The boom of fashion e-commerce in India

Fast fashion giants face environmental backlash

Business

September 22, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

The boom of fashion e-commerce in India

Online clothing giants in India, such as Shein and Myntra, are set to take over e-commerce market

With a combination of rapid turnover of the latest trends, affordable prices, and matchless convenience, online shopping apps are set to take over the fashion industry in India. However, environmentalists are concerned about the impact of such large-scale e-commerce.

In the last decade, e-commerce has transformed the business landscape worldwide, recently driven by the almost complete shift to online shopping during the Covid-19 pandemic. Although many fashion retailers, even strong, established brands such as Zara, have experienced a fall in revenue, digital innovation and changes in consumer habits have ensured major market recovery. Despite the pandemic’s economic impact, a report by technology platform Unicommerce revealed that the online fashion industry in India experienced a growth of 45 pc in the financial year of April 1, 2020 to March 31, 2021, compared to the previous year.

Although sites like Ajio, owned by billionaire Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries, and Myntra.com, a subsidiary of Walmart-owned Flipkart, the largest player in Indian e-commerce space, have their share of a loyal customer base, online fashion giants, especially Chinese companies like Club Factory and Shein have made large headway into the Indian fashion market that specifically focuses on targeting young females. Shein first arrived in India in 2018 and crossed 5 million orders in just a year, raking in USD 10 billion globally in 2020.

When the Nanjin-based platform was banned in India in 2020 alongside 58 other Chinese apps amidst border tensions with China, the news disappointed thousands of young girls who make up most of the consumer base of apps like Shein. Its return to India in July through Amazon, a strategic decision to circumvent the ban as well as approach an even larger user base, was a much-talked about event on social media, especially among the Indian youth and Instagram-influencers who rely on showing off the newest fashions to grow their audience base.

“I am definitely really happy it has come back to India. I am obsessed with Shein and I think it is a very cheap way of staying trendy because I don’t like repeating outfits, as I use many of them for just one-time Instagram photos. When it was banned, I was struggling to find clothes I liked at the same price and look,” Sakshi Jain, a college student in Delhi, tells Media India Group.

The main reasons behind the growing popularity of such platforms are competitive prices, steep discounting and true to its moniker of “fast fashion,” its ability to create and release the latest styles on demand.

“The size options, patterns, are always better online than in store and there are just more pieces available in general. Zara’s clothes cost a lot and they often have quite limited collections, and although the quality is better, since many of the clothes will not be repeated often and won’t be in after a year anyway, it doesn’t matter that much. The best part is you don’t have to spend a lot to have a trending outfit,” adds Jain.

Jain also explains that online shopping does have its drawbacks, with numerous customers complaining about fraud pictures that show completely different colours or flawed sizing issues. However, she adds, even returning clothes is just a click away, as many of these apps offer free pick-up and return services in India.

Adverse effects of fast fashion

While brands like Zara and H&M come out with about 16-24 collections each year, these new-age shopping apps come release new collections even faster than old trends run out, with tops and dresses made in unethical fibres and costing below INR 1,000 or even INR 500.

But not everyone is enamoured by these fast fashion apps. While they may offer good deals to consumers, the speedy turnover and the short life of these garments come at big cost to the environment, ecology activists say. This speedy turnover of clothes has an extremely negative effect on the environment, with most of the clothes ending up in dumpyards, and the textile industry overall being responsible for 10 pc of the world’s annual carbon emissions. In fact, Shein’s return, although welcomed by many consumers, has also received a lot of backlash from ecologically-conscious shoppers and environmentalists, who have pressured such brands to switch to more ethically sourced and green manufacturing materials.

“I think it was a bad decision to bring it back. Obviously from a corporate viewpoint it is a huge advantage for a company to tap into such a large market like India, but from an environment standpoint, all of these clothes are largely polyester-based and result in huge micro plastics pollution and carbon emissions, especially with the poor waste-treatment system in India,” says Anya Trivedi, a 26-year-old associate at a sustainability consultancy firm, specialising in Environment Sciences and Business.

The microplastics released from clothes are not as visible as large plastics pollution like water bottles and plastic packaging, but water treatment plants let up to 40 pc of synthetic microfibres they receive from discarded clothes and even laundry into lakes and an estimated 1.4 million trillion plastic fibres into the ocean. Ingestion of these has catastrophic effects on marine life and even humans. Globally, the fashion industry is responsible for 20 pc of wastewater.

To combat this, Indian designers have introduced sustainable fashion e-commerce, with brands such as B Label, which focuses on agriculture and sustainable living with hemp as their main material to make everyday clothes, and No Nasties, an organic fashion label that offers a wide range of vegan apparel created from 100 pc organic cotton in a fair-trade factory. Such brands have experienced a slow but steady growth due to the spurt of awareness and climate-change enthusiast among Indian youth, often using regular Indians on social media to promote their clothes in order to foster an aura of relatability and inclusivity. But even with innovative designs and strategic advertising, they may struggle to keep up with the giants in fashion e-commerce.

“I think the argument people make for why you shouldn’t be so anti-fast fashion is because not everyone can afford to shop at more expensive places. But whilst that might be true, I don’t think they make up a large part of their consumer base, as these brands aren’t exactly targeting low-income families. They’re simply targeting people who want new clothes fast. But sustainable shopping sites online let you wear more durable pieces that last, and you can make them into your own style even if you don’t subscribe to the latest trends,” explains Trivedi.

Fast or slow, the online fashion industry will undoubtedly continue to expand exponentially. According to IBEF, the Indian e-commerce market is expected to grow from USD 46.2 billion in 2020 to USD 111.40 billion by 2025, largely led by giants such as Flipkart and Amazon. Ultimately, it may be up to the consumers whether the current e-commerce giants will continue to outpace their local, smaller counterparts, or whether they will be forced to alter some of their controversially unethical manufacturing processes.

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