Technology has given rise to fast fashion. As new trends are bringing in huge profits for fast fashion giants, they are also having a detrimental impact on the environment, factory workers, and consumers. Here’s how to break up with fast fashion and work towards a more sustainable business model. 

Fast fashion is the rapidly-growing trend of designing, producing, and marketing cheap and stylish clothing at breakneck speeds and high volumes to meet consumer demand. Although mass production has been able to satisfy the growing demand for consumption, fast fashion has played into the idea that in order for people to stay relevant, they must have the latest looks. This has led to the establishment of a toxic system of overproduction, enormous wastes, and unnecessary consumption, making the fashion industry one of the largest polluters in the world. The underlying impacts have been incredibly harmful to the environment, garment factory workers, and ultimately, the consumers themselves. 

The Fast Fashion Business Model

To fully understand how we can break up with fast fashion, we must first learn how fast fashion came into existence and go back to the 1800s, a time when fashion was slow. Before becoming accessible to the masses, fashion was prescribed to high society, and there were rules to be followed. Ordinary people at the time had to source and prepare materials like wool and leather, weave them, and make them into clothes. As the Industrial Revolution introduced new technologies such as the sewing machine, clothes became easier, quicker, and cheaper to make. Trend cycles sped up, and shopping became a hobby. A well-timed marketing campaign for paper clothes in the 1960s also helped prove consumers were ready for an emerging fast fashion trend. By the 1970s, clothing became a form of personal expression.

In the late 1990s and 2000s, low-cost fashion reached a peak. Online shopping took off, and fast-fashion retailers like H&M, Zara, and Topshop took over the high street. These brands modelled the looks and design elements from top fashion houses and reproduced them quickly and cheaply.

Nowadays, fast fashion brands don’t design and manufacture according to the four seasons in a year anymore. Instead, they produce about 52 “micro-seasons” a year – or one new “collection” a week. Suddenly, everyone could afford to dress like their favourite celebrity or wear the latest trends fresh from the catwalk.

Zara and H&M are two giants among the fast fashion brands. Others include UNIQLO, GAP, Forever 21, Esprit, Fashion Nova, and Topshop. Zara designers can sketch and have the finished piece appear on store shelves in as little as four weeks. They can also modify existing items in two weeks. The secret to this rapid turnover is its ownership of a relatively short supply chain. Over half of its factories are closely located to its headquarters. Also, Zara pioneered the idea of limiting the quantity of a particular garment. Retailers do not replenish their stock. Instead, they replace items that sell out with new ones. This way, consumers know to purchase an item they like when they see it because it is not likely to be available for long. All of these allow the brand to produce 10,000 pieces annually, compared to an industry average of 2,000 to 4,000.

But then in 2013, the world had a reality check when the Rana Plaza clothing manufacturing complex in Bangladesh collapsed, killing over 1,000 garment workers. The incident demonstrated the impact of the fast fashion industry. When the focus is on rapid production, garment workers are forced to produce high quantities for Western brands paying low rates for clothes they will sell for cheap prices. 

Surely, the constant introduction of new products gives us more choices and encourages us to visit stores more frequently, which means we end up making more purchases. Fast fashion is also responsible for providing employment opportunities and bringing in huge profits, especially if a manufacturer is able to jump on a trend before the competition. Clothes have undoubtedly been more affordable. 

To learn more about how to break up with fast fashion:  How to Recognise Fast Fashion Brands and Which Ones to Avoid

Despite the benefits fast fashion brings, it has also been criticised because it uses cheap, toxic textile dyes, making the fashion industry the second largest polluter of clean water globally after agriculture. Polyester, the most popular fabric that is derived from fossil fuels, contributes to global warming and can shed microfibres that add to the increasing levels of plastic in our oceans when washed. The speed at which garments are produced means that more and more clothes are being disposed of by consumers, creating massive textile waste. The toxic dyes and microfibres released into waterways are extremely harmful when ingested by land and marine life.

In order to offer clothes at ultra low prices, fast fashion brands need their costs to be low. One of the main ways to achieve this is by driving down wages of garment workers in supply chains. For years, fashion brands have been going around the world seeking countries with the lowest labour standards so that garment workers can be easily exploited. That is why most of these companies outsource their production of goods to manufacturers based in developing countries. As a result, a great number of workers are working long hours earning low wages. These workers also lack fundamental human rights. Workers who work further down the supply chain are working in extremely dangerous environments such as working with toxic chemicals. Brutal practices in the workplace also have devastating impacts on their physical and mental health. Their personal safety is always at risk.

Finally, those who normally consume and are seemingly enjoying the fruits of fast fashion are not unaffected. Fast fashion makes us believe that we need to shop more and more to stay on top of trends, when in fact it actually encourages a “throw-away” attitude. Many fast fashionistas in their twenties (the age group the industry mainly targets), admit that their purchases have only been worn once or twice. Because of the cheap materials and manufacturing methods used, poorly garments do not age well. What is worse, is that they cannot be recycled entirely, as they are mostly made of synthetics. So when they are discarded, they moulder in landfills for years. What is ironic is that multiple purchases of fast fashion garments, cheap as they are, end up eventually costing us more than buying a few pricier ones that actually last longer. 

How to Break Up with Fast Fashion

Considering the fact that most of the fast fashion industry is built on horrible working conditions, poor pay, and other abusive and exploitative practices, it’s time that we break up with fast fashion. What are the things we can do to not only avoid fast fashion, but also make the world a better place? As suggested from a quote by Vivienne Westwood, a British designer, we can start by “buying less, choosing well, and making it last.”.

The average person only wears 20% of their clothes 80% of the time. We can start buying less by setting a hard limit on how many clothes we have. This is a good way to prevent ourselves from over-shopping. We can also try falling back in love with the clothes we already have in our closet by styling them differently with our creativity and discovering new combinations. Creating a capsule wardrobe is also worth considering, as the goal of having one is to have a collection of around 10 to 50 practical pieces of clothing put together that would build countless outfits overall.

Another way to break up with fast fashion is choosing better by opting for eco-friendly fabrics. It could also mean committing to shopping from sustainable brands. Not only should we take good care and look after our clothes, but also wear them until they are worn out, mend them wherever possible, and recycle them responsibly in the end. If you do not like the feeling of parting with your clothes permanently, you can always swap clothes with your friends or lend them out.

As for large fashion brands and clothes manufacturing firms, all aspects of the value chain must be considered in order to be more sustainable. Before releasing new products, brands should plan and research extensively to make sure their practices are achievable and maintainable. Resource demand and allocation should be well calculated beforehand to avoid using fabrics that are highly water, land, and energy-intensive. 

Rather than dividing sales into micro-seasons and producing at a fast pace, fashion brands should invest in sustainable materials such as recycled cotton and organic linen, abstain from toxic detergents and dyes, and seek to create quality and lasting goods

Outsourced manufacturing firms, when building new factories and infrastructure in the future, should choose areas free of critical species. Such firms could also restore and develop on damaged land when possible. During the process of operating, facilities should be held to the highest possible environmental and social standards. If geographically available, renewable energies should be used to power.

One of the biggest victims of fast fashion has always been workers, especially those who suffer from working in manufacturing firms under poor conditions. Manufacturers and factories, therefore, must step up their standards when it comes to managing these workers and protecting their safety and well-being. To start with, companies should pay workers liveable wages with reasonable working hours and adequate break times. Factories should ensure there is adequate lighting and ventilation. To make things even better, firms should also incorporate building up the local community and economy, as well as contributing to greater rights into their own company mission. They could also provide more opportunities for workers to receive trade-specific training and development so they could move to management positions. 

Having sustainable practices is the only option to break up with fast fashion and for giving the planet a healthy future with adequate resources and equal human rights. By focusing less on profits and more on respecting people, animals, and the environment, fashion brands and manufacturers who have always been indulged in the fast fashion industry can start shifting towards “slow fashion”. 

You might also like: The 9 Essential Fast Fashion Statistics