Fast Fashion is the catalyst of contemporary fashion, relentlessly focusing on the latest fashion trends, rapid manufacturing, and agile supply chains.
More than an automatic way of manufacturing and retailing clothing, footwear, and accessories, Fast Fashion impacts the industry at all levels, from design to seasons and the latest trends.
In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explain Fast Fashion and its positives, such as ‘fashion for all,’ and the negatives, such as pollution, waste, and modern slavery.
We’ll explore the difference between fast fashion, ready-to-wear, and haute couture and conclude with the ten worst fast-fashion companies in 2023.
What is Fast Fashion?
Thanks to these insights, tight-knit relationships with suppliers, and streamlined supply chains, products are created and delivered at neck-breaking speeds.
Zara, for instance, takes a maximum of 15 days to move a design from concept to retail stores.
Fast Fashion Definitions
Several fast fashion definitions are describing the concept, each with slightly different takes:
- “Fast fashion is inexpensive clothing produced rapidly by mass-market retailers in response to the latest trends.” – Oxford Languages.
- “Fast fashion is an approach to the design, creation, and marketing of clothing that emphasizes making fashion trends quickly and cheaply available to consumers.” – Merriam Webster.
- “Fast fashion is the term used to describe clothing designs that move quickly from the catwalk to stores to take advantage of trends.” – Investopedia.
- “Fast fashion has three main components from the consumer’s perspective: cheap, trendy, and disposable.” – Healthy Human.
- “Fast fashion is cheap, trendy clothing that samples ideas from the catwalk or celebrity culture and turns them into garments in high street stores at breakneck speed to meet consumer demand.” – Good On You.
- “Fast fashion is a design, manufacturing, and marketing method focused on rapidly producing high volumes of clothing. Garment production utilizes trend replication and low-quality materials to bring inexpensive styles to the public.” – The Good Trade.
The Origin of Fast Fashion
The origin of Fast Fashion goes back to the post-WWII manufacturing boom and the “throwaway” culture that gained prominence in the 1960s.
Brands like Zara and H&M refined this approach in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, accelerating the fashion cycle’s pace.
According to Grand View Research, the Fast Fashion market is expected to reach $43.6 billion by 2029, growing at a CAGR of 5.5% from 2022 to 2029.
What Are the 4 Main Problems Caused by Fast Fashion?
But of all the problems caused by Fast Fashion, 4 are of paramount importance, impacting hundreds of millions of people worldwide.
1. Copyright Issues
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, underpaid (and in some cases underage) workers in Chinese or Bangladeshi factories replicate the design a million times from cheaper materials and quickly ship worldwide to fast-fashion retailers.
Compared to a designer label, which requires five to six months to design, manufacture, and launch a new collection, fast fashion brands replicate the same style and store it 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.
2. Modern Slavery
While garment workers are paid well below the minimum wage, fast fashion companies like Topshop and Fashion Nova earn millions by en-massing cheap clothes.
In the documentary The True Cost, author and journalist Lucy Siegle summed it up perfectly:
“Fast fashion isn’t free. Someone somewhere is paying.”
The actual cost of fast fashion was revealed in 2013 when the Rana Plaza – a clothing manufacturing complex in Bangladesh – collapsed, killing over 1,000 workers.
Every piece of clothing, garment, footwear, accessory, and apparel, from production to fashion retail, is chosen through the lens of reducing costs.
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 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. ”
Fast fashion brands have moved production to ‘developing’ countries to keep manufacturing costs low.
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 contains heavy metals that adversely impact the health of workers, animals, and nearby residents.
If not killed by chemical exposure, factory workers work long hours, with unfair wages, and suffer mental and physical abuse.
3. Throwaway Culture
As a result of the throwaway culture, compared to 20 years ago, we purchase clothing twice as much 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, 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 annually, and 11 million tons in the US.
4. Pollution and Waste
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 one of the largest polluters 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.
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 in fashion reveal endless scandals of animal exploitation and abuse.
What is the Difference Between Fast Fashion, Ready-to-Wear, and Haute Couture?
Fast Fashion prioritizes affordability and immediate availability but raises questions about quality and ethics.
On the other hand, Ready-to-Wear occupies the middle ground by offering higher-quality apparel at moderate price points.
Finally, Haute Couture represents the apex of craftsmanship and exclusivity, but at a price point that only a select few can afford.
What Are the 10 Worst Fast Fashion Companies in 2023?
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 now popular fast fashion names.
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 a fast fashion brand and 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 less 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.
3. Fashion Nova
Fashion Nova is an American fast fashion retailer with a famous image thanks to Instagram influencers and celebrities.
However, despite its popularity, the brand has received a 0% score on the Fashion Transparency Index 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 – 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 he had 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.
6. Nasty Gal
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.
7. Old Navy
Old Navy is an American fast fashion clothing retailer Gap Inc. owns, 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 labor standards, it is difficult to determine whether these unethical practices have stopped.
Irish company Primark is Europe’s largest fast fashion retailer that outsources manufacturing and, thus, has no control over the workers’ conditions or wages.
Even though Primark states its factories 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.
9. Pretty Little Thing
Owned by Boohoo Group, Prety Little Thing is a UK-based fast fashion brand for 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 3 Things Define Fast Fashion?
Fast fashion is defined by three 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.
Who Buys Fast Fashion?
The younger cohorts – Millennials and Gen Z – form the backbone of Fast Fashion’s consumer base. Data from Euromonitor International indicates that 37% of shoppers aged 18-34 prefer Fast Fashion outlets, seeking affordability and trendiness.
‘Purse-friendly’ fast fashion always comes at a cost, somewhere else…modern slavery or destroying the environment with cheap garments.
Unfortunately, the world’s insatiable appetite for fashion, the latest fashion trends, and the desire to copy celebs 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.
If genuine and not greenwashing, recycling and small eco or vegan clothing ranges are not enough to counter the throwaway culture.
Because of 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 clothes can be produced in mindful manufacturing, by vertically integrated in-house production, with fair labor rights, and from natural materials.
Slow fashion – long-lasting garments made sustainably and circularly practices – is the only way forward.
Keep up with the latest in fashion, beauty and style!
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 them and use them to learn, improve, and update these articles.
Championing sustainability and veganism from Sao Paulo to London, Ana Alves is a dynamic force in the fashion and beauty industry. With a decade-long writing career, Ana's compelling narratives on sustainable fashion have graced the pages of Forbes, Wired, Vanity Fair, and more. Ana's journey spans key roles at Unilever and Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness, where she honed her marketing acumen. As an Editorial Contributor at WTVOX and Fashion & Style Editor at The VOU, Ana shapes the discourse on sustainable fashion.