Fast fashion: the French are bringing Shein and Temu to heel. Can Britain follow suit? | Tiffanie Darke

It was a pair of $0 faux fur boots that signalled a new low for the fast fashion industry last week. Spotted on an Instagram ad for US customers, it was the latest in an aggressive campaign by Chinese retailer Temu to win market share. Just when you thought fashion couldn’t get any more disposable – it just did.

But fast fashion may have hit a roadblock: last week French lawmakers unanimously approved a bill to impose increasing penalties on fast fashion products, rising to €10 (£8.56) on each item of clothing by 2030. The bill also proposes a ban on fast fashion advertising, effectively undermining the algorithmically attuned, hyper-personalised digital marketing that has become a loaded weapon in the hands of these retailers.

Make no mistake, France has this industry in its sights. The country’s luxury goods sector is a highly valued national asset, built (it says) on quality materials and products that are designed to last. The sector is not about to let the Chinese discounters steal its lunch. The rise of AI-driven product development has allowed the distribution of these goods to become smarter and more cost efficient. Existing fast fashion retailers Asos, Boohoo and H&M are all losing market share, as the likes of Shein and Temu drag down an industry that already prioritises profit over human and environmental damage.

Damage, because fast fashion is a product that is quickly used and discarded, often at huge cost to planet and people. Fast usually means cheap, which means synthetic materials that do not biodegrade and are tricky to recycle, with cheap labour sourced from unregulated markets linked to human rights abuses. The high volume of products these companies rely on for their sales model is not only encouraging overconsumption in the target audience but creating mountains of waste in the world’s deserts and seas because landfill sites are already full.

France has form in standing up to such abuses. It has had a form of extended producer responsibility (penalising companies that give no care for product after point of sale) in place since 2007 – a scheme the EU is proposing to roll out soon. Like smoking, drink-driving and plastic bags, France deems fast fashion a threat to societal health and is legislating against it. And it’s not just stick, it’s also carrot: late last year the country launched a repair scheme to encourage people to mend clothes and shoes rather than throw them away. French citizens can claim up to €25 for every garment repaired.

The same cannot be said over this side of the Channel. The inexorable rise of these retailers – Shein’s number of users has grown by nearly 20 times since 2018, sending its value to $66bn – has its venture capitalists rubbing their hands for an IPO. Shein initially tried its luck in New York, but was soon seen off by legislators who demanded more supply chain transparency than the company wanted to give. So now it is in London, knocking at the door of Jeremy Hunt, who, it appears, is delighted at the prospect of such a large bundle of money landing on the ailing London Stock Exchange. Do we think the UK government will stand up to this careless industry that has scant regard for human and environmental health? We can only hope.

Tiffanie Darke is a freelance fashion writer

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