What is Fast Fashion?
It’s really easy to give the side-eye to fast fashion, but what is fast fashion? What makes H&M and Zara partners in fast fashion crime? If you don’t know, that’s ok, because fast fashion is a complicated issue.
To start answering the question “What is fast fashion?”, it helps to start by defining what fast fashion isn’t. It isn’t eco-friendly, fair to workers, or supportive of high-quality fashion. The clothing it produces isn’t known for durability, and its prices aren’t ever very high.
Fast fashion tries to fulfill our desire to refill our closets with the latest trends without putting a dent in our wallets. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. In fact, the fashion industry causes a lot of harm by creating the illusion of meeting these magical expectations and making serious profit from it. Here’s how.
What is fast fashion and why is it bad?
“Fast fashion” is a process of producing clothing and accessories commonly associated with:
- cheap price points
- brands that produce massive quantities of clothing for shoppers
- manufacturing sites in developing countries with low labor standards
- fast trend cycles that cause consumers to buy new clothing often
- and massive amounts of textile waste from both the consumers and from excessive unsold retail stock that often gets incinerated.
If you think it’s hard to separate fast fashion from sustainable fashion, it’s because fast fashion is the most dominant form of clothing production today. This makes it hard to recognize the alternatives. Despite its association with high volume production at low cost, even high-end fashion brands with high price points are guilty of many of the unsustainable practices associated with fast fashion.
The main reason fast fashion is bad is because it encourages a throwaway culture that disregards the lives of the workers who make garments, and the environmental toll on the planet.
What are the environmental impacts of fast fashion?
Here are some ways fast fashion is bad for the environment:
- Textile waste: Every second a garbage truck of textile waste is incinerated or sent to a landfill. (UNEP)
- Textile waste in the US: The United States consumes more clothing than any other country in the world, and about 85% of it, nearly 3.8 billion pounds annually, is thrown away in landfills--about 80 pounds per American per year. (Environmental Health)
- Water use: It takes 2700 liters of fresh water to produce a cotton t-shirt (that’s enough water for a person to drink for 2.5 years). (World Resources Institute)
- Water pollution: The fashion industry produces 20% of global wastewater. (UNEP)
- Carbon pollution: The fashion industry produces 10% of CO2 pollution. (UNEP)
- Cotton production: About a fifth of the textiles in the world are made from conventional cotton, which is a water-intensive crop. Cotton is responsible for 4% of the world’s pesticide use and 10% of the global insecticide use. (Common Objective)
- Synthetics: Polyester and other synthetic fibers are byproducts of the fossil fuel industry, as they are plastic products made from petrochemicals. In 2019, synthetics accounted for 68% of the total global fiber production. Plus, synthetics don’t break down in landfills for 200 years. (Changing Markets)
- Microplastics: Half a million tonnes of microfibers are released into the ocean every year from washing synthetic clothes at home. (UNEP)
- Chemicals used in leather: For every 3 kilos of leather produced, it takes 1 kilo of chemicals to tan it. (Good on You)
What are the social impacts of fast fashion?
Here are some negative ways fast fashion affects society:
Where is fast fashion produced?
Fast fashion is mostly produced in developing countries like Bangladesh, China, and Vietnam. Roughly 20 million people in Bangladesh work in the garment industry.
If you look at a single piece of clothing, though, it can be made by a total of 100 different workers in locations around the world. The supply chains of fast fashion industry giants are incredibly complex and they change rapidly, based on trends, production costs, and availability. This makes it hard to trace the labor and environmental standards of different items of clothing.
What brands are considered fast fashion?
Fast fashion is practically synonymous with H&M and Zara.
Other fast fashion brands include:
How can you tell if a brand uses fast fashion? Fast fashion brands are usually recognizable for their giant retail stores, and trendy styles often targeting the 16-25 age demographic.
What is the fast fashion business model?
In the past, fashion trends were predicted as much as a year in advance, and the steps to adopt fashion were spaced out like stepping stones: designer fashion would influence mainstream designs, market research would inform their design decisions, and clothing lines were produced at most seasonally (four times a year).
But in the nineties, globalization and agile marketing took hold. Most large clothing manufacturers outsourced their production to developing countries, which made competing on price easier than ever. Fashion companies also started to compete on availability, satisfying customer’s demands for dressing in cutting-edge fashion without waiting for an entire season. The internet and social media have greatly sped up the ability to research and design trends based on consumer desires almost instantly. Soon, the pace of fashion sped up from 4 lines a year to up to 50 lines a year.
Fast fashion companies use incredibly complex supply chain networks, and they can easily switch factories at the drop of a hat. They’re known for skirting labor issues, thanks to their hard to trace supply chains. With factories around the world producing a single garment, fast fashion brands don’t always work directly with their real suppliers. To address this issue, Fashion Revolution, an organization established to improve the ethics of fashion, created a Fashion Transparency Index. This index lists Forever 21 in the lowest 10% of businesses analyzed for transparency.
Fast fashion companies are known for keeping their inventories in large warehouse spaces, but that could change as online shopping becomes more prevalent. Even though they keep lots of stock on hand at their retail spaces, fast fashion companies create the illusion of scarcity by featuring selective styles and limiting the quantity of items on the floor. This gives shoppers a sense of urgency to buy.
The fast trend cycle encourages shoppers to buy and stay up to date with the latest trends. This leads to what many critics of fast fashion consider a throwaway culture, because compared to 15 years ago, we buy 60% more clothes, and keep the items for half as long.
What percentage of the fashion industry is fast fashion?
It’s hard to measure the exact percentage of the fashion brands that constitute fast fashion, because most brands have fast fashion characteristics.
While truly “fast fashion” means having fast trend seasons and short production cycles, the phrase is often associated with “unsustainable fashion”. Most mainstream fashion production relies on environmentally destructive manufacturing and outsourced labor in global supply chains.
Let’s compare the market size of ethical fashion ($6.3 billion in 2019) to the global retail fashion market ($1.78 trillion in 2019). Keep in mind that there’s not currently a clear set of standards about sustainable fashion, so this is just to give an estimate. Using this estimate, only 0.3% of fashion is considered “ethical.” If we subtract that from the total fashion retail market, 99.7% of fashion retail is not ethical.
How do you avoid fast fashion?
There are many ways to change our personal habits to counteract the negative impacts of fast fashion. In general, it helps to consider the reasons the fashion industry is wasteful and harmful to people:
- it generates too much waste
- it uses polluting materials and manufacturing processes
- it is global so it has a huge carbon footprint
- it exploits garment workers
- it views clothing as disposable.
Here are some popular approaches that counteract each of these negative effects of fast fashion in some way:
Locally made fashion: By shopping for clothing “made in the USA,” or even closer to home, you’re supporting the local economy. You can research the brands more easily to see who they employ, and how they treat their workers. You’ll also be reducing the carbon footprint for the materials, which are usually shipped overseas.
Thrifted or used fashion: With thrifted fashion, unlike fast fashion, your clothing is not made from raw materials, so it doesn’t have the negative environmental impacts from production, and you also keep clothing out of the waste. It’s now easier than ever to resell your own used fashion online, too, so you can recoup some of the money you spent on items.
“French” (curated) style: There’s this notion about the effortless style of French women, which may be an urban legend. Essentially the concept goes like this: you buy classic, high-quality essentials from French designers that you’ll wear the rest of your life. Think trench and handbag. You accessorize basic looks like jeans and a t-shirt with sunglasses, high heels, and some red lipstick to make it fancy. Lastly, you rely on your personality to captivate people.
Minimal fashion: In a sense this is similar to a curated style, where you have your go-to colors, and you simplify your style so you don’t need to change it up often. You can literally wear the same black jeans for twenty years.
Repeat outfits: Instagram and other social media outlets inspire people to constantly reinvent their looks. You can go against the grain by embracing the idea of wearing repeat outfits intentionally. Try to wear the same outfit multiple days in a row. This helps you keep things longer.
Tracking wears: Another way to avoid throwing clothing away is by wearing an item thirty or one-hundred times before letting it go. To make sure you reach your goal, keep a tracking sheet or post your progress online.
Sustainably sourced fashion: There are a lot of brands that are trying to rethink fashion from the inside. You can buy new clothing from these brands, but it’s best to research them on Good on You and other brand rating sites.
#Memade #diy fashion: Get a sewing machine, source some thrifted remnants (old curtains, table cloths, and bedsheets are perfect for this), and sew your own wardrobe. The benefit of doing this is it shows how much time and effort go into making garments.
Upcycled fashion: This is a hybrid between thrift and making your own fashion. Basically, it means updating your existing pieces by making adjustments to them. These adjustments can make an item appear more trendy.
Recycled fashion: Recycled fashion uses materials that have been reclaimed from the trash.
Rented fashion: As an alternative to fast fashion throwaway culture, for one-time wears, just rent, so the item continues to be used after you're done with it.
Digital fashion: Some creators are now promoting clothing that you “wear” in your online selfies, but actually it’s just a digital illusion.
As you can see, there are actually lots of alternatives to fast fashion. That’s the big secret the fashion industry is afraid you’ll realize.
One of the best ways to combat fast fashion in your own life is by simply starting to notice the ways fast fashion influences you. Notice when you are influenced to buy new things. Notice how hard it can be to repeat outfits. Notice how you feel about your clothes--do you really care about them?
If you care about your clothes, you’re on the right track. Here are a few more ways you can take care of them longer. This bond with your clothes will help you break free from our culture of disposable materialism.