Everybody wants to look good and on trend. Like peacocks showing off their feathers, humans have learnt that how they dress and what they look like gets them places, friends, and partners. Over the last twenty years fast fashion has assisted us with this, bringing designer outfits to the people. Trends on the catwalk are now accessible to us seemingly as soon as the model steps off the runway. All we need to do is step onto the high street.
I have to admit, I love heading down to the shops before a night out or a date, picking out a dress and some cheap jewelry. I am a sucker for new trends and weird outfits and have sometimes succumbed to the wear-once-then-throw-away formula of fast fashion. It’s dangerously easy.
But the unfortunate truth is that the fast fashion industry is harming the planet, harming wildlife, and harming the workers involved in the manufacturing process. It’s becoming obvious to many of us now that as a society we cannot go on like this, and that things have got to change for the better. To do this, the first step is understanding what the big problems are, why they matter, and how we can collectively start to address them. Most importantly, we’re all in this together and as always, we’re here to help you!
What Is fast fashion?
Okay, let’s not get ahead of ourselves with the whole saving the planet bit. We need to first understand what fast fashion actually is. Fast fashion is defined as clothing trends and designs that move quickly from the catwalk to retail stores – whether that’s online or in-store. Most of all, fast fashion is cheap; cheaply made and cheaply sold.
You know when you see a cow print dress in photos from some fashion event and then two days later see a replica in a shop window? That’s fast fashion. Remember those see-through plastic handbags that were all the rage about a year ago and now are probably sitting at the bottom of someone’s wardrobe, or worse yet, in landfill? That’s fast fashion. In fact, you may even be wearing fast fashion now, but might not even be aware of it.
The mainstream stores that we know and love provide us with these new and exciting styles, but notice how quickly the trends change. Notice how quickly the mannequins in the shop windows get new outfits – surely that means we need to get a look too?!
How did fashion get so fast?
So fast fashion is kind of like fast food – it’s quick and cheap (and also doesn’t care too much about the long-term consequences it causes).
Above all, fast fashion is fast, but you’re probably wondering just how is it so fast? Well, it’s all about supply chain management. This is the flow of goods from raw materials to final production. The goal of fast fashion is to manufacture items of clothing quickly and at as little cost as possible.
Clothing companies need to have their finger on the pulse when it comes to trends. In the need for fashion to be fast, companies invest in smart forecasting which increasingly uses things like AI to monitor and study trends. Harnessing the power of new technology, fast fashion is becoming easier and quicker to achieve.
What is ultra fast fashion?
Of course, when something is popular and is making loads of money, more businesses get on board and try to push it as far as they can. So, there is (of course) also a thing known as ultra fast fashion, which is – you guessed it – even faster than its ever so slightly slower sibling!
Technology and social media means that fashion trends are changing rapidly. Bloggers, influencers, and celebrities are now all tuned into this culture of ever-changing trends and style. Because of this, so are the companies that want to sell us new styles as quickly and frequently as possible.
There are new styles everyday. We log into Instagram and see our favourite influencer wearing a pair of bright pink fluffy heels. We scroll down and see an advert for ones that look identical. We buy them, they arrive the next day, and we post a snap of us wearing them. Next month, they’re forgotten about, lost in the endless feed of ultra fast fashion and replaced by another alternative seemingly just as irresistible as the first. Rinse and repeat.
In one day we have accessed the fashion we saw and wanted. In one day we emulated the person we admired. Ultra fast fashion is becoming increasingly common with same day or next day delivery that provides customers with instant gratification. With constant monitoring of social media, the clothing sold by online-only fashion companies can go from concept to sale in as little as a week.
How to spot fast fashion
There are many mainstream clothing companies that may come to mind when you think of fast fashion in action and one such example, Zara is estimated to produce 840 million items of clothing a year. The company is known for their trendy but cheap clothing, always following fashion styles and always being affordable. However they’re far from the exception when it comes to fast fashion with other examples following suit to the tune of 400 new items of clothing getting introduced on their website every single week.
Most mainstream clothing stores are a part of the fast fashion movement. Fast fashion means that stores quickly produce clothes that mimic what is seen on the runways or on an influencers’ social media feed.
A good general rule of thumb is that the clothes you are buying are very likely to be considered fast fashion if they are cheaply made and tend to fall apart easily. This is because they are designed for minimal wear and to be thrown away when the current trend is over.
How fast fashion harms the planet
So we know what fast fashion is, how often we willingly or unknowingly buy into it, and where it is likely to be found. Now let’s take a look at the damage that fast fashion is doing to the environment, the people, and the wider ecosystems of the world.
When money, speed, and convenience are valued above all else, companies that manufacture fast fashion clothing are likely doing so in ways which are dangerous and contribute to environmental degradation in a multitude of forms.
Clothing and footwear production are estimated to make up around 8.1% of greenhouse gas emissions. This percentage is only going to get bigger if we don’t begin to slow things down, with ever more fast fashion stores opening up online and physically.
With the rise of influencer marketing and the super-high usage of social media, new clothes and new fashion trends seem to come around quicker every year. Every day we are seeing a new style trend and this ultimately means that every day, the pressure fast fashion places on the planet is significantly increasing.
Chemicals that come from the factories that make the garments are a major cause for concern when it comes to pollution resulting from fast fashion production. Most fast fashion we consume is manufactured in China, India, Bangladesh, and developing nations. When the items of clothing are manufactured, chemicals are released into the environment harming local wildlife and populations and inflicting damage on ecosystems in the area.
Rivers in China that once thrived with life are now ecological dead zones. Dangerous chemicals that are banned in the EU are used in Chinese textile manufacturing. The use of these chemicals are purported to have destroyed the areas around certain factories, killing the life in nearby rivers. Some of the mainstream clothing brands that are manufactured near rivers that have suffered include household fashion names such as Adidas, Abercrombie and Fitch, H&M, and many other brands that we likely know and wear.
Another environmental issue surrounding the clothes that we wear today are the microfibers that get released when they’re washed. Plastic microfibers have been found in the seas, lakes, and rivers around the world and seemingly come from items of clothing. A recent study found that when a synthetic fleece jacket is washed, 1.7g of microfibers get released into the water supply. These microfibers are extremely damaging as they pollute the food chain and harm wildlife in the areas they affect. They are small enough to be eaten by animals who then get sick from the chemicals that they have ingested.
These microfibers can also make their way back to us, with fish and shellfish in markets in both California and Indonesia having traces of microfiber pollution in them. This raises concerns for the health of the people that eat these food sources as some of the chemicals used are also carcinogenic.
Horrifically, around 11 million tonnes of clothing are thrown away each year in the USA alone. This is a lot of unnecessary waste. Similarly, British people are buying five times more items of clothing than they did in the eighties, with Primark alone worth 1.1 billion pounds.
The throw-away culture of fast fashion means that landfills are overflowing with clothes that have been worn once, and these items of clothing are rarely biodegradable. A lot of fast fashion is made from synthetic fabrics, such as polyester, nylon, and spandex. These materials can take up to 200 years to biodegrade and this, alongside the rate of waste that fast fashion is producing make for alarming reading. It seems inevitable that if change does not happen soon, fast fashion is going to have an irreversible impact on the planet’s health.
Sadly, most workers who are involved in the fast fashion manufacturing process produce these items in dangerous conditions and for a worryingly low wage. Companies outsourcing their factories to developing countries in order to benefit from the low wages offered, putting profit over ethics, and ultimately, human health and safety.
The fast fashion industry relies on cheap or close to slave labour. It probably needs to be taken as a given that many of the items of clothing we buy from a fast fashion retail outlet are going to be made by people who are suffering in one form or another. The cheaper the garment, the greater the likely suffering at some point along the chain. To sell cheap, companies need to manufacture cheap and this inevitably looks like people working incredibly long shifts for little money and under potentially dangerous conditions.
More than 70% of EU imports of textiles come from Asia and not all of these countries have strict health and safety regulations. In 2013 the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka collapsed. This building consisted of five clothing factories and at least 1132 workers died from this disaster.
Horrifically this disaster is not a one-off case and workers around the globe that supply the fast fashion markets do so under often life-threatening and hazardous conditions. Since the Rana Plaza building collapse, there have been at least 109 more accidents in these kinds of factories.
Sweatshops are not just as Asian issue though, with textiles factories in the UK being found paying people well under the minimum wage and under harsh working conditions. The need for fast fashion means that companies are now breaking the law to provide us with the supply to meet our ever-growing demand.
How fast fashion harms the consumer
Fast fashion also impacts those who wear it. Because the clothes are made as cheaply as possible, corners are cut with their manufacturing. This means that many items of clothing have dangerous chemicals in them such as formaldehyde which is used to prevent wrinkling during the transportation of the fabrics. However, this can cause allergic reactions and has been linked to cancer.
Lead has been found in many cheaply made clothes and this can be harmful to the people wearing them. Being exposed to lead increases your chances of a range of health issues, such as heart attacks and infertility.
How to avoid fast fashion
The impact that fast fashion has on the world, it’s population, and the natural environment and ecosystems that comprise it is shocking. There is no doubt that we must act now to alter our lifestyles and find better solutions to the problems we all face. But how?
Well, the good news is we’ve thought long and hard about this and we’re in the business of trying to make things better so here’s some of the ways you can make actionable change when it comes to fighting fast fashion and shifting towards a more sustainable style mindset.
Most importantly, when striving for a better, lower impact lifestyle, we must be educated and learn about the issues that we face as a society. Knowing the brands that are built around a fast fashion model and who to avoid is the first step towards making a difference.
It is also great to be aware of the kinds of fabric used in the products you are buying and (equally importantly) where they are made. If you see something you like when shopping but are unaware of the ethics of the shop or the story behind the scenes, take a look at the tags on the item of clothing. Often this will say where the product is made and with what fabric helping you piece together the clues in working out the ethical footprint of the item.
Also, use your knowledge to help others. Learning to find out the background of what you’re buying actually becomes an enjoyable challenge like solving a puzzle and once you’re into the habit, the skill becomes second nature. Discuss with your friends and family about the harm that fast fashion does, opening up conversation and understanding with the people you love. Let them know what to look for and ways to buy better.
After all, in order to change the world we need to bring a lot of people on board!
Hit the thrift stores and charity shops
Fast fashion is intrinsically cheap, that is one of the reasons we like it and without knowing where to look, paying for a better kind of sustainable clothing can soon add up.
However, we can still avoid fast fashion without breaking the bank! When heading into town next, swerve the big clothing stores and head straight for the little second hand or thrift stores that are scattered around most cities.
Sometimes it takes a while to find the style that you are wanting but trust me, the hunt is all part of the fun! Spending an afternoon trailing around charity and thrift stores looking through the weird plethora of outfits from previous fashion cycles ago is so much fun. And remember, fashion is a cyclical phenomena so it’s just as likely you’ll discover a rare find that’s actually back in vogue right now!
You never know what you might find in a second hand store and I have discovered some amazing stuff, from wild snazzy prints to designer dresses. Also, when you are shopping in charity run stores in particular, you are also helping the charity in question by donating your money with your purchase. It is a win-win situation!
If you have clothing that you don’t wear, also go give them to a charity shop! One man’s trash is another man’s treasure right? Someone might love that lime green shirt you bought on a whim once when it was on sale.
So fast fashion has a low price tag. For most of us, buying a dress for ten bucks seems a better bargain than a dress for fifty.
However, this isn’t true if the dress is fast fashion and falls apart after one use. Ethical fashion costs more than fast fashion but this is because it is better quality. The items you buy last longer and therefore are better value.
This is known as slow fashion. Slow fashion is fashion that is made to last, focusing on sustainability rather than quick turnover and new trends.
Here, the mantra “buy cheap, buy twice” holds especially true.
There are so many ethical fashion brands that are super cool and stylish, and actually not that expensive for the quality of the product you are getting. You will get more wear out of the clothes, help the planet, and look great at the same time!
Break out the sewing kit
Ever darn a sock? No, I haven’t either, but I think I am going to start.
Fixing clothes used to be a part of life. When a shirt had a hole, our parents or grandparents would sew it up. When socks got worn, they would darn them to make them stronger. Make do and mend was a mantra to live by.
Invest in a sewing kit so you can fix your own clothes. It is not as hard as it sounds either and the internet is full of DIY tutorials to make your clothes look good as new.
Having a sewing kit also means that you can alter your clothes to suit you. Upcycling is growing in popularity so take advantage of this trend! Add accessories, patches, and badges to your old clothes to give yourself a brand new look.
The Thirty Wears Challenge
An internet trend amongst the sustainably-minded of the world is the thirty wears challenge. It is a call when buying an item of clothing, for us to ask ourselves if we would wear it thirty times.
This is part of the slow fashion movement which advocates thoughtful purchase. It values hitting the breaks on fast fashion and slowing it down, keeping it simple and keeping it intentional. Thinking about the future of what we are buying makes us more in tune with what we actually want and not just what we are told we want by influencers who are ultimately often getting paid to deliver a message, not provide their true opinions.
We have the power to do better
Time and time again we are reminded that the fashion industry as it currently exists is simply not sustainable. The rate of consumption that the western world demands in this area is harming the environment, harming workers, and harming those who wear the products.
However, it is not all doom and gloom and slow fashion is growing in popularity and entering the mainstream, with ethical and sustainable brands making waves across the fashion world. We are slowly but surely waking up to the problems that fast fashion causes and can be at the forefront of this change!
By boycotting fast fashion high street retailers, shopping second-hand, spreading the word, opting for sustainable clothing, and actively supporting brands trying to do better, we can start to change the world.
There is power in the people and we are making a change for our future.