Fast fashion shopping: It is cute, it is on sale, but do we really need to buy it?
Nowadays, many people want to look trendy on their Facebook or Instagram profiles or wear clothes as Kylie Jenner does. Kylie Jenner, an Instagram superstar with 333 million followers, has a profile full of ads for the clothes she wears. Everything, starting from a bathing suit to lip gloss, is an ad on her page. Therefore, millions of people buy clothes to imitate her style. Fast fashion is progressively getting increasingly affordable; H&M and Zara make people happy by selling clothes starting from 5$ or “two for the price of one”. However, the people who make our clothes are not happy, because of the minimum wage. That is not enough even for buying food for them and their family, paying the rent and healthcare, not to mention transportation and education.
Sophie Scamans studied and analyzed existing research and reports on fast fashion and sustainability, consumer behavior, and different production phases, focusing on three diverse types of material, the worker, and the economic situation of brands in the EU. The results showed how demand for cheap garments, exploitation of the cheaper workforce, and natural resources will affect future generations. According to her research article, “Fast fashion is a concept, which revolutionized the fashion industry. As the term implies it is about the pace of production. Brands tap on consumers’ interest for not wanting to invest in ever-changing fashion trends. There are huge opportunities for profit and innovation within the model. Hennes & Mauritz (H&M), Zara, and Forever 21 are examples of fast fashion stores” (4). It may sound big, but fast fashion clothes consumption, use of certain materials and poor labor conditions provision negatively impact our environment and the world.
Fast fashion companies see high fashion styles like Gucci style designs on the catwalk and other inspirations during fashion week. These companies produce them phenomenally fast and are terribly like high fashion brands. It takes them just days, not months, to copy the styles and to fill fast fashion stores. Furthermore, Biehl-Missal explains, “Cline criticizes the exploitation and economic unsustainability of mass production in today’s cheap fashion industry. Mass-market retailers ever more quickly create and waste trends. H&M and Forever 21, for example, get daily shipments of new styles and Zara has new lines twice a week. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of identical clothing items are ordered from one factory” (Biehl-Missal 252). So, from a business standpoint, fast fashion has proven to be very profitable because of the speed and ability to copy high-end designs of clothing and reproduce them for extremely low prices to encourage frequent shopping visits by consumers.
One of the most important influencers in this field is Elizabeth Cline (Biehl-Missal mentioned her in his article), she is a New York-based journalist, who lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Ms. Cline is a public speaker and author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion. Her book was released in 2013 by Penguin Portfolio and has been called “the fashion world’s answer to… The Omnivore’s Dilemma”. In her speech at the Chicago Humanities Festival in 2016, Cline defined “fast fashion” more broadly as a “massive acceleration in the cycle of production, distribution, consumption, and disposal of clothing” (“Chicago Humanities”). She argued that fashion used to be seasonal, so it showed two to three collections per year. Now, fashion production has become daily with modern designs coming out in stores like H&M or Zara.
Mass producers have always debated over how they can increase the inventory turnover, which is about selling their products faster. People, as consumers, buy new clothes very often and fast, especially when they see a great deal at the stores or in magazines. Speed and disposability became the new black. Fast fashion is not a family dinner table topic discussion, but it certainly is an especially important one because people have the power to do something about it. A revolution in fashion is needed, to revolutionize the way we think about clothing and buy less and buy better.
According to Cline’s book Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion “An average American buys 70–75 garments per year, which is one garment a week. This is five times more than we did in the 1980s. To put it into perspective, the world, including the US, buys 80 billion garments per year, which means that the US takes up 25% of the world’s clothing consumption” (97). Fast fashion chains release new styles as often as every two weeks, making trendy clothing cheaper than ever, which makes fashion the second most polluting industry in the world behind oil.
Discarding clothes is easy to do and may not seem harmful, except for the fact that the clothing materials have an adverse effect on the environment. Fast fashion outlets change trends often and quickly to stimulate more sales; nevertheless, this means that recent purchases will go out of style and be in the trash bin sooner than later. Synthetic materials, cotton, and leather are the most popular materials used in the fast fashion industry.
Polyester, a synthetic material made from fossil fuels, is a polluting plastic and it is now in half of our clothing. First, polyester is non-biodegradable, which means that every piece of polyester that has ever been produced is still on our planet, like plastic. However, a lot of people recycle or reuse plastic but not all of them do the same with their clothes. Another truth is that when we wash synthetic clothes, thousands of microplastics are shedding, entering our water systems, and appearing in the oceans. Unfortunately, fish are consuming these microplastics and we are consuming the fish, which negatively impacts our health. Scamans claims, “Synthetics have energy demands from moderate to high, with acrylic and nylon having extremely high demands, polymer production stands as the main energy demand. The energy requirement for polyester results in high greenhouse gas emissions, but the production generates little wastewater. Having a high energy use during production leads to synthetics having a much greater environmental footprint compared to natural fibers” (19).
Cotton materials are less energy-intensive to create than polyester. However, as documented in the WWF report The Impact of Cotton on Freshwater Resources and Ecosystems, “it can take more than 20,000 liters (about 5283.44 gal) of water to produce 1kg of cotton; equivalent to a single T-shirt and pair of jeans. Seventy-three percent of global cotton harvest comes from irrigated land” (“WWF Global”). Not surprisingly, producing cotton clothes takes a tremendous amount of water that is mostly used for such things as washing, bleaching, and dyeing. As Bangladesh’s textile industry keeps growing, the factories get priority over the people. The textile industry uses more water and an increasing number of people do not have access to basic needs. Water and energy use is the main reason textile production can impact the environment. From inks to dyes and many sorts of bleaches, most of the wet processes of textile production involve potential harm due to the chemicals.
Leather is one of the most common materials in our wardrobes. It is classified as the most harmful industry because leather production has the most polluting systems. In addition, “its impacts lead to deterioration of a wide range of organisms and ecosystems. In common with other materials, leather has become more affordable to shoppers, the industry can barely keep up with the demand; it has lost its ‘status’ as a quality product. Facing issues such as high lead content, and greenhouse gases from cows, leather does not have the most appealing environmental profile” (Scamans 20–21).
The low and dangerous working conditions of the fast fashion industry are really disturbing. Most of the fast fashion clothes are produced in Bangladesh, China, and Taiwan. Even though garment workers in these countries make truly little money, they also work under dangerous working conditions. In 2012, Tazreen Fashion garment factory caught fire in Bangladesh. Without any existence of fire safety laws, fast fashion companies such as Walmart and Gap were not required to provide smoke alarms or fire exits at the factory, so they did not. When the factory caught fire, the eleven members of the factory had a chance to escape, while 112 women workers were engulfed in flames. Disastrously, over 1,100 workers died in the Rana Plaza garment factory when the building collapsed. It took so many lives before Bangladesh began making standards for fire safety. However, there are still companies that continue to place workers in awful conditions, maybe because they have not been caught yet.
The future of fast fashion and fashion, in general, seem to be changing in a positive way because of people like Elizabeth Cline, Carry Somers, Maxine Bédat, and others as well as many organizations that fight for better conditions and improve the fashion supply chain. Fashion Revolution, cofounded by Carry Somers and Orsola de Castro, is a global movement with a mission “to unite people and organizations to work together towards radically changing the way our clothes are sourced, produced and consumed, so that our clothing is made in a safe, clean and fair way” (Fast Fashion Revolution). “We love fashion, but we don’t want our clothes to come at the cost of people or our planet,” says the first page of the website. Fashion Revolution was founded as a response to the 2013 garment factory collapse in Bangladesh which took 1,138 lives. Fashion Revolution believes transparency is the first step to transforming the fashion industry and recently posted the 2018 edition of the Fashion Transparency Index, which is a review of 150 of the biggest global fashion brands and retailers ranked according to how much they disclose about their social and environmental policies, practices, and impact. According to the 2018 edition, “unsurprisingly the average score for all 150 brands and retailers is 21% out of 250 points, which demonstrates that there is a lot of work to be done. The good news is that the companies reviewed in the 2017 edition showed a 5% increase on average” (“Fashion Revolution Foundation”). The co-founders are passionate about the Fashion Revolution, and they have written a manifesto for millions of supporters all over the globe. This helps me feel as if there can be a change in fashion. While the Fashion Revolution is a foundation, fashion is an industry; therefore, this industry is a business, so it is important to investigate the companies that attempt to either help or disrupt fast fashion.
ThredUp is a fashion resale website for consumers to buy and sell secondhand women’s and children’s clothing online. It is also a part of the sharing economy, which includes companies like Airbnb and Uber. The company claims to have 15 thousand new arrivals every day. Although the company has been extraordinarily successful and is backed by prominent investment firms such as Goldman Sachs, it has mostly negative reviews and many complaints about the Better Business Bureau. This means that there is a need for the services but the business struggles with operations. They have a great concept, where they can help people empty their closets. But that may not necessarily mean that people will not go to Zara and H&M to use the proceeds from the sale. There are more companies like ThredUp, such as The RealReal, an authenticated luxury consignment online store, founded in 2011. It is also backed by strong investors and employs over eight hundred people. Both companies help people make more money by selling their old clothes, just like Airbnb helps people rent their unused rooms, by helping people buy fewer new clothes the companies help them fight fast fashion.
After reading several articles and analyses on fast fashion and sustainability, I do not regret choosing this topic for my personal letter, because I got a deeper knowledge of where the fast fashion industry takes me and what I can do about it. I might not know how to change this massive industry yet, but I know that I can make changes in my buying habits and become a more thoughtful consumer. Fast fashion is like fast food; the quality is poor, and it makes people addicted to it because the prices are affordable.
Scamans, Sophie. “Fast Fashion and Sustainability.” Metropolia Ammattikorkeakoulu, May 6, 2016, Google scholar
Biehl-Missal, Brigitte. “Art, Fashion, and Anti-consumption.” Journal of Macromarketing, Vol 33, Issue 3, pp. 245–257, February 28, 2013
WWF Global. “Cotton Farming.” 2017,
BBB’s profile for ThredUp, Inc. “Reviews and Complaints.” Better Business Bureau, August 2016, www.bbb.org/greater-san-francisco/business-reviews/online-shopping/thredup-inc-in-san-francisco-ca-381201/reviews-and-complaints
Thread Up Second Hand Clothes. Firsthand Fun. “The largest online consignment and thrift store.” 2018, www.thredup.com
Fashion Revolution Foundation. “Fashion Transparency Index 2018.” April 21, 2018, issuu.com/fashionrevolution/docs/fr_fashiontransparencyindex2018
Cline, Elizabeth L. Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion. Penguin, 2012.