Apparel chains such as H&M, Zara and Forever 21 conquered the retail world by promising fast fashion: cheap, trendy and disposable.
Yet there's a growing number of consumers this holiday season who want just the opposite. Data shows that shoppers -- especially millennials, the target market for fast-fashion companies -- are increasingly looking for clothes made of higher-quality materials or they're keeping their existing clothes longer. Some are even seeking apparel that's been reused or recycled.
More than 14% of U.S. consumers looked for apparel and accessories made from natural materials in 2016, up from 12.9% last year, according to a Euromonitor International survey. Shoppers looking for clothes that were reused or recycled rose 2 percent this year. And more millennials looked for "sustainably produced" apparel and accessories than any other age group.
This shift to so-called sustainable clothing is threatening the underpinnings of a fashion industry that wants consumers to rapidly change styles and move on to the next hot trends.
"Certainly fast-fashion companies are doing a booming business, but there's also an increased interest in vintage, learning how to sew and weave, and in repair and mending," said Susan Brown, a fashion expert who serves as associate curator of textiles at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum. "There's the Brooklynization of the world -- interest in higher-quality, handmade things that have a narrative story."
The challenge may come earlier than big retail chains expect. Consumers are more willing to shop at niche, smaller companies this season, according to Deloitte. Some of these retailers tout sustainable premiums for longer-lasting, higher-quality products -- think, Zady or Everlane.
"People want to buy trends less and less," said Jennifer Baumgartner, a clinical psychologist and author of "You Are What You Wear: What your Clothes Reveal About You." "It seems they'd rather buy items that are classic and will last a long time. The movement is happening, and it's been gaining ground in the public eye."
She said it's going to be difficult for the fast-fashion concept to use high-quality, eco-friendly fabric and not create "mass waste."
But fast-fashion companies are trying to respond. In 2013, H&M launched a worldwide garment-collecting initiative encouraging consumers to reuse and recycle their clothes. The chain also sells a "conscious collection," a clothing line created entirely from sustainable materials. Zara launched its first sustainable line, Join Life, in September. The collection consists of simpler designs and clothing made from recycled wool, organic cotton and Tencel -- a fabric that includes regenerated wood.
But these pieces make up just 1.5% of Zara's assortment and 3.5% of H&M's, said Emily Bezzant, head analyst at the fashion-tracking firm Edited. And the very nature of high-turnover fast-fashion companies strikes many as unsustainable, she said.
"Generally, fast fashion and sustainability are not a match made in heaven," Ms. Bezzant said. She said the biggest challenge for retailers will be to make sustainable products affordable and accessible to millennials.
There's been some progress toward that end. H&M's Conscious Collection has an affordable median price of $17.99. At Zara's Join Life line, a basic strappy top cost $9.90 -- the same as their main line, Bezzant said. Lowering prices for sustainable collections would help these businesses stay relevant, as most consumers shop at H&M and Zara because of the cheap price tags.
Still, some in the industry are pushing the notion that millennials will save money by spending a bit more on longer-lasting items. Consumers are starting to realize when they are "too poor to buy cheap," said Maxine Bedat, chief executive officer of Zady, a clothing site known as the "Whole Foods of Fashion."
"The issue that we're facing as a society is that 150 billion new articles of clothing are produced globally every single year," Ms. Bedat said. "The challenge is to produce clothing at the design side of things that people want to wear more than seven times."
Christina Kim, a designer who displayed her work at a Cooper Hewitt exhibit on sustainable fashion, said it's actually been more economical for her to use recycled scraps to make her clothing. Ms. Kim founded Los Angeles-based Dosa after moving from Seoul. Her idea started in West Bengal, where she began collecting old saris to incorporate into new designs.
Kim tracked her expenses in both regular and recycled production. She found that when using recycled fabric, she was able to spend less on materials -- but had to shell out significantly more for labor. With traditional clothing production, 40 percent of her expenses went to materials, 53% to labor, and 7% to shipping and other duties. With a recycled production, Kim spent 14% on materials, 81% on labor, and 5% on shipping and duties.
The big companies are taking steps in a similar direction. H&M, for instance, has started minimizing waste during textile production.
"Any leftover material or post-manufacturing waste is recycled into new materials such as recycled wool or recycled cotton," said H&M spokeswoman Anna Eriksson.
"The customer interest in sustainability is growing," she said. "We believe sustainability is the only way forward if we want to continue to exist as a fashion company."
-- Bloomberg News