Things You Need to Know About Fast Fashion

| By Kaleen Luu |

Fast Fashion Fast Facts & History You Should be Mindful Of

Fast fashion is exactly as its name describes it. Fast and trending are the essence of the global fast fashion market and represent an approximate $36 billion industry

Feature Photo: Latrach Med Jamil on Unsplash

The prices and quality of fast fashion are signs of a larger and harmful economic ecosystem.

The low prices for trendy clothing may seem too good to be true, and they are. The fashion cycle makes it so brands can capitalize on styles quickly going out of season.

The unwritten rule in the fast fashion industry: create trends at jaw-dropping prices for the consumer, even if that means sacrificing quality and craftsmanship. Though, this comes at a high cost elsewhere. For our planet’s ecology and for garment workers who labor for below fair wages overseas. All of this destruction to satisfy the consumers’ thirst for fast fashion. 

Before letting this vicious cycle consume you, here’s what you need to know about fast fashion. Learn about the tremendous environmental impact of the fast fashion industry and its exploitation of workers.

Photo: Fernand De Canne on Unsplash

The amount of textile waste has increased over the decades.

The fashion industry as a whole is detrimental to our environment, but fast fashion especially so because of its business model. 

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the main source of textile waste is discarded clothing.

The number of textiles sent to landfills in the U.S. has continued to rise over the years and to combat this, some of the waste is incinerated. In 2018 alone, 11.3 million tons of textiles were sent to landfills and 3.2 million tons were combusted. To put this into perspective, in 1960 we produced 1.7 million tons of textile waste. In 2018, it amassed 17 million tons. 

Polyester fabric is leeching microplastics into our water sources.

The clothing manufacturing process has a high environmental impact. It produces carbon emissions and uses an immense amount of energy and resources. Fast fashion brands like Forever 21, H&M and Zara are unfortunately leading the way in this destructive industry.

Clothing produced by fast fashion brands are typically made with small plastic fibers like polyester, nylon and acrylic. These materials are cheap to manufacture and versatile. While synthetic fibers allow companies to keep their costs down, it comes at the expense of the environment because of microfiber pollution.

According to a 2016 study by the University of Plymouth in the U.K., an estimated 700,00 pieces of microfibers are released in a single load of laundry. 

Even natural fibers like cotton and linen are not completely green, as clothing cannot be composted. The production of making clothing means they’ve been subjected to chemical dyes which can leech into the ground and contaminate water sources. In addition, combustion isn’t always a viable option as burning clothing can release toxins from the chemical dyes into the air. 

According to a 2017 report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, an estimated 35 percent of microplastics in the ocean are from synthetic textiles. The cheap polyester fabrics that are commonplace with fast fashion clothing are polluting our oceans.

The destruction of our planet is not something that can be repaired. Once the damage is done, there isn’t a fix to the trauma that our planet is suffering. Executive Vice President Emily Woglom of the non-profit Ocean Conservancy told NBC that the prevention of microfibers needs to be emphasized. The ocean cannot be sieved for contaminants.

Clothing is clearanced out and disposed of only weeks after being introduced in stores.

As rapidly as retailers hang up their collections, the garments see a short life. They are marked down and pushed onto clearance racks only weeks later to make room for the next trending items.

Alarmingly, shopping fast fashion was a conscious decision many people shrugged off until the pandemic hit. It was only then, faced with more mindful budgets, that consumers became more aware of the impact of their spending.

The dark side of the fashion industry dwells behind all the glitz and glamour of new collections rolling out onto sales floors almost as fast as they appear on runways and magazines. Shoppers seem desperate to be clad in the latest trends seen on their favorite celebrities for a fraction of the price.

Photo: Artem Beliaikin on Unsplash

Fast fashion has overtaken the industry because of its accessibility. The clamor for affordable clothing up-to-date with the latest trends is there, and companies make it happen at the expense of our planet and workers’ rights. These businesses take advantage of the high demand and produce overstock of trendy items they can sell for a low price. 

The problem with this scenario is that this only satisfies shoppers for a brief period. Styles go out of favor faster than the seasons change, so fashion brands are cycling through their new releases more rapidly than their inventory can sell. 

The fast fashion cycle traps consumers in a loop due to its affordability.

Since the industrial revolution and the invention of the sewing machine, ready-made clothing items have slowly gained favor among the public due to their affordability. However, it wasn’t until World War II that mass-produced clothing began to take precedence over custom-tailored garments. The shortage of fabric led to simpler styles during this time. In turn, this led to mass-produced fashion made through lower working standards. 

All throughout the 1960s to the 1990s, as manufacturers moved to outsource cheaper labor to developing countries and sought to save on material costs, the consumers’ command for accessible clothing remained high. As a result, retailers shifted their pace of production to meet the increasing demand for newer trends. 

Fast fashion as people know it today began in the 1990s, as supply chains were updated to increase the rate of production. Companies continued to cut costs even as their collections became more frequent. Paired with the shorter shelf turnarounds for the numerous micro-season releases, the consequences are staggering, to say the least.

Photo: Rio Lecatompessy on Unsplash

Fast fashion supply chains are exploitative of garment workers.

As it is, the supply chain for clothing is murky water. The United Nations recognizes a living wage as a human right, yet millions of garment workers are exploited for their cheap labor.

Poor working conditions and the exploitation of garment workers are widespread issues. Contrary to common belief, it’s not limited to developing countries. It’s happening right here in our backyards.

A 2017 article by the LA Times stated that the Department of Labor discovered labor violations at 85% of the factories it visited during a four-month period. It determined that the companies owed $1.3 million to their workers in back wages and lost over time. What if the labor violations were never discovered? 

Wage theft is disguised with the model of workers being paid per piece of clothing, instead of an hourly rate. An NBC News article last year revealed some employees in California were being paid just three cents apiece for clothing work.  

Garment workers live in poverty due to low wages. In addition, their safety is at risk due to unregulated work conditions. In 2013, the world’s deadliest garment industry accident in history exposed poor working conditions. As reported by NPR, Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza collapsed and about 1,100 people died. The workers were being paid Bangladesh’s minimum wage of just $68 per month.

Companies are complacent in this destructive fashion cycle.

As retailers quickly throw away their merchandise of micro-season collections, where does it go? 

Companies send truckloads of clothing to landfills and incinerate millions of tons. The exact numbers for companies that destroy their merchandise are not always revealed, but in 2017, the New York Times ran an article calling out Nike for this practice. It happens at all fashion levels, and well-known retailers like Urban Outfitters and H&M have also been allegedly partaking in this destructive cycle. 

In 2018, luxury brand Burberry released its annual report revealing that it burned $36.8 million worth of excess product to protect its brand. Burberry wanted to avoid its merchandise sold at discount prices. ABC News reported that the fashion brand destroyed over $150 million worth of products over the course of five years. Following the public backlash, Burberry announced it would stop this practice. 

According to the international Human Rights Watch organization, the US is a $2.4 trillion garment and footwear industry that employs millions of workers worldwide.

This vicious fashion cycle preys on the wants of the consumer to be up to date with the latest style trends. The fast fashion brands are only too eager to supply them with low-quality pieces that fall apart even faster than they can buy new ones. Consumers get stuck in the cycle because ethically made clothing commands a higher price tag, which is often not as accessible or out of their budget.

While it’s true that it’s difficult to completely break away from fast fashion when you’re on a budget, it can be easier. The reality is that people don’t need fast fashion — they want it. Just because it’s affordable and trendy, doesn’t mean people should buy it. Styles are forever cycling through. Saving and shopping small or second-hand can be an economic and sustainable solution. 

Be creative and assert your own personal style with clothing you already own. Stay mindful and consider the impact of fast fashion as you curate a closet full of pieces that are timeless and bought ethically — it is important to the legacy that we are leaving for future generations. 

Read next: Fashion’s Inevitably to Change 


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