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 affordable 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 microfibers 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 cehmicals 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.
On workers: As well as the environmental cost of fast fashion, there’s a human cost. Fast fashion impacts garments 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.
On animals: 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 a 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!
On consumers: 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 criticized on intellectual property grounds, with some designers alleging that retailers have illegally mass-produced their designs.