Fast fashion has a few different sides to it – the good, the bad, and the downright ugly.
Fast fashion is usually a term reserved for inexpensive clothing but even the more expensive, “designer” goods can be fast fashion too. Many “higher end” brands have evolved to keep up with the cheaper stores who began knocking off their designs faster than even the originators could put them to market. So, even these brands have had to churn out goods at a faster rate and at a lower quality just to stay competitive. In this post, I mention H&M and Zara repeatedly since they’re the largest and most globally recognizable fast fashion retailers.
First, the good: fashion production is a way for developing countries to lift their citizens out of poverty. It’s one of the top employers in terms of number of workers in some developing countries like India and Bangladesh.
From 2016-2017, 81% of Bangladesh’s total exports were ready-made garments. In the same year, a total of 4 million people were employed in the country’s 4482 garment factories. It’s also important to note that 80% of these workers are female. Thus, the garment industry plays a huge role in empowering women by allowing them to earn wages.
Fast fashion stores have also enabled people to look good without spending much money. Even the lower priced stores like Zara and H&M have some quality items that can last a lifetime (I have a jacket from H&M’s Conscious Collection that people often confuse for a designer piece), especially if they’re cared for properly.
Now for the bad: fast fashion is essentially disposable – the business model is created around obsolescence and the need to keep buying more.
When it comes to the inexpensive fast fashion stores, customers believe they’re saving money by buying items at low prices and there’s a sense of urgency to buy before the item is sold out.
Most of the time, these purchases are chalked up as an “amazing deal”. They’re purchased without giving much thought to how the item can be produced so cheaply, where it will end up once we’re done with it, and whether we actually need it.
Fast fashion is notoriously of poor quality. Oftentimes, when a garment is well-loved, it quickly turns to trash. After a few months of wear, those $30 dollar shoes are done and can’t even be repaired by a cobbler. That $15 blouse was destroyed in the first wash since the seams were weak. And those $20 jeans quickly become unfit to even send to a secondhand store.
Fast fashion products also rely on trends and their novelty wears off as quickly as their name implies. Consumers tend to tire of trendy merchandise quickly and the pieces they own get sent to the back of their closet or to the nearest thrift store or garbage bin within a season or less.
And now, for the ugly.
There is a high human cost to making low-quality goods. Factory workers aren’t paid much for their efforts and their workplace conditions can be life-threatening. Many companies simply do not care about these working conditions and turn a blind eye.
I worked at a major fast fashion company during the Rana Plaza factory tragedy, where over 1,000 people died and another 2,500 were injured when a five-story factory building collapsed. While that particular company that I worked for was not directly linked to those factories, the working conditions in the factories they did produce in were of a similar caliber – and yet they said nothing and did nothing to ensure that the people making their goods wouldn’t suffer a similar fate. Business went along as usual and we continued to work with the same factories in Bangladesh and China. I left the company shortly thereafter.
Considering the human impact of producing these goods was horrifying enough, but I was also disturbed about something else.
Seeing the excessive production of cheap (and cheaply made) goods gave me an uneasy feeling and made me wonder – what is happening with all of this cheap stuff when people are done with it?
Clothes should be treated with respect for the people who make them, but many of these goods end up in the trash.
As most of us now know, fast fashion is destructive to the earth (the exact amount of damage being done to the planet hasn’t yet been determined) by way of fiber production, fabric treating & dyeing, production waste, shipping, the rate of consumption, and the number of items ending up in landfills. It is a huge contributor to climate change.
Consider this – in 2004, H&M sold 600 million items. I wonder where all of that merchandise is 14 years later…
The Future of Fast Fashion
So what does the future look like?
This information can be overwhelming and sometimes leaves me with a sense that things are hopeless and that the industry may never change.
But then I remind myself that there is hope – many people are realizing that fast fashion isn’t worth it. There are more sustainable apparel companies emerging every year which is a sign that there’s a market for ethical goods.
Even brands like H&M are trying to reform – the company has pledged to “use 100% recycled or other sustainably sourced materials by 2030 and to become climate positive throughout its entire value chain by 2040”.
But will this really change anything? As I mentioned earlier, the fast fashion business model relies completely on people buying a lot and buying often.
This is why I think that the only way to remedy the fast fashion problem is to adjust the way we consume.
Do I suggest not shopping at stores like H&M, Zara, and the like? No, because that isn’t realistic for most people.
What I propose is simply consuming less. Instead of browsing these stores every week and buying whatever strikes you, I suggest thoughtfully planning your wardrobe. Doing so will reduce the negative impacts of fast fashion, all while improving your wardrobe and saving you money.
Instead of buying from fast fashion retailers once a month, try only buying from them a few times per year and buying only what you really need, items that you’ll wear repeatedly, and items that you’re certain to value for a long period of time.
Invest in basics – items that you wear frequently should be of good quality so that you don’t need to replace them often (these kinds of goods are also more likely to be saved with simple repairs).
Try secondhand shopping to reduce your environmental footprint even further (and to save money while doing so).
Don’t forget to take care of your clothes properly – hand washing, air drying, and washing them less often can give them a longer life.
And when you’re done with an item, see if you can give it to a friend or family member, resell it, donate it, or take any unwearable items to a clothing collection site that can recycle the fabric. Clothes should never end up in a landfill.
How do you feel about fast fashion? Hopeless or hopeful?
Can you recommend any sustainable, ethical brands that produce quality goods?