What is Fast Fashion?

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

What is fast fashion?

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.”  

Over Consumption

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.”  

Annual Clothing purchases

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.

What is Fast Fashion Brands

1) Research, Research, Research

It’s important to research the company you’re buying products from. It’s worth understanding the company and their methodologies. 
  • 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?
The more you know about the company the more information you’ll have to make a definitive purchasing decision.

2) Check the Materials 

How companies source or produce materials affects the planet in not only your lifetime but for years to come. For example, polyester requires petroleum to produce and once made can take over 400 years to degrade. Since polyester is a plastic and it will also contribute to the microplastics pollution each time the garment is washed. This is even the case for recycled polyester. Check the garment’s materials care tag to read about the fabric used in the item.
Conventional materials to avoid include: 
  • Polyester
  • Nylon
  • Acrylic
  • Viscose
  • Spandex

3) The Price

Fast Fashion products are normally extremely cheap and accessible.
This is easy to spot when stores are having sales where you can get items from a $5 rack. But even brands that sell at higher prices could be guilty of following a fast fashion business model. However, as you become more aware of sustainability you may begin to question where companies source materials or whether all employees will be paid fairly. The more you know about Fast Fashion, the more you will question about the price tag.

4) Rapid Style Changes

Seeing how often a brand is offering new styles at their stores or on their website in general will give you a good indication of this one. Checking for how trendy the styles they offer will give you additional insight. If it’s something you can’t see yourself wearing more than a season or two it’s likely fast fashion.
We’re all exposed to trends, influencers, and aspirational styles circulated online. For fast fashion companies to keep up with it they regularly use influencers to promote their brands so they can keep on top of the trend. Not only is this for capital gain but also to stay relevant. The quicker an influencer can change their endorsed look the bigger the opportunity for brands to make a profit.

5) Lack of Information Regarding the Sustainability   

Fast fashion companies avoid releasing the truth about their production, staff welfare guidelines, waste rates, and overall sustainable practices. Many fast fashion companies are not sustainable and therefore don’t mention anything. Therefore, question whether the company represents your beliefs and views.

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.

Alternative Solutions

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

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published