Fast Fashion Exposed

What is fast fashion?

Shopping for clothes was once considered a special event. People would save up to buy new clothes at certain times of the year. This changed in the late 1990s when shopping became a form of entertainment and people started to spend more money on clothing. Fast fashion stores, such as Zara or Topshop, started to pop up in the late 2000s. They offered cheap, trendy garments, mass-produced at low cost. What is more, fast fashion brands offer countless new collections per year, making people feel out of date and encouraging them to always buy more. These garments are not intended to be worn for years, or even multiple times. Instead, the aim is to make people buy new clothes all the time. 

Fast fashion’s development is in line with globalisation and the logistical efficiency of the 21st century. Cheaper and speedier manufacturing and shipping methods and an increase in consumers’ interest in the latest styles as well as in consumer purchasing power led to the rise of fast fashion. The advent of artificial intelligence allowed companies to work even more efficiently and have a quicker turnaround time. 80 billion garments are produced each year: that’s  400% more clothes than 20 years ago! The impact of fast fashion on consumer behaviour is obvious: today, the average person buys 60% more items of clothing than they did 15 years ago but, due to new fashion trends emerging every few weeks and a decrease in garment quality, that clothing is only kept half as long. 

Zara has been credited as having the first successful fast fashion business model, they release more than 20 different collections a year and the process of design to retail takes only about 5 weeks. Online retailers (“ultra-fast fashion”) are even speedier: they launch around 600 to 900 new styles every week at ridiculously low prices. On average, brands now release 52 micro-collections per year instead of the usual 2 seasons. 
Besides Zara, other major players in the fast fashion market include H&M, UNIQLO, GAP, Forever 21, Topshop, Esprit, Primark, Fashion Nova, and New Look. Among the worst offenders in the UK are some of the newer brands, notably Boohoo, Pretty Little Thing, Nasty Gal and Missguided.

Fast fashion brand Zara is part of Inditex, one of the world's largest fashion retailers often accused of unethical production methods. [Source: Unsplash/Silviu Beniamin Tofan]

The mass-production of cheap, disposable clothing allows consumers to purchase new fashion trends at an affordable price, however, the flip side is that fast fashion comes at a massive environmental and social cost. The harsh truth is that fast fashion companies’ speedy supply chains rely on outsourced and often underpaid labour from factory workers in developing countries. The garments are also produced in environmentally damaging and resource intensive ways: 23kg of greenhouse gases are generated for each kilo of fabric produced. 

What are the problems with fast fashion?

Environmental cost

The fashion industry is one of the world’s most resource-intensive industries. It is responsible for a fifth of water waste globally, consumes more energy than shipping and aviation combined and, by 2050, is expected to account for 25% of the world’s remaining carbon budget. On top of that, fast fashion brands like Boohoo use toxic chemicals, dangerous dyes and synthetic fabrics that seep into water supplies, leading to pollution and illness. 

Poor working conditions

Fast fashion is built on bad working conditions, poor pay, and other abusive, exploitative practices. Workers get paid low wages and often have to work in unsafe workplaces. The only reason places like Primark, Zara or H&M are able to sell clothes so cheaply is because the people who are making our clothes are underpaid, underfed and pushed to their limits. It is crucial to remember that fast fashion isn’t free: someone, somewhere is paying. 

Throw-away mentality

Garment quality is declining every year, fast fashion isn’t designed to last, meaning that clothes immediately look faded, shapeless and worn out. On top of that, trends change so quickly that customers purchase just to keep up! On average, we only wear garments 7 times before getting rid of them and studies have shown that it isn’t uncommon for people to only wear their purchases once or twice. The combination of subpar quality, cheap prices and ever changing trends means that people throw away their clothes after only wearing them a few times. An average of 35kg of textile waste is produced per person each year in the US and about 11kg in Europe. Fast fashion pushes this “disposable mentality” or “throw-away attitude” by signalling to consumers that it’s cheaper just to buy something new. What makes it worse is that poorly made garments can’t be recycled since they’re predominantly (over 60%) made of synthetics. Not only does this mean our landfills are full of often unworn or barely worn clothes, but it also has a detrimental impact on the environment:  400% more carbon emissions are produced if we only wear a garment 5 times instead of 50 times!
To make matters worse, it is not only on the consumer side that fast fashion leads to excessive waste. Big brands also struggle with excess inventory due to the rapidly changing trends and collections. H&M was accused of burning tons of unsold clothes in 2017 and it is actually quite common for fashion retailers (from Louis Vuitton to Urban Outfitters) to destroy their inventory. 

What alternatives are there?

The opposite of fast fashion is slow fashion: it is a concept that focuses on fair labour rights, natural materials and lasting garments. Garments are often domestically manufactured and sourced on a relatively small scale. Slow fashion cares about the planet and the safety of garment workers. 
Some fashion experts say we are at a “tipping point”. The realities of fast fashion are increasingly exposed by mainstream media and data shows that customers are increasingly driven to purchase sustainable fashion. A 2015 survey found that 66% of shoppers worldwide are willing to pay extra for products from companies with social or environmental impact commitments. However, there is still an “intention-action gap” between what consumers say and what they actually purchase.
Hopefully, more and more people realise that we need to support ethical and sustainable clothing companies if there is to be a better future for our planet and for workers throughout the fashion supply chain.

As opposed to fast fashion, slow fashion brands are transparent about their production methods and their environmental impact. [Source: Unsplash/Markus Spiske]

What can you do?

It is fair to say that we have all shopped from fast fashion brands and there is no shame in that. What matters is that we all make a collective effort to change our shopping habits one step at a time and ultimately invest in fewer, good quality pieces. This can be a hard transition, so we have collected a few great ways to dress well while saying “no” to fast fashion for you here:

  • Buy less. Excessive consumerism is the root of the problem. We buy 10 pieces of clothing while our grandmothers bought 2! Even the greenest garment uses resources for production and transport to your home, creating some environmental impact. Therefore, the most environmentally sustainable clothing is the one that’s already in your closet. 
  • Buy better quality. Because clothes have become so cheap, we no longer care about quality as much: if something loses their shape or appeal, we just buy a new piece. Our grandparents didn't have that option. For them, it was vital that every item they bought was durable enough to last generations! Take some time to ensure what you buy is really good quality and will withstand the test of time - it’s good for your wallet and the environment!
  • Buy clothes from sustainable brands. The more we demand sustainable clothing, the more it will be available (just like organic or vegan food was difficult to find 20 years ago and now it’s available in every supermarket). If you are concerned about sustainable clothing being more expensive, it actually isn’t: because sustainable clothes are almost always better quality, they will last you longer, meaning you’ll be able to wear them more times, thus reducing the cost per wear. 
  • Buy second hand, swap or rent clothing. If you really want an item of clothing from a fast fashion brand, a good compromise is to buy it second hand. That way, the garment gets worn more times and doesn’t end up in landfill so quickly. You can browse charity shops or use second hand websites and apps. Another great way to say no to fast fashion and still retain a fresh wardrobe is to attend clothes swaps. Participants bring clothes and exchange them with others -- you could even organise one among your friends. Renting clothes is another great sustainable option, particularly for clothes that you will not wear for a long time (think maternity clothes, baby clothing, party dresses or ball gowns). There are many websites that offer clothes rentals. 
  • Mend clothes and recycle. Think twice before you throw out clothes you don’t wear anymore! You can try to repair them, pass them on to friends or family, donate them to charity shops or -- if none of these options are available, for example because an item is broken and cannot be repaired, make sure to put them in the textile recycling bin. Never throw clothes into normal bins -- they often consist of synthetic fibres and will just pile up in landfill.