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What is Fast Fashion and How You Can Slow it Down

  • Fast fashion is a business of mass-producing cheap clothes that look expensive but are in fact made not to last long. Many brands have perfected the model, most notably Zara, H&M and Forever 21.
  • Fast Fashion hurts the environment and people: the industry is the second biggest polluter of water and is responsible for bad conditions in textile factories that are mostly in Asia.
  • The good news: it doesn’t take a lot of effort to become a sustainable fashionista. The main rule is to buy better clothes and wear them longer. Learn what else you can do in our guide that will take you away from fast fashion and towards greener alternatives.

In summer 2019, an online fashion brand Misguided offered a black bikini set for a baffling price of one pound. The retailer advertised the piece as one that “won’t break your bank, but it may break the internet”. It has in fact gone viral, but probably not for the reasons they’ve hoped for. A group of ethical shoppers first took to Twitter to voice concerns over the unsustainability of a one-pound item, followed by a full-blown social media backlash. Activist Venetia La Manna, for instance, posted this amusing video, explaining why people really don’t need new and poorly made bikinis.

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Venetia La Manna (@venetialamanna)

Misguided’s marketing blunder is the ultimate symbol of a throwaway culture known as fast fashion – a massive industry of badly-made, cheap and disposable clothing that come at a huge cost to the environment and people. Plug your nose and let’s take a closer look at this big, stinking mess. 

Fast fashion model explained

The apparel business has changed entirely since our grandmas shopped for their teenage clothes. Sixty years ago, clothing was mostly sold through department stores and big retailers that would buy the items from local manufacturers. By the mid-1970s these retailers established their own house brands and product designs to compete against the producers. At the same time, more creative entrepreneurs, such as Amancio Ortega, founder of Zara, also started outsourcing the production to low-cost countries and designing cheaper versions of high-end fashion. But it wasn’t until the late 1990s that the fast fashion model really took off.

Fast fashion today is fuelled by cheap clothing sold at high volumes – and quickly.  Zara, for example, is able to design, produce and distribute clothes in just five weeks. They also make sure to deliver a steady stream of new styles as their designers churn out around 20,000 designs each year.

Zara has perfected the model and made it highly profitable – its parent company Inditex made 3,6 billion euro in net sales in 2019 alone. Many others have embraced the same process and made it even more efficient. The one-pound bikini wizards at Misguided, for instance, release up to a thousand new products each week. Fashion Nova, the flashy online retailer of the Instagram age, needs two weeks tops to put freshly designed clothes onto the shelves. Fast fashion is turning into ultrafast fashion.

It’s important to have a lot of styles because our customers post so much online and need new clothes. We don’t want girls showing up to the club in the same outfit. We need 50 different denim jackets. Not just one.

Richard Saghian, Fashion Nova’s CEO, said in one of the interviews.

Buy, wear it five times, throw it away and repeat

In the meantime, customers have become used to buying clothes for pocket money. Much of BooHoo’s clothing is dirt cheap. They sell a sweater for £15 and leggings for £5, for example. “The products are very, very cheap. The design is pretty attractive. And if you walk into the store, I think, for a lot of consumers, it's virtually impossible to walk out empty-handed,” explains Elizabeth Cline, an author of a book Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion

Cline herself was obsessed with bargain shopping, having amassed 354 items of clothing, some that she never wore. This model of buying clothes, wearing them a couple of times and then quickly discarding them is rampant. One survey found that most respondents wear an item only seven times on average. Some may even wear it just once, according to recent research from the Fashion Revolution.

Clothes are so cheap that many online shoppers throw damaged or unwanted items away rather than returning them. But even if they do send them back, retailers don’t necessarily have the technology to handle this kind of goods. It’s usually cheaper to simply chuck everything than to spend time sifting through returns. This means that returned clothes are typically shipped to wholesalers or they end up directly in landfills. Brands would sometimes even destroy unsold clothes intentionally in order not to “devalue brand” with discounts. Burberry has done just that - between 2013 and 2018 they’ve burned more than £90m worth of clothing and accessories.

Landfill fashion and environmental consequences 

Cheap clothes are made at a dizzying pace today. The industry produces north of 150 billion clothes a year – almost 20 pieces for every human in the world. Over the last 15 years, clothing production has doubled, yet we wear clothes only half as long. As we stuff our wardrobes we also fill landfills - up to 85 percent of textiles end up on the junk pile. This means that every second an equivalent of one garbage truck full of clothes is dumped. The “landfill fashion” doesn’t come cheap: in 2015, the world threw away more than $450 billion worth of clothes, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

It then takes hundreds of years for the synthetic clothing – which the majority of our wardrobe is made of - to break down. In the meantime, they decompose and emit greenhouse gases. Altogether, the global fashion industry produces more CO2 than international flights and shipping combined. If the business goes as usual, these emissions could increase by more than 60 percent by 2030.

Fashion industry helped drain a lake

Fast fashion also creates great pressure on rivers and streams. Textile dyeing that is highly toxic and potentially carcinogenic, for instance, is the world’s second-largest polluter of water. Huge amounts of water also go into manufacturing fabrics, especially cotton - it takes about 20,000 litres of water to produce one kilo of cotton, according to the World Wildlife Fund. That amount is enough to make a t-shirt and a pair of jeans or for nearly six months of water use for an average European.   

An illustrative example of the destructive nature of the mass-produced cotton is the Aral Sea - or what’s left of it. Cotton farming in the region used so much water from the two rivers that formed the lake that the Aral Sea almost completely dried up. Once one of the world’s four largest lakes, the Aral Sea is now little more than desert and a few small ponds – as seen from the image below, comparing 1998 (left) and 2014.

aral sea cotton production  fast fashion
Source: Wikipedia

The ugly world behind the label

In the regions of Uzbekistan that surround the remnants of the Aral Sea, millions of people still pick up cotton each year by hand - many against their will. This kind of forced (and child) labour is the darkest side of the garment industry as a lot of the business is built on the exploitation of workers, particularly women in Asia. Many of them are harassed, abused with few rights and not paid a sufficient living wage to survive. Sweatshop workers may even earn as little as three cents per hour working up more than a hundred hours a week in rooms with bad air quality and extreme heat. The conditions have been improving only slowly and usually after accidents that put the fast fashion industry under the spotlight. One such tragedy was the collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh — an accident that killed more than 1,100 people in 2013.

Garment production is not dirty and underpaid work only in Asia. Just recently, the New York Times published a report on Fashion Nova, revealing that factories in Los Angeles were under investigation for underpaying workers and owing them millions in wages. Boohoo has also been accused of “modern slavery” when a UK sweatshop that made their clothes has been exposed.

The fact is that fast fashion disproportionately favours retailers – as shown in this estimate of a Zara jumper price breakdown made by a Swiss watchdog Public Eye. The textile factory that actually makes the hoodie is paid only six percent of the retail price and almost three times less than the amount of Zara’s profit.

zara price breakdown  fast fashion

How to slow down fashion

Fashion giants can be sluggish or unwilling to put sustainability at the heart of their businesses. But, as consumers, we can use our spending power and vote for change by slowing down our own fashion habits. 

Slow fashion is in fact a big and important thing right now. The idea is based on quality and sustainability over cheap prices and new looks. Slow fashion prioritizes people and the planet. It encourages consumers to buy more sustainable products with locally sourced materials. In practice, this could mean buying second-hand, prioritizing natural materials and supporting fair and ethical producers.

Good examples of sustainable fashion

In the past decade, many labels have emerged with sustainability at their core. One such brand is Bogdar, founded in 2015. All of its pieces are produced in the family-owned facility in Bulgaria with organic viscose, sustainable and recycled fabrics and custom digital prints that help reduce water waste and ink. Also, check out our friends at the London-based Baukjen. Their brand is built around environmental, ethical and sustainable style. They are plastic-free, carbon net-neutral and zero waste.

Another brand that creates beautiful and sustainable fashion is HundHund. The Berlin-based studio is focused on price transparency - for each product they’ll break down the costs so that you know exactly what you are paying for. Also, another example we are proud to team up with, is Paro Store - Sustainable and Ethical Clothing that features independent brands 'designed in a way that's better for people and the planet'.

As a side note: the “higher” prices of sustainable clothing only reflect the true cost of fair wages without cutting corners to avoid environmental regulation. And besides, the higher upfront cost might even save you money in the long run as sustainable pieces are by definition also better made. A 10-dollar sweater, on the other hand, might sound cheap but if it falls apart after a couple of washes, it’s less of a bargain.

HundHund prices  fast fashion
HundHund “radical transparency” price breakdown

Mend your own clothes

Slow fashion also rejects the idea that newer is better; so fix those holes and make clothes last longer! The basic mending kit includes a needle, some thread, a pair of scissors and a bit of persistence. You’ll also find a laundry list of online resources that’ll help you start, such as this one.  We found that sewing and patching your own clothes is not only sustainable but also meditative and deeply satisfying. 

If do-it-yourself is not up your alley, you may want to try on-demand seamstress services – one such provider is The Clothes Doctor that offers alterations, customisation and repairs. They’ll pick up your clothing, take it to partner seamstresses and return it all nice and repaired. It costs 15 pounds to fix a hole in the pocket or 17 pounds for zipper replacements. The founder Lulu O’Connor hopes that “she will help spark a revolution where clothes are fixed not binned”.  

Repurpose your clothes

You can also give your under-loved or torn clothes a new life by repurposing them. The possibilities are limited only by your imagination and include reusable tissues, grocery bags, duvet covers and coin purses. Find inspiration in bloggers such as Elspeth Jackson who helps people creatively reuse their old clothes into funky-looking rag rugs and cushions.

Elspeth Jackson, rag rugs and cushions and

Try renting and swapping clothes

Renting clothes is not new, but the internet and smartphones made swapping or borrowing fashion pieces possible on a much larger scale. Rent the Runway, for instance, has grown into a multi-million business, offering a wide selection of occasion dresses that we typically only use a couple of times per year. They offer hundreds of designer pieces, some starting at just $30.

Our friends at The Nuw Wardrobe are also doing a fantastic job with their app for renting high quality, but under-loved pieces. Its founder Aisling Byrne explains that she has first seen the devastating social and environmental impacts of the fashion industry when volunteering in India and decided to do something about it.

Go for second-hand shops

The used-clothes market (vintage, thrift, second hand) is booming - it was worth 24 billion dollars in the U.S. alone, 35 percent more than the fast fashion business. Pre-loved shopping is expected to grow even faster as Generation Z adopts second-hand fashion more than twice as fast as other age groups. By 2028, around 13 percent of the clothes in women’s closets are likely to be second hand.

Sustainable fashionistas, look for your local thrift and second-hand shops, any bigger town has at least one. For additional convenience, jump over to the online versions - here are a few options you can try out: 

  • Flyp app platform connects people (with clothes to sell) with other users and independent professional resellers.
  • Poshmark is a peer-to-peer thrifting website with an app that makes buying and selling used clothes super easy.   

Know your material

Another important element of sustainable fashion are eco-friendly textiles. There is a laundry list of alternatives to mass-produced cotton or polyester. Recycled cotton, for instance, reduces water and energy consumption and helps keep cotton clothes out of the landfill. Linen is another natural fibre that requires minimal water and pesticides. Production of Tencel, a light cellulose fabric made from wood pulp, also uses less energy and water than cotton but keeps the softness and breathability. And if you feel frisky, you may want to try out materials made of apples, pineapples, mushrooms (alternatives to leather) or hemp, lotus and nettles instead of cotton. 

Hold brands accountable

Sustainable fashion can be encapsulated as buying better clothes and wearing them longer. But fixing the mess of fast fashion shouldn’t fall on the shoulders of consumers solely. Grassroots movements and initiatives must be met by top-down action. We need governments to step in with smart regulation, investment schemes for sustainable materials and support programs for repair services. The British MPs, for instance, have already urged the UK government to fix “fast fashion trend” and the European Parliament has set ambitious recycling targets, including textile waste.

Social media activism also has its power to make brands more accountable. When the pandemic hit and fast fashion factories shut down, for instance, thousands of garment workers were left unpaid and out of work. The viral campaign #PayUp has been launched to pressure companies into paying their dues and many have pledged to honour their obligations.

There are many organizations doing great work in educating and empowering consumers. Here are some of them that we encourage you to check out:

Here at Planet Care, we are also committed to minimizing the impact of fast fashion. We are big advocates of mending our clothes, buying second-hand & sustainable fashion and washing garments only when necessary. We are also on a mission to keep oceans clean from microfibers, small plastic pieces that synthetic clothes (they make up the biggest part of fast fashion) shed during washing. If you want to learn more, we welcome you to read our blog on microfiber pollution and all the ways you can help stop it. Every action counts!

fast fashion
Eileen Fisher is considered one of the leaders in sustainable fashion.

Before you go, let's recap

What is fast fashion?

Fast fashion is a massive industry of badly made, cheap and disposable clothing. It is also used to describe a business model that is based on replicating high fashion designs, producing them in countries with cheaper labour and selling them at high-volume.

What is the problem with fast fashion?

The problems are both social and environmental. Fast fashion is the world’s second-largest polluter of water and it produces more CO2 than international flights and shipping combined. Garment workers that make items for fast fashion brands are also often exploited, not paid a living wage and have to work in unsafe conditions.

What are fast fashion examples?

Zara is considered a pioneer of the fast fashion model. Many brands today have adopted a similar model, such as Forever 21, Boohoo, Misguided, H&M.

How do you avoid fast fashion?

We encourage you to buy from certified sustainable brands that are especially transparent with their materials and pricing. Wear clothes longer and think of how you can repurpose them after the end of the garment’s lifecycle. Also, consider buying from second-hand shops and try borrowing special pieces that you would wear only a couple of times. Pressuring brands through social media activism is another way how to make them accountable.

Blazej Kupec
Blazej Kupec
Blazej writes about inspiring ideas and fascinating people who make our world a greener place. A journalist by profession, Blazej can be found in Berlin, most likely in coworking places or anywhere with Neapolitan pizza. When he is not writing, he’ll read history books or collect old maps.

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