In the last decade, the proliferation of Fast Fashion brands has made clothing more affordable and accessible than ever before. However, this new model of consumption – whereby the latest trends are available mere days after being spotted on social media – causes serious social and environmental threats to our planet.
With fashion consumption supposed to rise by 60% in the 10 coming years, it’s time we ask ourselves what’s the true cost of Fast Fashion? What are the environmental impacts of clothing production? And why is Fast Fashion bad?
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Table of Contents
What’s Fast Fashion?
What exactly is Fast Fashion?
Fast Fashion is a term used to describe designs that are quickly produced and marketed to be worn for a short time before going out of style. This style of fashion is generally very affordable and is aimed at a younger demographic.
How did Fast Fashion happen?
Before the 18th century, clothes were slowly evolving. People would often craft their clothes from materials available near them such as wool, cotton, or leather. The Industrial Revolution brought new technologies and accelerated the rate of production and consumption.
But the rise of Fast Fashion can be traced back to the late 1990s when several factors came together to create the perfect conditions for its growth. First, there was a shift in the global economy, with the rise of China and other countries as manufacturing powerhouses. This led to a decrease in the cost of production, which in turn led to a decrease in the cost of clothes.
Add to that the automatization and modernization of the supply chain. The increase in supply chain efficiency was instrumental to the rise of Fast Fashion. It became possible to ship garments from across oceans quicker and cheaper than ever.
At the same time, there was a change in the way that people shopped. The advent of online shopping made it easier and more convenient for people to buy clothes, and the rise of social media meant that people were constantly seeing new fashion trends. All of these factors came together to create the perfect environment for Fast Fashion to take off.
Who are the big players in the Fast Fashion industry?
Zara was founded in Spain in 1975 and H&M in Sweden in the 1950s. They started as small stores. They are technically the earliest Titans of Fast Fashion.
Nowadays some of the most well-known Fast Fashion brands are SheIn, Mango, H&M, Boohoo, Forever 21, Primark, Zara, etc
What are the issues with Fast Fashion?
Stolen designs from small independent designers
To keep up with the crazy pace of producing up to 52 clothing collections per year – 1 per week, Fast Fashion brands constantly need fresh ideas to manage the renewal of their offers. An easy way to come up with new products is to copy other creators.
Over the years, many Fast Fashion brands have been accused of copycatting and sued for it. Gucci sued Forever 21 over its iconic blue and red stripes, and Zara was sued by Amiri brand over its jeans patterns. Most recently, Shein was accused of copying the artwork of Maggie Stephenson. The artist demands $100m of compensation.
In the US, fashion is not protected by the same laws of copyright as literature and art for example. Creators cannot benefit from protection for their creation if the piece has “a basic function”. According to Wises law firm “copyright law does not provide protection for ‘a design applied to a useful article”.
Fast Fashion brands often copy items that are not trademarked or protected, as these are less risky to cause lawsuits. The brands have legal departments and can easily navigate the gray area of copyright law in the fashion industry.
When they copy an item from smaller independent designers, the original creators usually cannot afford the fees of legal actions and very often give in.
Worker exploitation and human rights violation
Fast Fashion relies almost completely on exploiting cheap labor to realize a huge profit. Fashion checkers found that “93% of surveyed brands aren’t paying garment workers a living wage.” Those garment workers are not able to meet life’s basic necessities even when working 12 hours shifts, 29 days per month.
Fast Fashion brands commission 97% of their production in developing countries where the wages are low, and there is little jurisdiction over workers’ conditions or protection of the environment. In addition, the Fast Fashion textile factories are sometimes suspected of using forced labor and child labor.
Many fashion brands still source their fabrics and materials from the Xinjiang region in China where the UN human right office and numerous media have alerted the public about Uyghur forced camps. Uyghurs are a Turkic ethnic group in NorthWest China.
Those workers are not only located in developing countries. In 2020, the Sunday Times investigated and discovered sweatshops in Leicester, UK. The workers were paid way under the minimum wage and worked in hazardous conditions to supply the brand Boohoo.
The Environmental disaster of the Fashion Industry
The fashion industry is one of the most heavily polluting industries in the world. Textile production is worsening climate change more than international aviation and shipping combined, a recent study found.
The textile industry is responsible for 25% of all chemicals produced globally. From the pesticides used on crops to the chemicals used in the dyeing process, the textile industry has a hugely detrimental impact on the environment.
Water consumption and water pollution are major issues in the textile industry. It takes a huge amount of water to produce just one item of clothing. The whole industry leads to carbon emissions, pollution of freshwater and soil, and deforestation.
Due to the high demand for fiber, monoculture replaced the biodiversity and the wildlife in the regions where cotton is grown. The high amount of water needed to treat cotton is leading to water scarcity in those regions.
In addition, cheap synthetic fabrics, which are commonly used in Fast Fashion, shed microplastic when washed several times. Those microplastics are almost impossible to clean once in the ocean and pollute aquatic life.
Finally, the factory’s pollution is non-negligible. Changing Market study found that in “India, Indonesia and China, […] companies supplying the international market were dumping untreated wastewater in lakes and waterways.” The toxic wastes are endangering the local communities living near those plants.
Fast Fashion is highly detrimental to the planet and causes alarming environmental impacts.
Poor quality and unsafe materials
While Fast Fashion has made stylish clothing more affordable and accessible, it has also created garments of lower quality.
Many Fast Fashion brands use low-quality fabric to save costs on raw materials and production. As a result, many garments fall apart after only a few uses.
While the lower price of Fast Fashion clothes may be appealing, it is important to remember that you will likely have to replace them more often. In the long run, it is usually better to invest in higher-quality clothing that will last longer.
Those clothes often contain chemicals to present wrinkles or stains. Those chemicals such as formaldehyde or phthalates can be highly toxic depending on your exposure to them. They can lead to diseases like liver and kidney failure, cancers, and reproductive and respiratory issues.
The recycling difficulties
About 1% of clothing is recycled to create new clothes.
Recycling clothes takes a lot of energy and resources. It requires special machines to recycle the materials, and this can be costly. Most textile wastes are made from several materials, which makes it difficult to recycle clothes because the materials need to be separated before they can be recycled.
As a result, 300,000 tonnes of textile end up every year in landfills or incinerators. Meanwhile, brands are still destroying their unsold stock for brand image purposes, according to the UK parliament.The UN Alliance For Sustainable Fashion estimates that the fashion industry loses “about $500 billion of value every year due to the lack of recycling”.
How to spot Fast Fashion brands?
So, how can you tell if a piece of clothing is from a Fast Fashion brand? There are a few key things to look for.
The price is too good to be true. If a piece of clothing is very cheap, it is likely made in a factory with poor working conditions or from cheap materials.
Profusion of choices
A website with massive clothing options, new collections, and items weekly, up with the latest trends; is likely to be doing Fast Fashion.
Fast Fashion brands mass-produce their clothing, which means that the quality is often not very good. Most of the time, cheap fabrics are used to make the Fast Fashion clothes such as synthetic fibers like polyester and nylon.
They are also not durable or breathable and can cause allergic reactions.
Made in developing countries
India, Bangladesh, or China. In those countries, labor is cheap and there aren’t many laws to protect their working rights. Garment workers are often employed by fashion companies in developing countries.
Garments are made from non-sustainable inexpensive materials such as polyester, nylon, and acrylic.
Those fabrics are made from fossil fuels such as petroleum and are highly polluting to produce.
How to Fight Fast Fashion?
There is an increasing focus on sustainability in the fashion industry, as consumers become more aware of the impact of their choices on the environment and the people involved in the production of their clothes.
In response to this, many companies are expanding their sustainable assortments and working to improve the sustainability of processes.
Vote with your wallet
Consumers vote with their wallets every day. With every purchase, they are expressing their preferences and shaping the market. Here’s a way for you to influence the planet for the best. You can purchase eco-friendly products and therefore support sustainable fashion brands.
In today’s economy, it is more important than ever for businesses to understand what consumers want and need. They need to be able to anticipate trends and adjust their offerings accordingly.
Don’t fall for Greenwashing
Don’t be fooled by greenwashing. Many companies market themselves as sustainable brands doing sustainable fashion, calling their products “green” when they are not.
That’s called greenwashing.
Purchase from certified eco-friendly brands.
If you don’t know how to find real sustainable clothing, here’s our article about sustainable fabrics and green materials to look for in clothes. You can also look for certifications.
To help customers understand their environmental impact and discover the most sustainable alternatives, many non-profit organizations created labels and certifications. These certifications also help eco-friendly and ethical companies prove their commitment to the environment, workers’ rights, and other important values.
Here are a few: GOTS for organic fabric, Fair Trade for ethical production, B Corp for social and environmental performances, etc.
Prioritize second-hand clothing.
If you want this cute top and you can’t afford to pay for the conscious version of it, you have dozens of great secondhand apps with millions of items available. Not only are you helping the planet but you are also saving money and contributing to the circular economy.
Here are some great options: ThredUp, Depop, TheRealReal, or Vestiaire Collective for luxury, Asos Marketplace for vintage pieces, and much more. For more details, you can check our article about the best online thriftshops at the moment.
What’s the future of Fast Fashion?
Is Fast Fashion going green?
As consumers demand more about the true costs associated with the fashion industry, including Fast Fashion, there are an increasing number of retailers who have adopted so-called sustainable and ethical fashion measures.
Some brands like Zara and H&M create eco-conscious collections and are engaged in green initiatives. Zara is committed to using only sustainable cotton, linen, and polyester by 2025. HM wants its materials and products to be recycled or sustainably sourced by 2030. Uniqlo is focused on reaching zero emissions and cutting dangerous chemicals.
These are positive actions but much remains to be done before the fashion industry can be environmentally neutral.
Is Fast Fashion in decline?
According to the Financial Times, Fast Fashion is indeed slowing down.
During the pandemic, Fast Fashion brands face a tough time. Those companies need physical stores to sell high volumes of clothes. That was made impossible with the Covid restrictions. The high rate of shipping and return costs are cutting the margin of those brands. Zara’s brand value declined by 1%, and H&M’s up to 3%.
Image Credit: All product photos belong to Pexels and Unsplash