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Fast-fashion brands face backlash for poor quality

2014-03-25 10:43 Ecns.cn Web Editor: Wang Fan
Poor quality is starting to take a toll on sales of global fast-fashion brands headed by H&M and Zara. (Photo: China Business Times)

Poor quality is starting to take a toll on sales of global fast-fashion brands headed by H&M and Zara. (Photo: China Business Times)

(ECNS) -- Since entering the Chinese market a few years ago, global fast-fashion brands headed by H&M and Zara have seen their products applauded by Chinese consumers for affordable prices and quick turnover of collections. Yet poor quality, among other problems, is starting to take a toll on sales.

Not made to last

Spoiling special moments doesn't make for good brand marketing, but there was no stopping a funny moment about a man proposing to his girlfriend that quickly went viral. As he got down on one knee to propose, his pants ripped - pants he bought from Zara for 599 yuan (about $100).

Chains like Zara, H&M and the Gap have been blacklisted several times in recent years by China's quality control watchdogs. Zara has been blacklisted 15 times since its 2006 debut in China, and twice this month alone, the Chinese newspaper Time Weekly reported.

On March 12, the Ministry of Commerce and Industry of Jilin Province determined that Zara sweaters manufactured by a Chinese factory called Sala had failed to meet standards. Information about the garment's composition and rules for care had been misreported.

Another test released by the China Consumers' Association on March 5 found that Zara jeans had poor color-fastness and easily faded after washing. The jeans were also manufactured by the Sala factory.

H&M has also been criticized for substandard pH value and color-fastness, as well as misreported fiber content and mislabeling.

"To excel in a fierce competition, fast-fashion brands have to keep their prices low," said Xiong Xiaokun, a light industry researcher at China Investment Consulting. "To keep prices low, they have to cut costs. In order to ensure their thin profit margins, OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) have to reduce their costs too."

Speed, speed, speed

Equipped with powerful supply chains, fast-fashion brands are quickly turning over their merchandise. It only takes Zara 10 to 15 days to turn a piece of cloth into a garment that is ready for the shelf. In contrast, most apparel companies need six to nine months or longer. Zara has 12 inventory turnovers each year, while other first-rate companies have only three to four.

This relentless drive for speed makes Zara unable to set up its own factories quickly in Asia, as it has in Europe. Instead, it uses the OEM model, authorizing local factories to manufacture its clothes.

Poor quality the tradeoff

According to Xiong Xiaokun, fast-fashion brands rarely use high-quality and durable materials. OEMs must engage in fierce bidding for orders, and the increasing cost of labor in China also forces them to use cheaper materials. Moreover, the frequent shifting of textile suppliers leads to unstable quality.

Colorful clothing usually characterizes this trendy industry. But with a short dying time, it's hard to control color-fastness, pH value (a pH bigger than 7.5 may irritate skin), methanol (used to prevent shrinking and brighten colors) and other indicators.

Experts say quality checks usually take three to five days, but if an inspection is failed, it takes seven to ten days for a re-check. But fast-fashion companies can't lose even one day. As a result, quality checkers often turn a blind eye.

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