House of Sunny is one of several brands to experiment with a made-to-order approach, preventing waste whilst also meeting demandinstagram / houseofsunny

Planned scarcity is nothing new in the fashion industry. The strategy – produce less stock than you know will sell, make the item rare and its value skyrocket – has its origins in the luxury market. These items – think the infamous Birkin bag, which customers can only buy after spending potentially years on a waiting list, and spend up to hundreds of thousands of pounds on – become synonymous with wealth, exclusivity and status. Is time up for a marketing strategy that has become elitist and manipulative, or could a different approach to planned scarcity help combat fast fashion?

“Is time up for a marketing strategy that has become elitist and manipulative, or could a different approach to planned scarcity help combat fast fashion?”

While this marketing tactic has long been used by high fashion brands, more recently it has become a mainstay of the streetwear and collab industries. Founded in 1994, Supreme accelerated the culture of exclusivity and hype in the commercial market. The brand quickly built up a cult following which religiously anticipated each drop, willingly spending hundreds of pounds on anything they released, from t-shirts to bricks. Supreme gained popularity without the use of traditional advertising, and in the past decade, other brands have followed, shifting to digital advertising and creating social media hype, reaching a smaller but often more reliable customer base.

Supreme has frequently come under fire for its perpetuation of hype culture and fast fashioninstagram / supremenewyork

Hype culture is in many ways problematic. Using a manipulative marketing strategy, brands cash in on the frenzy of hotly anticipated drops, with people so caught up in the excitement and fear of missing out that they overspend and often regret it later. It is also inherently dishonest – they could simply produce more stock to meet demand, but prefer to sacrifice more immediate sales for the notoriety and exclusivity that the label can gain over time. This causes the inevitable phenomenon of reselling, an entire industry existing on the craze of stockpiling rare and limited edition items, only to sell them at several times the original price.

“planned scarcity creates a cycle of novelty where having the latest exclusive piece is more important than investing in one with longevity”

Having frequent, limited drops also contributes to fast fashion. Brands using this tactic are prioritising seasonal, trendy pieces rather than developing staples. Limited edition designs, including collaborations with other brands or with celebrities, all fuel the customer’s desire to tap into the current cultural moment. Each new drop is calculated to cause more spending, in a cycle of novelty where having the latest exclusive piece is more important than investing in one with longevity.

So can this manipulative marketing ploy ever be a positive thing? For one thing, planned scarcity can create opportunities for smaller brands, and allow designers greater creative freedom. Without the pressure to shift a large amount of stock or the costs of conventional advertising, brands can test the waters with lower stakes. Customised items and artisan, hand-crafted pieces can be created without compromising design in order to replicate clothes on a large scale.

TALA has been praised for creating active wear largely from recycled bottlesinstagram / wearetala

And so, planned scarcity is in fact usually necessary for sustainable production processes. Brands using offcuts, dead-stock, or up-cycling like TALA, creating activewear largely from recycled bottles, or RE/DONE, known for repurposing old Levi’s, inevitably have smaller and limited runs. This could be a way of combining sustainability with the excitement and novelty of the limited edition item. Even high-street brands like Urban Outfitters (with its Urban Renewal line) and ASOS (with its Reclaimed Vintage line), have been tapping into this more sustainable market. By sacrificing availability for sustainability, brands could encourage not just slower fashion, but more variety and individuality in items.


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The Future of Fashion Shopping

Limiting production can also be sustainable when it is used to more precisely gauge demand, producing the perfect amount rather than a deliberately smaller amount. The London-based label House of Sunny, which previously used an approach of limited runs to prioritise sustainability, is using a pre-order system for their AW21 collection. This allows them to avoid waste, and in their own words focus on making items ‘as healthy and consciously as possible’. This benefits both them and the customer – they don’t have to worry about wasting money on stock and being forced to discount items that haven’t shifted, and customers don’t have to worry about missing out on scoring popular pieces that might otherwise sell out.

A notoriously exclusive, manipulative marketing strategy, planned scarcity may just be a secret weapon for sustainable fashion, if it can break free of hype culture.