Everything You Need to Know About Fast Fashion

Eke Esther

Fast fashion is all around us. Just walk into any mall or busy shopping street and you’ll find dozens of fast fashion brands. And that’s not even to mention the many online-only fast fashion businesses. Regardless of where they’re sold and how long they’ve been around, there’s one thing fast fashion companies all have in common: the ability to produce the latest fashion trends at the lowest possible prices.

This affordability factor is what drives many consumers to buy (and shop and shop) fast fashion. It’s easy to get carried away by the fact that you can buy various on-the-go fashion every season for a fraction of the cost.

However, this fast fashion business model can also have hidden costs. It can lead to environmental pollution and unethical working conditions, and while many brands have worked hard to improve their processes, it’s important to understand the true impact fast fashion has on the environment.

What Is Fast Fashion?

Fast fashion

Fast fashion is a way of designing, creating, and marketing clothing that focuses on making the latest fashion trends available to consumers as quickly and cheaply as possible. Fast fashion is a term used to describe brands that mass produce garments regularly to stay up-to-date with the latest trends, using cheap synthetic materials to expedite the production process. 

Unlike high-quality investment pieces, fast fashion items tend to wear out after a few wear-and-tear cycles, causing many consumers to throw them away. While it may take smaller businesses or luxury brands months to create a collection, a fast fashion company can produce items in weeks or even days. In 2021, The Atlantic reported that fast-fashion companies boasted that they could get a new style out on the market in two weeks.

When Did Fast Fashion Start?

What is fast fashion

Fast fashion traces its roots back to the 19th century, when the sewing machine was introduced in 1846. This, in turn, led to the outsourcing of garment manufacturing to factories, resulting in a drop in clothing prices and a rise in the number of clothes being produced, says Fashionista. By the 1960s and 1970s, textile mills were popping up all over the world to cater to the demands of consumers looking for affordable and fashionable clothing.

In 1966, paper dresses became a thing. The Scott Paper Company introduced a disposable shift dress, made of cellulose, that could be thrown away after one use. The Victoria and Albert Museum explains that the dress was created to promote the brand’s throwaway tableware range, but surprisingly became so popular that many other businesses created their own versions.

While H&M and Zara were founded in Sweden and Spain respectively in 1947 and 1975 respectively, the majority of fast fashion brands did not reach the United States until well into the 1980s. In 1989, when Zara opened its first store in the United States, the term “fast fashion” was coined by The New York Times to describe the brand’s practice of changing its inventory on a three-weekly basis.

The rise of fashion in the 2000s was precipitated by the rise of social media, influencer culture, and the need to have a new look on a daily basis.

“I think the definition of fashion has shifted a lot in the last few years because of the low cost of fashion and the newness of fashion,” says Elizabeth L.Cline, author of “Overdressed” and “The Conscious Clouset,” (both in 2020). “We tend to think of style as something that’s about newness, consumption, and what’s next, but that’s not necessarily true.”

The Impact of Fast Fashion 

Fast fashion

Fast fashion is a popular choice for many consumers because of its affordability, but its long-term environmental impact is undeniable. Between 2000 and 2014, clothing manufacturing doubled, while the number of garments bought increased by 60%, according to a study by McKinsey and Company. This overproduction and high level of consumption is one of the reasons the fashion industry quickly became a major source of pollution. 

The fashion industry produces 10% of global CO2 emissions, produces 20% of wastewater, and accounts for up to 10% of global GHG emissions. Synthetic fibres used to manufacture fast fashion garments also cause pollution during laundering. 

The New York Times reports that synthetic textiles contribute 35% of microplastic pollution into the world’ oceans. Garment disposal also plays a significant role, with 75% of garments going to landfills or incinerators instead of recycling, according to the UN Climate Change Conference.

Not only does fast fashion have an impact on the environment, but many brands have also been found to have unsafe working conditions and pay below the minimum wage for garment workers. 

The New York Times reported in 2022 that a US Department of Labor investigation found that Fashion Nova paid sewers in their factories in Los Angeles as little as $2. 77 an hour. 

This is just one example of how cheap fashion can have a negative impact on workers.

However, some fast fashion brands are trying to improve their practices. 

H&M has set itself the goal of becoming a fully circular clothing brand by 2040. The company also plans to use 100 percent recycled or otherwise sustainable materials by 2030. 

In July, the owner of Zara announced that it will explore new recycling processes and sustainable fibres to reduce its environmental footprint, Reuters reported.

How to Identify Fast Fashion Brands

What is fast fashion

The fast fashion industry is dominated by brands such as Boohoo; ASOS; Fashion Nova; H&M; Forever 21; Zara; and Shein. As a shopper, whether online or in a physical store, you can tell a fast fashion retailer apart by looking at the product details. Fast fashion retailers use synthetic materials such as polyester or acrylic; they use offshore manufacturing (where labor costs are lower) and they regularly release new styles to keep up with the latest fashion trends.

Alternatives to Fast Fashion

Slow fashion

“Slow fashion” is a movement that emphasizes quality over quantity, pushing brands to use longer-lasting materials and more sustainable labor practices. As a result, consumers are shifting their buying habits, buying less, buying used, renting for special events, recycling, and building capsule wardrobes.

“From where we are today, the idea that clothing will be more expensive or that fashion will slow down strikes me as a little bit scary,” Cline said in 2020. “But in the past, when fashion was slower and clothes more expensive, we were all good.”

“I think it’s a good idea to think long-term,” Cline added, “because it leaves more room for all the other things that can be done with clothing, like building relationships with local tailors and dressmakers, or having a sewing or mending circle.”

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Eke Esther is a professional content writer that focuses on fashion and lifestyle. She has worked as a freelancer for years, helping several organizations achieve remarkable results. Giving you the newest fashion designs and trends is her main goal. You'll get blogs of the highest caliber that fit your tastes.
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