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Fast Fashion: Its Harms and How to Mitigate Them

If any term has raised so many debates in the fashion industry, it has to be fast fashion. Thanks to the rising discourses around sustainability and ethical production, industry experts are paying more attention to this business model.

It’s been accused of causing more harm than good to the environment. For example, according to Mckinsey, for every five garments produced, an equivalent of three are either incinerated or buried in a landfill each year. To worsen the case, the total greenhouse gas emissions from textile production are about 1.2 billion tons a year—that’s more emissions than the shipping and aviation industries combined. And this wouldn’t be possible if production wasn’t going on round the clock. 

This begs the question, how can the fashion industry shift from this fast-paced production, distribution, and consumption? In this article, we’ll discuss this business model and see if it should be banned or, better still, curtailed.  

What is Fast Fashion?

a photo concept  illustrating fast fashion

As the name implies, the term refers to the rapid manufacturing of cheap clothing that often imitates recent styles and trends of high-fashion brands from the runway. The concept has become more prevalent in conversations surrounding sustainable fashion and environmental consciousness.

The New York Times first used the term in the early ’90s, when Zara emerged in New York, to describe Zara’s mission to take only 15 days for a garment to go from design to store sales.

Usually, this business model works by mass-producing the fashion items at a low cost and retailing them fast while demand is at its highest. The upside to it is that fashion enthusiasts get to wear replicated versions of high-fashion and runway looks at low prices. However, despite the satisfaction and revenue it generates, the fast fashion industry is still largely frowned upon.

For one, by continuously offering the latest fashion at cheap prices, fast fashion brands like Primark, Shein, Zara, H&M, etc., encourage consumers to buy more clothing whether they need it or not. Consequently, these previous purchases are often discarded after about seven or eight wears. After all, they’re affordable, and it is not surprising that consumers treat these cheap garments as easily disposable, discarding them faster than products from other business model customers. Ultimately, this ‘buy more, dispose fast’ model creates more waste and clogs the environment.

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How Fast Fashion Came to be

an image of clothes piled up on someone

Before the 1800s, fashion was slow. Women made clothes in their homes or with a modiste, and they had to source materials, prepare them, and weave them before making the clothes.

But by the second industrial revolution, new technology, like the sewing machine, emerged. Clothes became easier, cheaper, and quicker to make. Dressmaking shops began to cater to the middle classes, and readymade clothing arrived. 

In 1849, Brooks Brothers invented the first ready-made suit. Soon after, they manufactured ready-made uniforms for both sides of the American Civil War. During these early days of ready-made production, garment quality was poor, especially compared to bespoke garments. But ready-made clothes were cheap and focused more on workwear among slaves, soldiers, miners, and sailors.

The  Early 20th Century

Over time, ready-made manufacturing improved. Clothing production went from one item made for a particular person to multiple clothes made for the masses. Many of the dressmaking shops had workers who handled the machines, worked for long hours under poor conditions, and went home with low wages. 

It wasn’t surprising when safety issues arose. An unforgettable example is the 1911 New York Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that claimed the lives of 146 garment workers, many of whom were young female immigrants. Before this period in the 20th century, clothing production was like this:

A designer develops a clothing idea, creates samples, takes the prototypes to a trade show, and shows them to store buyers who order the pieces. These orders would then go into production and, say six or eight months later, be in stores.

But this changed in the 1980s. In the face of stiff competition, US companies adopted a “quick response system.” Then, stores switched to stocking only a few items in each clothing style. The goal was to restock only the items that did well during the season.

For example, instead of ordering 100 white and 100 blue shirts and selling them for a while, retailers would order 50 white and 50 blue shirts. If the white shirts performed better that season, they quickly restocked. This helped them easily respond to demand while limiting their risk.

The Early 2000s

In the late 1990s and 2000s, low-cost fashion rose further. Online shopping emerged, and rapid fashion retailers like Zara, Topshop, and H&M perfected this model. They leveraged digital technology and new inventory systems to copy the design elements from top fashion houses and reproduce them faster and cheaper. 

This way, instead of waiting for a debuted runway look to get in stores in six months, these fast-paced brands would knock off the runway look, and in a week or two, it’s in stores even before the designer’s collection. 

Since not much thought is involved, these companies drop as many collections backed up by their rapid production. For example, Shein drops new releases hourly. While other business model designers release two to five collections annually, fast brands like H&M and Zara do 16 and 24, respectively.

This phenomenon thrived because it allowed everyone to shop for trendy clothes whenever they wanted without breaking the bank. Little wonder it peaked, and swift fashion brands kept tighter control over the inventory and manufacturing supply chain.

Is Fast Fashion Cheap Clothing?

a clothing factory showing fast fashion
an editorial shoot by a model

Contrary to what many may think, not all cheap clothing is fast fashion. Just because a piece is inexpensive doesn’t mean it was produced rapidly. As Menswear Writer Derek Guy described it:

“Fast fashion is a unique system that should be couched in the context of the evolution of fashion production. But fast fashion is a distinct sub-category of cheap clothing. It’s about bringing the hottest, trendiest looks as quickly as possible. Hence the term ‘fast fashion’.”

Derek Guy

Besides, the word ‘cheap’  is relative. While a $200 shirt may be cheap to an ultra-rich individual who shops luxury, it won’t be cheap to an average citizen. Furthermore, prices differ per brand. Many less expensive brands, like Wrangler, Vans, The Gap, etc., aren’t fast fashion because they aren’t focused on bringing the hottest trends off the runway to the store ASAP. 

So even though the raison d’etre of fast fashion brands is to commonize high-fashion by making them low-priced, other ethical fashion brands exist with a low price range. And this pricing isn’t because their products are low-quality or underwent cheap labor but because of the level of their brand reputation.

How to Recognize Fast Fashion Brands

a screenshot of an interaction between Kim Kardashian and Missguided showing how fast fashion works

Since price doesn’t determine how fast a fashion brand is, use these pointers to recognize a brand under this niche:

  • Multiple styles that feature the latest trends.
  • A piece takes an extremely short time to leave the catwalk and hit the racks.
  • Cheap labor with workers on low wages without employee protection rights.
  • Rapidly stocking new trends when limited quantity garments are sold out.
  • Use of cheap, synthetic fabrics like polyester that won’t biodegrade fast.

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The Controversies Surrounding Fast Fashion

a model lying in a stockpile of disposed clothes

The rise of trendy, inexpensive clothing has caused environmental and human consequences. From its different ecological impacts to the unethical production involved, here are reasons fast fashion should be frowned upon:

Exploitation of Garment Workers Poor Working Conditions

Most of the world’s clothing is made in low and middle-income countries for cheap labor. As a result, the industry exploits garment workers and pays them meager wages that are barely enough to live on. Some—including farmers and textile makers— work in dangerous environments without employee protection.

This means the waste produced from textiles and the hazardous chemicals from toxic dyes enter the ecosystem and harm their well-being. For example, they may suffer occupational hazards or lung diseases from fabric dust and air particles.

The documentary The True Cost captures the plights of these workers. Similarly, Derek Guy, an expert Menswear Writer, wrote an article that captures this exploitation of garment workers. In the exposé, Guy captures the travails of a young garment factory worker who earns about $50 a day. Worse, her earnings aren’t stable as her wage fluctuates, often determined by the daily tasks she performs.

Environmental Pollution

According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)’s March 2023 report, the fashion industry accounts for 10% of annual global carbon emissions. Per the report, the garments produced today have doubled since 2000. Today’s consumers buy an estimated 60% more clothes and only wear them for half as long. With these stats, it’s safe to believe the World Bank’s prediction that the fashion industry’s greenhouse gas emissions will increase by more than 50% by 2030.

In addition, the environmental impact of fast fashion also involves the use of massive amounts of water and energy. The fashion industry is the second largest consumer of water, using about 700 gallons to produce one cotton shirt and 2000 gallons of water to produce a pair of jeans. Moreover, textile dyeing is also known to pollute water with chemicals. And if both scenarios persist without caution, there’ll be an imminent drought.

Animal Danger

Animals aren’t left out in the negative impact of this business model. The harmful dyes and microfibres released in waterways from factories eventually affect land and aquatic life. Also, fabrics like real fur, leather, and wool put more animals at risk. For example, various scandals reveal that real fur is often being passed off as faux fur to unsuspecting shoppers. 

Unethical Sourcing

Some brands with this model substitute cheaper materials for higher quality ones. Others use synthetic fibers, like polyester, nylon, and acrylic, that take hundreds of years to biodegrade.

Polyester is one popular fabric derived from fossil fuels. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) 2017 report, this fabric is responsible for 35% of all microplastics – tiny pieces of non-biodegradable plastic – found in the ocean. 

But synthetic textiles like polyester aren’t the only guilty party. For instance, organic fabrics like cotton consume much water and pesticides in countries like India and China. This poses drought risks and pressures land areas where surface water flows to a single point.

Consumer Pressure

According to The State of Fashion 2024 report, 40% of US and 26% of UK consumers have shopped from Shein or Temu in the past 12 months. Imagine the numbers if the report included other fast fashion retailers.

With the always-available low prices for less quality, fast fashion encourages consumers to dispose of an item of clothing after wearing it for a short time. One reason is that this business model speeds up the trend cycle by selling that aren’t timeless but trendy. Hence, the need to throw away a piece when it goes out of style.

This business model gives shoppers the impression that they need to shop more often to stay on-trend. Thus, it creates an insatiable want for more clothing.

Intellectual Property Theft

Let’s be frank— replicating runway designs from top fashion designers and illegally mass-selling them as intellectual property theft. Even though these fast brands are commodifying luxury, this is worth every criticism the trend gets as these brands are ripping the top guys off their sweat.

Textile Waste

Fast fashion also affects the environment after production. For one, it creates a lot of textile waste. For example, ready-to-wear brands produce as many sizes and units as they can handle during production. And when these clothes aren’t sold, they become stockpiles or deadstock fabrics that end up incinerated or in landfills. The same applies when shoppers buy more clothes and dispose of them quickly—they end up in landfills, or worse still, the clothes graveyard in the Atacama Desert, Chile,

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How to Mitigate the Effect of Fast Fashion

sad lady thinking about how fast fashion ruins the world

The job of saving our planet is in our hands. But while we can’t completely eradicate fast fashion, we can put certain measures in place to save the environment from more damage. And they all ball down to sustainability:

Adjust Your Shopping Habits

British designer Vivienne Westwood said, “Buy less, choose well, make it last.” Instead of buying more clothes, shop less and make the most of them by styling and restyling. Fashion content creators do this so well. For instance, all over the Internet, you’ll find videos of how to style a pair of jeans in different ways. Some even transform the jeans into a vest or jacket. This is quite inspiring as it unveils the multiple potentials of garments you must have underestimated. In the end, you fall back in love with your clothes again and think twice about disposing them.

Furthermore, you can swap your clothes with friends of similar body sizes so you each get ‘new’ pieces. And rather than buying a new piece for special events only to wear them once, rent them as that is more sustainable.

Support Slow Fashion

Sustainable fashion is the way to go. It refers to clothes designed and produced to be more eco-friendly to protect the environment from more damage. Fashion brands with this business model use natural fibers, such as cotton, hemp, linen, wool, and silk, to make clothes. These fabrics are more durable than synthetic materials.

Also, slow fashion brands use a made-to-order business model. They only manufacture garments when a customer places an order. Though this creates longer wait times for the consumer to receive the product, it reduces waste and stockpiles.

Besides shopping from these slow fashion brands, another way to adopt sustainability is to wear thrift clothes and buy from secondhand sellers like ThredUp Inc. and Poshmark. They’re cheap, sustainable, and prevent clothes from ending up in landfills.

Invest in Timeless pieces

Instead of following trends, buy timeless pieces that will always be in style for ages to come. An example is the Birkin bag from the quiet luxury brand, Hermes. It’s a heirloom that can be passed from generation to generation, especially as it’s made of the finest materials and high-quality craftsmanship.

Pay More Attention to Your Clothes

Most importantly, aim to maintain your clothes by following the care instructions, mending them when necessary, and possibly wearing them until they’re worn out. In addition, instead of burning when they get irreparable, recycle or upcycle them into new products.

As the global fashion industry continues to prioritize the safety of the environment, we reckon that with increasing regulations, slow fashion will become more rampant. Until then, the change lies in our hands, to save our world, one conscious fashion at a time.

ALSO READ: No Coverage Clothing—What You Should Know About it

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Victoria B. Willie

Writing has always been a part of me. From writing stories as a young child to studying Communication Arts in the university, it has always been more than a medium of expression to me.

And then one day, I found myself toeing the path of an entrepreneur and becoming a fashion enthusiast. This made me develop an interest in content marketing and copywriting which I've been chasing alongside my fashion career.

That aside, when I'm not sharing style articles, selling with stories, or creating fashion-forward pieces for Ria Kosher, you'll find me telling wild stories that always come with a twist.

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