You know those stores filled wall to wall with the latest trendy styles. Those ones that bring in new styles every couple weeks. The ones that have lots of discounts and sometimes even sell items for $10, even $5? Yeah, that’s fast fashion. So let’s unpack exactly what is fast fashion and why fast fashion is bad.
Fast fashion is a model that’s been on the rise in the US since the 1990’s. It has damaging effects on the environment as well as those involved in the supply chain, and not to mention the impact on consumers. Today the fast fashion industry is one of the biggest contributors to waste. Did you know that nearly 20% of global wastewater is produced by the fashion industry?
The media has worked to expose companies within fast fashion and more recently, many consumers are starting to realize that change needs to happen. So what can we collectively do to counteract the issues in fast fashion? We’ll cover that but it’s easiest to start with how it all began
When Did Fast Fashion Start?
Two of the largest and earliest contributors to fast fashion were Zara and H&M. Both of which originated in Europe, H&M way back in 1947 and Zara in 1974. However, the start of fast fashion is often traced to the 1990’s when Zara opened their first stores in New York. To which, H&M followed suit in the year 2000.
Before the increase of fast fashion in the early 2000's, high-fashion brands spent months creating clothing in small batches. Clothing was produced every season (winter, fall, spring and summer) and consumers were used to receiving fashion at this seasonal rate.
Fast fashion companies were able to take designs from high fashion brands seen on the runway, produce them and even have them in stores sometimes before these higher fashion brands. This quick turnaround in manufacturing resulted in fashion trends moving much faster and drew consumers back into stores more often to see these new styles.
In order to deliver these styles at affordable prices, many fast fashion companies began outsourcing labor to overseas factories. Driving up the demand for cheaper and cheaper labor, these companies began to use labor from sweatshops. These lower prices fast fashion companies were able to sell their clothing at led consumers to view clothing as almost disposable. Between new trendy styles being added to stores every couple weeks and the low price of the clothing, fast fashion was able to drive the over consumption of clothing.
Additionally, with the rise of the influencer era, fast fashion companies were able to stay in the front of their consumer’s minds. Many companies use celebrity or influencer endorsements to drive customers into their stores. This further drove demand by appealing to mass audiences. Fast fashion is focused on the ‘now’ without considering the long-term effect.
As more fashion leaders and academics realized the impact of fast fashion, new concepts were introduced such as sustainable fashion or slow fashion. Slowly, alternative solutions are gaining popularity but the harsh reality is that if fast fashion continues it will have a detrimental impact on our planet and people.
Why Fast Fashion is Bad?
Fast fashion is negatively affecting the world we live in. From the over consumption of clothing that drives waste to the unethical labor practices for those making the clothes, fashion has issues throughout the entire supply chain. According to a Business Insider article, “The fashion industry produces 10% of all humanity's carbon emissions, is the second-largest consumer of the world's water supply, and pollutes the oceans with microplastics.”
The pace of fast fashion is rapid and must not only be supported by a supply chain that is continually operating their production facilities but also drives consumers to buy more than in the past. According to Hasan Minhaj’s Patriot Act, the average US consumer in 1980 would buy 12 clothing items annually while in 2019, that amount was around 65 items per year. McKinsey cites that “clothing production doubled from 2000 to 2014, and the number of garments purchased each year by the average consumer increased by 60 percent.”
Which may not seem like a big deal when the majority of consumers simply donate their clothes to secondhand shops like Goodwill or Salvation Army once they’re done, right? Well, unfortunately that’s not the case. Secondhand shops are currently receiving way more clothing items than they can handle and as we discussed in a previous blog post, only around 10-20% of clothing that is donated ends up being sold. It’s estimated up to 80% is either sold overseas, recycled, or sent directly to landfills.
As mentioned previously, the fast industry is the second largest consumer of water. This may seem crazy but when you think about the entire industry from raw material production to dyeing fabrics to caring for clothing by the end user, it makes sense.
Natural materials used to make clothing, such as cotton, require watering throughout the growing season. When fabric is dyed companies often neglect to properly dispose of the dyes causing them to leak into waterways. Not only turning the water to whatever color was used but also leaking toxic chemicals into the water.
Approximately, 60% of the clothing made today is made from polyester. Polyester is a synthetic material made from plastic that releases microplastics when washed. From Business Insider, Washing clothes releases 500,000 tons of microfibers into the ocean each year — the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles. For tips on reducing your own contribution to microplastics, check out tip #4 on our clothing care blog post.
The UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) considers the fashion industry to be the 2nd highest polluting industry in the world. From carbon emissions, to water pollution, to the over consumption, it’s easy to see why this makes sense. A couple quick stats from the New Standard Institute helps drive this home.
Fashion is responsible for:
- 8% of total greenhouse emissions
- 500,000 tonnes of microfiber pollution
- 150 billion garments produced each year
To achieve mass production many fast fashion companies ignore working condition regulations, for example within the fashion industry over 85% are women, with a minimum wage of $3/day (the lowest paid garment workers in the world). Fast fashion has a reputation for unfairly paying their workers. There’s even been reports of workers slipping notes for help into the pockets of clothing they’re making. Additionally, the collapse of the Rana Plaza, a building that held five different clothing factories in Bangladesh, brought global awareness to these labor issues and dangerous working conditions faced by many workers within the industry.
What Are Fast Fashion Brands & How to Spot Them?
There are many fast fashion companies within the fashion industry. Many of the well known ones are shown in this image from Ideas for Us. Here’s some help identifying those lesser known brands.
1) Research, Research, Research
- Do they stand for sustainable beliefs or incorporate sustainable methodologies?
- Do they support ethical labor practices and check that their factories are following them?
- What are their values on their website?
- Are they open and transparent about their products or processes?
2) Check the Materials
3) The Price
4) Rapid Style Changes
5) Lack of Information Regarding the Sustainability
Fast fashion may currently seem impossible to slow down. The battle to ensure people are fairly paid and the environments and wildlife are considered seems unlikely. However, by taking small steps to recycle your clothes and create awareness about sustainability, we can change the narrative.
We can’t ignore the benefit fast fashion does provide. By producing fashion that is affordable and easily accessible, these companies enable individuals with lower disposable income to buy necessary clothing. It’s no secret that fast fashion companies create affordable versions of high-fashion clothing for everyone to wear, so this can be looked at as a positive.
For those looking for better alternatives, shopping second-hand or thrifting could be an option. Thrift and second-hand shops allow anyone to pick up great clothing for an affordable price. The good news is there are more people becoming aware of it. However, the bad news is that the majority of clothing in thrift stores is from fast fashion brands. The rise of a need for thrift stores is directly linked to the over consumption initially driven by fast fashion brands.
The good news is many new clothing companies are building brands based on sustainable values while existing companies are starting to shift towards more sustainable practices. Today many sustainable fashion options seem much more expensive in comparison to fast fashion brands but as the industry shifts towards these more sustainable materials, designs, and styles there should be some amount of decrease in prices due to the economies of scale. Though unlikely to match those prices of fast fashion since ethical labor standards are used.
Written in collaboration with fashionresellerdiary