Fast Fashion is socially and environmentally damaging. But that doesn't prevent consumers to buy more fast fashion each year globally. I used to shop fast fashion before 2016 very frequently. It's a fun activity to look for new, stylish, and affordable clothing.
The rising consumers' demand for trendy and affordable clothing, the availability of low-cost labor overseas, quick manufacturing and communication innovations cause fast fashion.
If you've bought clothes recently, you've probably supported the growth of fast fashion retailers. It's easier to turn to fast fashion as it's more convenient and readily available than any other alternatives.
Fast fashion has the advantages of price, style, and accessibility over clothing rental, thrifting, swapping, or ethical fashion.
It's so difficult to make better purchasing decisions when fast fashion giants like H&M, Primark, and Zara are everywhere. Our present society loves instant gratification. And fast fashion offers exactly that.
Fast fashion has been growing exponentially over the last 20 years. It's now rooted very deep in people's shopping habits. It's extremely successful today despite its environmental and labor costs.
This raises some questions. How did fast fashion start? Why is it still popular today? Does it have a bright future as the fashion industry is bound to change?
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Understanding the causes of fast fashion
Fast fashion is defined by a disastrous business model in the textile and apparel industry that designs, produces, and distributes trendy cheaply-made clothing massively.
Large fast fashion retail stores started to pop up everywhere in the late 1990s. They sell everything cheaply, from basics to runway-inspired designer clothing. Everyone can easily find there fitting jeans, shirts, blouses, dresses, jackets, workout outfits, shoes, and accessories.
Fast fashion brands and retailers offer quickly available clothing inspired by the latest trends for significantly less money than their competitors. They use social media influence and technological innovation to grow into large global corporations.
Fashion is a rapidly developing industry. The fast-fashion business model is the major contributor to its growth. The global apparel industry is expanding at a 6.16% compound annual growth rate, valued at about USD 1.5 trillion in 2020!
To learn more about why fast fashion is so common among consumers' shopping habits today, read my article on fast fashion popularity.
In the United-States, 88% of consumers prefer shopping for fast fashion, followed by consumers in Europe (46%), India (25%) and China (21%). The most popular fast-fashion retailers in the world are Uniqlo (21%), H&M (18%) and Zara (18%).
But fast fashion has an immense social and environmental cost. It has changed the way consumers think about fashion and destroying the planet, humans', and animals' lives at the same time.
If you are wondering what's wrong with fast fashion, I recommend you to read my short article on why you should quit fast fashion.
The global textile and apparel industry accounts for more than 8% of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions.
The fashion industry emits about 1.7 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions worldwide each year. That number is expected to rise by 50% by 2030 if the trend continues.
This amount of waste the average American generates each year is about 10 times larger than in 1960. That number doubled over the last 20 years. Americans created 16.9 million tons of textile waste in 2017.
People used to buy durable and high-quality clothing before the industrial revolution. Globalization and the transfer of clothing production in overseas countries, where labor costs are very low, make fast fashion expand rapidly.
In the mid-1900s, any woman could spend about $10 (or $80 in today’s dollars) to order a ready-made dress from a Sears catalog. Today, that same simple dress is sold for about $12.
Fast fashion is overall environmentally damaging and resource-intensive. It impacts local communities negatively with underpaid labor and unsafe working conditions.
Many factory workers are paid below the legal minimum wage, forced to work long hours in insecure environments, don't have access to healthcare or paid leaves.
Many fast fashion brands exploit and abuse workers in their supply chain to this day. Read up my article on the brands that still use sweatshop labor to find out about them.
The lack of awareness of these issues allows fast fashion to keep growing currently. Today's consumers want more affordable and trendy clothes. Many of them are led by social media personalities and celebrities to consume more.
Cheaply-made clothes have become disposable commodities. Today's shoppers are conditioned to buy more and more often. Shopping for new stylish clothing is a daily event for many consumers.
The demand for fast fashion isn't going away anytime soon. It's now the new normal. Consumers expect affordability, efficiency, and quick delivery. Price and style are much more important than quality and durability in the eyes of many young shoppers.
Consumers have no issue buying imitations and pieces of clothing with very low standards. And we don't even use most of the clothes in our wardrobe today.
"My grandmother has only one shirt in her wardrobe. My mother has three. My daughter’s generation, 50. And 48% of them, she never wears."
- Jack Ma, Alibaba Group co-founder, and former Executive Chairman
The rise and fall of fast fashion
Fortunately, the green movement is booming. Conscious consumers are asking for more and more environmentally friendly or sustainable products, even in the fashion industry.
Ethical fashion brands are going back to sourcing raw materials and produce clothing in an environmentally friendly and socially responsible manner.
Fast fashion pushes new, trendy, and cheaply-made styles to high-street stores every week. Richard Saghian, Fashion Nova CEO, says he turned fast fashion into ultra-fast fashion, producing 600 new styles every week.
Consumers are used to document their Outfit Of The Day on social media. And only a few people are willing to be seen in the same outfit twice.
The 2017 study commissioned by Hubbub, a London-based sustainability firm, found that 41% of all 18-25-year-old women feel pressured to wear a different outfit every time they go out. And 33% of all women consider an outfit to be "old" after wearing it fewer than three times.
Caryn Franklin, fashion commentator and an activist for sustainable fashion, says social media posts of trendy outfits have encouraged narcissism and dysfunctional consumption.
The rise of influencers on social media and online marketing allows fast fashion brands and retailers to expand rapidly. Excellent platforms for popular celebrities and influencers to develop relationships with brands and present the latest trends are:
It's undeniable that fast fashion drives economic growth. It has a tremendous impact on the economy. It's impossible now to imagine a world without any textiles. The role of the apparel and footwear industry in the global economy is massive.
Do you want to learn more about the influence of fast fashion on the economy? Read up my article on how does fast fashion affect the economy.
The apparel and footwear industry employs more than 300 million people in the whole world, most of them in the poorest countries, where labor is shockingly cheap.
Many fast fashion brands use a workforce that is paid illegally low wages, even in the United States, to mass-produce affordable clothing. Every year, the United States Labor Department investigates allegations of wage violations at sewing contractors in Los Angeles.
It's very shocking to see cases of forced labor and child labor being reported. Yet, many celebrities and influencers like Cassie, Ana Montana, Cardi B, Amber Rose, Kylie Jenner, and Janet Guzman are still ambassadors and support fast fashion brands like Fashion Nova.
And the general public continues to buy affordable clothing made by fast fashion brands that don't care about the welfare of their garment factory workers. People tend to forget that their clothes aren't ethical, according to the Journal of Consumer Research (2017).
"People want to want to care about this stuff, but in practice, I’m just not sure that they do. Ultimately you’re going to want to buy the thing that you want to buy because we’re human animals."
- Meredith Haggerty, Deputy The Goods Editor at Vox Media, Inc.
Fast fashion has changed the clothing industry fundamentally. Consumers buy more clothes now than ever before from fast fashion brands and retailers. It's a worldwide phenomenon. Clothing companies use all possible means to acquire customers and make profits.
Do you think there are solutions to fast fashion?
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About the Author: Alex Assoune
Alex Assoune (MS) is a global health and environmental advocate. He founded Panaprium to inspire others with conscious living, ethical, and sustainable fashion. Alex has worked in many countries to address social and environmental issues. He speaks three languages and holds two Master of Science degrees in Engineering from SIGMA and IFPEN schools.