Clothes shopping was once an occasional event. It happened only a few times per year as the seasons changed and when our clothes outgrew ours. Something changed 20 years ago. Clothes became more affordable, trends accelerated, and shopping became a pastime. Fast fashion and global chains now dominate high street shopping and online shopping. What is fast fashion? How does fast fashion impact the environment, people, and animals?
It seemed too good to be true. You could shop at these trendy stores with loose change and wear it a few times before throwing it away. Everyone could now afford to look like their favourite celebrity or follow the latest trends straight from the runway.
In 2013, Rana Plaza, a Bangladeshi clothing manufacturing plant, collapsed and killed over 1,000 workers. This was when people began to question fast fashion and wondered about the true price of $5 t-shirts. You might be well aware of the dark side of fast fashion. However, it is worth looking at how it got there and how we can change it.
What’s fast fashion?
Fast fashion is defined as clothing that is cheap and trendy. It takes ideas from celebrity culture or the catwalks and transforms them into clothes in high-street stores at lightning speed to satisfy consumer demand. It is important to have the latest styles available as quickly as possible so that shoppers can grab them while they are still popular and then discard them after only a few uses. This is in keeping with the notion that wearing the same outfit over and over again is a fashion faux pas. If you want to be relevant, then you need to wear the most recent styles as they become available. Fashion is one of the most polluting industries in the world because of its toxic system of overproduction. Let’s look back at its history before we start to change it.
How do you spot a fast-fashion label?
There are some key elements that fast fashion brands share:
- There are thousands of styles that touch on the most recent trends.
- The very short turnaround between the moment a trend or garment appears on the catwalk or in media interviews and the time it hits the shelves.
- Offshore manufacturing, where labour costs are the lowest. Workers on low wages and with limited rights. Complex supply chains with little visibility beyond the first level.
- Zara pioneered the concept of limited quantities of a specific garment. Every few days, new stock arrives in stores, so shoppers know that if they don’t buy the right item, it’s likely they will miss out.
- Low quality, cheap materials such as polyester can cause clothes to become soiled after only a few uses and be thrown away.
What is the impact of fast fashion on your life?
The impact of fast fashion on the environment is enormous. Environmental corners are likely to be missed due to the pressure to cut costs and increase production speed. The negative effects of fast fashion include the use of toxic textile dyes that are cheap and ineffective. This makes fashion the second-largest polluting industry for clean water, after agriculture. Through its detoxing fashion campaigns, Greenpeace has been urging brands to eliminate dangerous chemicals from their supply chain over the years.
Fast fashion also benefits from cheap textiles. Polyester is one of the most in-demand fabrics. Polyester is made from fossil fuels and contributes to global warming. It can also shed microfibres which contribute to increasing plastic levels in the oceans. Even ‘natural fabrics’ can have problems due to the high demand for fast fashion. Conventional cotton is extremely dependent on water and pesticides, especially in developing countries. This creates drought risks, increases water demand and causes competition for water resources among local communities and companies.
Constant speed and increased demand can lead to an increase in environmental stress such as soil quality, biodiversity, land clearing, and land clearing. Leather processing also has an impact on the environment. 300kg of chemicals is added for every 900kg animal hides that are tanned.
Consumers also dispose of more clothes at a faster rate due to the rapid production process. This creates huge textile waste. In Australia alone, On workers
Fast fashion has an environmental and human cost.
Fast fashion has a negative impact on garment workers who are forced to work in unsafe environments for low wages, and with no fundamental human rights. The documentary The True Cost highlights the dire situation of farmers further down the supply chain. They may use toxic chemicals and other brutal methods that can have severe consequences for their mental and physical health.
Fast fashion also has a negative impact on animals. Toxic dyes and microfibres that are released into waterways can be ingested by marine and terrestrial life through the food chain, causing a devastating effect. Animal welfare is at risk when animal products like fur, leather, and wool are used directly in fashion. Numerous scandals have revealed that faux fur is being sold as real fur in many cases, including that of cat and dog fur.
Fast fashion can also have an impact on consumers, encouraging a culture of ‘throwaway’. This is due to both the obsolescence built into the products and the rapid pace at which new trends emerge. Fast fashion encourages us to shop more in order to keep up with the latest trends. This creates a constant feeling of need and ultimately dissatisfaction. Some designers have accused retailers of illegally mass-producing their designs.
Who are some of the major players?
Many of the retailers we now know as fast fashion giants, such as Zara and H&M, were established in Europe as small shops around the 1950s. Technically, H&M is one of the oldest fast fashion giants. It was founded in Sweden as Hennes in 1947. They expanded to London in 1976 and then reached the States in 2000.
Zara followed and opened its first store north of Spain in 1975. People first heard of ‘fast fashion’ when Zara arrived in New York in the early 1990s. The New York Times coined the term to describe Zara’s 15-day turnaround from designing to selling a garment in stores.
TopShop, UNIQLO and GAP are other big names in fast fashion today. These brands were once seen as cheap disruptors. However, they are now much cheaper and more efficient than their predecessors like Missguided and Forever 21 Zaful. There are many ethical alternatives that you should support.
Is fast fashion going green?
We’ve seen retailers implement sustainable and ethical fashion initiatives like in-store recycling programs as a way to reduce the cost of fast fashion. Customers can drop off unwanted items at the stores’ ‘bins’. It has been shown that 0.1% of clothing donated by charities or take-back programs can be recycled into the new textile fibre.
Fast fashion’s main problem is its speed, which puts enormous pressure on the environment and people. Even small eco-friendly or vegan clothing lines, if they aren’t just for greenwashing, don’t do enough to combat the ‘throwaway culture, waste, strain on natural resources and a host of other problems posed by fast fashion. It is time to change the whole system.
Is fast fashion in decline?
The fashion industry is beginning to change. Fashion Revolution Week is the anniversary of Rana Plaza’s collapse. People all over the globe are asking, “Who made my clothes?” Fashion Revolution says that they don’t want their clothes to be exploitive or destructive of our planet “.
The future economic drivers, Gen Zers and Millennials, may not have been bitten by the fast fashion bug. Some argue that the generation is too smart for mindless consumption, which has forced producers to be more ethical, inclusive, and liberal.
A growing interest is being shown in a circular production model for textiles, which encourages reusing of materials whenever and wherever possible. Vogue Australia and Elle UK both dedicated entire issues to sustainable fashion in 2018. This trend is being adopted by more prominent names each year.
What are we able to do?
The first step is to Buy Less. You can also try styling your clothes differently or even “flipping” them. You can make your old jeans trendy by making them unhemmed or turning that old jumper into a crop. It is worth looking into creating a capsule wardrobe as part of your ethical fashion journey.
The second step is to choose well. It is crucial that you choose an eco-friendly fabric. As you can see in our ultimate guide, all types of fibre have pros and cons. However, there is a handy chart at the end that you can refer to when shopping for clothing. You could also choose to shop only second-hand or from sustainable brands such as the ones below.
We should also Make It Last. This means that we must take care of our clothes. Follow the care instructions and wear them until they are worn down, repair them whenever possible, and then recycle them responsibly.
Find out about slow fashion, a sustainable alternative to fast fashion.
These are our top picks for fast fashion that is still fashionable but also embodies a slower, circular, and more sustainable style of wearing.
Whimsy + Row
Rated: ExcellentWhimsy + Row was founded out of a love of quality products and sustainable practices. Its mission is to bring elegance and ease to the modern woman. Whimsy + Row uses deadstock fabric. By limiting production runs and reducing packaging waste, the brand helps to conserve precious water resources and reduces packaging waste. Most products are available in XS-XL.
Organic Basics provides high-quality, sustainable fashion basics for women and men in organic materials. Organic Basics recently launched its first sustainable jeans collection. It is a Danish brand that places sustainability at the centre of everything. The brand only selects fabrics that are friendly to the environment and partners only with factories that take care of their environmental impact. Organic Basics clothing is available in sizes XS to XL.
Afends, a fashion brand based in Australia, is a leader in organic hemp fashion. It uses renewable energy in its supply chains to reduce its environmental impact. The full range is available in sizes XS to XL.
Outland Denim produces premium jeans and clothes and provides ethical employment opportunities to women who have been rescued from human trafficking in Cambodia. This Australian brand was created to provide employment and training opportunities for women who had been victims of sex trafficking. The majority of the brand’s products are available in US sizes 22-34.
Yes Friends, a UK-based fashion brand, creates affordable, sustainable and ethical clothing for everyone. Yes, Friends t-shirts are less expensive than the PS4 and cost only PS7.99 to make. Yes, Friends can offer a sustainable and ethical tee at a reasonable price by using large-scale production and direct to the consumer margins. The tees are available in sizes 2XS-2XL.
JUX, an Amsterdam-based studio, designs fairtrade and sustainable clothing and jewellery. It also has a factory in Kathmandu that produces it. JUX is primarily focused on women empowerment. Most products are available in sizes 34-42 for women and S-XL for men.
Harvest & Mill
Harvest & Mill pieces are made in the USA, where they are milled and sewn. This supports American organic cotton farmers as well as local sewing communities. Basics are made for everyone by Harvest & Mill. They are never dyed or bleached and reduce the need to use water, energy, dye materials, and other resources. The brand can also cultivate different types of cotton to increase biodiversity. This is crucial for maintaining healthy ecosystems and ensuring that our planet is resilient to climate change.