Shopping for clothes used to be an occasional event-something that happened a few times a year as the seasons changed or as we outgrew what we had. But about 20 years ago, something changed. Clothes became cheaper, trend cycles accelerated and shopping became a hobby. Enter fast fashion and the global chains that now dominate our high streets and online shopping. But what is fast fashion? And how does it affect people, the planet and animals?
It was all too good to be true. All those stores selling cool, trendy clothes that you could buy with your loose change, wear a handful of times, and then throw away. Suddenly, everyone could afford to dress like their favorite stars or wear the latest trends fresh off the runway.
Then in 2013, the world had a reality-check when the Rana Plaza clothing manufacturing complex in Bangladesh collapsed, killing over 1,000 workers. At that point, consumers really started to question almost fashion and wonder what the true cost of those $5 t-shirts was. If you’re reading this article, you may already be aware of the dark side of fast fashion, but it’s worth exploring how the industry got to this point.
What is fast fashion?
Fast fashion can be defined as cheap, trendy clothing that showcases ideas from runway or celebrity culture and turns you into garments at breakneck speed in high street stores to meet consumer demand. The idea is to bring the latest styles to market as quickly as possible so buyers can snap you up while you’re still at the height of your popularity, and then unfortunately discard you after a few wears. It plays into the idea that outfit repeating is a fashion faux pas, and that if you want to stay relevant, you need to sport the latest looks as you happen. It’s an integral part of the toxic system of overproduction and consumption that has made fashion one of the world’s biggest polluters. Before we can change it, let’s take a look at history.
How did fast fashion happen?
To understand how fast fashion came about, we need to rewind a little bit. Before the 1800s, fashion was slow. You had to source your own materials like wool or leather, prepare, weave and then make the clothes.
The Industrial Revolution introduced new technologies-like the sewing machine. Clothes became easier, faster and cheaper to make. Tailor shops emerged to cater to the middle class.
Many of these tailor shops used teams of garment workers or domestic servants. It was around this time that sweatshops emerged, along with some well-known safety issues. The first major garment factory disaster was when a fire broke out at The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York in 1911. It claimed the lives of 146 garment workers, many of whom were young immigrant women.
In the 1960s and 70s, young people created new trends and clothing became a form of personal expression, but there was still a distinction between high fashion and high street.
In the late 1990s and 2000s, low-cost fashion reached its peak. Online shopping took off, and fast fashion retailers like H&M, Zara and Topshop took over the high street. These brands took the looks and design elements from the top fashion houses and reproduced them quickly and cheaply. Since everyone is now able to buy trendy clothes whenever they wanted, it’s easy to understand how the phenomenon evolved.
What is the impact of fast fashion?
The impact of fast fashion on the planet is enormous. The pressure to reduce costs and shorten production time means that environmental costs tend to be reduced. Among the negative impacts of fast fashion is the use of cheap, toxic textile dyes-which makes the fashion industry the second largest polluter of clean water in the world, after agriculture. For this reason, Greenpeace has pressured brands over the years to remove dangerous chemicals from their supply chains through its detox fashion campaigns.
Cheap textiles also increase the impact of fast fashion. Polyester is one of the most popular fabrics. It is derived from fossil fuels, contributes to global warming, and can give off microfibers that contribute to the increasing plastic content in our oceans when it goes through the wash. But “natural fabrics” can also be a problem on the scale that fast fashion demands. Conventional cotton requires enormous amounts of water and pesticides in developing countries. This leads to drought risks and puts enormous stress on water basins, as well as competition for resources between companies and local communities
The constant pace and demand means that other environmental concerns such as land clearing, biodiversity and soil quality are also coming under increasing pressure. The processing of leather also impacts the environment, with 300 kg of chemicals being tanned for every 900 kg of animal hides.
The rate at which garments are being made also means that more and more clothing is being discarded by consumers, creating a large amount of textile waste. In Australia alone, more than 500 million kilos of unwanted clothing end up in landfill each year.
In addition to the environmental costs of fast fashion, there are also human costs.
Fast fashion impacts garment workers who have been found to be working in hazardous environments, for low wages and without basic human rights. Further down the supply chain, there are the farmers who may be working with toxic chemicals that can have devastating effects on your physical and mental health, a plight highlighted in the documentary The True Cost.
Animals are also affected by fast fashion, toxic dyes released in waterways, and microfibers often ingested by marine life. When animal products such as leather and fur are used, animal welfare is at risk. Numerous scandals show that real fur, including cat and dog fur, is often passed off as fake fur to unknowing buyers. The truth is that so much real fur is produced in fur farms under horrible conditions that it is actually cheaper to produce and buy than faux fur!
Finally, fast fashion can impact consumers themselves and promote a “throw away” culture, both because of the built-in obsolescence of products and because of the speed at which trends are produced. Fast fashion leads us to believe that we need to shop more and more to keep up with trends and create a constant sense of need and ultimate dissatisfaction. The trend has also been criticized on intellectual property grounds, with some designers claiming their designs were illegally mass-produced by retailers.
Who are the big players?
Many of the retailers we know today as almost fashion big players, such as Zara or H&M, started as smaller stores in Europe in the 1950s. Technically, H&M is the oldest of the fast fashion giants, having opened in Sweden in 1947 as Hennes, expanding to London in 1976 and reaching the States in 2000.
It is followed by Zara, which opened its first store in northern Spain in 1975. When Zara landed in New York in the early 1990s, people heard the term “fast fashion” for the first time. It was coined by the New York Times to describe Zara’s mission to take only 15 days for a garment to go from design stage to sale in stores.
Other big names in fast fashion today include UNIQLO, GAP, Primark and TopShop, but while these brands were once seen as radical cheap disruptors, there are now even cheaper and faster alternatives like Missguided, Forever 21, Zaful, Boohoo and Fashion Nova. Fortunately, there are ethical alternatives that are worth your support.
Is fast fashion going green?
As more consumers speak up about the true cost of the fashion industry and fast fashion in particular, we’ve seen more retailers introduce sustainable and ethical fashion initiatives like in-store recycling systems. These systems allow customers to drop off unwanted items in “bins” at the brands’ stores. However, it was highlighted that only 0.1% of all garments collected by charities and take-back schemes are recycled into new textile fibers.
The real problem with fast fashion is the speed at which it is produced, putting enormous pressure on people and the environment. Recycling and small eco or vegan clothing sections (if they are not just for greenwashing) are not enough to counteract the “throw away culture”, waste, strain on natural resources and the myriad other problems of fast fashion. The whole system needs to be changed.
Is fast fashion in decline?
We are beginning to see some changes in the fashion industry. The anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse is now Fashion Revolution Week, where people around the world are asking, “Who Made My Clothes?” Fashion Revolution explains that “we don’t want our clothes to exploit people or destroy our planet.”
Millennials, the drivers of the future economy, may not have caught the fast fashion bug. Some have argued that this generation has become “too smart for mindless consumerism, forcing producers to become more ethical, inclusive and liberal.”
There is also a growing interest in moving to a more circular model of textile production, reusing materials wherever and whenever possible. In 2018, both Vogue Australia and Elle UK dedicated entire issues of their magazines to sustainable fashion, a trend that is being picked up by more and more big names each year.
What can we do?
At Good On You, we love this quote from British designer Vivienne Westwood: “buy less, choose good, make last. “Buying less is the first thing, so creating a capsule wardrobe is worth considering on your journey.
Choose Good is the second step, and choosing an eco-friendly fabric is complex, as there are pros and cons to all fiber types, but we have countless material guides to help you, such as denim, linen, cotton and more.
Finally, we should do it last and wear our clothes until you are worn out!