lot of garments. More than a full wardrobe's worth of clothing uploaded to Boohoo every single day. Consider every other fast fashion brand and how much they too will be producing, and it starts to make sense that the fashion industry produces more carbon than all international flights and maritime shipping combined.
Often, when it comes to the thorny issue of fast fashion, it's tempting to point the finger at consumers who buy into online brands like Boohoo. But the truth is, anyone who shops on the UK high street is complicit: budget retailers like Zara, Primark and H&M remain a large part of the problem (most clothing is still bought in physical stores, after all, and Next – which has a well-established physical presence – is Britain's most popular online clothing retailer).
This is to say: fast fashion is largely unavoidable – particularly for the millions who can only afford to shop on the high street. As such, it's really up to fast fashion brands of all stripes, rather than solely consumers, to commit to a slower turnaround in and mitigate the vast environmental impact of the fashion industry. Actual legislation would be a good start – though considering every recommendation regarding fast fashion reform from a cross-party committee of MPs was rubbished by the government last year, it's likely this will be a long time coming.
The volume of designs uploaded for sale to one website, in one day, as we see here, is sobering. It feels almost unthinkable, but it's happening daily.
Boohoo did not respond to repeated requests for comment.