The contemporary phrase was coined by fashion retailers to mean the designs that flow immediately from the fashion week catwalks to meet the demand for incoming fashion trends.
The author, Alison Matthews David, in her book, Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present, notes that “In clothing designed for appearance rather than performance, unconscionable cheap fast-fashion knockoffs allow us to satisfy our desire for constantly new wardrobes without straining our wallets.”
Matthews David goes on to say that by filing our closets with such disposable clothing we as consumers might have unknowingly caused pain, suffering, and even death in developing countries where these products are been manufactured.
You can see the origins of fast fashion take place as early as the 19th century when the Industrial Revolution introduced new technologies like the sewing machine, textile machines, and new ways of dyeing clothing. Thus, resulting in ready-to-wear garments and the mass production of clothing.
It’s during this early period that the rise of the middle class resulted in clothing businesses beginning to hire garment workers who worked for very little wages. This change in operations actually created the basis for what we know as “sweatshops” and the foundation for modern clothing production as we know it.
World War II further amplified the need for clothing standardization and the acceptance of mass-produced clothing. Throughout the 20th century, there was a continued clear distinction between high fashion and high street fashion (main/fast fashion).
However, it was in the 1990s and early 2000s that companies like H&M, Zara, Topshop, and Primark began to make a name for themselves in taking clothing designs that were seen on high fashion runways and transmuting/replicating those looks for the everyday person for a fraction of the cost. Therefore, fast fashion as we know it today was born and everyday women or men could take part in fashion trends that would normally not be available to them.
Who are the major Fast Fashion companies? How do they do this?
Some of the major players in the fast fashion industry are names that are very recognizable today, such as H&M, Zara, Topshop, and Primark. All of these companies’ business models emphasize that they optimize parts of their supply chain in order for their products to be manufactured quickly and inexpensively so that the mainstream consumer can buy their products at a much lower price point than high fashion brands.
Within the fast fashion consumption cycle, there are three very important factors: market timing, cost, and buying cycle. The goal of timing is obviously to achieve the shortest production time as possible; costs are still important determinants in the consumers’ buying decisions, therefore costs are kept low by taking advantage of lower prices in developing countries; the buying cycle is one of the final determining factors that affects consumers, the fashion buying cycle is typically 1 year to six month season, however, with fast fashion the time period is significantly shortened.
Other fast fashion companies include Mango, ASOS.com, Charlotte Russe, Fashion Nova, Forever 21, Uniqlo, Urban Outfitters, etc.
Environmental and Health/Safety Impact
Author and journalist, Elizabeth L Cline, noted in her article, Where Does Discarded Clothing Go?, that Americans purchase 5 times the amount of clothing they did in 1980. This drastic rise in consumption means that developed countries continue to produce more and more garments each season, which is resulting in more textile waste and more than 1 billion garments imported into the USA from China alone.
For example, the average American family produces more than 70 pounds of textile waste per year. The U.S. EPA estimates that textile waste occupies almost 5% of all landfill space, and most of the clothing disposed of in landfills is often made from non-biodegradable materials.
Not only do textiles attribute to waste in landfills after they are disposed of, but the production of fast fashion textiles releases greenhouse gases, pesticides, and dyes into the environment. The United Nations estimates that these companies are responsible for 10% of the greenhouse gas emissions.
We must also, not forget that in addition to affecting our environment, producing clothing quickly and at a lower cost can also negatively impact the lives of the workers in the developing countries that help to mass-produce these products. For example in the early 2000s, a new sandblasting method was developed to give denim a “distressed” look, this resulted in possibly thousands of Turkish men having permanent scarring to their lungs after working with/inhaling abrasive silica-containing beach sand.
Additionally, in a study from 2012, Greenpeace purchased 141 fast fashion garments and tested them for their chemical makeup. The results were that two-thirds of the items contained substances such as nonylphenol exothalates and phthalates that when washed can actually leach harmful chemicals to human and animal life. Garments from this study by Greenpeace included underwear from Victoria Secret, to garments from Zara, Mango, and Gap.
What is the solution? How can we as consumers reduce waste? How can we be more aware of the consequences of our clothing choices?
H&M is one of the fast-fashion retailers working to decrease the industry’s environmental footprint and to adopt new sustainable technologies. For example, H&M have created initiatives to encourage their consumers to recycle their products rather than throwing them away after using.
However, one does have to call into question H&M’s recycling initiatives though, are they just, in the end, encouraging their consumers to buy more and at a faster rate than before?
Reuse (buying pre-owned fashion)
Another solution is that instead of consuming fast fashion at an increasing rate (since the items are produced quickly and at a much lower quality), consumers could purchase higher quality products on the secondary market. Thus, participating in the circular economy and reducing the waste produced by the fast fashion industry.
Some companies that offer great resources for pre-owned high-quality goods are ThredUp, The RealReal, Fashionphile. Or as an alternative, instead of buying from a large secondary market retailer, you can support your local small secondary market shop! Trust us there are many shops that sell high-quality gently pre-owned clothing, shoes, handbags, and accessories in practically every state with many having online stores!
Slow Fashion Movement
Is the slow fashion or conscious fashion movement the solution?
This movement has sprung up in direct opposition to the fast fashion industry citing those companies as responsible for pollution, poor quality products, and items that emphasize brief trends over a long-lasting timeless style.
Slow fashion emphasizes sustainable and ethical practices in the production of clothing. High-end designers are leading the way in the slow fashion movement, a few days ago Chanel raised its first-ever sustainability-linked bond in a 600M Euro transaction with BNP Paribas. The goal with this is to reduce Chanel’s internal and energy-related emissions.
In addition, a number of fashion companies have pledged to switch to more sustainable fabrics and materials and to cut back on the carbon impact of their energy use.
As with any new movement, effective change is slow, it can take years for companies to try to reduce their carbon footprint or to use more sustainable fabrics, but you as a consumer can make a difference right now by reducing your consumption of fast fashion garments and instead, participating in the circular economy.
Calma, Justine. “A scrappy solution to the fashion industry’s giant waste problem”. https://grist.org/article/a-scrappy-solution-to-the-fashion-industrys-waste-problem/
Cline, Elizabeth L. (2012) Overdresses: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion. Penguin Group. New York.
Cline, Elizabeth L. (July 18, 2014). “Where Does Discarded Clothing Go?”. The Atlantic.
“Council for Textile Recycling”. www.weardonaterecycle.org
Houston, Jack. “Sneaky ways stores like H&M, Zara, and Uniqlo get you to spend more money on clothes”. www.businessinsider.com/hm-zara-uniqlo-fast-fashion-spend-money-clothes-2019-1
Matthews David, Alison (2017) Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present. Bloomsbury. New York.
“On trend: Chanel debuts new sustainability-linked bond”. www.businessgreen.com/news/4020756/trend-chanel-debuts-sustainability-linked-bond
Sheridan, Mandy; Moore, Christopher; Nobbs, Karinna (2006). “Fast fashion requires fast marketing: The role of category management in fast fashion positioning”. Journal of Fashion Marketing and Management.