What Is Fast Fashion & What Is Wrong With It?
In this article, we’ll dissect the concept of Fast Fashion from A to Z, step by step.
We’ll start with the origin of fast fashion, followed by the answer to ‘What is fast fashion?‘ through several definitions.
We’ll then answer ‘Why is fast fashion so bad?‘ by looking at the problems caused by fast fashion, such as pollution, waste, and modern slavery impacting people, the environment, and animals.
We’ll conclude the article with fast-fashion examples – the ten biggest fast fashion companies in 2022.
Fast Fashion Origin
In the past, clothes shopping was a rare occurrence, a few times a year when the seasons changed or when we outgrew what we had.
Before the 1800s, fashion was slow, made chiefly by local artisans and craftsmen.
Sourcing materials such as wool, cotton, or leather was expensive, and the design, cutting, and sewing required knowledge and time not many people had.
The Industrial Revolution introduced sewing machines, computer drawings, and artificial textiles.
Apparel making became faster, cheaper, and easier, with dressmaking shops emerging everywhere, catering to the middle class.
In the late 1990s and 2000s, with the advent of the internet, low-cost fashion peaked.
By copying looks and designs from the top fashion houses, fast fashion brands mass-reproduced trendy clothes fast and cheap.
Online shopping took off, and fast-fashion retailers like H&M, Zara, Asos, and Topshop took over the high street.
What Is Fast Fashion?
Fast fashion is a business model based on replicating high-end catwalk designs and celebrity looks by mass producing them (cheap and fast) to take advantage of the latest fashion trends.
There are several issues with the fast fashion business model, such as waste creation, underpaid (child) labor, depletion of resources, and even stealing designs.
The negative implications impact the environment, local communities, workers, and fashion designers.
Other popular fast fashion definitions describing the concept have slightly different takes:
4 Main Fast Fashion Problems
Every year, 85 percent of all textiles produced in the world end up in landfills.
While not illegal, the fast fashion business model is highly unethical.
Fast fashion causes extensive damage to the planet, exploits workers, and harms animals, and it is best to steer clear whenever you can.
Time to discover the four main problems caused by fast fashion and how it impacts the industry, people, and the environment.
Copyright Issues In Fast Fashion
Stealing designs is at the core of the fast fashion business model.
The fast fashion business model begins here, with the most popular fast fashion brands shamelessly stealing styles and designs.
“Nowadays, anyone, anywhere, could spot a fresh style, copy and sell it, without consequences or having to follow the classic hierarchy of fashion,” – Rebecca Minkoff.
In many ways, social media has made the fashion industry more robust and diverse.
At the same time, social media has accelerated the fast fashion model by making it easier for fast fashion brands to ‘steal fresh looks that sell.’
From high-end fashion designers to emerging ones, nobody’s safe.
In the past, scouts of fast fashion brands had to attend (physically) catwalks to film and copy high-end designer brands.
Nowadays, fast fashion brands have armies of spies scouting celebrities on Instagram 24/7, ensuring that the ‘copying’ process is almost instant.
Whenever a celebrity showcases a unique designer piece on social media, the fast fashion spies’ copy’ the look and send it for approval.
In less than a week, the design is replicated million times by underaged workers in Chinese or Bangladeshi factories, from cheaper materials, and quickly shipped worldwide to fast-fashion retailers.
Compared to a designer label which requires five-six months to design, manufacture, and launch a new collection, fast fashion brands replicate the same style and have it in the stores in less than a week.
Quick to copy, mass-manufacture, and ship worldwide, fast fashion giants market the latest designs before the original creators do.
Even worse, as several fast fashion companies target the same design, the original creator is lost in the process.
Pollution & Waste Caused By Fast Fashion
Beyond the ripping off of others’ work, fast fashion creates severe ecological problems.
The pressure to reduce costs and speed up production translates into ignoring environmental laws.
Fast fashion uses cheap and toxic textile dyes, turning the fashion industry into the second largest polluter of clean water globally, after agriculture.
Through the years, Greenpeace has been pressuring fast fashion brands to remove toxic chemicals from their supply chains, with little success.
Cheap fabrics like polyester – a popular textile – are derived from fossil fuels.
Fossil fuel textiles contribute to carbon emissions, global warming, and shedding microfibres in washing water, polluting oceans and killing marine species.
Even “natural” fabrics become a problem at the scale fast fashion demands.
For example, conventional cotton growers from developing countries use enormous quantities of water and pesticides, depleting and polluting the environment.
Drought risks, resource competition (between companies and local communities), loss of biodiversity, and soil quality are just a few of the problems caused by fast fashion.
Then, there’s deforestation to make room for more cotton fields and farming for leather and leather processing plants, further impacting the environment with hundreds of chemicals required to tan animal hides.
A recent report published in MDPI Journal highlighted that over 87 percent of fast fashion brands are sourcing textiles from China, India, Pakistan, and Turkey, with severe environmental consequences.
The textiles are produced in the most unsustainable conditions, depleting the environment of resources while displacing or poisoning the local communities in the process.
Of all the fast fashion giants investigated, only Zara and H&M had proper clothing waste management and recycling policies for unwanted garments.
Animals are also impacted by fast fashion as toxic dyes, and microfibres released in the waterways are ingested by land and marine life with devastating effects.
Animal products such as leather, fur, and wool used in fashion reveal endless scandals of animal exploitation and abuse.
Cheap Labour & Modern Slavery In Fast Fashion
While garment workers are paid well below the minimum wage, fast fashion companies like Topshop and Fashion Nova earn millions of dollars by en-mass cheap clothes.
In the documentary, The True Cost, author and journalist Lucy Siegle summed it perfectly:
“Fast fashion isn’t free. Someone somewhere is paying.”
The true cost of fast fashion was revealed in 2013 when the Rana Plaza – a clothing manufacturing complex in Bangladesh – collapsed, killing over 1,000 workers.
Fast fashion manufacturing for the apparel industry requires using cheap textiles and labor.
From clothing production to fashion merchandise and fashion retail, every single element is chosen with reducing production costs in mind.
According to a survey by Fashion Checker, 93% of the investigated fast fashion brands fail to pay garment workers the minimum living wage.
The human cost of fast fashion is immense; it impacts garment workers who work in poor conditions and even dangerous environments for low wages and without the most basic human rights.
From farmers to factory workers, people in fast fashion are exposed to toxic chemicals and brutal working conditions that devastate their physical and mental health, as highlighted by the documentary “The True Cost. ”
To keep manufacturing costs low, fast fashion brands have moved production to ‘developing’ countries.
While highly unethical and inhuman, child labor and modern slavery are no longer in the spotlight, allowing fast fashion giants to operate without being scrutinized by the media.
Harmful chemicals such as benzothiazole – known to cause several types of cancer and respiratory illnesses – are used by fast fashion companies.
According to the Environmental Health Journal, fast fashion textile dyeing discarded into local waters contain heavy metals that adversely impact the health of workers, animals, and nearby residents.
And if not killed by chemical exposure, factory workers work long hours, with unfair wages, and under mental and physical abuse.
Fast Fashion & The Throwaway Culture
As a result of the throwaway culture, compared to 20 years ago, we purchase clothing twice more while keeping them half as long. (Drew & Yehounme, 2017).
Fashion experts still debate what came first: consumers’ desire for fresh looks or fast fashion giants convincing shoppers that they’re out of trends, month after month.
Regardless, with increasing rates of production and questionable supply chains, everybody loses, in the end, consumers and fast fashion brands.
With 20% of the garments discarded as faulty on the manufacturing line and 90% thrown away in less than a year by consumers, fast fashion is killing the planet.
According to The Guardian, one in three young women, the most significant segment of fast-fashion consumers, consider garments worn once or twice as old.
Consumers are brainwashed by the fast fashion companies that exploit the planned obsolescence strategy, as described by Guiltinan (2009).
More than any other industry in the world, fashion embraces obsolescence as a primary goal; fast fashion raises the stakes.
For consumers to keep buying the latest trends, fast fashion products are intentionally low quality, so they’ll have to repurchase them.
As a result, consumers discard garments very fast and create unnecessary waste, in a process that’s now known as the throwaway culture.
According to The Guardian, in Australia alone, over 50 million kilograms of unused clothing end in landfills every year, and 11 million tons in the US.
10 Examples of Fast Fashion Brands
Most high-street clothing stores you know are fast fashion players.
Zara, BooHoo, H&M, Asos, UNIQLO, GAP, Primark, TopShop SHEIN, Missguided, Forever 21, Zaful, and Fashion Nova are just a few popular fast fashion names right now.
Once seen as fashion disruptors, these fast fashion giants are the industry’s worst nightmare.
The following brands are the worst ten fast fashion examples you should avoid if you want to start your sustainable fashion journey!
Missguided, a UK online retailer, self-promoting as not just a fast fashion brand but a “rapid fashion” company.
The fast fashion giant launches 1,000 new styles weekly, promoting over-consumption, textile waste, and pollution.
Apart from having confusing information on its Corporate Social Responsibility page, the company doesn’t seem to be doing anything specific to reduce its environmental impact.
The brand’s mission is to “empower women”; however, female workers are paid lesser than men.
In 2017, the brand was caught marketing clothes with genuine fur from raccoons, minks, rabbits, and even dogs and cats as “faux fur.”
British fashion retailer Boohoo has been growing fast over the past decade.
While the brand seems to make sustainability-related promises, it doesn’t do much to improve its social and environmental spheres.
According to a recent Sunday Times investigation, workers in a Leicester, UK factory were paid as little as £3.50 per hour, far below the national minimum wage.
Imagine how much they pay their workers in India or Bangladesh…
The Environmental Audit Committee published a report naming Boohoo as one of the least sustainable fashion brands in the UK.
Fashion Nova is an American fast fashion retailer that holds a popular image thanks to Instagram influencers and celebrities.
However, despite its popularity, the brand has received a 0% score in the Fashion Transparency Index of 2021.
Fashion Nova releases around 600 new weekly garments, mostly made from synthetic materials like polyester, acrylic, and nylon.
Worst of all, Fashion Nova has been caught using illegal immigrants in its Los Angeles factories – in inhumane working conditions alongside cockroaches and rats – while paying them as little as $2.77 per hour!
With over 20 million followers on Instagram, Chinese brand Shein has become one of the most popular fast fashion brands of 2022.
Shein adds over 500 cheap clothing pieces to its website daily, contributing to the throwaway culture and environmental damage.
Shein doesn’t share any information about where the clothes are made or its supply chain while assuring that it doesn’t use forced or child labor.
In 2020, the brand faced worldwide criticism for selling necklaces in the shape of a swastika and Islamic prayer mats on its website.
Zara is a Spanish fast fashion brand using recycled packaging and a textile recycling program.
Yet, Zara is not transparent about the number of resources that go into producing its clothes or greenhouse gas emissions.
The company continues to underpay its garment workers for the minimum living wage.
In 2017, a Zara customer from Istanbul found a secret message in a piece of clothing recently bought.
The follow-up investigation revealed that these were written by garment workers who claimed they had to work for free before the manufacturer producing clothes for Zara went bankrupt.
Nasty Gal is a Los Angeles-based fast fashion retailer specializing in cheap clothes for young women.
Very opaque regarding its supply chain, most of Nasty Gal’s clothes are made from synthetic materials.
Owned by Boohoo, the brand does not disclose if the workers are paid fair wages and treated humanely, but it is doubtful they are.
In 2015, Nasty Gal was sued for firing four pregnant employees before going on maternity leave.
Old Navy is an American fast fashion clothing retailer owned by Gap Inc, with over 1,000 stores worldwide.
In 2013, Old Navy was accused of working with factories employing girls as young as 12.
In partner factories, workers were beaten, and pregnant women were fired or forced to work 100-plus hours a week.
As Old Navy’s supply chain is not certified by any labor standards, it is difficult to determine whether these unethical practices have stopped.
Irish company Primark is Europe’s largest fast fashion retailer.
As the brand outsources the manufacturing of its products, it has no control over the workers’ conditions or wages.
Even though Primark states that factories must follow a Code of Conduct, there is no evidence that workers receive minimum pay or work in safe conditions.
Customers have found “SOS” messages in Primark clothing, written by Chinese inmates working in garment factories in inhumane conditions for 15 hours daily.
While the company is a member of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, there is no information on what it does to reduce its environmental footprint.
Pretty Little Thing
Owned by Boohoo Group, Prety Little Thing is a UK-based fast fashion brand aimed at females between 14 and 24 years old.
Earlier in 2019, the company was accused of removing labels from cheaper branded clothing and re-selling as their own – for double the price.
For example, one customer who purchased a pair of jogging bottoms for £20 found two labels on the product.
The PLT label was stitched into the seam, but there was also a label from Fruit of the Loom (a cheap, essential clothing brand) on the other side.
H&M is the most famous Swedish brand and the second-largest fast fashion retailer in the world.
A 2018 investigation unveiled that the company failed to pay 850,000 garment workers the minimum living wage while most of its female workers complained of constant sexual harassment.
The brand was also accused of turning a blind eye to the plight of garment workers who denounced inhumane working conditions leading to the deaths of more than 100 people.
Fast Fashion FAQs
What is a Fast Fashion Example?
Zara and H&M are two of the most prominent fast fashion examples, as companies running a clothing business model built around creating cheap and trendy clothing by copying high-end designs, manufacturing, and sending them to retail stores globally in less than a week.
What Three Things Define Fast Fashion?
Fast fashion is defined by three main aspects: cheap, trendy, and disposable, encouraging shoppers to update their wardrobes regularly throughout the year to keep up with the latest fashion trends.
Is Fast Fashion Ethical?
Fast fashion is not ethical. As one of the biggest polluters in the world, fast fashion is unethical and unsustainable, damaging to people, animals, and the environment.
Granted, not everybody can afford to dress like a celebrity, with the price tags straight off the catwalks of the world’s fashion capitals.
But that’s not an excuse to let fast fashion companies destroy the environment with cheap clothes.
‘Purse-friendly’ fast fashion always comes at a cost, somewhere else…
The high speed of manufacturing required by fast fashion creates further issues relating to low wages and poor working conditions.
Unfortunately, our insatiable appetite for fashion, the latest fashion trends, and the desire to copy celebs and successful ones won’t go away.
As the former Topshop brand director put it:
“People see a celebrity wearing something and want it right away. As long as there’s demand, we make it”
Until the mid-1950s, the fashion industry ran on four seasons a year: fall, winter, spring, and summer.
Nowadays, fast fashion brands produce over 50 “micro-seasons” a year, or at least one new “collection” per week.
The underlying issue with fast fashion is the speed at which it is produced, putting massive pressure on people and the environment.
Recycling and small eco or vegan clothing ranges, if genuine and not greenwashing, are not enough to counter the throwaway culture.
Causing pollution and natural resource depletion, the fast fashion system needs to be changed to a more circular model.
Society’s consumer-centric obsession with the clothing industry will make quitting hard, but with better alternatives, it is possible.
The production of clothes can be done in mindful manufacturing ways, by vertically integrated in-house production, with fair labor rights, and from natural materials.
Long-lasting garments, made in sustainable fashion practices and circular ready, are the only way forward.
Now it’s your turn…
What is your take on the fast fashion business model?
Can fast fashion ever be sustainable? If so, how?
Can you name another fast fashion brand we’ve missed in this article?
Where do you discard your fast fashion clothes?
Please leave your comments below; we always appreciate your comments and use them to learn, improve, and update these articles.
A University of Oxford graduate in Design History, Katherine Saxon is researching arising TikTok cultures from a consumer psychology perspective while covering emerging aesthetics in fashion and beauty for TheVOU, Forbes, Business Insider, and more.