What is fast fashion? Here's what you need to know
Updated: Feb 25
Did you know fashion is the second-most polluting industry after agriculture?
In this article, you will learn what is fast fashion exactly, its environmental and social impacts and some suggestions on what we can do to make sure the clothes we buy do not harm people or the planet.
What exactly is fast fashion?
Fast fashion gets its name because everything about it - from how quickly the products are created to how quickly they are used - is fast.
Previously, brands would have up to four collections per year, in line with the spring, summer, autumn and winter seasons. Companies work sometimes up to two years designing a season’s collection before releasing it on shelves.
With fast fashion, it’s now common for brands to have a new collection of clothes every week to keep up with the latest trends. That’s like having 52 seasons per year. Some larger brands even have a new collection arriving every day!
The stores love it because it allows them to encourage customers to buy the latest trends, knowing that as soon as the clothes have been bought, they will be out of fashion within days.
To keep up with these ever-changing trends, brands need to be able to produce clothes in a matter of weeks. With technology and globalisation, it can now take just two or three weeks from creating the concept to clothes on the shelf ready to be sold.
To move that quickly, manufacturers cut corners during the production process and the garments and accessories produced are typically low quality.
Lower quality means lower prices. That’s one of the biggest appeals of fast fashion: people can buy clothing that was just on a fashion runway within a couple of weeks for only $5 or $10.
Additionally, it’s easy to buy inexpensive products online. Especially because brands are constantly providing sales, there’s almost no risk if you buy something you don’t like.
The constant new trends and low quality clothing means people throw away their garments only after a few wears. In fact, Americans on average throw away about 81 pounds of clothing per year. Much of it cannot be resold at secondhand stores because the quality is so low.
It wasn’t always like this - fast fashion is a relatively new phenomenon.
History of fast fashion
Up until the 1960s, manufacturers made clothes and sold them to big retailers like department stores. Things changed in the 1970s and retailers started manufacturing clothes themselves, taking full control of the production process.
When looking at the beginnings of fast fashion, it almost always comes down to one brand: Zara. The term “fast fashion” was first used in a New York Times article from December 31, 1989 that described two new stores that opened in New York City, including Zara.
The article outlined that every week, the NY Zara store receives a new shipment from its headquarters in Spain. And every three weeks the store changes its stock.
Since then, other brands - like H&M, J.Crew, Gap, Forever 21 and TopShop - have started doing the same.
And now, fast fashion is moving even faster because of social media. Instagram is particularly effective at promoting new fashion trends. A poll from the Fashion Retail Academy found that 54% of people believe social media influences the choices they make about the clothes they buy. In fact, 17% percent of people say they use Instagram to discover and purchase clothes.
Many influencers never wear the same clothes twice, encouraging others to do the same. Also, some influencers partner with brands and can be paid affiliate commissions for any sales they make on specific products.
Why is fast fashion so cheap?
In addition to the almost infinite choices, price is one of the biggest appeals to buyers.
The low price point of fast fashion is possible because the materials used are low-quality and the work is done in countries where labor is significantly less expensive, like China and Bangladesh. This can lead to terrible and unsafe conditions for the workers, that can end up with disasters like the Dhaka garment factory collapse in 2013 in Bangladesh.
The quality of materials is so poor that when old clothes are donated, they usually can’t be resold. Instead, they either get recycled into rags and insulation or simply thrown away. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 73% of clothes are either thrown away into landfill or incinerated and “less than 1% of material used to produce clothing is recycled into new clothing”.
What are the negative impacts of fast fashion?
Lots of energy and chemicals are used when making clothes and this has a negative toll on both the people working in the industry and the environment.
The environmental impact
Greenhouse gas emissions during product creation
According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s “A New Textile Economy report”, “In 2015, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from textiles production totalled 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent, more than those of all international flights and maritime shipping combined.”
These numbers are the greenhouse gasses during the production process of clothes. These emissions come from a variety of sources, including animal products like leather or feathers or creating nylon, which releases nitrous oxide.
Landfills and incineration
Almost 75% of clothes that people buy are thrown away. That’s the equivalent of one garbage truck-full of garments that are either incinerated or end up in landfill per second.
In landfill, clothes release even more greenhouse gas. Polyester-based clothing can sit in landfill for up to 200 years before it fully decomposes. Plus, all the dyes and chemicals that were added to the clothing can leak out and can end up in the groundwater, if the landfill is not properly sealed.
Incineration of clothes can release chemicals into the air, especially if the plant doesn’t properly control their emissions. Of course, incineration also releases even more greenhouse gases.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation calculated that creating textiles uses 93 billion cubic meters of water per year. If the Empire State Building were a big water bottle, 93 billion cubic meters could fit into almost 89,000 Empire State Buildings! It’s also about 4% of all freshwater used!
Growing cotton for clothes uses lots of water - almost 3,000 liters of water are required to make one cotton T-shirt. And much of the cotton is grown in countries where water is scarce like China, the US, India, Pakistan and Turkey.
Once we buy the clothes, we use water to wash them. That’s an additional 20 billion cubic meters or more than 19,000 Empire State Buildings.
Chemicals used for dyes and textile creation
To make cotton or polyester into a soft and comfortable fabric takes a lot of chemicals, many of which are hazardous and toxic. Unfortunately, not all factories correctly dispose of these chemicals. As a result, dyeing and treating fabrics creates 20% of water pollution around the world.
Some factories pour untreated wastewater into rivers and streams, which eventually end up in the ocean. It’s harmful for people’s health and is devastating on the local environment.
Unfortunately, this is just a portion of the environmental challenges associated with creating clothes because the list goes on. Let’s move on to the challenges that the people working in this industry face.
If you’re interested, this short 6-minute video shows the lifecycle of a t-shirt really well: https://youtu.be/BiSYoeqb_VY
The human rights issues
Poor working conditions
The fashion industry is one of the largest employers worldwide, with more than 60 million workers. The working conditions are different depending on where you are. In regions with the farms and production factories, unsafe and difficult working conditions can still be found. As mentioned earlier, this is the likely cause of the factory collapsing in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 2012.
Child labor doesn’t always happen inside a factory - oftentimes child labor happens when a factory hires a family outside the factory to do the work at home. This makes it much more for brands that want to avoid child labor to even know if it’s happening.
Lucy Sigel, a British journalist who reports on fashion and the environment, highlighted in her book To Die for: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World? that sequins and beads are often a giveaway of child labor. This is because children have smaller fingers - so the work is easier for them - and beading machines are expensive and factories are not willing to pay for them.
One of the main problems with child labor is that children are working instead of going to school. This perpetuates the cycle because they can’t get an education to get a better career.
At the time of writing this article, the living wage in Bangladesh is about £170 GBP. Garment workers’ wages start at around £25 per month, which is at least £145 GBP less than a living wage. Plus, employees often work for 12 hours, or more, per day and when there’s a deadline, they can be required to work until 2 or 3 am. This cheap labor is crucial for fast fashion brands to keep their prices low.
Some brands keep the labor in the countries where they sell in order to decrease the amount of time it takes to go from an idea to having the clothes on sale. Even in the UK and US people are severely underpaid. The Financial Times reported that in the city of Leicester, England, £5 per hour is considered a top wage, even though the minimum wage is £7.83 per hour. Los Angeles is experiencing the same the thing: factories paying their employees off the books at wages below the minimum wage.
How to spot a fast fashion brand?
Personally, when I learn about all these negatives, it motivates me to do something about it. The first thing we can do is learn what fast fashion clothing looks like so we can avoid it the next time we go shopping. Here are some common things to watch out for both online and in-store:
Hundreds or thousands of different styles that are connected to the most recent styles.
Constantly updated lines and clothes; a “New In Today” section on the website can be a giveaway.
Extremely low prices, like this blazer for $22.99.
Low quality clothing that tends to easily rip or fall apart after a few wears and washes.
Limited information on sustainability practices, working conditions and the source of materials on the website.
Here are several of brands that are leaders in fast fashion:
There are many others as well. Using our understanding and best judgment when making a decision on the clothes we buy and the companies we support makes a big difference.
What can you do to make a difference?
Here at Sustainability Champions we’re all about taking responsibility for our actions - so what can we do to play our part?
Rewear and reuse what you already own
First and foremost, if you have fast fashion clothing in your closet, keep wearing it! The biggest environmental and social issues from fashion come from when the clothing is actually created. It just doesn’t make sense to throw away or give away what you already own for more sustainable options.
Take good care of this clothing so that it doesn’t fall apart too quickly. You can always mend your clothing that does rip or get a hole in it.
Here’s a great little video on how to sew a hole: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ULhv5dNeew
Buy from slow fashion brands and support sustainable clothing brands
There is always a countermovement, and this one is called “slow fashion”. These brands have slow production schedules and make small batches of clothing, using high quality material, with zero waste designs. The styles are versatile and classic, allowing for layering so that each article can be worn in many different styles and situations, thereby avoiding the need to always buy new things.
To make the clothes last a long time, they use high quality materials like organic cotton, linen and Tencel. These materials also have a lower environmental footprint.
Slow fashion brands like to keep all of the production in-house to maintain full control of the supply chain to avoid any potential negative working conditions they may not be aware of.
Yes, these slow fashion brands are more expensive upfront and they know that. That’s why they design each article so it can be used over and over again in a wide variety of outfits. That way, people don’t need to buy new clothes as often. When you invest in your clothes and take care of them, they will last longer, sometimes even for a lifetime. When you do need to buy more clothes, if you take your time and buy pieces that you love and take good care of each garment, you’ll end up saving money.
Here are some slow fashion brands to check out:
Project Cece is a search engine that helps you find ethical and environmentally friendly clothing.
Buy secondhand clothing and donate your unwanted items
AKA thrifting. Buying second hand is an even better way to reduce your environmental and social footprint while saving money. Buying clothes that are still good quality and have already been used means that you are not supporting the production of any new garments at all. There are many gems that can be found when buying secondhand clothing and if you take your time, you can create a whole wardrobe that is unique and eye-catching.
If you have a garment you no longer want or need, donate it to a charity shop so that someone else can enjoy it secondhand.
If you’re looking for inspiration on making great outfits with secondhand clothing, here are some great IG accounts you can follow:
Find a friend or group of friends and swap your clothes with them. This is a great way to refresh your wardrobe without purchasing anything at all! If and when you choose to take your clothes back, you may see them in a new light and fall back in love with them.
Fast fashion has a lot of negative effects on people and the planet. If you want to learn more about this topic, I suggest this 30-minute video made by Hasan Minhaj calledThe Ugly Truth of Fast Fashion.
There are many things we can individually do to be environmentally friendly with our fashion purchases and the clothes we wear. One person can make a big difference!