Fast Fashion: What it is & Why it’s Bad
While the term itself is still growing in popularity, the concept of fast fashion has impacted the way we buy our clothes and spend our money. It's the reason our t-shirts seem to get holes in them after about a year. It's the reason our clothes seem to go out of style weeks after we buy them. It's the reason the racks of garments have changed every time we talk into Target. Fast fashion describes the fashion industry's (and our own) obsession with an over-abundance of fast, cheap clothes.
We'll answer the following questions about fast fashion below:
What is Fast Fashion?
Fast fashion is a subsection of the fashion industry that seeks to replicate the latest high fashion and celebrity trends as quickly and as cheaply as possible. The idea is that designers for brands like H&M or Zara see trends on the catwalk and turn them around as quickly and as cheaply as possible to make sure we can all wear their clothes while they're "still trendy." Zara has even been said to aim to get a style from a designer's head to the racks in 15 days.
With the rise of fast fashion, clothes purchasing has changed from a yearly or seasonal need to a weekly or monthly habit. Shopping has become a hobby rather than a necessity. But how did shopping as a habit and a hobby start?
When Did Fast Fashion Start?
Let's talk a little bit about the history of fast fashion. You can probably guess that for most of history, people made their own clothes with their own materials. This all started to shift with the industrial revolution in the 1800's. With the invention of the sewing machine, clothes could be made at a lower cost and in less time, so the task of sewing clothes was more readily outsourced to others. Consumers began to grow accustomed to more standardized, mass-produced items of clothing.
It was around 1960 when fast fashion in the form we know it today, really began to take root. Fast fashion now-brands like H&M and Zara opened up and the demand for more and cheaper clothing skyrocketed. Fast fashion retailers became increasingly adept at shaving pennies off their prices.
And since then, the snowball has kept growing. Big brands figure out how to make their clothes cheaper and cheaper. More and more fast fashion brands pop up. Even big box stores follow suit. Everyone is expected to adhere to the same patterns, and customers grow accustomed to more and cheaper clothing.
Why is Fast Fashion Bad?
Fashion had to evolve, right? People weren't going to keep making their own clothes forever. We get that. But the way it happened wasn't so great. We mentioned that brands figured out ways to shave pennies off their costs, but the way they saved money actually came at a pretty steep price. They had to outsource labor to developing countries and turn a blind eye to waste, pollution, and a giant carbon footprint, so as not to affect their bottom line.
Fast fashion statistics: On the labor side, about 93% of brands surveyed by Fashion Checker are not paying their employees a living wage. To bear that out, the average garment worker is paid roughly 21 cents per $34 shirt that they produce, that's less than 1% of the cost of the product.
On the environmental side, the fashion industry contributed more than 2.1 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases to the environment in 2018 and its carbon footprint is more than the international aviation and shipping industries combined.
Fast Fashion Environmental Impact
Why does fast fashion have such a negative impact on the environment? There are a few reasons:
Materials: Making clothes as fast and as cheap as possible means that brands don't usually put a lot of thought into their fabrics other than what the bottom line is. And fabrics with the best bottom line usually aren't great for the planet. Polyester is derived from fossil fuels and takes centuries to biodegrade. Conventional cotton wastes an enormous amount of water in the growing process. Cheap, toxic dyes are harmful to the people who work with them, the people who wear them on their clothes, and the planet.
Pollution: Fast fashion pollution is another huge problem.There's not a whole lot of time for production mindfulness when you're trying to get products for the designer's head to the shelves in 15 days. Materials are shipped around the world from place to place in the supply chain throughout the process of becoming the shirt we see on the rack. Factories pollute the air and the water, and use harmful pesticides and chemicals that harm the land that they're used on
Waste: It takes effort to use all the fabric on a roll, and effort means extra time and money that fast fashion brands don't believe they have. So when they're left with large quantities of "end of roll" fabric or scraps where cuts have been made, these companies choose to throw out or burn fabrics instead of figuring out ways to conserve them. At such a large scale, this contributes to an enormous amount of waste.
Fast Fashion Worker Impact
Hidden from sight in factories in the developing world, the people who made our clothes don't often cross our minds. But the Rana Plaza factory collapse in 2013 opened up the eyes of the public to labor rights violations happening in the fashion industry. This tragedy killed over 1,100 garment workers representing at least 29 fast fashion brands and working in unsafe conditions for unfair pay.
The Rana Plaza incident is just one glimpse into how the fast fashion industry is harming workers all over the world. Slave labor, child labor, unfair wages, unsafe conditions, and other labor violations run rampant in the fashion industry. There is a set price for the clothes we wear, and if we're not the ones paying it, it means someone else is.
Beyond the effects for garment workers themselves, the effects of fast fashion are harmful for those who live in factory areas. Toxins and pollutants are released into the air and water, posing health risks for nearby towns and cities, most of which are in the developing world.
Fast Fashion Consumer Impact
It's one thing to hear about fast fashion's impact on people and the planet, but fast fashion actually has a negative impact on us too. Trendy, cheap, quick clothing has become a vicious cycle that the fashion industry has learned to play to their advantage. Consumers ask for cheaper clothing, so brands meet the demand, while training consumers to ask for even more and even cheaper. After a while, we're buying more than we need, simply because there's a lot of it and it's cheap.
This kind of cycle leads to planned obsolescence, where items of clothing are made to wear out after a short time, so we'll have to buy more of them. In other words, the fashion industry is training consumers to become addicted to buying their cheap clothes.
And with an excess of clothes, comes an excess of waste, not just from the brands themselves but from consumers. The average family throws out 81 pounds of textile waste per year. This is one way that consumers join in on the harmful practices of fast fashion industry.
Fast Fashion Brands to Avoid
We know, this is all a lot to take in. And the first question we all tend to ask is: OK, what brands are doing this kind of thing?
An unfortunate rule of thumb is that if a brand is not going absolutely out of their way to detail their labor and environmental practices, they are probably harming their workers and the environment. If the price of an item of clothing seems too good to be true, it probably is.
Here are a few of the most popular fast fashion brands that we avoid.
- Old Navy
- Forever 21
- Fashion Nova
- Urban Outfitters
- Victoria's Secret
How to Avoid Fast Fashion
Consider Fast Fashion Alternatives - Long Term Purchases & Secondhand Shopping
We get it, this whole thing has kind of been a downer up till now. The realities of fast fashion are not pleasant, but there is a lot we can do to avoid fast fashion and create a better story for ourselves, the planet, and the people who create our clothes.
One way to do this is by viewing our clothes as an investment. Instead of buying something that we kind of like because "it's so cheap," we can consider making more mindful purchases of pieces that we'll love and wear for years to come. This means better quality clothes that are better for the environment and better for workers. And while this may sound more expensive, most conscious consumers find that they end up saving money when they cut down on their shopping habit. While each item may cost more, they're shopping less buying fewer items, and keeping them for longer.
Another switch that has gained a lot of traction in the last few years is the practice of secondhand shopping. Secondhand shopping is a great way to find affordable clothes, while avoiding contributing to the negative impact of new clothing production. And as a bonus, you can also sell your clothes to make a little extra cash. Check out Poshmark, ThredUp, and Mercari, or your local resale shop to buy and sell.
Buy From Sustainable Non Fast Fashion Brands
If you consider yourself a shopper, the good news is there's no need to cut the habit completely. There are a ton of brands (and more popping up all the time!) that resist fast fashion practices and produce their clothes in ways that are good for the maker, the wearer, and the planet. They look out for the safety and welfare of their workers, pay fair wages, cut out toxins, go zero waste, use sustainable fabrics, take measures to cut their carbon footprint, and way, way more.
And while buying less and shopping secondhand are great ways to resist the vicious cycle of fast fashion, it's important to shop with sustainable non fast fashion brands, too! Supporting businesses that do things the right way means diverting money away from fast fashion brands, and showing fast fashion brands what consumers really want—ethical, sustainable fashion.
Here are a few DoneGood approved brands you can shop with a clean conscience:
OK, so DoneGood isn't exactly a non-fast fashion brand. We're a marketplace where you can find dozens of brands that are doing things ethically and sustainable—brands like all the ones above. When you shop DoneGood, you'll find thousands of products that were all made with free and fair labor and eco-friendly practices.