What Is Fast Fashion?

Fast fashion is a term that is thrown out a lot, but not many people understand. It’s a term used to describe fashion brands that sell cheap versions of designer items, celebrity-induced trends, and highly in-demand pieces to quickly meet consumer needs.

Fast fashion brands like Zara, H&M, and Topshop make huge amounts of money using these practices. However, it comes at a terrible cost to the environment and to the cheap labor making the clothes.

For this essential cover story for Paradox Magazine, we cover the highly troubling practices of fast fashion. We will also explain how the popular business model transformed the fashion industry, how it affects the environment, what fast fashion brands to avoid, and what we can do to combat its environmental impact.

History of Fast Fashion

The garment-making process was a terribly slow one to begin with. Raw materials like leather and wool had to be gathered, prepped, weaved, and cut before it was finally sewn together. The sewing machine, a product of the Industrial Revolution, was then developed and streamlined the process a little more. The process was more cost-efficient, allowing more shops and fashion houses to open up.

Around the 1960s, fashion and style became more unique and diversified. The demand for clothing rose, creating the need for cheaper and faster production.

Zara was the first company to use fast fashion practices. In 1975, Amancio Ortega founded Zara in Spain, where he started selling cheap knockoff versions of high-end clothing. It proved to be successful and Zara opened eight new stores in Spain. It wasn’t long before they expanded overseas, including opening stores in the United States.

History of Fast Fashion

Zara and other brands condensed the lead times (or production time) for their collections. Releasing a new collection originally took a year or two but adopted quick and cheap practices to release new collections in as little time as possible.

Fast fashion companies monitor trend cycles. Companies like Zara will keep a close eye on trends to inform their next batch of clothes. Whether it is looking at designer collections, social media trends, or celebrity outfits, fast fashion will have a discount lookalike hitting the stores in no time.

Trend cycles create shorter lead times. Producing clothes at a breakneck speed allows fashion companies to make what’s trending and have it hit the stores when the trend is surging.

Cheap labor is used more often than not. Clothes are made in sweatshops overseas. Workers, sometimes children, make the clothing in harsh working conditions. They are paid very little, are more likely to develop health conditions due to an unsafe work environment, and are more likely to be sexually harassed by higher-ups.

Lower quantities create scarcity and exclusivity. When producing their clothes, the fast fashion industry adopts a “low-quantity creates artificial scarcity” mindset. If the item seems rarer, it becomes more desirable. It also lessens the risk of how many units get disposed of if it does not sell well. The companies shift their manpower from creating more items of said product to developing different styles.

What Is Fast Fashion

Zara’s Success and Fast Fashion Brands

Ortega’s “instant fashion” practices, as he called them, developed Zara into an industry giant. The fast fashion pioneer elevated its parent company, Inditex, to the largest clothing company in the world. Currently, Ortega is worth nearly $60 billion, making him the 22nd richest person alive.

Zara’s fast fashion practices have led other companies to follow suit. Other brands mirrored Zara’s cost-efficient business practices and allowed rising brands like Fashion Nova and Shein to thrive. Online shopping has further emphasized these practices to an even higher degree of success.

Environmental Impact

With all the success and cheap labor, there are some massive underlying consequences. The abundance of clothes and rapid turnover of trends is incredibly wasteful. The textile industry contributes more pollution in our air and our water than many would think. In fact, fashion is widely cited as producing 10% of all human-related carbon emissions and consumes the second-most amount of water.

Fast Fashion Air Pollution

In most cases, unsold clothes from the US and Europe (among others) makes its way back overseas. Many African countries are used as a dumping ground for unwanted and unusable articles of clothing.

Bales upon bales of clothing, either donated through charities or discarded due to design mistakes, will arrive for locals to sort through. With the increased turnover of clothes, landfills turn into skyscrapers and the unwearable clothes are sometimes incinerated.

Fast Fashion Water Pollution

Fast fashion labor not only affects the employees, but it also has an environmental impact as well. The workplace is largely unregulated when it comes to the production of its clothing. Chemical processing, such as dyes and finishing products, is often treated without caution. Chemicals can be dumped into a local river, causing health issues to wildlife and residents.

On a global scale, plenty of trash find one way or another to reach our oceans–and clothes are no different. Polyester, which is in 60% of our garments–along with other synthetic fabric like nylon–emit more carbon than cotton nor do they break down in the ocean.

That comes as no surprise but clothing production commands a lot of water consumption as well. Growing cotton is better and more sustainable but the massive need for the plant has dried up a lot of our water resources. It is said that a single cotton shirt or a pair of jeans consumes on average, 7,500 liters of water.

Multiply that by how many pieces of clothing you have and you get a substantial amount of water just to make your wardrobe. And when it comes time to wash your clothes, microplastics are introduced into the environment.

Greenwashing

If any company has received backlash over the years (and they have) for their fast fashion methods and ensuing environmental footprint, chances are they addressed them in a commercial or ad campaign. These practices and the overall marketing used to convince consumers that their practices will change to be more environmentally friendly is called “greenwashing.”

Zara, H&M, and plenty of brands have launched programs under the “sustainable,” “green,” or “ethical” moniker. Ad campaigns are making it a point to showcase clothes made from recycled materials or “ecologically grown cotton,” as well as promise better working conditions for their workers. Not only does it reek of “you’re only sorry because you got caught” but there’s a myriad of past instances full of deceit.

Zara, H&M, ASOS, and other brands have been caught fibbing and misleading customers about their sustainability claims in the past. A prime example would be H&M’s 2010 Conscious Collection, which they claimed was “made with sustainable materials such as organic cotton and recycled polyester” in their 2017 annual report. Ignore the fact that the two mentioned materials have two very distinct relationships when it comes to carbon emissions and water pollution, the terms in itself are vague: sustainable (and green, ethical, etc.) do not have quantifiable measurements.

Zara and Inditex has done something a little similar. In their 2018 annual report (which was 434 pages), they claimed that “88% of [their] waste is reused or recycled.” Roughly 200 pages later, it also mentions that specific statistic only applies to their factories located in Spain. Later on, they claim that they recycle the waste from their stores and even later backtrack, saying that “waste generated in stores is not included.”

For the majority of brands guilty of fast fashion methods, they intentionally make their claims vague, difficult to find, or misleading. Greenwashing and half-baked attempts to make people forget about their wrongdoings will continue as long as fast fashion practices are supported.

Brands and Fast Fashion

If a brand that you shop for is listed here, it means that they have some improving to do when it comes to their ecological footprint. Whether its cheap products that hurt the environment, unfair working conditions, or other unethical practices, they are guilty of one or a combination of some immoral practices.

Pacsun

Is Pacsun fast fashion? Yes

Cider

Is Cider fast fashion? Yes

ASOS

Is ASOS fast fashion? Yes

Zara

Is Zara fast fashion? Yes.

Forever 21

Is Forever 21 fast fashion? Yes.

Boohoo

Is Boohoo fast fashion? Yes.

H&M

Is H&M fast fashion? Yes.

Princess Polly

Is Princess Polly fast fashion? Yes

Aritzia

Is Aritzia fast fashion? Yes

Urban Outfitters

Is Urban Outfitters fast fashion? Yes

How We Can Reduce Fast Fashion Impact

It’s difficult to really find a solution that solves this problem that plagues the world we live in. There are too many companies (much more than the ones listed above) that benefit from its practices and they have made it too convenient for in-demand styles to be cheaply sold.

We are all guilty of buying into fast fashion when it is too prominent to avoid. Protesting seems futile because greenwashing campaigns and convenience will eventually bring people back like nothing ever happened. If we want to make a small difference in our own lives, we can make personal changes that doesn’t cost much to do. In fact, it’ll save us money.

Two practices that everyone can do is buying secondhand items and simply wearing your clothes for longer. Buying or upcycling used clothing saves it from being discarded into the landfills, polluting the ocean , or burned to the detriment of the atmosphere. Thrifting is also a fun activity that blends the pleasures of shopping and digging for hidden treasure.

Refraining for buying things is easier said than done. The convenience of online shopping has made everything accessible, personally-marketed, and more appealing than ever.  We also understand it is tough to keep with the trends when social media is such a driving factor in our day-to-day perception of people.

Reducing your carbon footprint can actually be pretty simple. Buying fewer things per month and reusing a piece or two more often may combat fast fashion more than you would think. Who knows, with trends cycling faster than a revolving door, your old clothes might even be ahead of next season’s collection. There’s a possibility that just when you think it’s time to put away those colored jeans for good, they might be in style again. Wouldn’t you say that’s worth saving the world for?