The rise of “fast fashion” has propelled the shift from the well-made, worth-it-to-fix clothing of generations past to the cheaply-produced, torn-after-one-wear garments emblematic of the market today. The average person, as compared to just 15 years ago, buys 60% more items of clothing yet keeps them for only half as long.
Still, the contents of our closets are the least of what has been affected by the era of fast fashion.
Fast fashion, a business model prioritizing profit above all else, is responsible for the fashion industry’s systematic exploitation of our planet, its resources, and its people.
In this article, we’ll explore everything there is to know about fast fashion, leaning on insight from some of the best and brightest working to dismantle it.
These perspectives, gathered from our Impact of Fashion series, will give us a deep dive into the rise of fast fashion and its impact on the world.
We’ll discover how these fashion leaders and entrepreneurs believe we, both as individuals and as a society, can create a future in which fashion is truly sustainable and ethical for all.
Definition: What is Fast Fashion?
Fast fashion refers to the corporate strategy to maximize shareholder profits by cutting production costs while increasing the consumption rate of their fashion goods.
In other words, fashion brands encourage an endless consumption cycle by introducing fashion trends nearly out of style as soon as they are put on the racks.
As Laura Vicaria, former CSR manager from MUD Jeans, a circular denim company, explained,
“Fast fashion is this industry where they take everything off the runway and try to make it the fastest and cheapest way possible. They want the product to be out in the market as fast as possible so people can consume it.”
This system is characterized by the mass production of low-quality clothing and the understanding that the consumer will have to buy more quickly, especially with the rapid turnover of trends.
This industry-wide practice has led to extensive worker exploitation, dwindling natural resources, and incredible environmental pollution, making fashion the third most polluting industry in the world.
Fashion is responsible for 10% of all GHG emissions globally and is repeatedly responsible for industrial catastrophes like the Rana Plaza collapse, which claimed the lives of 1,132 people in 2013.
Quick History of Fast Fashion
Fast fashion has changed the way people perceive and consume fashion, but an understanding of its history and cultural origins is necessary to set a more sustainable, ethical course for the future of fashion.
The practice of fast fashion dates back to the 18th and 19th centuries, but it found its roots in the dawn of the Industrial Revolution when technologies like sewing machines made textiles easier and quicker to produce. Fast forward nearly one hundred years, and adopting the North American Free Trade Agreement (or NAFTA) in the 1990s triggered an additional inflection point for how fashion brands did business. Companies began to outsource their production facilities and build supply chains further and farther from where they sold their goods in pursuit of less regulated and less expensive labor and materials.
This is, of course, a brief summarization; for more, read: The History of Fast Fashion.
Why is Fast Fashion Bad?
The name of the fast fashion game is to decrease expenditure to maximize profits at any cost.
Endlessly cheapening the means of production means corners MUST be cut. These cut corners have a HUGE global impact at the scales that the leading fashion brands work at.
How could it not? The fashion industry employs 1 out of every 8 of the world’s workers, after all.
Every aspect of the fashion supply chain (which we’ll explore here) damages the environment and various vulnerable communities.
If maximizing profit initially seems like good business sense, even a surface-level peek behind the curtain reveals this makes no sense at all.
The Impact of Fast Fashion: A Life Cycle Analysis
In this section, we’ll go through the stages of garment production through the fast fashion model and how it negatively impacts people and the planet.
Good products, or sustainable and ethical products rather, are born from good design. Fast fashion garments aren’t designed to last. They aren’t designed to be repaired. They aren’t designed to have second, or third lives.
They often aren’t designed with integrity, either. Shein, described as a “hyper-fast fashion company,” is notorious for ripping off designs from big industry players (like H&M) and small independent designers alike.
The whole concept of fast fashion is based on duplicating styles from the catwalks of high fashion and making them available to the masses at an affordable price. This means that designs are often stolen from a piece’s original creators. Because there are no set regulations to protect the IP of fashion designers, or sometimes designers don’t know they’ve been ripped off, major fashion conglomerates can easily copy the designs of independent labels.
Big fashion brands constantly rip off small and independent ones—it’s literally in their business model to do so. This widespread violation of copyright and IP has a massive impact on the ability of the small brands, often the ones most committed to slow, sustainable fashion, to compete with the largest companies dominating the market.
Small brands’ inability to compete is a large roadblock in the efforts to dismantle the infrastructures of fast fashion.
To make a piece of clothing, producers must start with the raw materials. Fast fashion retailers, in their attempt to cut costs, rely heavily on the use of synthetic textiles and conventionally farmed fibers, which are cheaper to produce.
Unfortunately, both have huge environmental effects to contend with.
Fast fashion retailers are completely dependent on synthetic fibers. In fact, 63% of textiles used in the industry are made from petroleum-based synthetic fibers.
They are the crux of ‘the increase production, decrease the quality’ model at the center of the fast fashion paradigm. Not only are these materials cheaper to produce (polyester costs half as much per kilo as cotton), but they also don’t last as long, which means the consumer will be back buying their replacements in no time.
The production of synthetic fabrics may be cheaper than their natural alternatives, but the process to extract and manufacture synthetic fabrics comes at a huge carbon cost.
In fact, polyester production for fabrics released about 1.5 trillion pounds of greenhouse gasses in 2015. That’s the equivalent of the annual emissions of 185 coal-fired power plants!
It’s easy to understand why the fast fashion industry is responsible for 8-10% of global carbon emissions.
The use of synthetic fibers in the fashion world, and thus its impact, is only projected to increase. If we continue on the same trajectory, in 10 years, almost three-quarters of our textiles will be made from synthetic fibers, which means the harms associated with them will only increase.
Even natural fibers used within the industry take a toll. Cotton, alongside polyester, is commonly used in all of fashion, not just fast fashion. Since conventionally grown cotton is much cheaper than organically grown cotton, fast fashion retailers source primarily conventional cotton.
When farmed conventionally, cotton is a highly water-intensive crop to grow—In fact, it uses 3% of the total water used in agriculture globally.
To put it into perspective, it takes
(Yes, let’s pause and take a second to think about all the cotton t-shirts in the world…)
Conventional cotton is also farmed in a way that makes it completely chemical-dependent.
While cotton only uses 2-3% of the world’s farmland, it uses 24% of insecticides and 11% of pesticides in the entire global ag industry. These chemicals pollute our soils, waterways, oceans, and atmosphere. And of course, those pesticides are directly affecting the farmers all across the world who are handling them.
Farm workers at the bottom of the fast fashion supply chain suffer the brunt of this chemical pollution, disproportionately suffering from severe health and developmental issues caused by them. Farm workers are also among the least paid for their toils.
The conventional cotton farming that fast fashion relies on also contributes to soil depletion and leads to large-scale erosion. Our topsoil is a nonrenewable resource. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation predicts we only have 60 years of harvests left if we continue at our current erosion rates.
Dyeing and treating materials to get the desired colors and textures also heavily affects environmental and human health.
Not only does the process use up a tremendous amount of water (1.3 trillion gallons of water are used annually for fabric dyeing alone.), but it also irreversibly pollutes it.
The chemicals, salts, and heavy metals found in the processing wastewater do not break down, and they end up polluting the water that is then dumped in local water sources.
These chemicals lower oxygen levels in water, killing animal and plant life, and have been found to cause cancer and other health issues in humans. The polluted water also ends up in the fields, where the water is used for irrigation and the groundwater is used for drinking.
This is no small problem either—the industry is responsible for about 4% of all freshwater extraction globally. That’s enough water to quench the thirst of 110 million people for an entire year! The apparel industry is also responsible for over 20% of worldwide industrial water pollution.
Not only are garment workers directly exposed to the toxic chemicals used in processing, they are also subjected to other kinds of exploitation.
Only a staggering 2% of the labor force behind the creation of any piece of clothing is paid a living wage. Workers are often paid by the piece, are made to work long hours (up to 18 hours a day, in some cases), and are forced to work in dark and dangerous settings.
Fast fashion factories are often poorly lit and have little ventilation, causing a myriad of eye and breathing issues among workers. Additionally, buildings are often cheaply made and structurally unsound, leaving working populations vulnerable to building collapse.
One of the most infamous examples being the Rana Plaza disaster of April 2013, when the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed, resulting in the deaths of 1,132 people and the maiming of 2,500 others.
Fashion workers are generally vulnerable to begin with.
According to a report by UNICEF, 170 million children are employed in the garment industry. More than that, workers, the majority of whom are women, often are forced into labor through abuse or coercion—or in other words—are victims of human-trafficking.
The Global Slavery Index 2018 reported that $125 billion worth of fashion garments imported annually to G20 countries were created via some form of modern slavery.
As we covered in the above history, fast fashion companies have become increasingly globalized. Because fast fashion retailers will produce their clothes in one part of the world, yet sell them in another, they have come to rely heavily on the international transportation of their goods.
Fast fashion is responsible for a whopping 8-10% of annual global carbon emissions. While the majority (70%) of these emissions are emitted during the lower levels of production, i.e. raw material extraction and textile production, much of the emissions (16%) are a result of the packing and distribution of materials and products.
There is also the issue of plastic pollution. Plastic costs significantly less than paper and other biodegradable packaging. Fast fashion companies thus rely on plastic for wrapping, hanging, tagging, and shipping their cheap clothing (of course, often also made of plastic!).
Just think about it—if 100 billion new garments are produced each year, that very likely means AT LEAST 100 billion plastic polybags are also produced each year. Only a very small percentage of plastic packaging ever ends up at a recycling center.
End of Life
But most plastic waste in the business doesn’t come from packaging, it comes from the clothes themselves!
Most synthetic fibers—think polyester and nylon—are made from plastics. And as we covered, most clothes are made from synthetic fibers.
The intrinsic nature of synthetic clothing, and overproduction and consumption of them, mean an astounding amount of them end up in our landfills and polluting the environment.
To start out, a staggering 92 million tons of textile waste is generated each year. That means, every SECOND, the equivalent of 1 garbage truck full of clothes goes to landfills around the world.
Hard to imagine isn’t it?
In the U.S., as much as 85% of all textiles are thrown away. In fact, the average American has been estimated to throw away over 80lbs of clothes each year.
In landfills and in our environment, these textiles break down into microplastics and leach chemicals that pollute the soil, waterways, and our oceans.
But actually, the majority of microfiber pollution, as Krystle Moody Wood, founder of Materevolve, explains to us, happens during laundering.
Krystle explains that when synthetic fibers are laundered, the mechanical agitation breaks down these fibers into microscopic pieces, AKA, microplastics, that end up washing directly into our water systems and eventually into our oceans.
Textiles produce 35% of the ocean’s microplastic pollution, making it the largest known source of marine microplastic. This plastic pollution has been shown to disrupt the ecological food chain and affect both human and animal life.
Textiles are also responsible for microplastic pollution in our soils as well.
The sludgy municipal water that has collected all the microplastics from all of our laundry is reused to irrigate and fertilize crops.
In this process, these microfibers have been shown to move through soil ecosystems and disrupt the microbial processes at the core of soil health. “We’re seeing earthworms uptaking them, affecting the way they cast [and] we’re seeing the microfibers mimicking route plant fibers, throwing off the way these microbial systems work,” Krystle explains. It’s estimated that 92% of all microfiber pollution on land stems from the reuse of these biosolids littered with our laundry.
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Fast Fashion Brands to Avoid
One of the best ways to slow down fast fashion is to stop supporting the companies leading the charge. The megacorps responsible for inflicting all the environmental and social catastrophes we covered are, unfortunately, ones we are all very familiar with.
While we’ve mentioned some of these in passing, here are some of the most notable fast fashion brands to avoid.
- Pretty Young Thing
- Forever 21
- Urban Outfitters
For more, check out our article on fast fashion brands to avoid to delve deeper.
How Do We Stop Fast Fashion?
You see, now, why fast fashion makes absolutely no business sense long term, right?
While in the model of fast fashion, companies may profit short term, in the long term, they are completely exhausting their and all our natural resources and human capital (AKA, people, PEOPLE!).
Fast fashion companies do not take into account the fact that the majority, if not all, of our natural resources are nonrenewable and that some damage is irreversible.
With its complete disregard of human and environmental health, the fast fashion business model is inherently a system set up to fail.
Uninterrupted, this linear course leads only to the further degradation of our precious resources and continues to threaten social and economic stability globally.
Each step of the fast fashion supply chain is chock full of environmental exploitation, social injustice, and calamity. And the growth rate of the fashion industry is expected to increase over the next few years, meaning that these systems of oppression and exploitation will only continue to worsen.
That is, UNLESS, we do something about it!!
One of the first lines of business? Stop doing business with fast fashion companies!
On an individual level, you’ll feel good about not funneling your hard-earned money into the pockets of those responsible for all of fashion’s ills. On a collective level, boycotts can actually pressure companies into changing their practices and instituting more transparency in their supply chains. Nothing speaks louder than numbers, afterall.
But boycotting doesn’t always just mean divesting from specific companies, it can also mean mending the clothes you already have so that you don’t have to buy new ones at all. It could also just mean asking yourself a little more often: “do I really need this?.”
Generally, the most sustainable clothes are the ones in your closet!
Support Slow, Sustainable, & Circular Fashion
When you do need to purchase something new, be sure your fashion choices reflect your ethics. Shop slow, local, and certified!
Small and local fashion brands not only have a smaller impact, they also tend to have a firmer grasp on their supply chains and the impacts that they do have.
Slow fashion brands have sustainability built into their model and their supply chains—whether that means working directly within their sourcing communities, using sustainable materials, or instituting a textile recycling program.
Whatever they are doing, supporting these sustainable brands will help give them a stronger platform to educate about and advance the slow fashion movement.
Of course, one should always be vigilant of green-washing. One of the best ways to stay clear is to look out for third-party certifiers. Certifications such as B-Corp, USDA Organic, Fairtrade, GOTS, and BLUESIGN (just to name a few) are important indicators that the product was made in a way that is aligned with your morals.
Change will not happen by conscious consumerism alone. All our podcast guests agreed: the largest agent of change is political.
Legislation and its enforcement ensure environmental and social protection both in the near and long term. It is the only thing that reigns in companies that would otherwise have free range to exploit and pollute. What other incentives do big companies have to change if their only goal is to increase shareholder value?
That is why to end fast fashion, we as individuals need to take political action. This can mean many things! The first step is educating yourself and your community not only about these global issues, but also the ones in your own backyard. Beyond that, it can be as simple as signing a petition or just sharing an article online. Better yet, consider donating your time or money to the fashion organizations pushing for legislative change.
Whatever you do, do it loudly! And of course, go VOTE!
Conclusion: Changing Fashion Starts with All of Us
Let’s face it, it’s easy to feel utterly hopeless when learning about all the damage that fast fashion is responsible for. But we shouldn’t let ourselves get bogged down by all the things that need to change or the things we are or aren’t doing.
Instead, Andrew Morgan encourages us to “ stop seeing [action] as offsetting bad, but [start] really embracing it as an opportunity.”
It’s important to remember that we are not spectators or helpless consumers of this system.
Andrew Morgan urges us that while we didn’t build this system, nor will we be here to see where it goes next, “we are in this very brief moment in time tasked with and gifted with the opportunity to contribute and that is just extraordinary.”
We must remind ourselves on a daily basis that “we are actively writing the story that will become the history of this generation. And that is a very real and present task. It’s something that we’re all invited to.”
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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.
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.