Clothes shopping used to be an occasional event—something that happened a few times a year when the seasons changed or when we outgrew what we had. But about 20 years ago, something changed. Clothes became cheaper, trend cycles sped up, 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 impact people, the planet, and animals?
It was all too good to be true. All these stores selling cool, trendy clothing you could buy with your loose change, wear a handful of times, and then throw away. Suddenly everyone could afford to dress like their favourite celebrity or wear the latest trends fresh from the catwalk.
Then in 2013, the world had a reality check when the Rana Plaza clothing manufacturing complex in Bangladesh collapsed, killing over 1,000 workers. That’s when consumers really started questioning fast fashion and wondering at the true cost of those $5 t-shirts. If you’re reading this article, you might already be aware of fast fashion’s dark side, but it’s worth exploring how the industry got to this point—and how we can help to change it.
What is fast fashion?
Fast fashion can be defined as cheap, trendy clothing that samples ideas from the catwalk or celebrity culture and turns them into garments in high street stores at breakneck speed to meet consumer demand. The idea is to get the newest styles on the market as fast as possible, so shoppers can snap them up while they are still at the height of their popularity and then, sadly, discard them 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 have to sport the latest looks as they happen. It forms a key part of the toxic system of overproduction and consumption that has made fashion one of the world’s largest polluters. Before we can go about changing it, let’s take a look at the history.
How did fast fashion happen?
To understand how fast fashion came to be, we need to rewind a bit. Before the 1800s, fashion was slow. You had to source your own materials like wool or leather, prepare them, weave them, and then make the clothes.
The Industrial Revolution introduced new technology—like the sewing machine. Clothes became easier, quicker, and cheaper to make. Dressmaking shops emerged to cater to the middle classes.
Many of these dressmaking shops used teams of garment workers or home workers. Around this time, sweatshops emerged, along with some familiar safety issues. The first significant garment factory disaster was when a fire broke out in New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in 1911. It claimed the lives of 146 garment workers, many of whom were young female immigrants.
By the 1960s and 70s, young people were creating 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 zenith. 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. With everyone now able to shop for on-trend clothes whenever they wanted, it’s easy to understand how the phenomenon caught on.
How to spot a fast fashion brand
Some key factors are common to fast fashion brands:
- Thousands of styles, which touch on all the latest trends.
- Extremely short turnaround time between when a trend or garment is seen on the catwalk or in celebrity media and when it hits the shelves.
- Offshore manufacturing where labour is the cheapest, with the use of workers on low wages without adequate rights or safety and complex supply chains with poor visibility beyond the first tier.
- A limited quantity of a particular garment—this is an idea pioneered by Zara. With new stock arriving in store every few days, shoppers know if they don’t buy something they like, they’ll probably miss their chance.
- Cheap, low quality materials like polyester, causing clothes to degrade after just a few wears and get thrown away.
What’s the impact of fast fashion?
On the planet
Fast fashion’s impact on the planet is immense. The pressure to reduce costs and speed up production time means that environmental corners are more likely to be cut. Fast fashion’s negative impact includes its use of cheap, toxic textile dyes—making the fashion industry the second largest polluter of clean water globally after agriculture. That’s why Greenpeace has been pressuring brands to remove dangerous chemicals from their supply chains through its detoxing fashion campaigns through the years.
Cheap textiles also increase fast fashion’s impact. Polyester is one of the most popular fabrics. It is derived from fossil fuels, contributes to global warming, and can shed microfibres that add to the increasing levels of plastic in our oceans when washed. But even ‘natural fabrics’ can be a problem at the scale fast fashion demands. Conventional cotton requires enormous quantities of water and pesticides in developing countries. This results in drought risks and creates extreme stress on water basins and competition for resources between companies and local communities.
The constant speed and demand mean increased stress on other environmental areas such as land clearing, biodiversity, and soil quality. The processing of leather also impacts the environment, with 300kg of chemicals added to every 900kg of animal hides tanned.
The speed at which garments are produced also means that more and more clothes are disposed of by consumers, creating massive textile waste. In Australia alone, more than 500 million kilos of unwanted clothing ends up in landfill every year.
As well as the environmental cost of fast fashion, there’s a human cost.
Fast fashion impacts garment workers who work in dangerous environments, for low wages, and without fundamental human rights. Further down the supply chain, the farmers may work with toxic chemicals and brutal practices that can have devastating impacts on their physical and mental health, a plight highlighted by the documentary The True Cost.
Animals are also impacted by fast fashion. In the wild, the toxic dyes and microfibres released in waterways are ingested by land and marine life alike through the food chain to devastating effect. And when animal products such as leather, fur, and even wool are used in fashion directly, animal welfare is put at risk. As an example, numerous scandals reveal that real fur, including cat and dog fur, is often being passed off as faux fur to unknowing shoppers. The truth is that there is so much real fur being produced under terrible conditions in fur farms that it’s become cheaper to produce and buy than faux fur!
Finally, fast fashion can impact consumers themselves, encouraging a ‘throw-away’ culture because of both the built-in obsolescence of the products and the speed at which trends emerge. Fast fashion makes us believe we need to shop more and more to stay on top of trends, creating a constant sense of need and ultimate dissatisfaction. The trend has also been criticised on intellectual property grounds, with some designers alleging that retailers have illegally mass-produced their designs.
Who are the big players?
Many retailers we know today as the fast fashion big players, like Zara or H&M, started as smaller shops in Europe around the 1950s. Technically, H&M is the oldest of the fast fashion giants, having opened as Hennes in Sweden in 1947, expanding to London in 1976, and before long, reaching the States in 2000.
Zara follows, which opened its first store in Northern Spain in 1975. When Zara landed in New York at the beginning of the 1990s, people first heard the term ‘fast fashion’. It was coined by the New York Times to describe Zara’s mission to take only 15 days for a garment to go from the design stage to being sold in stores.
Other big names in fast fashion today include UNIQLO, GAP, Primark, and TopShop. While these brands were once seen as radically cheap disruptors, there are now even cheaper and faster alternatives like Missguided, Forever 21, Zaful, Boohoo, and Fashion Nova. Thankfully, there are ethical alternatives worth your support.
Is fast fashion going green?
As an increasing number of consumers call out the true cost of the fashion industry, and especially fast fashion, we’ve seen a growing number of retailers introduce sustainable and ethical fashion initiatives such as in-store recycling schemes. These schemes allow customers to drop off unwanted items in ‘bins’ in the brands’ stores. But it’s been highlighted that only 0.1% of all clothing collected by charities and take-back programs is recycled into new textile fibre.
The underlying issue with fast fashion is the speed at which it is produced, putting massive pressure on people and the environment. Recycling and small eco or vegan clothing ranges—when they are not only for greenwashing—are not enough to counter the ‘throw-away culture’, the waste, the strain on natural resources, and the myriad of other issues created by fast fashion. The whole system needs to be changed.
Is fast fashion in decline?
We are starting to see some changes in the fashion industry. The anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse is now Fashion Revolution Week, where people all over the world ask, “Who Made My Clothes?”. Fashion Revolution declares that “we don’t want our clothes to exploit people or destroy our planet”.
Millennials and Gen Zers, the drivers of the future economy, may not have caught the fast fashion bug. Some have argued that this generation has “grown too clever for mindless consumerism, forcing producers to become more ethical, more inclusive, and more liberal”.
There is also a growing interest in moving towards a more circular textile production model, reusing materials wherever and whenever possible. In 2018 both Vogue Australia and Elle UK dedicated entire magazine issues to sustainable fashion, a trend being taken up each year by more and more big names.
What can we do?
At Good On You, we love this quote by British designer Vivienne Westwood, “buy less, choose well, make it last.”
Buying Less is the first step—try to fall back in love with the clothes you already own by styling them differently or even ‘flipping’ them. Why not turn those old jeans into some trendy unhemmed shorts, or give that baggy old jumper new life by turning it into a crop? Creating a capsule wardrobe is also worth considering on your ethical fashion journey.
Choose Well is the second step, and choosing an eco-friendly fabric is essential here. There are pros and cons to all fibre types, as seen in our ultimate guide to clothing materials, but there is a helpful chart at the end to refer to when purchasing. Choosing well could also mean committing to only shopping second hand, or from sustainable brands like those below.
Finally, we should Make It Last and look after our clothes by following the care instructions, wearing them until they are worn out, mending them wherever possible, then responsibly recycling them at the very end of their life.
Here are our favourite brands giving fast fashion the flick and embodying a slow, circular, more sustainable way of wearing: