Fast fashion
What's the answer to the fast fashion clothing crisis? (Illustration by Melchisedech Quagrainie, Columbia College Chicago)

The Problems With Fast Fashion and the Problems With Hating On It

The efficient business model may not be environmentally friendly, but it’s unrealistic to expect everybody to shop slow fashion.

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Fast fashion

The efficient business model may not be environmentally friendly, but it’s unrealistic to expect everybody to shop slow fashion.

The concern over fast fashion is growing online, but what is it, how bad is it really and should we expect people to avoid it? Let’s unpack everything.

What Is Fast Fashion?

Fast fashion is a highly productive and efficient business model that relies on mass-producing in-style clothes based on the latest trends for cheap prices. The goal of fast fashion is to sell the latest styles in as little time as possible so customers snap up the pieces.

The fast-fashion industry both institutes and perpetuates rapidly-changing consumer tastes by producing hundreds of thousands of new designs in short amounts of time. Designs are inspired by catwalk fashion shows or celebrities so shoppers are sure to be interested.

What Are Some Examples of Fast Fashion?

The fast-fashion phenomenon has exploded everywhere. Forever 21, Urban Outfitters, H&M and Hot Topic are a handful of the fast-fashion stores you may see walking through a mall. The industry is increasingly upheld by online shops such as SHEIN, Nasty Gal, Fashion Nova, ROMWE and Dolls Kill — and these are just to name a few.

Look out for stores with tons of new trendy designs in extremely short amounts of time, super low prices and products made from low-quality, cheap materials that aren’t durable: These may be indicators of fast fashion.

What’s the Issue With Fast Fashion?

Well, there’s a lot of issues.

Wasteful Consumption

First of all, fast fashion encourages a culture of excess and waste. When clothing lacks durability and only lasts for a limited number of wears, we throw it away and have to shop more frequently. According to Greenpeace, “The average person buys 60 percent more items of clothing and keeps them for about half as long as 15 years ago.”

The industry also contributes to the pressure to belong to an in-group by following trends; when what’s in style is constantly and swiftly changing, we’re going to tire quickly when we just can’t keep up, which ultimately leaves us feeling unsatisfied.

Labor Impact

Another characteristic is a dependence on offshore manufacturing. The companies rely on a cheap labor force, oftentimes in areas where workers have low wages, limited rights and improper working conditions. The industry depends on dishing out millions of new pieces on the market as soon as trends hit, so employees are often overworked to meet high production goals.

How can major brands get away with exploitative manufacturing practices? They outsource production to supplier firms that subcontract suppliers. This means that whatever manufacturing businesses are chosen to work with major companies have no actual affiliation with the brand itself and subsequently have no legal obligation toward the employees.

Yet another issue of fast-fashion labor is the prominence of gender-based violence among the workforce. According to Green America, “women make up the majority of garment workers in fast-fashion supplier factories. For instance, eighty to ninety-five percent gender majority in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Indonesia and Sri Lanka.”

A headline from Quartz reads: “In just four days, top fashion CEOs earn a garment worker’s lifetime pay.” The Oxfam “Living Wage Media” report details the appalling growing inequality crisis in the garment industry.

Environmental Impact

Most talked about is fast fashion’s awful impact on the environment. According to Business Insider, the fashion industry makes up 10% of the planet’s carbon emissions. It is also the second-largest polluter in the world after the oil industry, per Ecowatch, releasing approximately 1.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year. A polluter in more ways than one, the fast-fashion industry is fed by factories that often dump leftover water from textile dyeing into lakes and rivers.

The industry takes second place in yet another category, but not for something it should be too proud of. The fast-fashion industry is also the second-largest consumer of water, “requiring about 700 gallons to produce one cotton shirt and 2,000 gallons of water to produce a pair of jeans.”

And it doesn’t stop there. Clothes production already creates a lot of wasted fabric and the frequently discarded products of fast fashion only add to the massive problem. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation says, “overall, one garbage truck of textiles is landfilled or incinerated every second.”

According to Greenpeace, nearly 70 million barrels of oil are used each year to make polyester, which then takes more than 200 years to decompose. For being made and thrown away so quickly, fast fashion plagues the environment for a really long time.

What’s the Solution to Fast Fashion?

Depending on a person’s circumstances, if it’s viable, fast fashion should be avoided. The alternative is slow fashion: sustainable brands whose products are more ethically made that leave a smaller environmental footprint are ideal. More durable products also mean a decreased need to buy so many pieces of clothing.

Recycling clothing is another step in the right direction, as is buying fewer items overall. It’s time to rewrite the narrative that we have to be on-trend, change with the times and avoid being caught in the same outfit twice.

But Is That Really Realistic?

All that being said, however, it’s easy to advise people to avoid fast fashion, but the issue is much more complex than that. Not everybody has the privilege of affording slow fashion where you’re going to pay more for better quality items. For many, fast fashion is the only way people can afford well-fitting, stylish clothes.

We can tell people to just go thrifting instead. “Oh, they’ll find clothes just as cheap,” but still, not everyone has access to thrift stores and not everyone has time to sift through an abundance of clothes that may not fit their bodies or be functional for their jobs and lives.

Awareness of the innumerable problems with fast fashion and avoiding excessive consumerism is a start. Unfortunately, there’s no easy, one-size-fits-all solution, but we must stop blaming the consumer with a lack of options and, instead, hold the toxic system accountable.

Writer Profile

Sarah Gudenau

Oakland University
Journalism

I am a second-year student with a junior class standing pursuing a B.A. in journalism with minors in Spanish language and digital media production at Oakland University.

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