Discover how the industry needs to change and what you can do
Clothes shopping used to be an occasional occurrence, occurring mainly only when the seasons changed and when clothes were outgrown. A few decades ago, everything changed with the emergence of “fast fashion”. Clothes became significantly cheaper, trend cycles and production sped up, and shopping became a hobby for many people.
Although it may be a relatively cheap hobby for the consumer, unfortunately, animals, the planet, and other people pay a high price. In 2013, the world had a reality check when the Rana Plaza clothing manufacturing complex in Bangladesh collapsed, killing 1,134 workers and injuring another 2,500. Bestselling author Dana Thomas writes in her book ‘Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes’ that that same year Americans spent $340 billion on clothing, with much of it having been produced in Bangladesh, including by Rana Plaza workers in the days leading up to the collapse. After this tragedy, people began to question fast fashion and the true cost of £5 t-shirts.
Still, it’s difficult for consumers to deny themselves the personal gains of shopping in global chains that dominate our high streets and the extreme convenience of online shopping. Nowadays, one can stay on-trend without a financial setback and simply throw away items of clothing that are no longer “in” after wearing them only a handful of times. Libby Peake of the Green Alliance commented that consumers in the U.K. particularly buy into fast fashion: “We buy more clothing per head than any other country in Europe, including nearly twice as much as Italians, who are better known for their fashion sense”.
These days, most people are becoming increasingly aware of the dark side of fast fashion, but how exactly did the industry reach this point, and how can we do better going forward?
Fast Fashion Definition
So, what is fast fashion, exactly? Fast fashion is a buzzword in the sustainability world used to describe a method of design, manufacturing, and marketing that focuses on rapidly producing high volumes of clothing. The clothing is often modelled off of celebrity culture and catwalk styles and produced at affordable prices at breakneck speed to meet consumer demand before the next styles hit the scene, allowing for the out-of-style clothing to be discarded.
This toxic system of overproduction and consumption pushes the notion that outfit repeating is a fashion faux pas and has caused the fashion industry to become one of the largest polluters on earth.
A Brief History of the Fashion Industry
You may be wondering, how did we get here? Before the 1800s, fashion was slow. Women would source materials like leather and wool and prepare and weave the material to make clothes for the whole family. Like the sewing machine, new textile machines were introduced during the Industrial Revolution, and clothing became easier, faster, and cheaper to make. Dressmaking shops soon emerged to cater to the middle classes, and around the same time, sweatshops appeared, but with many safety issues. The first major garment factory disaster was in 1911; when New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory caught fire, it claimed the lives of 146 workers, many of whom were young, female immigrants.
Until the mid-twentieth century, however, fashion was still slow; the fashion industry ran on four seasons a year: autumn, winter, spring, and summer. As clothing was increasingly becoming a form of self-expression, designers would work months in advance to plan and predict styles that they believed would be desirable to consumers. Still, before fashion became available to the masses, it was built around the upper classes, and in the 1960s and 70s, there was still a notable distinction between high street and high fashion.
A viral marketing campaign launched in 1966 for wear-it-once paper garments charmed America and is considered an early version of fast fashion (see image above). Its success made the fashion industry lower its costs and quicken its pace. According to The Good Trade, a resource for sustainable fashion and lifestyle content, a few decades later, “fast fashion reached a point of no return”. The Sunday Times Style claims that fast fashion particularly came to the fore in the mid-2000s, during Vogue’s ‘boho chic’ trend.
One of the first successful fast fashion high street brands had a design-to-retail style of approximately five weeks and introduced over 20 different collections annually. Online retailers – dubbed ‘ultra-fast-fashion’ – are even speedier, with some releasing 1,000 new products monthly, feeding into shoppers’ desire to buy more. Strikingly, many fast fashion brands today are producing a whopping 52 “micro-seasons” annually – that’s a new collection every week. It is now customary for stores to host mountains of stock at all times, ensuring that they never run out of clothes and consumers never tire of inventory.
Unfortunately, companies consider increasing production as a form of growth and success and inevitably cut corners to achieve this objective. This speed can result in considerably low-quality merchandise, as the manner in which the clothing is produced is rushed, and quality control is lacking. Non-durable materials are also used to keep costs low. Along with the speed of the trend cycle, with production speed and use of cheap materials, it is no wonder that 11 million tonnes of clothing are discarded in the U.S. alone each year.
The Impact of Fast Fashion
All of the elements of fast fashion – including rapid production, low-quality manufacturing, and low pricing – have a detrimental impact on the planet and the garment workers. A documentary titled ‘The True Cost’ shines a light on the environmental toll and the reality of the lives of those who make fast clothes. In the documentary, author and journalist Lucy Siegle urges viewers to recognise that fast fashion is not of low cost: “someone, somewhere is paying”.
Cost to the environment and animals
Although no official research has been able to precisely quantify the industry’s environmental impact, it is, undoubtedly, resource-intensive and environmentally damaging. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has estimated that the fashion industry accounts for 10% of global carbon dioxide emissions and uses approximately 1.5 trillion litres of water each year.
The incredible volume of garments thrown out annually is typically made with numerous chemicals, including lead and pesticides, and rarely break down. Instead, the clothes end up in landfills, releasing toxins into the air. These chemicals can also reach animals as they can end up in waterways, including those in which people fish. A research team from Manchester University claimed that “a single European textile-finishing company uses over 466g of chemicals per kilogram of textile”. Over the years, Greenpeace has been pressuring brands to stop using harmful chemicals through its ‘Detox My Fashion’ campaign, but no significant change has been made across the industry.
The use of certain textiles is also problematic. The New York Times reported that 60% of fabric fibres are now synthetics derived from fossil fuels, so when 85% of textile waste in the U.S ends up in a landfill, it will fail to decay. Additionally, research has shown that microfibres from these synthetic fabrics have been found in abundance on shorelines where wastewater is released and in the gastrointestinal tract of aquatic animals. Polyester, one of the most popular fabrics, is derived from fossil fuels, contributes to global warming, and, when washed, can shed microfibres, which adds to an already alarming level of plastic in the ocean and, in turn, endangers marine life. If that wasn’t enough, the production of polyester textiles emits approximately 706 million tonnes of greenhouse gases each year, and the production of a cotton garment, another popular material, uses hundreds of gallons of water.
After all that, some fast fashion brands have admitted to destroying their inventory, which is eye-watering and has been severely criticised by the public. Of course, there are many other ways the industry negatively impacts the environment, such as the use of plastic packaging and the global transportation of materials and goods. According to Vogue Business, thankfully, “wasteful packaging is going out of fashion”, but a recent report from McKinsey and the Global Fashion Agenda states that the international fashion industry must urgently cut emissions by 50%. Audrey Stanton, a writer for The Good Trade, comments that “Fast fashion’s carbon footprint gives industries like air travel and oil a run for their money”.
Cost to humans
In addition to its environmental impact, garment workers and consumers' health is negatively affected by fast fashion. Harmful chemicals such as benzothiazole, which can penetrate through the skin and is linked to respiratory illnesses and several types of cancer, have been detected in clothing available on the current retail market. In factories that manufacture fast clothes and in the surrounding areas, there is increased danger. According to the Environmental Health Journal, conventional textile dyeing frequently releases heavy metals and other toxicants harmful to animals and nearby residents.
Garment workers continuously exposed to these chemicals are particularly vulnerable. Oftentimes, they must also bear long working hours, a lack of resources, unjust wages, and sometimes even forced labour and physical abuse. In her book, Thomas draws attention to the fact that the Rana Plaza disaster was not a one-off: “Between 2006 and 2012, more than 500 Bangladeshi garment workers died in factory fires”.
Although not reflected in the price tags, fast fashion brands reel in millions of pounds, owing to the sheer volume of clothes that they sell. Many garment workers, on the other hand, are paid well below the minimum wage. The New York Times stated that “fashion is an industry that has depended on the toil of the powerless and the voiceless, and on keeping them that way”.
Is Fast Fashion in Decline?
Thankfully, some changes in the fashion industry have occurred in recent years, and experts note that fast fashion no longer holds the same appeal. A McKinsey report, ‘The State of Fashion 2019’, suggests that there is increased interest in rental and second-hand clothing and predicts that the resell market will overthrow fast fashion in ten years.
Michael Soloman, a consumer behaviour expert, told Vox that fast fashion brands are aware of the shift that is transpiring and, worried, attempting to make changes. For instance, traditional retailer Macy’s is now selling used clothing in stores, and the reuse of materials is growing in popularity, as a more circular model of textile reproduction is underway. Additionally, sustainable fashion is gaining a more prominent platform; in 2018, Vogue Australia and Elle U.K. dedicated entire issues to sustainable fashion.
Despite these positive steps, Kate Nightingale, founder of the fashion consulting firm Style Psychology, comments that although a number of fast fashion brands are adopting more sustainable practices, many changes are minor, and the industry and consumer habits have yet to completely change: “We are almost conditioned by the fashion industry to keep buying and buying new things every season”.
How Should the Industry Change?
There are countless ways the fashion industry should change. The research team from Manchester University mentioned earlier stresses the fact that natural resources are limited and sets out several steps that the fashion industry should take to improve: reduce the use of the dominating, non-biodegradable polyester; develop new methods of recycling; embrace renewable energy. The researchers also argue that the industry should focus on producing better quality clothing and developing quality approaches to clothing rental and resale. Better quality items with a longer lifespan would hopefully reduce the amount of discarded clothing, but to further reduce this quantity, we must slow trend cycles and dispel the notion that we need to stay “on-trend”.
Brands should also accept responsibility for their impact and seek to do better. Vox reports that, when criticised, retailers can shrink their responsibility by blaming the middleman, especially when the criticism relates to poor labour conditions. While brands rely on middleman factories to make their clothes, this also allows them to, conveniently, distance their brand from any wrongdoing. For example, in 2017, the Los Angeles Times reported that due to a state law that places the burden on middleman companies, a fast-fashion brand successfully avoided making payment to underpaid workers after the workers, who produced clothing for the brand, filed wage claims.
What You Can Do
A few years ago, a flashy online retailer was under investigation by the US Labor Department for underpaying workers. Despite owing workers millions of dollars in wages, there was no significant shockwave. Sure, the collective fashion ecosystem was condemned and criticised online, but celebrities and influencers who helped build the retailer’s reputation continue to endorse it, and consumers continue to support the brand.
In fact, according to Vox, it is rare for a fashion retailer to lose a considerable portion of its consumer base over poor labour practices. A study conducted at Ohio State University found that soon after learning that products they like were unethically produced, consumers forget about the ethical ramifications. “We don’t want to spend our days thinking about these things, even when sometimes they're things we should be thinking about,” lead researcher Rebecca Reczek told Moneyish. Reczek continues, “I think it’s a natural human tendency not to want to think about it”. Nevertheless, we mustn’t rely on others to shop consciously – every consumer counts.
Learn how to spot a fast fashion brand
Good on You outlines key factors to look out for in order to spot a fast fashion brand:
It offers thousands of styles that are on trend.
It has an extremely short turnaround time between when a trend is on the catwalk or in celebrity media and when it reaches the shelves.
The clothes are manufactured offshore where labour is cheap and workers are underpaid, often working without basic human rights and in an unsafe environment.
It has a limited quantity of each garment and new stock every few days – this makes consumers impulse buy due to fear of missing out.
The clothes are made from cheap, low-quality materials that don’t last.
Look out for greenwashing
As consumers become increasingly environmentally and socially conscious, they also become vulnerable to greenwashing, a marketing tactic that misdirects well-meaning consumers as it paints a company or product as more sustainable than it truly is.
While it’s true that some fast fashion brands are attempting to make more sustainable choices, albeit many are small, others simply market themselves as green to attract consumers whilst not being markedly sustainable. Greenwashing is not only harmful to the environment but also to smaller businesses that are genuinely considerably more sustainable.
Here are some tips on how to spot greenwashing:
Note how the company defines ‘sustainable’ – without a universally accepted definition, brands can label themselves as ‘sustainable’ without adhering to an explicit definition.
See if the company offers information on how they are sustainable by looking out for unsubstantiated claims – if they market themselves as green but do not justify themselves, it may be an indication that they are not, in fact, sustainable.
Look out for irrelevant claims and particular emphasis placed upon one small green attribute – go beyond a company’s most advertised product to see if it is a true reflection of the company’s products and practices.
Beware of vague language and poorly defined claims.
Don’t be fooled by imagery that creates the impression of sustainability – such as the colour green, images of nature, etcetera – as there may not be any substance to back this up.
Shop second-hand or support sustainable brands
Unfortunately, fast fashion brands can be more accessible and size-inclusive than smaller, more sustainable and ethical brands, which prevents many people from straying away from familiar, high street retailers. An additional barrier is expense; generally, slow clothes are more expensive than fast clothes. The price of slow fashion is higher because corners are not cut, workers are paid a fair wage, and the materials and the production process are of better quality.
If you are seeking a low-cost sustainable option, buying second-hand, even if the clothes were made by a fast fashion brand, is far better for the environment than buying new fast clothes, and with numerous apps available to buy and sell used clothing, it can be easy to find clothes in your size. Shopping second-hand gives clothes a new lease of life, and if more consumers did this, the demand for new fast clothes might begin to decrease considerably.
Alternatively, when you seek a shiny new, unworn outfit, opting to support sustainable and ethical brands is not only better for the environment and garment workers but provides you with unique apparel, typically of better quality. If financially feasible, it is wise, and cost-effective, to buy, for example, a sustainable winter coat that can be worn and cherished every winter, instead of a coat from a fast fashion brand that needs replaced after one or two winters have passed.
As sustainability continues to be a hot topic, fast fashion retailers can no longer idly exist without a sustainable mission. We must continue to call attention to the problems in this $2.4-trillion-a-year industry as it needs to fundamentally change to mitigate its environmental impact and quash ethical issues.
In today’s world, the remarkable pace at which clothing is manufactured, worn, and discarded has made apparel more disposable, less like keepsakes and more like commodities, and has conditioned consumers to anticipate a continuous stream of new items. If production were to slow, consumers would not need to go without new outfits if they purchased second-hand clothes, made use of rental schemes, and supported local artisans.