What Is Fast Fashion And What’s Wrong With It?

Written By


January 17, 2024

Fast fashion is a term that’s often tossed around, but do we truly understand its implications? Let’s take a closer look and dig into the intricate and often controversial world of fast fashion, its rise and effects, and what we, as consumers, can do to make a difference.

Key Takeaways

  • The fast fashion business model is characterized by low-quality materials, rapidly replicating trends, and poor working conditions with detrimental environmental consequences.

  • We can reduce the impact of fast fashion by educating ourselves on issues related to it, buying responsibly from sustainable clothing brands, and adopting alternatives such as buying second-hand or renting clothes instead of buying new ones.

  • The future of fashion relies upon collective action to adopt more sustainable practices. We all have the potential to drive this change.

What is Fast Fashion?

Fast fashion is all about producing cheap, trendy clothes at breakneck speed to keep up with the ever-changing fashion trends. It’s notorious for its “wear a few times and toss it” approach, which is driven by mass production of clothes at low costs to quench the consumer’s thirst for the latest styles.

– But these bargains come
with a hefty hidden price tag. –

The industry is known for cutting corners, using cheap, low-quality materials, and exploiting workers to keep costs down. Despite the profits it rakes in, the model leaves a trail of significant negative impacts on our society and our planet.

It took the clothing industry, propelled by fast fashion, only a short time to rank as one of the world’s largest polluters. Social media and celebrity culture have played a significant role in the rise of fast fashion, with new trends and styles emerging almost daily. The demand for these trendy items has led to an increase in clothing production, while also contributing to an increase in discarded clothing and textile waste.

Before we look for solutions for these issues, let’s take a look at the history to see how it could come this far.

The Rise of Fast Fashion

The origins of fast fashion can be traced back to the Industrial Revolution when the invention of the sewing machine allowed for more efficient and cost-effective garment production. Dressmaking shops began catering to the middle classes, paving the way for the mass-produced clothing lines we see today.

Most people wore clothes that were practical and long-lasting rather than trendy. The concept of constantly changing one’s wardrobe to keep up with the latest trends was a privilege reserved for the wealthy elite. Clothing was often mended and reused, and the idea of disposable clothing was largely unheard of.

The fashion industry was characterized by two main seasons – Spring/Summer and Autumn/Winter. The designs were typically available in stores several months after being showcased during the major fashion weeks in Paris, Milan, London, and New York.

– Clothing production was slower, focusing on quality and craftsmanship, and garments were often made to last. –

Fast fashion emerged during the 1990s when fast fashion retail stores like H&M, Zara, and Topshop began to focus on producing cheap, trendy clothes with rapid turnover. The goal was to provide consumers with the latest fashion trends at an affordable price, making fashion more accessible to the masses. As a result, the fast fashion market grew rapidly, reshaping the fashion industry and creating a new business model that prioritized quantity over quality, which led to increased consumption and waste.

The rise of social media further fueled the demand for fast fashion, as influencers and celebrities showcased the latest styles and trends. The younger generation, especially Gen Z, became the primary target audience for fast fashion brands, which capitalized on their desire to keep up with constantly changing styles and trends.

As the industry expands, the repercussions of its actions become increasingly evident, including environmental pollution and the exploitation of garment workers. However, as awareness of these issues increases, so does the potential for change and the adoption of more sustainable practices.

Consequences of Fast Fashion

Fast fashion’s consequences are far-reaching and harmful, impacting the environment, workers, and animals.

Pollution of Our Planet

The fast fashion clothing industry plays a significant role in contributing to environmental issues. With 10% of annual global carbon emissions attributed to the garment industry, it’s evident that our clothing choices have a lasting impact on the planet.

– That’s more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined! –

Another significant issue is water pollution, with the apparel industry being the second largest polluter of clean water globally.

  • Toxic chemicals used in the dyeing and treatment process often end up in waterways, affecting both marine and terrestrial life. Around 20% of wastewater worldwide comes from fabric dyeing and treatment.

  • The use of pesticides in the production of raw materials can contaminate water sources, harm wildlife, and pose health risks to farmers. These pesticides can remain in the fabric even after manufacturing, potentially causing skin irritations or other health issues for the wearers.

  • Microplastics shed from synthetic clothing during washing and can end up in our water systems. These particles pose a threat to marine life as they can be mistaken for food and ingested. Furthermore, they also enter the human food chain through seafood, posing potential health risks.

The majority of fast fashion garments are of low quality and designed for only a few wears. Shockingly, around 85 % of the clothing Americans consume is eventually discarded and ends up in landfills. This means that nearly 80 pounds of clothing per American per year is sent to landfills like the clothing mountain in Chile’s Atacama desert, contributing to environmental degradation.

Human Cost

Fast fashion has a devastating impact on garment workers. Its low-cost, high-speed production model is largely sustained on the backs of exploited people. These workers are often based in developing countries and are subject to poor working conditions, low wages, and long hours, with little to no regard for their rights or well-being.

  • Dangerous Working Conditions: Many garment factories lack proper safety measures, putting workers at risk of accidents and health issues. The Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh was the deadliest garment factory disaster in history with a loss of 1,134 lives – a tragic example of the human cost of fast fashion.

  • Inadequate Wages: Fast fashion brands often pay their workers less than a living wage, trapping them in a cycle of poverty. Despite working long hours, many workers struggle to meet their basic needs.

  • Violation of Rights: Workers’ rights are often disregarded in the fast fashion industry. Cases of union busting, harassment, and child labor are not uncommon. Workers who protest for better conditions or wages often face retaliation, including job loss or violence.

  • Health Hazards: Garment workers are frequently exposed to hazardous chemicals and materials without proper protection, leading to serious health issues over time.

  • Forced Labor and Modern Slavery: Some clothing brands have been linked to forced labor and modern slavery, particularly in countries where regulation and enforcement are weak.

These practices are a stark contrast to the glamorous image that fast fashion brands often project. They highlight the human cost of our cheap, trendy clothes and the urgent need for systemic change within the industry.

Impact on Animals

The use of animal-derived products in the fashion industry often involves practices that compromise animal welfare. Animals are often kept in cramped and unsanitary conditions, and the methods used to obtain these materials often involve practices that severely compromise animal welfare and can cause immense suffering.

  • Leather and Fur: The production of leather and fur involves the slaughtering of animals, often under inhumane conditions. The process also involves the use of toxic chemicals, which can have a detrimental impact on the environment.

  • Wool and Silk: Even materials that don’t directly involve the death of animals, such as wool and silk, can often be sourced in ways that cause immense suffering. Sheep raised for wool are often subjected to painful procedures without anesthesia, while silkworms are boiled alive to extract their silk.

  • Down: The down used in fashion items like jackets and comforters is often plucked from live birds, causing them significant distress and pain.

  • Exotic Skins: The demand for exotic skins for high fashion items leads to the hunting and killing of animals like snakes, alligators, and kangaroos.

It’s essential to consider these impacts when choosing what to wear and which brands to support.

Who is Big Fast Fashion?

Fast fashion has become a dominant force in the fashion industry, with numerous brands adopting its model of rapid production and low-cost garments to meet consumer demand. Here are some big players in the apparel industry:

  • Zara: Known for its quick turnaround times, Zara can design, produce, and deliver new styles to its stores in just a few weeks.

  • H&M: This Swedish brand is one of the largest fast fashion retailers in the world. It offers a wide variety of trendy, affordable clothing.

  • UNIQLO: Although it focuses more on basic styles than on rapidly changing trends, UNIQLO’s high-volume, low-cost business model aligns it with fast fashion.

  • Topshop: This UK-based retailer is known for its trendy styles and frequent turnover of stock.

These brands epitomize the fast fashion model, prioritizing speed and cost over quality and sustainability.

The Next Level: Ultra-Fast Fashion

Ultra-fast fashion represents an even more extreme version of the fast fashion model. Brands in this category are known for their ability to take the latest runway trends and translate them into affordable clothing for the mass market at an extraordinarily low price and at rapid pace.

These brands often release new collections on a weekly or even daily basis, far outpacing the traditional fast fashion cycle. This extreme speed is made possible by a combination of factors, including advanced technology, streamlined supply chains, and the use of cheap labor and low-quality materials.

However, while ultra-fast fashion companies offer consumers the latest styles at rock-bottom prices, they further contribute to the negative consequences of fast fashion on an even larger scale.

These brands, amongst others, have taken the fast fashion concept to an even more extreme level:

  • SHEIN: An online-only retailer, SHEIN releases hundreds of new styles every week.

  • Forever 21: This American brand is popular among young consumers for its low-cost, trendy clothes.

  • Missguided: An online retailer based in the UK, Missguided is known for its affordable, trend-driven styles that cater to a young demographic.

  • Boohoo: This UK-based online retailer targets a young demographic with its affordable, trend-driven styles.

  • Fashion Nova: Known for its influencer marketing and celebrity collaborations, offering trendy styles at low prices.

How to Spot a Fast Fashion Brand

Recognizing fast fashion brands can be as straightforward as observing a few indicative signs. These brands often have:

  • Rapid production: a vast selection of clothing, and frequently released new stock on an almost daily basis

  • Trend replication: styles are cheaply made versions of the most recent fashion trends

  • Cheap materials: poorly constructed garments made of inexpensive materials like synthetic fabrics, only to last for a few wears

  • Unethical manufacturing: low production costs by production in countries where garment workers receive below living wage

  • Competitive pricing: encouraging over-consumption through heavily discounted prices

Fast Fashion and Green Washing

Greenwashing is a misleading marketing strategy employed to project an image of sustainability without implementing substantial changes in their business practices. In reality, these brands continue to contribute to environmental degradation and worker exploitation while claiming to support sustainability.

To avoid falling for greenwashing tactics, consumers should be cautious and research brands before making a purchase. Some signs to look out for include:

  • Vague and ambiguous language in marketing materials

  • Green certifications and labels that may not be reputable or meaningful

  • Focusing only on one aspect of sustainability while ignoring others

By being aware, consumers can make more informed choices and support sustainable clothing brands that are genuinely committed to environmental responsibility.

What Can We Do?

Despite the overwhelming negative impact of fast fashion, we are not powerless. There are several actions we can take to counteract fast fashion and its detrimental effects. By educating ourselves, making conscious buying decisions, exploring alternatives to buying new, supporting slow fashion brands, and adopting sustainable practices in our clothing consumption, we can make a difference.

Educate Yourself

Knowledge is power. Understanding the environmental and social consequences of the fast fashion industry is the first step towards making a change. There are numerous resources available to help you learn about the issues related to fast fashion and sustainable alternatives, such as:

  • Ellen MacArthur Foundation: A charity committed to creating a circular economy, designed to eliminate waste and pollution, circulate products and materials, and regenerate nature.

  • Fashion Revolution: The world’s largest fashion activism movement, calling for greater transparency, sustainability, and ethics in the fashion industry.

  • Clean Clothes Campaign: A global alliance dedicated to improving working conditions and empowering workers in the global garment and sportswear industries.

Buy Less, Choose Well, Make It Last

One of the most effective ways to combat fast fashion is to reconsider your shopping habits and prioritize quality over quantity. Invest in sustainable clothing pieces that are made to last and care for them so they do. This not only reduces the demand for disposable fashion but also your carbon and waste footprint.

Explore Alternatives

Consider other options before buying new. This could include buying second-hand, upcycling, engaging in clothes swaps, renting or borrowing clothes. These practices not only reduce textile waste but also decrease the demand for new garment production.

Support Responsible Brands

Choose to buy from slow fashion brands that are transparent about their manufacturing processes and are committed to ethical and sustainable practices. These brands often utilize renewable, organic, or recycled materials in their garments, ensuring a lower environmental impact. This not only supports the brand but also sends a message to the industry about consumer priorities.

Adopt Sustainable Practices

Take care of the clothes you already have, mend them when they’re torn, wash them only when necessary, and recycle or donate them when you no longer need them. Small changes in your everyday choices can significantly extend the life cycle of your clothes and have a positive impact on the health of our planet.

The Future of Fashion

As the understanding of the detrimental effects of fast fashion expands, there is a growing trend towards sustainability. The future of fashion lies in the adoption of cleaner, safer, and more transparent practices, with campaigns like Fashion Revolution and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation paving the way for change.

Younger generations, who are currently the primary drivers of the fast fashion economy, have the potential to shape the industry’s future. As they become more aware of the environmental impact of their clothing choices, they can demand higher standards from fashion brands and promote a more sustainable industry.

In conclusion, fast fashion has significant consequences for the environment, garment workers, and animals. The future of fashion ultimately depends on our collective actions. We must acknowledge the impact of our clothing choices and take steps to combat fast fashion by making conscious decisions, exploring alternatives to purchasing new clothes, and increasing consumer demand for ethical and sustainable fashion.

By taking these actions, we can help shape a more responsible clothing industry for the future.


What is fast fashion?

Fast fashion is characterized by quickly produced trendy clothes made from cheap materials while relying on the exploitation of natural resources and human labor. It encourages a throwaway culture where low-quality garments are worn only a few times before being discarded. This has revolutionized the fashion industry at a great cost to the environment and human rights.

Why is fast fashion bad?

Fast fashion is a major contributor to environmental and social issues, including pollution, climate change, waste, and worker exploitation. Clothes are seen as disposable and the environmental impacts of this excessive garment production and consumption cannot be ignored. It is clear that the fast fashion industry needs to be addressed.

When did fast fashion start?

Fast fashion started in the 1990s with the rise of retailers like Zara, H&M, and Topshop. These brands introduced the concept of affordable, trendy clothing with rapid production cycles, leading to the growth of the fast fashion market and reshaping the clothing industry.

What are some fast fashion examples?

The top fashion houses following fast fashion principles are Zara, H&M, UNIQLO, Topshop, SHEIN, Missguided, Fashion Nova, Boohoo, and Forever 21.

Who benefits from fast fashion?

Fast fashion benefits consumers seeking trendy clothing at affordable prices and the companies profiting from high sales volumes. However, fast fashion’s impact on the environment, garment workers, and society as a whole outweigh these benefits.

Where is fast fashion made?

Fast fashion is often made in countries with low labor costs, such as Bangladesh, China, and India. The production of garments in these countries allows companies to keep prices low and increase profits, but often results in poor working conditions and exploitation of workers.