What is Fast Fashion?

Originally Published on Jan. 21, 2019

What is “fast fashion” and why do people keep talking about it?

Fast fashion, according to Merriam-Webster, is “an approach to the design, creation, and marketing of clothing fashions that emphasizes making fashion trends quickly and cheaply available to consumers.”

Fast fashion is also the term used by fashion retailers to explain how designs move from the catwalk (like at New York Fashion Week) to a store where it’s available for the general public to buy. This captures the most current fashion trends and typically these trends change twice a year with the major spring and fall fashion line releases.

This idea of a speedy manufacture at an incredibly reduced price is championed by stores such as H&M, Zara, Primark, and Topshop.

What happens when you move this fast?

In a desire to captivate the consumer and encourage them to buy more, a retailer has to move incredibly swiftly to ensure that the new hot trend recently released makes it to their shelves at an affordable price. What often happens in this rush to please and/or captivate a consumer is that the quality of the item decreases and the way the item is produced is questionable, at best.

This is where we branch off into two main dilemmas with fast fashion: ethical concerns and environmental concerns.

What are the ethical concerns regarding fast fashion?

When a large company is trying to move quickly to produce an item at an affordable price for the average consumer and within a very limited time frame, something’s gotta give --

In order to produce cheap items, companies look for cheap labor. Where better than factories in countries with lax labor laws? Or, countries where there’s enough legal loopholes to access cheap labor?

This often lands the assembly and production of items in a factory outside of the United States and Western Europe. In these factories, workers are often paid less than the minimum wage. Even if they are paid the “minimum wage,” it is often not a living wage (meaning that any person could pay all of their bills on the money made by the wage at the bare minimum). In China, Bangladesh, and India, the minimum wage represents between half to a fifth of the living wage. - Clean Clothes Campaign

In these factories, workers are denied proper protection like gloves, masks, and adequate ventilation. Often people work 12-16 hour days without breaks for the equivalent of a few cents every hour.

Child labor is also an issue. “The International Labor Organization estimates that 170 million are engaged in child labour, defined by the UN as ‘work for which the child is either too young – work done below the required minimum age – or work which, because of its detrimental nature or conditions, is altogether considered unacceptable for children and is prohibited.’” - The Guardian

In addition to child labor, inadequate access to protective gear, long days, unjust pay, and abuse, the conditions in which these laborers work are often truly hazardous.

John Hobson’s article, “To die for? The health and safety of fast fashion” sheds light on the 2013 Savar building collapse in Bangladesh, the deadliest garment-related accident in history. Hobson says, “Since 2005, at least 1800 garment workers have been killed in factory fires and building collapses in Bangladesh alone according to research by the advocacy group International Labor Rights Forum and the problem affects many other countries where cheap clothes are manufactured.”

What are the environmental concerns of fast-fashion?

In 2015, the fashion industry was responsible for the emission of 1,715 millions tons of CO2, or about 4.3% of global carbon emissions of the 39.9 billion U.S. tons produced that same year. - 2016 Trends in Global CO2 Emissions

Not only is fast fashion responsible for CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions, the switch from natural fibers to synthetic textiles can be attributed to fast fashion. Polyester is found in 60% of garments in retail stores today. - James Pruden, 2017

When you wash polyester clothing at home, microplastics are shedding and entering the water system which is leading to pollution in waterways and oceans. In October of 2018, there was a study published with a small control group where it was discovered that 100% of the subjects had microplastics in their poop. - National Geographic

According to Claudio’s article, Waste Couture, “The manufacture of polyester and other synthetic fabrics is an energy-intensive process requiring large amounts of crude oil and releasing emissions including volatile organic compounds, particulate matter, and acid gases such as hydrogen chloride, all of which can cause or aggravate respiratory disease.”

In summary, the rapid production to meet the demand for fast-fashion items includes the use of synthetic materials which require a large quantity of energy to produce, create a large amount of emissions in the process, and then have a continued negative impact as they release microplastics and never biodegrade.

It is said that the average woman wears a clothing item 7 days before tossing it (Throwaway Fashion). This continual buy-toss cycle means that somewhere synthetic clothes are piling up (most likely a landfill) where they never biodegrade, release additional greenhouse gases as they sit in a landfill, and shrink to microplastics.

Is there an alternative?

Enter “slow fashion,” the alternative to fast fashion. This has also been referred to as “ethical fashion,” or “conscious fashion.” This alternative emphasizes ethical supply chains and keeping the same well-produced and quality item for a long time, not really needing to replace it.

This is a sustainable model promoting a circular economy. A circular economy is the antithesis to a linear economy where you make, use, dispose. This would be where “we keep resources as long as possible, extract the maximum value from them whilst in use, then recover and regenerate products and materials at the end of each service life.” - wrap.org

What can I (one person) do?

Be mindful of your purchases. Buying power is real, especially in our current capitalistic society/consumer-driven market. We can “vote with our dollars” meaning that we communicate our demand for ethical goods or quality/natural goods by buying those items and hopefully creating a new demand in the marketplace.

An easy and inexpensive way to go about this is to thrift shop or buy second hand. Buying second hand gives life to an old item, and encourages a circular economy. It directly combats our linear economy (make, use, dispose). Even if you’re buying a new, or practically new item from a thrift store, the company who made the item is not receiving the money (they’ll never know you have their item) and that means you’re not encouraging unethical practices. A lot of thrift stores also help your local area, or function as charities.

If you need to buy new, be thoughtful. Can you buy this from an ethically sustainable or environmentally sustainable brand? If not, buy something that will last the longest. Look for sturdy items, real/natural materials, etc.

Buy less! An easy and inexpensive way to help, is to buy less things. You will be directly discouraging the consumerist market that promotes a buy-dispose mentality by simply buying nothing at all.

*** Whenever it comes to buying stuff/buying power, it’s important to consider the way in which privilege impacts our ability to choose. People with access to education, and resources have the agency to choose to buy second hand, take time to find the item online secondhand, buy from expensive (but quality) sustainable stores, and often don’t live in a scarcity mindset. It’s especially important not to shame those that cannot, and to consider your privilege as responsibility.

Because of my unique set of circumstances (race, class, ethnicity, age, even my gender), I feel the weight of responsibility to be extremely mindful in my purchases because I have the time/energy/effort/money/access to resources to do so. I may not currently have a lot of money, but I can save up to occasionally buy an item from a sustainable store (like Everlane) and I never need an item so bad (like a winter coat, or a quilt, or shoes for my child) that I don’t have the leisure and time to thrift one that I like. I also don’t have children, which gives me additional leisure and time to peruse or schedule freely. ***

The goal is always to do whatever we can and not feel guilty for what we are unable to do!

Emily McCollister