Fast fashion has become a ubiquitous term in the fashion industry, referring to the rapid production, distribution, and marketing of inexpensive clothing that is quickly replaced by new collections. The problem with fast fashion lies in its negative impact on the environment and the human rights of workers involved in the production process.
Using cheap and unsustainable materials and the need for frequent turnover leads to vast amounts of waste and pollution. Many fast fashion brands have been criticized for exploiting workers in developing countries, subjecting them to poor working conditions and low wages. The most prominent players in fast fashion include Zara, UNIQLO, Forever 21, and H&M. But what is fast fashion, and why should you care about it?
What is Fast Fashion?
‘Fast fashion’ refers to cheaply produced and priced garments that copy the latest catwalk styles and get pumped quickly through stores to maximize current trends. The fast fashion model involves the rapid design, production, distribution, and marketing of clothing, which means that retailers can pull large quantities of greater product variety and allow consumers to get more fashion and product differentiation at a low price.
History of Fast Fashion
The term was first used in the 1990s when Zara landed in New York. “Fast fashion” was coined by the New York Times to describe Zara’s mission to take only 15 days for a garment to go from the design stage to being sold in stores. This fast fashion business model was a revolutionary concept in the fashion industry, which had previously relied on seasonal collections and long lead times for production.
Fast fashion allowed Zara to quickly respond to changing trends and consumer demands, producing smaller batches of clothing that could be restocked or replaced with new designs in weeks. The success of Zara’s fast fashion approach has since inspired numerous other brands to adopt similar strategies, creating a more dynamic and competitive marketplace for affordable, trendy clothing.
However, concerns about fast fashion’s environmental and social impact have been raised, including waste, pollution, and poor labour conditions in the factories where these garments are produced. As consumers become increasingly aware of these issues, there is a growing demand for more sustainable and ethical alternatives to fast fashion.
Why Is Fast Fashion Bad?
Unfortunately, while fast fashion may be convenient for consumers, it seriously affects the environment, people, and society. Cheaply produced clothing often ends up in landfills, significantly impacting the environment. The industry is also responsible for water pollution, toxic dyes, and the exploitation of underpaid workers. Rapid production means that sales and profits supersede human welfare.
According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), fashion production accounts for 10% of humanity’s carbon emissions. This is a staggering figure, considering the entire aviation industry contributes around 2.4% of global carbon emissions. The excessive use of energy in manufacturing, transportation, and disposal of fast fashion products exacerbates the problem of greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to climate change.
Environmental Effects of Fast Fashion
Plastic fibers from fast fashion clothes are polluting the oceans. The industry is the second-biggest consumer of water and is responsible for about 10% of global carbon emissions — more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined.
Water Consumption and Pollution
The fashion industry is also a significant consumer of water resources. It takes approximately 15,000 litres of water to produce a single pair of jeans, and the average European household uses nearly 200 loads of laundry per year, consuming about 15,000 litres of water in the process. Furthermore, toxic dyes and chemicals used in fast fashion garments often pollute rivers and streams, posing risks to aquatic life and human health.
As of 2019, a report showed that 62 million metric tons of apparel were consumed globally, with a significant proportion ending up in landfills or incinerated. Around 57% of all discarded clothing is in landfills, where synthetic, non-biodegradable fibers accumulate and contribute to environmental pollution. Incineration of clothing releases toxic substances and poisonous gases, posing public health and environmental dangers to nearby communities.
Social Effects of Fast Fashion
The fashion industry relies heavily on labour, with 80% of apparel made by young women between 18 and 24. Unfortunately, many garment workers are underpaid, overworked, and subject to unsafe working conditions. In 2018, a US Department of Labor report found evidence of forced and child labour in the fashion industry in Argentina, Bangladesh, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Philippines, Turkey, Vietnam, and others.
The emphasis on producing cheap, trendy clothing has led to declining product quality. Consumers often discard garments after only a few wears due to wear and tear, further contributing to the problem of textile waste. By producing higher-quality, long-lasting products, the fashion industry could reduce its environmental impact and promote a more sustainable consumption model.
Ethical Issues with Fast Fashion
Fast fashion has significant ethical issues arising from its production practices, including sweatshops, child labour, and unsafe working conditions. In addition, the industry often prioritizes profit over environmental sustainability, which can harm the planet and people.
How to Spot Fast Fashion Brands
If you want to avoid fast fashion, knowing how to spot it is essential. Here are some characteristics of fast fashion brands:
Characteristics of Fast Fashion Brands
- Mass-produced items
- Cheap prices
- Short-lived trends
- Low-quality materials
- High volume production
- Little emphasis on sustainability or ethical practices
Identifying Fast Fashion Brands
The easiest way to identify fast fashion brands is to look at their prices and production practices. If a brand sells clothing cheaply, they’re likely using exploitative labour practices to keep costs low. Be wary of brands prioritizing quick turnaround times and high-volume production over sustainability and ethical practices.
As consumers, we have the power to make a difference by choosing to support companies that prioritize sustainability and ethical practices. This can mean investing in higher quality, longer-lasting clothing or seeking brands that use eco-friendly materials and fair labour practices. Identifying fast fashion brands and making conscious choices about where we shop can help create a more sustainable fashion industry.
What Can You Do Instead of Buying Fast Fashion?
Plenty of sustainable alternatives are available if you want to avoid fast fashion. Here are some options to consider:
Purchasing second-hand clothing is a great way to avoid supporting fast fashion. Thrift stores, consignment shops, and online platforms like Poshmark or Depop offer a wide range of pre-loved items that can help you stay stylish without contributing to the fast fashion problem.
Organize a Clothing Swap
Get together with friends or community members to organize a clothing swap. This allows you to refresh your wardrobe by exchanging items you no longer wear for something new to you, all while keeping clothing out of landfills and minimizing your environmental impact.
Consider renting clothes for special occasions or events instead of buying new ones. Renting clothing can help you save money while reducing waste and the need for additional resources to produce more garments.
Shop in Your Closet
Before buying new clothes, look at what’s already in your closet. You might find forgotten gems or be inspired to create new outfits with your items. This helps you save money and minimizes your contribution to fast fashion.
Support local designers and artisans who prioritize ethical and sustainable practices. By shopping locally, you’re investing in high-quality, unique pieces and directly supporting your community.
Invest in Timeless Pieces
Instead of chasing trends, invest in timeless, high-quality pieces that will last for years. Purchasing classic, well-made items can help you build a sustainable wardrobe that doesn’t need constant updating.
Change Your Habits
Adopt a more mindful approach to shopping by focusing on quality over quantity. Resist the temptation to buy cheap, trendy items that won’t last and invest in pieces that will stand the test of time.
Look for Sustainable Materials
Opt for clothing made from sustainable materials, such as organic cotton, recycled plastic bottles, or bamboo. These eco-friendly options have a smaller environmental footprint than their conventional counterparts.
Opt for Ethically Made Clothing
Support brands prioritizing ethical manufacturing practices, fair wages, and safe working conditions for their employees. Companies like Wholesome Culture, which use eco-friendly materials and produce their clothing in small batches, are great examples of more sustainable fashion alternatives.
How to Avoid Fast Fashion: 10 Actionable Ways to Go Sustainable
Here are some actionable ways you can embrace a more sustainable lifestyle and avoid fast fashion:
Minimizing Your Wardrobe
Focus on owning fewer, higher-quality items. This reduces the demand for fast fashion and helps you create a more versatile and sustainable wardrobe.
Before purchasing, ask yourself if you truly need the item and if it’s made from sustainable materials. Consider the longevity of the piece and if it will still be fashionable in the future.
Investing in Quality
Choose items made from high-quality materials that are built to last. Investing in durable clothing helps reduce waste and the need for constant replacements.
Supporting Sustainable Brands
Seek and support brands prioritizing sustainability, ethical practices, and transparency in their supply chain. You’re helping promote a more responsible fashion industry by purchasing from these companies.
Choosing Natural Fibers
Opt for clothing made from natural fibers, such as organic cotton or hemp, which are more sustainable and biodegradable than synthetic materials.
Caring for Your Clothes
Extend the life of your garments by washing and caring for them properly. This includes repairing any damage and storing them correctly to prevent wear and tear.
Donating or Recycling Unwanted Clothes
Instead of throwing away unwanted clothing, donate it to a local charity or recycle it through textile recycling programs. This helps keep clothing out of landfills and gives it a new life.
Embracing Slow Fashion
Slow fashion is the antithesis of fast fashion, focusing on quality, sustainability, and ethical production. Embrace this concept by prioritizing timeless designs, artisan-made items, and clothing made from eco-friendly materials.
Advocating for Change
Use your voice to raise awareness about the negative impacts of fast fashion and promote sustainable alternatives. Share information on social media, start conversations with friends and family, and support campaigns that advocate for a more ethical and responsible fashion industry.
Avoiding Fast Fashion In the Retail Industry
The retail industry is one of the most significant contributors to environmental pollution, with fast fashion being a primary culprit. Despite its convenience and affordability, we need to recognize the true cost of fast fashion and make more informed and sustainable choices regarding our clothing purchases.