Fast Fashion: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

“I feel the need – the need for speed.”

In 1986, these words by Peter “Maverick” Mitchell in the movie Top Gun held true for racecar drivers and fighter pilots. Today, they are the mantra of our everyday lives.

The same goes in retail.

In the 80s, when the manufacturing of retail clothing was moved to Asia, it has taken the retail supply chain months to move a new product from the initial concept to the stores. For most clothing items, the cycle is six months at the least. This process, while slow, has been advantageous to margins. If there had been a mismatch between the supply and demand, it had been less critical because consumers had fewer alternatives and they were less informed.

Down the road, production became more of a challenge as people’s lives became more fast-paced. The supply chain, which moved at a snail’s pace, had become insufficient to fulfill the demands of consumers who move at the speed of light.

As the times changed, so did people’s shopping habits. Clothes shopping used to be an infrequent event. People only shopped for clothes when the seasons changed or when they outgrew what they had in their closets.  Today’s consumers, using their smartphones, can find whatever they want, whenever they want it, and at a price they deem fair. The “see now, buy now” economy is here, and, by the looks of it, it’s here to stay.

Shopping has been reduced from a necessity into a form of entertainment. Clothes became cheaper and the trends came and went faster. Enter Fast Fashion, and with it, the global retail chains that now reign our high streets and online.

Zara, opened the doors of its first store in 1975, in Northern Spain. When it came to New York in the early 1990s, the term “Fast Fashion” was born. The New York Times coined the term Fast Fashion to describe the clothing brand’s mission to take but a mere 15 days for an apparel to go from the design stage to the display rack in stores.

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Everyone embraced Fast Fashion – it was too good to be true. Stores frequently refreshed their inventory of trendy clothing, which people could buy with their loose change. All of a sudden, everyone could afford the latest pieces, fresh from the catwalk. Everyone could dress like a celebrity.

In 2013, consumers and the fashion world got a reality check. A clothing manufacturing complex called Rana Plaza in Bangladesh collapsed, leaving more than 1,000 workers dead. It was then that discerning consumers started questioning Fast Fashion.

What is Fast Fashion, really? How does it impact people and planet?  What is the real cost of those $5 shirts in Fast Fashion stores?

What is Fast Fashion?

Fast Fashion is characterized by cheap, trendy apparel, inspired by catwalk fashion or celebrity culture. Brands turned trends into garments that landed in high street stores at breakneck speed. Low-cost fashion peaked in the late 90s and the 2000s, with the advent of online shopping. It was also around that time that retailers like Zara, Topshop, and H&M took over.

Fast Fashion brands have some key common characters, some of which include:

  • An extensive array of styles, all touching on the latest trends.
  • An almost nonexistent turnaround time between when a style is seen on the catwalk or worn by a celebrity, and when it hits the stores.
  • Limited quantity of certain styles: an idea pioneered by Zara. As stores see fresh stocks every few days, shoppers worry that if they miss the opportunity to buy something they lie, they might never get a second chance.
  • Fast degradation of the garment, due to the use of cheap, low quality materials. Users can wear them just a few times, before they end up in the landfill.

How does Fast Fashion Impact the Earth?

We may not realize, but Fast Fashion has a massive impact on the planet. For one, with the speed by which garments are produced, it follows that consumers dispose larger quantities of clothes. This can blow up the amount of textile waste all over the world.

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Because there is pressure to reduce costs and expedite production processes, environmental corners are cut. One of its biggest negative effects includes the use of cheap, toxic textile dyes. The large-scale use of these pollutants make the fashion industry the second largest polluter of potable water all around the world, second only to agriculture.  This has prompted organizations to pressure brands to discontinue the use of dangerous chemicals. Greenpeace for example, has been one of the staunchest proponents of this cause with their Detox The Catwalk campaign.

Cheap textiles also amplify Fast Fashion’s negative ecological impact. Most fast fashion garments are made from polyester. This fabric is derived from fossil fuels, which contributes to global warming. The material also sheds microfibers, which add to the already alarming levels of plastic in the ocean.

But what about clothes that use natural fabrics? Well, at the rate Fast Fashion consumes natural fabric, this can also pose a problem. In many developing countries, growing cotton requires large quantities of water and pesticides. As a consequence, we may face risks of drought, with the amount of stress we create on water basins. The other environmental concerns associated with Fast fashion include depletion of biodiversity and degradation of soil quality, stemming from the competition for resources that happen between manufacturers and local communities.

The Human Cost

Fast Fashion mostly impacts those in the garment production. Laborers were found to work in dangerous environments, for very low wages and with little regard to human rights.  Further down the supply chain, you’ll find the farmers who work with pesticides and other toxic chemicals that can adversely affect both their physical and mental health. This is a plight brought into the light by the documentary The True Cost.

Finally, Fast Fashion impacts you. Have you ever thought of how easy it is to “declutter” your closet and feel excited about your next shopping spree? Fast Fashion encourages the “throw-away” culture, with the products’ obsolescence, due to the materials used and the speed at which they are produced. Fast Fashion makes us believe we need more – it gives us the urge to shop more, to be more fashionable. The need to stay on top of trends, ultimately, creates a constant sense of need and dissatisfaction.

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