Fast fashion has gained massive popularity over the last 20 years. The quickly and cheap design, production, and distribution of new trendy clothing appeals to consumers all over the world.
Fast fashion is a global phenomenon. The latest trend from the catwalk and runway shows are pushed to high-street stores every week. They are made available to consumers for a very low price.
With the help of new technologies in manufacturing and communication, fast fashion reached a global scale. Consumers are now accustomed to affordable fashion and buy new clothes regularly.
We used to view clothes as an investment before the industrial revolution. Now, the large majority of the clothes we find in stores is disposable. And buying new clothes is a daily event for many people. It plays a huge role in the economy.
Clothes made by the fast fashion business model are cost-efficient. But they also have a very low durability and short lifespan. Because consumers now want high fashion at a low price, brands and retailers drive costs down to keep making profits.
The most well-known fast fashion retail stores such as Forever 21, H&M, Primark, Zara grew into large global corporations using the Internet, social media, and technological innovation.
How can fast fashion designers and brands produce new stylish clothes so quickly and cheaply to appeal to consumers? Here are 5 reasons why fast fashion is so cheap.
1. The rising demand for fast fashion
Despite the huge negative social and environmental impact, many people still buy fast fashion. Do you still buy fast fashion at the moment?
I know it's difficult to do otherwise. Buying new trendy fashion at an affordable price is fun, practical and convenient.
In our modern society, fast fashion represents the culture of instant gratification. Since the late 1990s, it has been growing exponentially and remains extremely successful to this day.
The global apparel industry is expanding at a 6.16% compound annual growth rate. It was valued at about USD 1.5 trillion in 2020. It's difficult to imagine a world without fast fashion.
88% of consumers prefer shopping for fast fashion in the United-States. In Europe, only 46% prefer shopping for fast fashion, in India 25%, and China 21%.
The excessive production of disposable clothing exists because of consumers' demand for trendy and cheap garments produced at lightning speed.
The fast fashion industry thas to innovate and become cheaper to answer the overconsumption of low-cost clothing. It's a pleasurable activity to hunt for new stylish clothes. Many people shop for new fashion daily.
Check out my article on the 10 reasons why fast fashion is so popular to understand consumers' behavior.
2. Mass production of textile
The mass production of textiles for apparel and footwear is now cheaper than ever.
Cotton is one of the most used fibers for clothing around the world. Each year, 30.3 million tons of cotton are produced globally.
Like many other textiles, China is the largest producer of cotton worldwide. China produced 6.1 million tons of cotton in 2018, followed by India (4.69 million tons), and the United States (4 million tons).
Cotton farming uses enormous amounts of water and pesticides. It consumes 16% of all pesticides worldwide.
The mass-production of cotton is everywhere. It's getting more efficient and cheaper to produce conventional cotton. Especially in countries such as Bangladesh and Uzbekistan where labor costs are very low.
Other cheap synthetic fibers such as polyester, nylon, and acrylic are also mass-produced to make fast fashion. 70.66 million tons of polyester and other resins are produced each year globally. In the United States, the price of polyester is about 10% cheaper than it was 10 years ago.
Read up my list of the fashion brands that still use sweatshops to produce their items and learn about the clothes you should avoid buying.
3. Low labor cost in overseas countries
The textile and apparel industry employs 300 million people around the world, many of them in the poorest countries.
Fast fashion is mostly produced in low-income East Asian countries, such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Vietnam.
Fast fashion brands and retailers keep pushing for low labor costs. They want to increase their profit margins and satisfy consumers' demand for fashionable and affordable clothing. Meanwhile, garment factories maintain low wages and unsafe working conditions.
This started a very deadly clothing manufacturing disaster. In 2013, the Rana Plaza, an eight-story commercial building, collapsed. It killed 1,134 garment factory workers and injured around 2,500 people.
Many Bangladeshi factory workers are forced to work more than 15 hours a day seven days a week and are paid very poorly. The large majority of workers are paid 3,000 Taka per month (about $35), which is much lower than a living wage.
4. Little care for the environment
The mass production of cheap clothing has a catastrophic social and environmental impact. It's unethical and unsustainable. Many fast fashion brands don't care about the planet, the people, and the animals living on it. Their priority is to make profits.
Every year, it accounts for more than 8% of all greenhouse gas emissions globally (1.2 billion tons annually). If the trend continues, that number will grow by 50% by 2030.
Fast fashion adds massively to global warming. You can learn more about this issue by reading my article on the fashion industry's contribution to climate change.
The fashion industry is also responsible for textile waste piling up at a catastrophic rate. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that 16.9 million tons of used textile waste is generated every year in the United States.
Fast fashion creates enormous amounts of wastewater (20% of all wastewater worldwide) due to manufacturing processes such as fabric bleaching and dyeing.
Fast fashion is so cheap because brands and retailers use cheap production methods that don't protect the environment. It costs more money to invest in local community support programs and ethical manufacturing practices.
5. Lack of a viable alternative
Fast fashion causes the human and environmental problems. It drives overconsumption and many disastrous issues. The very high rates of water and energy consumption, resource extraction, waste production, pollution and carbon emissions aren't sustainable.
The alternative exists in a more sustainable approach to fashion. It starts with making more conscious choices when buying clothing.
But ethical and sustainable fashion isn't accessible to most people. The demand for environmentally friendly clothing has to rise before its prices and availability can increase.
It's unrealistic to think that all clothing production can be 100% sustainable. Fast fashion remains in high demand today. Consumers' behavior must change but it requires lots of time and effort.
Can you think of some great alternatives to fast fashion?
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.