What is fast fashion?

Hazel Needham

Hazel Needham

Photo from Earth.Org of new clothes hanging on rail in fast fashion store

It’s time to get up to speed. Fast fashion is so last year.

We’re here to do more than give you the fast fashion statistics. We’re going to show you how your lifestyle has been infiltrated by a global fast fashion industry that depends on your everyday choices. It’s a toxic relationship, but we’ve got you. We can figure out how to break up with fast fashion together.

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What is Fast Fashion?

Fast fashion promises trendy clothes at a cheap cost. Gone are the days of made-to-measure tailors. We no longer hear about six month waits for a seasonal drop. The convenience of fast fashion isn’t dissimilar to fast food – it’s quick, it’s cheap – and it seems too good to be true.

The Fast Fashion Statistics

We may be paying attractive prices for our fast fashion clothes, but it doesn’t mean they come without a cost. The fast fashion industry is too good to be true, because although it’s saving our pennies now, it isn’t sustainable. 

The cost to the labourers

Firstly, fast fashion depends on exploitative labour. Small prices for us means even smaller wages for the workers, who operate in inhumane conditions. In 2012, a garment factory in Dhaka caught fire and 112 workers were killed. That’s more than the number of people who died in the tragic 2017 fire in Grenfell – in the name of fast fashion.

And it’s not only an issue for underdeveloped countries. Workers were discovered to have been exploited throughout the pandemic in sweatshops after an investigation in Leicester. The Clean Clothes Campaign said that ‘these working conditions are no mere flaws of individual factories, but they are driven by an industry practice of pushing for the lowest price and shortest lead times in an eternal race to the bottom.

Alt Text: Image of garment factory fire in Dhaka, Bangladesh, as workers are killed in the name of fast fashion

 

The cost to the planet

 

Don’t take our word for it. Fast fashion disguises its impact with flowery words and marketing campaigns (check out my article about greenwashing here). So let’s look at the figures.

 

In the UK, each Briton owns an average of 115 garments. In the past year, 30% of these won’t have even been touched. We already have way more clothes than we need.

 

Fast fashion does what it says on the tin –  this is about keeping up with the trends. Trends that change not just monthly, not just weekly, but daily, so we keep buying. British consumers spend £980,50 a year on new clothes and we aren’t talking heirloom investment pieces that will be given to the grandkids. The UK is the fourth largest textile-waster in Europe – we buy, we get bored and then we bin. In 2018, £12.5 billion worth of our clothes went to landfill.. 

 

Clothing is resource-intensive to produce. The fast fashion industry already uses 1.5 trillion tonnes of water each year and is the second biggest polluter of water supplies, thanks to all the chemicals involved. It is also responsible for 10% of global carbon dioxide emissions. And these figures are not about to start decreasing: the demand for raw materials is expected to triple by 2050. 

Pile of clothes in landfill

Fast fashion brands and designer waste

When we think of unsustainable fast fashion brands, it’s easy to point at the Boohoos and Primarks of the fashion world. But the expensive major brands are also major contributors to the environmental horror show caused by the fast fashion industry. 

In 2018, Burberry had £19.8bn worth of unsold, unworn products, which means the huge amounts of water, energy, labour, and raw materials involved in the making of the items were going to waste.

Rather than rework or recycle the stock, the company feared that any adjustments or sales to reduce waste would devalue their luxury brand. Instead, Burberry literally just burnt it.

Burberry received so much bad press that it immediately pledged to become greener and stop burning stock. Companies realized that consumers don’t want to buy into fast fashion brands that are inconsiderate of environmental impact and began to change their strategy. 

True fast fashion sustainability!

Or so they want us to think. 

Alt Text: Image of Burberry shop front after receiving backlash for burning unused stock in the name of fast fashion.

Greenwashing

As consumer conscious choices evolve faster than legislation, fast fashion brands are claiming to be sustainable, natural, and organic left right and centre.

Harriet Vocking, the chief brand officer at sustainability consultancy Eco-Age, advises: “A brand that is openly transparent and communicative about its steady sustainability journey is always a better bet than one that uses sustainability slang with little to no evidence to back it up.”

And even then, facts and figures can be deceiving in regards to a brand’s sustainability. On their website, fast fashion brand H&M boasts that they collected 29,005 tonnes of textiles in 2019, which is the equivalent of about 145 million t-shirts.

Low-quality materials are extremely difficult to recycle

That’s great – until we appreciate that clothes circulating the fast fashion industry are made from a variety of low-quality materials, making them extremely difficult to recycle.

So difficult that less than 1% of this material can actually be recycled into new clothing. Suddenly, 29,005 tonnes of textiles sounds like just a load more landfill.

Alt Text: Lady holding a bundle of clothes that are ready to be recycled.

As much as these fast fashion brands try to neutralize their environmental impact, ‘fast fashion sustainability’ is an impossible concept. If the ultimate goal of a brand is to grow profit, then it will continue to rely on constant consumption.

 

How to break up with fast fashion

 

We can’t change what the fast fashion brands do, but we can change what we do.

 

Fast fashion is the love-hate relationship that we find ourselves going back to. If you’re not prepared for a clean-cut break up, there are ways of still looking good without falling for greenwashing and marketing gaslighting.

 

Slow fashion

 

Slow fashion is about shifting from quantity to quality. It allows suppliers to plan orders, predict the numbers of workers needed and invest in the longer term. Rather than spending too little too often, we can buy good quality clothes when we need to.

 

There are clothing brands who already care more about the planet and its people than quick profits. Patagonia, Goose Studios and Koi Footwear are examples of fashion brands putting sustainability at the heart of their business model instead of using it as a trendy marketing technique. These are the brands of the future.

 

Second hand

 

If these ethical prices seem unaffordable, another way to rid of fast-fashion toxicity is to ditch new clothes altogether. Check out our article on how to reduce your carbon footprint to see how rationing your fashion and buying second hand can minimise your impact on the environment and prevent textile waste.

 

Alt Text: Photo of a lady wearing a jacket that reads sustainability is less consumption

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