Threads of Change: Navigating the Fast Fashion Revolution and Its Global Impact
The Boom and Bust of Fast Fashion and Its Unforeseen Consequences
Fast and affordable fashion has brought convenience and cost-effectiveness to consumers, but it also carries unexpected and alarming repercussions. The term “fast fashion” is used to describe the mass production of clothing in large quantities, often rapidly brought to market.
One of the major issues with fast fashion is the frequency of changes and updates to collections to swiftly meet the ever-changing market trends. Consumers, especially fashion enthusiasts, prefer convenient and budget-friendly choices. This fuels a constant demand for shopping and intensifies competition among fashion brands.
While this production model delivers a plethora of products at reasonable prices, it also poses significant challenges. A key concern is the predominant use of polyester in the manufacturing process – a fabric that doesn’t easily decompose.
Polyester, despite reducing production costs, raises environmental issues. The production of polyester requires substantial water and chemical resources. Moreover, when fashion products are mass-produced and continuously changed, it generates a substantial amount of waste, not only from the production process but also from consumers discarding old items to embrace new trends.
Additionally, this model promotes a culture of waste, with billions worth of products going unsold every year. The fast fashion industry’s relentless pursuit of new trends often leads to overproduction. Billions of dollars’ worth of clothing goes unsold each year, resulting in a staggering amount of waste. This surplus contributes to the depletion of resources and raises questions about the ethical implications of a system that prioritizes profit over sustainability.
A garment factory worker at a Shein facility in Guangzhou, China
Therefore, questions about sustainability and social responsibility in the fast fashion industry are more crucial than ever. Both industry insiders and consumers need to contemplate and act towards a fashion future that is environmentally responsible and socially beneficial.
The Rise of Fast Fashion: A Trendy Revolution
According to Dr. Preeti Arya, Assistant Professor of Fashion Development and Marketing at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, fast fashion is a business model centered around the mass and rapid production of clothing to meet consumers’ ever-changing trend demands.
The term first surfaced in a 1989 New York Times article discussing the opening of the first Zara store in the U.S. The retail giant aimed to bring new products to customers within just 15 days, setting the tone for the fast fashion era.
In essence, fast fashion designs are often “dupes” or replicas of luxurious, celebrity-endorsed, or influencer-favored styles. The goal of brands and manufacturers is to deliver these “on-trend” designs to consumers at affordable prices.
Zara and H&M stand as two of the largest players in the fast fashion industry. However, a new wave of brands has emerged in the e-commerce landscape, including Shein, Temu, Boohoo, ASOS, PrettyLittleThing, and Fashion Nova.
These retailers have capitalized on the advantages of online business models, becoming formidable competitors in the fast fashion realm. With an incredibly swift production cycle—taking only about three days for the entire process—online retailers can release hundreds or even thousands of designs in a remarkably short time.
Fast fashion has revolutionized the way consumers access trendy clothing, making high-fashion aesthetics accessible to the masses at affordable prices. The industry, driven by a constant pursuit of the latest trends and facilitated by rapid production and online platforms, continues to redefine the global fashion landscape. As the fast fashion phenomenon evolves, it sparks important conversations about sustainability, ethical production, and the long-term impact of our fashion choices.
The Fallout from Fast Fashion
According to a March 2023 report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the fashion industry accounts for 10% of global annual carbon emissions.
Estimates indicate that the production of clothing has doubled since 2000, while consumer purchases have increased by 60%. Paradoxically, the time these garments spend in use has halved.
To keep production costs low, fast fashion products are often made from polyester—a synthetic fiber derived from non-renewable fossil fuels. Polyester can take around 200 years to decompose.
Moreover, according to data from the non-profit organization Earth.org, textile materials can only be reused 7-10 times.
Not only that, but the fast fashion industry heavily relies on cheap labor. According to George Washington University (USA), approximately 75 million garment workers worldwide only receive a living wage, with just 2% of them earning enough to make ends meet.
Garment companies tend to shift production factories to countries like India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan.
According to Humanium, an international organization specializing in children’s rights, factory workers in the garment industry often toil in hazardous conditions for very low wages, with a significant number being children.
In the race to keep up with demand, fast fashion brands sometimes compromise on ethical production practices. Sweatshops and poor working conditions are not uncommon in the industry, raising concerns about the welfare of those involved in the manufacturing process.
“Fast fashion” and the peculiar scene in the Atacama Desert
The world’s driest desert, the Atacama, is increasingly facing pollution, an alarming consequence attributed to the fast fashion industry.
Beth Osnes, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado and an expert on the role of fast fashion in the economy, stated, “In other words, while fast fashion products may be cheap for consumers, the environment and the workers creating them pay a steep price.”
Fast fashion adheres to the four tenets of “quick design, quick production, quick marketing, quick retail,” but it overlooks significant issues such as ethics and labor rights.
“Fossil fuels not only power the production machinery but, quite literally, they are the substance that makes fast fashion products,” says writer and fashion activist Aja Barber, expressing concerns about the speed of production and consumption in today’s fast fashion industry. “Our planet is warming up, and fast fashion is one of the contributors to climate change.”
Is “Sustainable Fashion” a Viable Alternative?
According to Good on You, a reputable ranking of clothing brand sustainability, “sustainable fashion” refers to products designed and produced in an environmentally friendly manner, such as clothing made from natural fibers (cotton, hemp, linen, wool, silk).
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) lists priorities that the fashion industry can implement to move towards a more sustainable business model. This includes changing consumption patterns to bring about positive changes in production and consumption processes. Additionally, the fashion industry needs to invest in general infrastructure to minimize environmental impact.
Furthermore, improving environmental and social activities, such as informing consumers about the environmental impact of products, prioritizing the use of recycled and local materials in design, is essential.
The beach in Accra, Ghana, strewn with waste, including fast fashion clothing
Although these changes may take time to become standard practices, consumers can take steps to reduce their own carbon footprint and proactively decide to purchase less fast fashion.
By choosing products made from less than 20% polyester, consumers can become more environmentally conscious in their shopping habits. Arya notes that items made from natural fibers can last up to three generations.
“No one is stopping you from shopping, but be a smart consumer, spend on truly quality items instead of fast fashion products that are not good for the environment,” she said.