Fast fashion changed fashion.
The fast fashion business model of making cheap, trendy clothing fast has changed the way many consume and perceive fashion.
It has changed our relationship to our clothes. It has changed our relationship to who makes our clothes.
Disposable instead of durable. Cheap versus a treasure.
But it wasn’t always this way. And it doesn’t always have to be this way.
But, to set a more sustainable, ethical course for the future of fashion, we must understand fast fashion’s history and cultural origins. That’s what we’ll explore in this article here.
For more from our entire series exploring the fashion industry, where we interviewed many leaders of the sustainable fashion movement, check out: The Impact of Fashion.
But for now, to understand how fast fashion came to be the predominant business model of the industry today, we can look to its history and the broader cultural and economic contexts that allowed it to flourish.
When Did Fast Fashion Start?
The term “fast fashion” was coined by the New York Times in the 1990s to describe Zara’s goal of getting a garment from design to stores in just two weeks. But, the practice of fast fashion finds its roots as far back as the 18th and 19th centuries, at the dawn of the industrial revolution.
18th and 19th Centuries
Before the industrial revolution, highly skilled workers made clothes and textiles by hand within local communities. Making clothing was a labor-intensive pursuit, which meant purchasing new clothes was only available to upper echelons of society that could afford to hire tailors to create their custom wear. Members of the lower and middle classes relied on second-hand clothing or made their own.
As technologies developed during the industrial revolution (such as the sewing machine), textiles could be made more easily and quickly. Local tailors and weavers, once the primary source for textile and clothing creation, were now overshadowed by companies with these new technologies.
Companies began to take charge of textile production slowly, and by the end of the 19th Century, ready-to-wear garment factories increased, and out of this came the very first department store.
Although textile and garment factories increased throughout the 1800s and early 1900s, local tailors and small workshops still met most of their communities’ production needs.
These small operations and the large-scale factories that were popping up began to consider ways to cut costs for their growing number of middle and lower-income customers.
One way these workshops and factories cut the costs of production at the end of the 19th Century was by guiding fashion trends away from the intricately embellished gowns, skirts, bustles, and blouses of the past centuries to simpler, sleeker ready-to-wear designs of the modern era, which, of course, were easier and cheaper to produce.
During this same period, large and small production centers alike began to curtail expenses by outsourcing parts of production to “sweaters,” i.e., people who could complete simple production tasks for low wages. Sweaters began to offer their services to clothing shops for increasingly reduced prices to compete for business. This race to the bottom consequently lowered the wages possible for those doing the work.
During the late 1800s and early 1900s, textile companies became infamous for their widespread exploitation of workers with the growing use of what we now refer to as “sweatshops.” Workers in the industry at the time could be just a few years old and were made to work 15-20 hours shifts in horrendous and dangerous conditions.
In 1911, a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City, killing 146 garment workers trapped inside the building. Regarded as one of the deadliest industrial disasters in U.S. history, the tragedy sparked the birth of textile workers’ unions and the passing of several labor protection laws in the U.S. This left the growing fashion companies to cut costs in other ways.
Mass production of consumer goods had already begun to take root in the U.S. when World War II began, facilitated by automation and the production line (thanks, Mr. Ford).
During the second world war, fashion became another industry seized by the production line.
Fashion producers again simplified garment designs to make production simpler.
In 1940, fashion companies tried to measure women from all over the country to create a universal sizing system that would enable even more efficient clothing production.
By the end of WWII, the American population had grown used to the standardization of clothing (and other consumer goods) and had the disposable income to buy more of it in the decades after the war.
With the cultural revolution of the 60s, fashion became a means of protest, expression, and experimentation. As such, fashion trends began to surge in the 1960s. Young people sought inexpensive clothing to keep up with such trends, which companies were happy to oblige.
In the 1950s and 60s, synthetic fibers, which were much cheaper to produce, gained popularity. Clothes were still generally well-made (even with the rise of synthetic fibers). Clothes still lasted for years and were easily mended.
In 1965, 95% of clothing consumed in the U.S. was made in the U.S. In the mid-1970s, however, companies began to outsource their production facilities to China and other developing countries in Asia and Latin America. This was because labor and raw materials were cheaper and less regulated.
The adoption of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in the 1990s, triggered a massive change in clothing production practices.
Eric Henry, President of TS Designs, told us that before NAFTA, his company could (and did) contract with brands like Nike, Gap, and Polo while offering their more than 100 employees high wages and comprehensive benefits while minding their environmental impact. Like most apparel brands, though, all of the brands they’d worked with moved their production outside the U.S. within two years of NAFTA. This wave of globalization reduced TS Design’s team to 12.
Henry informed us, “that [was] all driven by one thing: chasing cheap, usually unsustainable, labor.” In fact, between 1990 and 2011, the U.S. lost about 750,000 of its apparel manufacturing jobs as apparel companies increasingly outsourced production to low-income countries.
Apparel brands shifted their production offshores to take advantage of cheap labor, vast tax breaks, and lenient laws and regulations.
While companies were spending less on production, they were spending more on advertising to fuel a breakneck consumption pace.
Increasingly over the past few decades, companies began pushing out new collections each week, as opposed to every season or two, which had been the industry norm. To keep up with fast-paced trends and their demand, companies set unprecedented production schedules in the 1990s to get items from design to display in as little as two weeks.
The increased advertising budgets helped to keep these trends hot and flying off the shelves.
This fast-paced approach resulted in poorly made garments and flagrant industry-wide violations of garment workers’ rights and environmental protections.
Author’s Note: The above history-en-brief centers around the development of the European and American fashion culture based on resources cited above and conversations from our Impact of Fashion series.
American fashion culture based on resources cited above and conversations from our Impact of Fashion series.
There is much to be said about fast fashion’s roots in European and American slavery and colonization that warrants a detailed recounting. While I did not go into that history here, don’t hesitate to comment below with topics on that history you feel necessary to include in our discussion.
We approach all of our content as continually-evolving resources.
For more of a look at the history of fashion from this perspective, I’d recommend our series on conscious consumerism featuring Aja Barber and her book: Consumed: The Need for Collective Change: Colonialism, Climate Change, and Consumerism.
Fast Fashion’s Cultural & Economic Roots
Now that we better understand fast fashion’s historical contexts let’s explore some of the other cultural and economic frameworks that allowed for its emergence and continued prominence.
Profits Above All Else
The history of fast fashion is very much the same as the fashion megacorp. As they grew, their goal remained the same as most companies in our capitalistic system: increase shareholder value at all costs.
This linear model adopted by the fashion industry meant brands paid no attention to the impact of their production or the consumption of their goods. No matter how destructive the fast fashion model is to communities and to the environment, it is very lucrative for those at its helm.
As part of our series on The Impact of Fashion, we had the pleasure of speaking with Andrew Morgan, director of the provocative documentary, The True Cost. Morgan describes an incredibly unsettling contrast between Paris Fashion Week, the slums of a community that enables it, and the boardrooms generating billions of dollars in profit.
The fashion industry employs 1 in 8 adults in the world, the majority of them women, and many, many of them considered among the poorest in the world.
In hyper-dystopian fashion, the fashion industry and its high status, edge, and luxury culture are made possible because of the many garment workers who do not make a living wage.
With little regulation in place to restrict them and lacking transparency, the growth of these companies has mainly been unfettered despite these chasmic discrepancies (but more on regulatory imperatives below).
Culture of Consumerism
Over the 20th and 21st centuries, companies across industries have influenced our collective cultural values. With time, fashion companies grew bigger, and as they did, so did their influence over our daily lives and habits.
The culture of consumerism lies at the core of the fast fashion industry’s success.
Not coincidentally, the fast fashion industry is deeply invested in mass media as a leading industry fueling our culture of consumerism.
In the film, The True Cost, Andrew explains copywriter Earnest Elmo Calkins’ take on consumption (AKA consumerism). The film explains there are two kinds of products: ones we use (think products like cars) and others we use up (things like chewing gum).
Consumerism, he concludes, is about getting “people to treat the things they use as the things they use up.” And this is precisely what the fashion industry had to do to make up for its failing quality and exponential production.
Fashion brands had to tap into the deeper social, cultural, and psychological roots of consumer desire to increase consumption while eroding quality.
To do this, fashion marketing and media have convinced us that happiness, popularity, and the “best possible you” is centered on owning and sporting the latest trends. Just think about all those magazine ads and commercials on TV! The pressure to buy new for every event, to keep up with the latest celebrity looks, and NEVER repeat an outfit is everywhere. In short, buy and buy some more.
This emphasis is seen everywhere we look and, of course, has “drugged us all,” as Orsola De Castro from Fashion Revolution explained to us. “[This consumerism] is based on addiction and on quantity versus quality.”
Ayesha Barenblat, CEO of Remake, explains how social media has further catalyzed this kind of quick turnover consumerism: “There is a culture, especially with Tik Tok and Instagram, that’s pushing us constantly to be chasing trends. You get that one photo for the ‘Gram, and then you throw it away without thinking about the human and planetary impacts of those choices.”
The Global Economy and the Lack of Regulation
Fast fashion companies want buyers to refrain from thinking about the consequences of their purchases. Given that the model depends on our constant buy-in, it doesn’t make business sense for you to know. In reality, it doesn’t make business sense for them to know the consequences either since that would require them to acknowledge their role in the issues.
Regardless of recognition, the decisions of businesses have led to the destruction of communities and ecosystems. With the globalization of the fashion industry, the rules of engagement changed.
No longer were companies confined to American labor laws like minimum wage, workplace safety, or environmental protections like regulated waste disposal. Instead, they sought out developing countries that didn’t have the regulatory infrastructure to curtail corporate practices that exploited local labor forces or resources.
Companies tolerate subcontractors’ dangerous labor conditions, low wages, low-quality materials, and unregulated pollution in pursuit of boundless cost reduction.
Barenblat explained that “fashion operates in a complex web of suppliers who, in turn, subcontract. You’ve got this web of where the product is made versus who’s buying it, and you’ve got all these intermediaries in between. Absent smart regulation, like the Garment Worker Protection Act, what brands manage to do then is essentially outsource all risk.”
The bigger a company gets, the more they lose connections to the local communities where their products are made.
These (maybe inherently and maybe intentionally) opaque and complex supply chains mean companies don’t know about, and thus, can’t be held accountable for, injustice in their value chain. 250 of the world’s top retailers, according to the Fashion Transparency Index 2021, averaged a transparency score of just 23% (out of 100%).
This lack of transparency in fashion (and, by proxy, accountability) is what Orsola de Castro believes to be the cause of the widespread exploitation practiced within the fashion industry today. “This closed-doors mentality leads to rife environmental and human abuse,” she says.
More than that, she explains that this widespread exploitation also motivates the need to cover up, remove oneself, and deny accountability.
The lack of regulation, transparency, accountability, and the harm resulting from it is a self-perpetuating loop.
For more of a specific example of this transpiring in the fashion industry, I recommend reading: The Rana Plaza Collapse.
Fast Fashion Brands of Today
From the history of fast fashion to now, there are several brands who have made this model their standard means of doing business:
- Forever 21
- Fashion Nova
- Urban Outfitters
- Old Navy
- Charlotte Russe
- Wet Seal
- Abercrombie & Fitch
- American Eagle
- Cotton On
- Pull & Bear
- Nasty Gal
- Fashion Union
- Miss Selfridge
- New Look
For more, considering reading our complete list with insight into identifying these brands for yourself: Fast Fashion Brands to Avoid.
What’s the Future for Fast Fashion?
The future of the fast fashion industry remains to be determined. While highly criticized by proponents of a more sustainable fashion industry, notable fast fashion brands (H&M, Shein, Zara) still have strong positions in the marketplace. Many of these brands are reporting higher profits than in years past.
And so, many of the voices we featured in our series on the Impact of Fashion, would agree – there’s no single solution to ending fast fashion.
The good news is that are many solutions, and for the sake of the planet and the people suffering at the hands of fast fashion companies, we must pursue them all. In broad strokes, here are a few:
Regulation and Accountability
Increased pressure from consumers and advocacy groups may lead to stricter regulations and greater accountability for fast fashion brands. Governments could implement laws to protect workers’ rights and enforce environmental sustainability measures. Organizations like Barenblat’s Remake or de Castro’s Fashion Revolution advocate for this means of progress.
Shift to Sustainable Fashion
We must continue to raise awareness about the negative impacts of fast fashion. If successfully done, more consumers may support sustainable and ethical fashion brands. This shift could lead to a demand for quality, longer-lasting garments that are, most importantly, produced transparently and responsibly. While a difficult challenge, given the strength of the fast fashion brand today, shifting consumer demand from a fast to a slow fashion industry is critical.
Circular Economy and Clothing Rental
Circular fashion is gaining traction, although we still have a ways to go. Innovative designers are creating garments with reuse and end-of-life in mind. Mud Jeans launched their “Lease-a-Jeans” program, implying that they accept ownership of the product they make and sell. Dhana, our partner on the Impact of Fashion series, launched their store with no inventory, producing garments like their Circular Memory Jacket from your old t-shirts.
Unfortunately, change driven from the consumer side is limited in scope (at least now). Most sustainable brands are on the high side of the market. This challenge of adopting all more sustainable products (in fashion or other categories), limits making a change within the customer base with a disposable income. The appeal of fast fashion retailers is explicit and potent—affordable prices.
And that speaks to why all solutions to changing the fashion culture, from fast to slow, must be pursued. Even those this is an apparent uphill battle, various fashion advocates remained optimistic.
For more on what’s next, I recommend our post: How to Stop Fast Fashion.
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Grow Ensemble Contributor
Alma Rominger is an educator and farmer passionate about regenerative agriculture, composting, gardening for mental health, and outdoor education.
Alma believes that the health of the earth and the health of its people are intrinsically connected and has spent her entire career advocating for both. She currently specializes in Bokashi composting systems and soil ecology through her work with Compost Queens, a women-owned community composting company based in the San Antonio area.