Fast Fashion 101: Answering the how's, why's and what now's
Updated: May 15
Growing up in the 90s I remember when high street clothing stores still had 2 seasons – the Spring/Summer season and the Fall/Winter season, with big sales at the end of them, getting people excited to bag themselves some bargains.
These days fast fashion brands bang out 52 so-called micro-seasons a year.
52! That is one collection per week! This concept not only urges people to buy more clothes than ever, it also introduced the aversion of re-wearing pieces, which is why the amount of pieces we send to landfills has more than doubled in the last 20 years.
But how did we get here? Why are the voices saying 'fast fashion is bad' getting louder and louder? And how is it that fast fashion is being linked to environmental, human rights and even health problems?
Bear with me, I will explain…
What exactly is ‘fast fashion’ and how did we get here?
”an approach to the design, creation, and marketing of clothing fashions that emphasizes making fashion trends quickly and cheaply available to consumers” - Merriam-Webster Dictionary
I was surprised that we can trace the history of fast fashion all the way back to the 1830s, when in the US, the cotton industry was the most important crop for Southern states, and was supplied to clothing makers and home interior companies across the United States and Europe.
We all know who worked the cotton fields, so the exploitative nature of fast fashion clearly isn’t a new phenomenon.
By 1850 mass-produced clothing was a wide-spread practice and the term ‘sweatshop’ was first coined.
Fast-forward a century, where our consumer culture really took off. Advertising made us believe that we need to be buying more and more things, tying our self-worth to what we wear (”you are what you wear”) and how much ‘stuff’ we possess.
Up until that point clothing was still manufactured locally, however that changed in the 70s when an ‘import quota’ drove up local manufacturing costs and many fashion retailers started moving their manufacturing abroad - to the countries where they could pay the cheapest price for the fastest turnaround.
In 2013 many of us received a wakeup call to what was really happening behind the scenes. The Rana Plaza incident in Bangladesh killed more than 1000 workers, mostly women, who made clothes for the best-selling brands that we know. All of a sudden we had to start asking ourselves what that ”Made in Bangladesh” tag on our clothes really means and who these people are.
Movements like the Fashion Revolution were born to tackle these issues.
Bad News for….
” The textile industry is one of the most polluting, unethical and wasteful industries on earth. It’s actually the second most polluting industry after oil and before the livestock industry.” – London Sustainability Exchange
Despite making billions of dollars of profit in a year (1), the garment workers in countries like Bangladesh, China, India and Vietnam are often paid pittances. Girls, as young as 14, enter the workforce for 14-hour shifts and as little as $3 per day in factories that have no regard for human wellbeing or safety.
In early 2020 after the global coronavirus outbreak, the same big fashion houses that were in the news after Rana Plaza, were being caught out again – this time they cancelled orders that had been processed already, but because the industry operates on a debt-system, orders are only being paid once they’re sold. This meant for millions of garment workers that they were sent home without pay or guarantees for work they had already done.
In a lot of these countries, joining or forming unions, which would help to demand more fairness and better working conditions, comes with high risks or is simply impossible, so the responsibility lies with big fashion houses to choose suppliers that make sure their workers' wellbeing is looked after.
Where do I even start?
With the 82 million metric tons of GHG emissions that come from textiles and leather (2)? Or the ancient forests that are being destroyed to produce viscose, rayon and leather? Or I could write about the fact that textile dyeing is polluting rivers and killing wildlife and the people living along the river banks? Or the water shortages that are linked to extensive cotton production and have already occurred in China and India? Or the microplastics that leach from our clothes and have been found everywhere - from our tap water, to the air, to the bottom of the ocean and even our bloodstream?
I think I have made my point.
Our skin is our largest organ and we absorb as well as release toxins from it.
Textiles like polyester, nylon or acrylic are made from the same raw material as plastics – crude oil! Imagine wrapping your skin in a plastic cover, that would basically have the same effect: not only are textiles releasing nasty chemicals due to our body heat , but your skin can’t breathe either, which it does to naturally release toxins.
The chemicals associated with polyester have been linked to hormonal disruption and even the growth of cancer cells.
But it’s not just our own health we’re gambling with; again the garment workers are on the forefront of this issue since they’re around those chemicals all day – whether their job is manufacturing the textiles, dyeing or sewing, their health is always compromised.
What can we do?
Luckily times seem to be changing. People have been waking up and using their voices, especially since Rana Plaza. More and more citizens are demanding transparency about their supply-chains from brands, and Generation Z is known among marketers for their societal & environmental concerns.
As with most societal changes, system as well as individual action is needed.
Here's what we can do on an individual level...
1) Stay informed and active
When H&M tried to greenwash their ‘transparency index award’, activists started calling them out and it resulted in them deleting their claims on social media and apologizing. The problem with things like this is that these brands are pandering to our desire for more sustainability, showcasing 'conscious' collections while continuing their questionable practices for the others.
Thanks to the UN Sustainability Goals and initiatives like Fashion Revolution, Remake our World and so many more from all over the world, the voices of these people who make our clothes are being amplified, and innovators, entrepreneurs and citizens are finally listening.
With the App 'Good on You' you can check your favourite brands' ratings and discover new ones that put people, the planet and animals at the heart of what they do.
And if you want to go a step further, stay up-to-date with industry news, follower educators like Aja Barber and make your own voice heard with emails, letters, petitions and demands to big fashion houses.
2) ‘See yourself as a citizen – not as a consumer’
I borrowed this sentence from the book ‘The Future We Choose’.
So many of our issues nowadays are directly linked to consumerism. Like I said earlier, for more than five decades we now have been told that we need to buy things. We either make it about other people (by comparing ourselves or trying to impress) or we call it 'therapy' for us. Buying new things has been equated with feeling good.
It might sound ultra-cheesy but we need to find who we are below all the clothes and the ‘stuff’ and find out what makes us genuinely happy. Because - spoiler-alert - all those orders from ASOS and co. might give us a dopamine kick, but do nothing for our long term well-being. What was exciting and new for one day generally gets old and boring very quickly.
Capsule wardrobes could be an answer for us. Many sustainable fashionistas are leading the way on Social Media and Venetia La Manna’s modified hashtag #OOOTD (old outfit of the day) is inspiring thousands to show off their ‘old’ re-worn outfits.
3) Choose Second hand and Fair Fashion
Studies show that the secondhand fashion industry is booming and could even overtake fast fashion if growth continues at the current rate.
On platforms like Depop or Ebay we can find everything from shoes, to dresses to shirts and accessories.
For special occasions there are platforms like Hurr who rent out luxury clothing and accessories.
And of course there are many fashion brands who put sustainability and ethics at the heart of what they’re doing, making sure to use recycled or sustainable materials and pay living wages to everyone in their supply-chain. These often come at a higher price than what we are used to, but that’s how a ‘fair’ item should be priced – they also tend to last longer than any fast fashion pieces.
Whatever you choose to do, I hope this article has given you a little bit of an insight into why it’s important to always question cheap prices – for the sake of the people who make our clothes, our own and that of our planet’s.
And as always: the aim isn't perfection but awareness and taking responsibility. Some people simply can't afford buying fair fashion, so it's important to not just see this issue as black and white.
But I think putting more thought into what we buy, why we buy it and what happens to it after we are 'done' with it is something that can only benefit us all.
(1) McKinsey & Company
(2) International Energy Association
(3) The Robin Report: Beyond Sustainable: The Growing Demand for Ethical Fashion