What Is Fast Fashion?
Fast fashion is a relatively new industry phenomenon that causes extensive environmental damage, exploits workers, and harms animals. Here’s why you should avoid them whenever possible.
Fashion’s tragic reality check
Clothes shopping used to be a once-a-year event, something we did when the seasons changed or when we outgrew what we had. But something changed about 20 years ago. Clothes became less expensive, trend cycles accelerated, and shopping became a hobby. Fast fashion and global chains have taken over our high streets and online shopping. But what exactly is fast fashion? What is the problem with fast fashion? And how does it affect people, the environment, and animals?
In the oughties, everything seemed too good to be true. All these stores selling cool, trendy clothing that you could buy with your spare change, wear a few times, and then discard. Suddenly, everyone could afford to dress like their favorite celebrity or to wear the latest catwalk trends.
The world was shocked in 2013 when the Rana Plaza clothing manufacturing complex in Bangladesh collapsed, killing over 1,000 workers. That’s when people began to question fast fashion and wonder what the true cost of those $5 t-shirts was. If you’re reading this, you’re probably already aware of fast fashion’s negative aspects, but it’s worth delving into how the industry got to this point—and how we can help to change it.
Fast fashion is defined as low-cost, trendy clothing that takes inspiration from the catwalk or celebrity culture and turns it into garments in high-street stores at breakneck speed to meet consumer demand. The goal is to get the newest styles on the market as soon as possible. Shoppers can buy them while they are still popular and then, sadly, discard them after a few wears. It contributes to the notion that outfit repetition is a fashion faux pas and that if you want to stay relevant. You must wear the latest looks as they emerge. It is an essential component of the toxic system of overproduction and consumption that has made fashion one of the world’s most polluting industries. Let’s look at the history first before we try to change it.
How did fast fashion emerge?
To understand how fast fashion came to be, we must go back in time. Fashion was slow before the 1800s. You had to gather your own materials, such as wool or leather, prepare them, weave them, and then sew the clothes together.
The Industrial Revolution brought new technology, such as the sewing machine. Clothes manufacturing became simpler, faster, and less expensive. Dressmaking shops sprang up to serve the middle classes.
Many of these dressmaking shops employed garment teams or home workers. Sweatshops appeared around this time, as did some familiar safety concerns. The first significant garment factory disaster occurred in 1911, when a fire broke out at New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. It killed 146 garment workers, the majority of whom were young female immigrants.
By the 1960s and 1970s, young people were inventing new trends, and clothing had become a form of self-expression, but there was still a distinction between high fashion and high street.
Low-cost fashion peaked in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Online shopping became popular, and fast-fashion retailers such as H&M, Zara, and Topshop dominated the high street. These brands replicated the looks and design elements of the top fashion houses quickly and cheaply. With everyone now having the ability to shop for trendy clothes whenever they wanted, it’s easy to see how the trend caught on.
How to Recognize a Fast Fashion Brand
Fast fashion brands share some key characteristics:
- Thousands of styles that cover all of the latest trends.
- The time between when a trend or garment is seen on the catwalk or in celebrity media and when it hits the shelves is extremely short.
- Offshore manufacturing where labor is the cheapest. Especially with low-wage workers with no rights or safety, and complex supply chains with little visibility beyond the first tier.
- Zara pioneered the concept of a limited quantity of a specific garment. With new stock arriving in store every few days, shoppers know that if they don’t buy something they like right away, they’ll likely miss out.
- Cheap, low-quality materials, such as polyester, cause clothing to degrade after only a few wears and be discarded, not to mention the microfiber shedding issue.
What Makes Fast Fashion Bad?
Polluting our planet.
The environmental impact of fast fashion is enormous. Because of the pressure to cut costs and speed up production, environmental corners are more likely to be cut. Fast fashion’s negative impact includes the use of cheap, toxic textile dyes. Which makes the fashion industry, along with agriculture, one of the world’s largest polluters of clean water. That is why, over the years, Greenpeace has used its detoxing fashion campaigns to put pressure on brands to remove dangerous chemicals from their supply chains.
Cheap textiles also contribute to the impact of fast fashion. Polyester is one of the most widely used fabrics. It is derived from fossil fuels, contributes to global warming, and when washed, can shed microfibers that contribute to the increasing levels of plastic in our oceans. However, at the scale that fast fashion requires, even “natural” fabrics can be a problem. In developing countries, conventional cotton necessitates massive amounts of water and pesticides. This causes drought risks, extreme stress on water basins, and resource competition between businesses and local communities.
Because of the rate at which garments are produced, consumers are disposing of an increasing number of garments, resulting in massive textile waste. According to some estimates, more than 500 million kilos of unwanted clothing end up in landfills in Australia alone each year.
Fast fashion has a human cost in addition to the environmental cost.
Fast fashion has an impact on garment workers who work in hazardous conditions for low pay and without basic human rights. Farmers further down the supply chain may be exposed to toxic chemicals and brutal practices. Which can have devastating effects on their physical and mental health, as highlighted in the documentary “The True Cost.”
Fast fashion has an impact on animals as well. Toxic dyes and microfibres released into waterways are consumed by both land and marine life, having a devastating effect on the food chain. And when animal products such as leather, fur, and even wool are used directly in fashion, animal welfare is jeopardized. Several scandals have revealed that real fur is frequently passed off as faux fur to unsuspecting customers. The truth is that so much real fur is produced under appalling conditions. Now it has become less expensive to produce and purchase than faux fur.
Finally, because of the built-in obsolescence of the products and the speed with which trends emerge, fast fashion can have an impact on consumers, encouraging a “throw-away” culture. Fast fashion convinces us that we need to buy more and more to stay current. While resulting in a constant sense of need and eventual dissatisfaction. The trend has also been criticized on the basis of intellectual property, with some designers alleging that retailers illegally mass-produced their designs.
Who are the major players?
Many of today’s fast fashion behemoths, such as Zara and H&M, began as small shops in Europe around the 1950s. H&M is the oldest of the fast fashion behemoths. Having begun as Hennes in Sweden in 1947, expanding to London in 1976, and eventually reaching the United States in 2000.
Zara follows, with its first store opening in Northern Spain in 1975. When Zara arrived in New York at the beginning of the 1990s, the term “fast fashion” was coined. The phrase was coined by the New York Times to describe Zara’s goal of completing a garment from design to sale in 15 days.
Other well-known fast fashion brands include UNIQLO, GAP, Primark, and TopShop. While these brands were once regarded as radically low-cost disruptors. There are now even lower-cost and faster alternatives such as SHEIN, Missguided, Forever 21, Zaful, Boohoo, and Fashion Nova. These brands are part of the ultra fast fashion trend, which is as bad as it sounds.
Is fast fashion becoming more environmentally friendly?
As more consumers question the true cost of the fashion industry, particularly fast fashion, a growing number of retailers have introduced so-called sustainable and ethical fashion initiatives such as in-store recycling schemes. Customers can drop off unwanted items in “bins” in the brands’ stores under these schemes. However, only 0.1% of all clothing collected by charities and take-back programs is recycled into new textile fiber.
The underlying problem with fast fashion is the rate at which it is produced, which puts enormous strain on people and the environment. Recycling and small eco or vegan clothing lines—when they are not just for greenwashing—are insufficient to combat fast fashion’s throw-away culture. Even waste, strain on natural resources, and a slew of other issues. The entire system must be altered.
Is fast fashion on its way out?
In the fashion industry, we are beginning to see some changes. The anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse is now Fashion Revolution Week, during which people all over the world wonder. “Who made my clothes?” and “What’s in my clothes?” “We don’t want our clothes to exploit people or destroy our planet.” Declares Fashion Revolution.
Millennials and Gen Zers, the future economic drivers, may not have caught the fast fashion bug. Some argue that this generation has “grown too intelligent for mindless consumerism, forcing producers to become more ethical, inclusive, and liberal.” However, ultra-fast fashion brands like SHEIN are selling more than ever, and their target market is young shoppers.
Transitioning to a more circular textile production model, which involves reusing materials wherever and whenever possible, is also gaining popularity. In 2018, both Vogue Australia and Elle UK dedicated entire magazine issues to sustainable fashion. Basically a trend that an increasing number of celebrities are adopting year after year.
what can we do?
We love this quote by British designer Vivienne Westwood at Good On You: “buy less, choose well, make it last.”
The first step is to buy less—try to rediscover your love for the clothes you already own by styling them differently or even “flipping” them. Why not refashion those old jeans into trendy unhemmed shorts, or refashion that baggy old jumper into a crop? On your ethical fashion journey, you should also consider creating a capsule wardrobe.
The second step is to Choose Well, and choosing a high-quality garment made of eco-friendly fabric is critical. All fiber types have advantages and disadvantages, as seen in our ultimate guide to clothing materials. However there is a helpful chart at the end to refer to when purchasing. Choosing wisely could also imply committing to shopping your closet first, only buying secondhand, or supporting more sustainable brands such as those listed below.
Finally, we should Make It Last by following care instructions. Wearing our clothes until they are worn out, mending them whenever possible, and responsibly recycling them at the end of their life.