The fast fashion industry is projected to reach a value of USD$38,2 billion in 2023, a stunning figure if one considers its massively detrimental impact on the environment. As consumers, we have the power to make conscious choices that can drive sustainability and considerably reduce the impact of this industry. But how can we spot the culprits and learn which fast fashion brands to avoid?

Fast fashion is a large sector of the fashion industry whose business model relies on cheap, rapid and large-scale production of low-quality clothing that big fashion retailers market worldwide at extremely low prices. The sector, which in 2020 reached a global market value of nearly USD$69,000 million, is tremendously detrimental for the environment. From the water consumption in the production to the emissions deriving from the shipment of clothing around the world and the 92 million tonnes of textile waste that the industry generates annually, fast fashion is contributing to global pollution and climate change in an astronomical way. In fact, it is emitting even more carbon dioxide than the aviation industry. If this industry were a country, its emissions would rank almost as high as the entire European continent.

The list of fast fashion companies that have taken over the global clothing market and whose successes lie in the cheaply-produced clothing is long. As consumers, we have the power to make sustainable choices and thus slow down this dangerous trend. But how do we know if a brand is ‘fast fashion’? Here is a list of points that you should note when evaluating the sustainability of a brand.

What is the Brand’s Philosophy and Marketing?

In order to understand the main goals of a brand and recognise whether they are sustainable, it is always good to look back at the definition of fast fashion. When we refer to fast fashion, we are talking about an industry that produces and sells massive quantities of clothing collections that mimic current fashion trends at extremely affordable prices. 

Of all brands that explicitly promote values such as affordability and trendiness, SHEIN is probably the best example of a brand promoting a fast fashion-oriented philosophy. Founded in 2008, the Chinese online retailer is one of the fastest growing companies using this type of business model. On Instagram alone, SHEIN has 23,3 million followers and it is explicitly thanks to social media platforms that the brand was able to grow at such a fast rate. Influencers and celebrities helped spread the word, pushing Generation Z consumers to buy from a company whose motto is: ‘Everyone can enjoy the beauty of fashion’. SHEIN does not only satisfy the ‘cheap’ aspect of a typical fast fashion brand by selling clothing at alarmingly low prices, but it is also the best example of a ‘fast’ brand. The company adds thousands of new products to its website every week, promoting the idea that more is better and making buying clothing ridiculously accessible.

Is the Price of the Brand’s Clothing Justifiable?

One of the biggest characteristics of fast fashion brands is how they catch the eye of consumers with their extremely low prices. While it might be the most appealing factor of all and it is certainly the reason why so many people around the world choose to buy clothing from such brands, we should always ask ourselves: why are prices so low and how can the company afford it? How is it able to cover the cost of garment workers, the manufacturing process, and transportation and still make a profit out of it? 

An excellent example of a cheap fast fashion brand is Primark. The Irish multinational retailer and England’s top-seller markets trending clothes at incredibly low prices, a practice that encourages consumers to buy an abundance of items only to discard them after wearing them a few times and go back to buy more. This practice alone generates colossal amounts of fashion and textile waste. The only way the fashion giant is able to maintain prices low is by sacrificing other sides of the business: Primark does not spend much money on marketing as some of its competitors like H&M and Zara do and, by sticking to retail sale instead of providing an e-commerce platform to its customers, the company is able to cut costs that would derive from having an online website, such as packing, shipping,  and providing customer support. While this makes it a ‘less fast fashion’ brand, Primark is still promoting overconsumption which massively contributes to its significant environmental footprint.

Cheap prices are also indicators for fast fashion brands to avoid; low price tags are often a signal that something is wrong behind the scenes, meaning issues related to poor working conditions and environmentally-unfriendly production. Cheap clothing production often arises from the mistreatment of workers. Fast fashion brands are more often than not associated with violations of basic workers’ rights, such as the lack of safety rules, low salaries, and excessive working hours. Some go as far as describing the fast fashion industry as a ‘modern form of slavery’. Primark of all examples has often been at the centre of of scandals related to inhumane working conditions, with factory workers hiding desperate notes inside clothes to denounce abuses and slave labour conditions. The American fast fashion giant Forever 21 has also been involved in controversies related to labour practice. After a 2016 investigation, for example, the US Labor Department discovered that the company was paying its factory workers as little as USD$4 an hour, way below the legal minimum wage.

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Does the Brand Produce More than It Can Sell? 

A significant part of emissions generated by the fast fashion industry comes from textile waste and overproduction. While large-scale production of clothing, which allows brands to sell them at lower prices, is the main driver of overconsumption, the biggest issue related to excessive manufacturing is what companies do with unsold goods. More often than not they are destroyed, a practice that companies seem to prefer over selling them at extremely discounted rates once they go out of season. Doing so would damage their reputation and exclusivity, as explained by Fashinnovation“Recycling requires sorting through and separating the garments, which requires more labour, which requires more money”. Thus, since the main goal of fast fashion companies is to generate profit, destroying clothing is their best and cheapest alternative.

Some examples of brands known for producing more than they can sell and for the reckless disposal of unsold clothes are Nike, Urban Outfitters, and H&M. The latter produces on average 3 billion garments a year, huge portions of which remain unsold: in 2019, the company had produced nearly USD$ 4,1 billion worth of unsold goods. However, the Swedish multinational clothing company and world’s second largest fashion retailer is on a mission to become more sustainable by promoting and facilitating the recycling of old clothes. While H&M’s approach is certainly a step in the right direction and could eventually mitigate the company’s impact on the environment as well as lead the way for other fashion giants to follow, the underlying issue remains unsolved. H&M is a fast fashion brand that, along with many others, produces more than it can sell and promotes overconsumption.

Is the Brand Practicing What It Preaches or is it Trying to Greenwash?

One last crucial point to learning which fast fashion brands to avoid is understanding whether a company’s sustainability claims are more than just a marketing strategy. Having a sustainable clothing line does not automatically mean that the brand is eco-friendly. Greenwashing occurs when companies spend much more time and resources marketing their sustainability plans than actually executing them. More often than not, fashion giants promote misleading information to make consumers believe they are ethical or appear to value transparency by sharing information regarding their emissions only to forget to set clear targets to lower them. 

A 2021 investigation by the Changing Market Foundation found that 59% of all claims by European fashion brands are inaccurate and misleading. While many brands are investing millions of dollars in sustainable projects, a large majority of them still depend on fossil fuel-based synthetic fibres. H&M, which recently invested millions into recycling facilities around the world and that has its own ‘Conscious’ collection, is actually hiding real information regarding the materials they use to produce their clothing. For example, one such ‘Conscious’ collection was found to contain 10% more synthetic fibers than its fast-fashion line. Primark also ranked at the top of brands that lack transparency over their green claims. It is SHEIN however, that tops the ranking for being the least transparent fast fashion brand in terms of sustainability, as it does not share any information about production, supply chain and the impact of its business.

How to Avoid Fast Fashion Brands

The aforementioned brands from Zara and Primark, to Shein and H&M, are just some of the most influential fast-fashion brands on the planet. However, the list goes on and on. While it might be relatively easy to identify them, it is more difficult than it seems to avoid these fast fashion brands and resist the temptation buying into their trendy and extremely affordable collections. However, if we really want the industry to change and contribute to fighting climate change, we as consumers have the power and duty to rethink our choices and understand that our actions have consequences; and it can all start by opting for more sustainable and ethical over fast fashion brands.