Fast fashion is responsible for the apparel industry's disastrous social and environmental impacts. Every year, fast fashion brands produce massive amounts of cheap clothes that have terrible consequences on people, animals, and the planet.
Thankfully as an eco-conscious consumer, you have the power to drive positive change in the fashion industry. You decide what clothes to buy and who you support with your money.
To help you make more mindful purchasing decisions as a well-informed consumer, here are easy ways to tell if a brand is fast fashion.
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1. Polluting and cheap fabrics
One of the simplest ways to tell if a brand is fast fashion is to look at what kind of fabrics it uses to creates its clothes and how they are sourced.
They are many different materials that go into making clothes with various impacts. The most sustainable fabrics are bio-based, natural, and organic such as organic cotton, linen, hemp, and lyocell, or recycled.
On the other hand, conventional cotton and synthetic materials like polyester, nylon, and acrylic made from oil are highly polluting. They require a lot of chemicals and energy to produce and contaminate the environment.
Synthetic fabrics are also commonly considered non-biodegradable. They break down as microplastics that pollute the air and waterways, endangering human health, land, and marine wildlife.
You can easily look up the materials used for each fashion brand's garment on the composition label. If the brand uses polluting and cheap fabrics, it's likely fast fashion.
2. Low garment quality
Fast fashion brands create cheap and low-quality clothing in huge quantities. Their garments are economical and disposable, made to be replaced with new pieces of clothing as fast as possible.
Fast fashion drives huge economic growth in the textile and apparel industry through inexpensive clothes that are quicker, easier, and cheaper to make than ever.
This business model makes clothing disposable. Old items are quickly replaced by new collections to keep up with trends and consumers' demands.
Fast fashion brands don't encourage fashionistas to invest in high-quality clothing. Instead, they promote low-quality garments made with poor construction methods and low-grade fabrics that don't last very long.
Cheaply made clothing is quickly produced to save time and materials with disregard for details. If you want to avoid fast fashion, simply buy higher quality clothes. Follow my tips on how to never buy low-quality clothes online ever again.
If you look at a brand's garments attentively, you can spot low-quality through mismatched patterns, asymmetrical elements, imperfections, poor cuts, cheap finishes, irregularities, and construction defects.
3. Lack of transparency
Fast fashion brands aren't ethical or transparent about their production methods and factories. If a clothing label doesn't provide much information about its supply chains, there is a good chance that it may not be as ethical as it should be.
Nowadays, most clothes are made in Asia. Manufacturing in faraway countries reduces production costs as labor is extremely cheap.
In some Asian countries, regulations concerning work conditions, living wages, and environmental protection are not as strict as in western countries. Some people even say that you can tell what colors will be trending next year by looking at some rivers in China.
You don't want to participate in destroying ecosystems, poisoning entire food chains, and polluting freshwater sources. So avoid fast fashion brands that lack transparency and don't show ethical working conditions in their factories.
Fast fashion brands produce their garments in Asia to stay competitive. Most of them don't own their production facilities and can't control how the workers are treated.
In developing countries like Bangladesh and Cambodia, garment workers are paid next to nothing. And clothing labels want to keep prices as low as possible to drive consumers to keep buying more and more.
Look at each brand's website before you buy new clothes. See if it lists all its factories and what measures it takes to ensure the workers are well-treated and fairly paid.
If you don't find relevant information on where and how its clothes are made, then it's a very bad sign. Every consumer has the right to know how the products were made before they make a purchase.
Your favorite fashion brands should be as transparent as possible. You should be able to easily find out where the garments are being produced. Website visitors should quickly get to relevant data about factories, countries of production, and labor regulations.
It is even better if you find information regarding living wages, health care, paid leaves, and other benefits. A fashion brand not willing to share that kind of information isn't trustworthy.
High transparency should be the norm for all brands and retailers across the fashion industry. If a fashion brand isn't transparent enough, then pass.
4. High quantity of new styles
Fast fashion is everywhere. It's a global and highly successful phenomenon that has gained massive popularity over the last 20 years for many reasons.
Fast fashion was created to answer the rising consumers' demand for new trendy and affordable clothing designed and produced at lightning speed and pushed to high-street stores every week.
Fast fashion retailers such as H&M, Zara, Primark, Gap, Topshop, and Urban Outfitters reached huge notoriety and grew into large global corporations that produce and sell thousands of new styles weekly.
The success of fast fashion is due to its ease of access, affordability, and a large variety of styles. Fast fashion brands create cheap and stylish clothing in large quantities.
The rise of influencer marketing, social media, and eCommerce allowed online retailers to grow massively. Many people make new purchases influenced by celebrities and social media personalities.
Fashion Nova is one of the most iconic examples of online retail success, leveraging the popularity of visual platforms like Instagram to develop relationships and turn fast fashion into ultra-fast fashion.
You can easily know if a brand is fast fashion by the number of styles they produce. If it always has something new in stores, it likely uses the fast fashion business model.
5. Focus on trendy clothing
Fast fashion brands create cheap trendy clothing inspired by runway shows. They are successful because of the ever-increasing consumers' demand for new fashionable clothes at affordable prices.
There are no more 2 to 4 traditional seasons for new collections. In the fast-fashion world, there are 52 seasons instead.
Fast fashion brands make consumers consider clothing as a disposable commodity. They quickly replace old items with new collections to keep up with trends and consumers' demands.
Dressing in trendy clothing like celebrities for a fraction of the price has enormous social and environmental costs. During the last 15 years, apparel production has doubled globally.
On the other hand, slow or sustainable fashion promotes a more environmentally friendly alternative to buying into fast-moving fashion trends.
This new approach encourages you to think of clothes as an investment and not as disposable objects. Instead of buying cheaply-made trendy clothing that quickly goes out of style, choose high-quality, classic, and timeless garments that you can love for a long time.
Fashion brands should create durable clothing pieces that last and encourage customers to love, wear, and take care of their clothes as much as possible.
And it should be the case across all its product lines, not for only one eco-friendly or eco-conscious collection. When only a small section of a brand's product offering can be considered sustainable, it's not enough.
6. Extremely low prices
The mass-production of textiles, the low cost of materials, labor, and logistics made fast fashion a worldwide sensation.
Consumers can now buy the latest trends displayed at fashion industry events like the Fashion Week in Paris, London, Milan, and New York for a fraction of the price.
People care a lot about the price and style of the clothes they buy. And fast fashion brands keep prices as low as possible to appeal to the mass market.
Before the 1800s, fashion used to be slow, local, and expensive. Clothes were made at home and in small fashion houses where sourcing of materials, fabric weaving, garment cutting, and sewing took a lot of time and effort.
With the industrial revolution came new technologies like the sewing machine to make clothing manufacturing faster, easier, and cheaper. And people started to ask for new trends at an affordable price.
Fast fashion brands and retailers recreate the designs from high-fashion houses and make them available in high-street stores quickly for a fraction of the price.
Price isn't always an accurate indicator of garment quality. But you can usually know if a brand is fast fashion when most of its clothes are mass-produced and sold at extremely low prices.
7. No Corporate Social Responsibility
Check for the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) policies to know if a brand is fast fashion. These are self-determined guidelines to incorporate social and environmental goals in day-to-day operations.
Look up the brand's website to find their policies. If it doesn't have any, it's likely fast fashion. It usually means that the clothing label makes no effort to minimize its impact on the planet.
Fast fashion brands don't participate in recycling, reforestation, ocean cleaning, or waste collection. They don't care about their negative impact and have little economic, social, and environmental sustainability values.
Buy clothes from businesses you believe in that are doing good for the world and operating their business with good intentions.
8. Low efforts in environmental protection
Don't trust what a brand says, watch what they do. It's not enough to set sustainability goals and tell that they are in the work. Every fashion brand should also report on the progress being made.
To find out if a brand is fast fashion, you can watch what it does and what kind of efforts it deploys for environmental protection.
Does it donate a percentage of its profits to environmental organizations? Does it use renewable energy? What about recycling in its headquarters? Or using electric transport for deliveries and recycled paper for packaging? Does it buy carbon offsets to compensate for its emissions?
You should be able to find lots of information about a fashion brand and what it does to protect the environment. If you don't, avoid it.
9. Burning unsold clothes
There are more responsible ways to dispose of old clothing than burning them. 73% of the world's clothing eventually ends in landfills to decompose or be incinerated.
Fast fashion retailers burn billions' worth of clothes every year, instead of reselling or recycling them.
They don’t just keep every item until it sells. And they don't place every item back for sale when you return it either.
You can know if a brand is fast fashion by checking what happens to clothes that don't sell and the items you return.
Clothes that are still in good condition could be donated to local shelters or charitable organizations. But only a small fraction of clothes are ever recycled or donated.
10. Absence of certifications
Look for certifications as the lack of standards is a sign of cheap and low-quality clothing made by a fast-fashion brand. You should be able to find the symbols in stores, on home pages, collection pages, product labels, or sustainability pages.
The best certification standards for textiles demonstrate a commitment to ethical manufacturing and environmental protection. They are granted by third-party organizations that validate a brand's sustainability performance.
Fast fashion brands usually don't display any certifications. They don't verify the application of social regulations and don't care for their environmental impact.
Standards in the textile and apparel industry are important to guarantee good working conditions in every step of the supply chain. Regular visits and close cooperation with the production sites can check sustainable processes and socially responsible manufacturing.
The best fashion brands guarantee consumers that textile products have been manufactured with the least possible impact on people and the environment and with responsible use of resources.
Many fast fashion brands are greenwashing. They make misleading claims about the environmental benefits of their products. As environmental awareness rises, they want to appear to be more eco-friendly than they truly are.
Green business is booming as more and more consumers are starting to care about how the clothes they wear are being made. So fast fashion brands want to differentiate themselves from the competition and catch customers' attention.
Greenwash is a marketing strategy used to increase sales and position brands in a better light. For consumers, it becomes challenging to tell if an environmental claim is accurate or not.
That is why so many fast fashion brands get easily away with it. They greenwash to influence purchasing behaviors based on emotions and tap into the good conscience of consumers.
Adopting green business practices is becoming a profitable strategy. Brands and retailers worldwide want to be perceived as making a positive environmental impact to appeal to the eco-aware customer.
And fashion companies expect high growth from a favorable image and government support since consumers are willing to pay more for eco-friendly products.
Look for environmental images commonly used to greenwash such as leaves, flowers, green fields, and animals. Most genuinely eco-friendly clothes use no images and plain packaging to truly save resources.
If you see a claim that a product is organic without any supportive information, it's a sign of greenwash and the brand is misleading consumers.
Fast fashion brands and retailers often categorize garments as natural, bio, organic, or recycled when in fact it only concerns a portion of the fibers used.
Companies should back their claims with numbers. How much energy was truly saved? How much greenhouse gas was captured? How much water was used?
Businesses that say all parts of the truth are very rare. When it comes to sustainable fashion, brands will oftentimes only show what the consumer wants to see.
So be on the lookout for deceptive claims fast fashion brands make to hide what is truly going on behind the scenes.
Words like pure, natural, earth-friendly, eco-friendly, organic, green, reduced emissions, sustainable development, carbon-neutral, plant-based, etc. are potentially misleading.
12. Vague answers from customer support
To know if a brand is fast fashion, you can look for supporting evidence on the companies websites and/or ask them to provide proof for what they are claiming.
You can always get more information by going to Google and looking up the products. Look for certification standards that are relevant to the eco-friendliness of clothes.
One of the best ways to avoid fast fashion is to ask each brand directly for more information. If you only receive vague answers or none at all from customer support, it's a bad sign.
A clothing label that has nothing to hide should be delighted to respond promptly with any answer you are looking for.
Some of the top questions you can ask any fashion brand to know if it's fast fashion include:
- How do you source your materials?
- What kind of fabrics do you use?
- Where are your garments manufactured?
- Where are your clothes shipped from/to?
- How do you make sure that your factories are safe?
- How often do you visit your factories?
- How do you know that the garment workers receive living wages?
- What do you do to minimize your environmental impact?
- Do your clothes have any certification?
- Can you provide recent proof of inspections or third-party audits?
- What happens to unsold clothes?
And you shouldn't trust everything a fashion brand says to you. For every claim it makes, ask to back it up with the relevant proof.
It's no big deal to send emails to fashion brands. The customer service of any brand should respond with the information you expect if you stay positive and polite.
13. Low sustainability rating in directories
You can use ethical fashion brand directories to known if a brand is fast fashion. Online directories help you identify how sustainable a brand truly is with information about factories, materials, policies, and values.
They classify each clothing brand and help you find out which one is doing better for the planet, people, and animals.
Many ethical brand directories rate clothing labels on their activities for environmental protection, social justice, human rights, community involvement, and animal welfare.
They encourage fashion brands to improve their sustainability practices and take massive action to reduce waste, pollution, and carbon emissions.
Use these tools to differentiate fast fashion brands from the ones that make consistent efforts in material sourcing, supply chain, waste management, or production methods to better their environmental impacts.
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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.