Are you a bit confused about fast fashion and why so many are causing a fuss over it?
Maybe you’ve heard the term being thrown around by big brands, or your friends casually chat about it over lunch—but what is fast fashion and why is it bad?
Or is fast fashion bad at all?
With so many questions about the differences between fast fashion, slow fashion, and eco-fashion, it’s easy to feel fashionably flustered.
Rest assured, it’s not as confusing as it sounds.. In fact, when it comes to the fast fashion issues, it’s pretty black and white.
This simple guide will help you understand what fast fashion is, the devastating impact of the fashion industry, and how sustainable fashion options are the best way forward.
Exploring Why Is Fast Fashion Bad?
1. What Is Fast Fashion?
To boil a massive, multi-faceted industry down to one simple definition, fast fashion means rapidly producing cheap, low quality, disposable clothing.
You know the kind…. Those dresses and tops that looked good on the rack at the mall, but that you knew deep down wouldn’t last. The material feels flimsy, the stitching suspiciously seems like it might burst at any minute, and you aren’t sure it will still look cool in six months.
Don’t forget the suspiciously low price tag that somehow makes all that fabric and the labor behind it come to less than the price of your favorite Starbucks iced coffee.
Aside from low quality and low price, quickly rotating trends and seasons are another core part of what is considered fast fashion.
Whereas as some styles are garments are considered timeless—staying in style decade after decade—fast fashion companies cater to the hottest pop culture and style movements and thus lose their relevance when the movement is not longer #trending on social media.
While sustainable clothing brands roll out about two collections a year (Fall/Winter and Spring/Summer), ultra fast fashion brands rotate their stock almost weekly, breaking styles into about 59 ‘microseasons’.
When the season (AKA week) is over, what happens to all that unsold stock?
What Is Ultra Fast Fashion & How Does It Perpetuate Itself?
To give you an idea of the scale of the fast fashion industry, it pumps out an enormous 150 billion garments a year. That’s almost twenty times more than the current global population per year, meaning the average person buys at least twenty new garments a year—to probably continue wearing their worn-in favorite instead.
Unsurprisingly, this is a 400% increase on the textile production of 20 years ago.
According to the textile waste charity TRAID, the average garment is only worn ten times before it is thrown away.
Have a quick think of the contents in your wardrobe. How many items can you confidently say you’ve worn ten times? How many things made it to the wastebasket long before they needed to?
The vicious disposable fashion cycle is being fuelled because:
- Clothes are becoming cheaper. As the cost of living soars worldwide, many fast fashion brands need to cater to those who need affordable options. While sustainable clothing is higher quality, its price is often more significant than that of fast fashion retailers.
- As prices fall, so does quality. With inflated prices for production and distribution,fast fashion companies are happy to cut corners they feel necessary to keep costs down and profit margins high.
- While prices are dropping, fashion trends are speeding up. What might be in fashion one week is then out the following week. This fashion cycle of keeping up with each trend for it to disappear so soon means you struggle to keep your wardrobe in style—at which point you’ll probably turn to fast fashion companies to stay in style without hurting your wallet.
So, let’s imagine the latest fad is dresses made out of terrycloth. Everyone you know is dying to get their hands on a similar dress. Your social media feeds are filled to the brim with these dresses, every influencer dangling it in front of your face.
A low-end store comes out with one, and you rush to buy it. You haven’t had to part with too much money to feel part of the trend, and are pretty pleased with it all.
A few weeks later, you stroll into the same shop and see a completely new rotation of ‘in-trend’ clothes. Should you update your wardrobe again?
And thus the crushing cycle of fast fashion continues.
2. An Overview Of The Problems With Fast Fashion
So why is fast fashion bad? Just what is the problem with fast fashion?
In a world of rapidly accelerating population and ever-growing consumption, it’s clear to see why the fleeting trends of fashion would be a cause for concern.
If it’s not clear, just reflect on some of the doomed trends of the 2000s: crinkle shirts, jeans under a dress, the list goes on (and on). As celebrities reflecting on red carpet pictures from that time and cringing in embarrassment can attest, it’s a good thing these trends weren’t frozen in time—but our need for mindless purchasing to follow the trends hasn’t.
Knowing that the next trend is right around the corner and that their clothes will fall out of fashion soon, the average consumer will dispose of them faster. This incentivizes people to buy more unneeded clothes, but, the motivation should be for consumers to care for their clothes.
But what is the impact of fast fashion? How do these whiplash-inducing style cycles negatively impact the world?
To start, the environmental impact of fast fashion is staggering.
The entire supply chain behind clothing requires vast amounts of energy and resources, contributing to air and water pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
It creates massive textile waste, with millions of tons of textiles ending up in landfills each year. To make matters worse, many of these cheap clothes are made from synthetic fabrics that take hundreds of years to decompose, meaning the problem we are facing now will still be a problem hundreds of years into the future.
The human cost of fast fashion is equally troubling.
Garment workers in countries like Bangladesh, China, and India are often paid meager wages and work in unsafe and exploitative conditions. They are exposed to toxic chemicals and forced to work long hours without breaks or adequate rest. In some cases, workers are even subjected to physical and verbal abuse.
Many of these garment workers are women and children without other livelihood opportunities.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg of issues with fast fashion. We’ve included tons of stats and further reading to get you clued-up about your clothes.
3. Why Fast Fashion Is Bad For The Environment
There’s no beating around the bush. Fast fashion brands has a catastrophic environmental cost and when it comes to how fast fashion is bad for the environment, there are numerous facets to consider:
- Water usage
- Greenhouse gasses
- Deforestation and land damage
- Textile waste
Fast fashion is notorious for its wasteful clothing production methods and water usage is one of the biggest culprits.
It takes up to 10,000 liters of water to produce just one pair of jeans. Considering that over 6 billion pairs of jeans are made each year, it’s easy to start feeling bluer than your denim about how much water is wasted by the fashion industry—and that’s just one type of product!
This wastewater often goes untreated and contains toxic substances such as lead, mercury, and arsenic, which can be incredibly harmful to aquatic and human life.
In Bangladesh, for example, 22,000 tons of toxic waste from tanneries end up in the waterways every year, affecting not only wildlife but also the health and drinking water of the local residents.
This inhumane practice has a significant impact on the lives of those who live close to these factories. The contaminated water eventually runs off into the sea, exacerbating the pollution of our oceans.
It’s not just the wastewater that poses a problem. The dyeing and finishing of fabrics can also require up to 200 tons of fresh water for just one ton of material. This, combined with the fact that almost half the world’s population (3.6 billion people) are at risk of water scarcity at some point during the year makes for a tragic situation.
It’s challenging to comprehend the wasteful water usage in fast fashion production when so many people struggle to access clean water.
Yet, for many consumers, these fast fashion issues are not even on their radar as they continue to purchase the latest fashion trends.
How can anything ‘micro’ be a big deal?
Microfibers and microplastics, despite their small size, are a big deal. Microfibers are synthetic fabrics shed from clothing made of polyester and nylon, while microplastics are tiny plastic particles.
Every time we do laundry, we unknowingly release these microfibers into the water system, eventually making their way into the oceans and becoming part of the food chain.
The World Economic Forum reports around half a million tons of plastic microfibers enter the ocean yearly.
Synthetic fabrics such as polyester and nylon can shed up to 700,000 microfibers per wash. It’s difficult to imagine that many microfibers escape into our waterways with every load of laundry, but the reality is that cheap clothing is a significant source of plastic pollution.
As these microfibers and microplastics continue to accumulate in the environment, they pose a significant threat to marine life. Marine animals ingest these particles, which can cause physical harm, and the toxins in the microplastics can accumulate in their bodies, ultimately making their way into the food chain.
If you enjoy seafood, you’re likely also consuming these microplastics.
Research shows that an average person may ingest up to 5 grams of microplastics weekly. While it may not seem like much, it is equivalent to consuming a credit card’s worth of microplastics every week.
With the sheer number of fast fashion garments being made, the number of microplastics and microfibers being released into our waters is unmeasurable.
Fast fashion is a massive contributor to greenhouse gas emission.,
If the demand for fast fashion continues at its current rate, the total global carbon emissions of our clothing could reach 26% by 2050.
To put this into perspective, our current global carbon emissions for clothing stands at 10%, which is already more than the combined carbon footprint of all international flights and maritime shipping. Cotton cultivation alone produces 220 million tons of CO2.
This means that in just 32 years, the carbon footprint for clothing is expected to more than double (or more if the fast fashion market continues to dominate clothing consumption).
One of the main reasons why fast fashion has such a large environmental impact is that producing, manufacturing, and transporting millions of garments each year uses a lot of energy.
According to the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), buying just one white cotton shirt produces the same amount of emissions as driving 35 miles in a car.
Another factor contributing to the environmental impact of the fast fashion industry is the synthetic fabrics used in most cheap clothes, which are generated from fossil fuels. With everything we can currently blame large oil corporations for, it’s safe to say we can add this to the list.
Most developing countries that produce our clothing, such as China, Bangladesh, and India, rely heavily on coal for their energy needs. Renewable energy has yet to make its way into the fashion industry on a large scale, but many call for this to change.
Deforestation & Land Damage
Healthy soil and forests are essential for producing food and preventing global warming by absorbing CO2. We might sound like a broken record here, but you’ll never guess what impacts our ecosystems.
If your answer was fast fashion, then you are 100% right. Fast fashion brands are devastating our environment, including soil, woodlands, and ecosystems.
Everyone knows that the wool we find in our jumpers, cardigans and scarves comes from goats and sheep. The vast majority of these animals are raised entirely for their wool and often using unsustainable and unethical farming practices.
Aside from carving out huge swaths of wild land to dedicate to the agricultural industry, many are continuously and excessively left to overgraze their pastures. This causes damage to the land in the form of soil erosion, land degradation, loss of valuable plant species, and food shortages or famine.
All that destruction for a simple sweater.
Textile production also plays an enormous part in environmental damage due to the chemicals used to produce fabrics like conventional cotton, which damage the soil quality, stripping it of nutrients, killing beneficial bugs and insects, and rendering land unusable for years to come.
Wood pulp-based fibers, such as rayon and viscose, require a steady supply of trees, leading to mass deforestation. Thousands of hectares of endangered rainforests and 70 million trees are felled annually to ensure the production of wood-based fabrics. This practice harms the Earth and the indigenous local communities that rely on these natural forests.
It is sad to think that the loss of beautiful native trees is due to the production and supply of our underwear.
The constant need for trendy, affordable clothing that will be in style today and not the following results in the relentless chase for natural resources and the destruction of natural habitats.
Chemicals used throughout textile production and manufacturing pose significant environmental and human health risks.
The textile industry uses 8000 synthetic chemicals, accounting for approximately 25% of global chemical output.
From farm to factory to fast fashion market, one cotton t-shirt contains an average total of 17 teaspoons of chemicals. That puts the “tee” in terrifying.
Phthalates, a group of chemicals used to make plastics more flexible and durable (you know, like they need to be in fabric) are commonly used in activewear, and have been linked to cancer and endocrine disruption.
When perusing the shops, you might think ‘sustainable fabrics’ such as bamboo and cotton might be safer. Don’t let this fool you; even garments labeled “100% natural” will still contain chemicals and toxins.
Conventional cotton (AKA non-organic cotton) is considered the “dirtiest crop in the world”, accounting for about a quarter of total global insecticide and pesticide use.
Unfortunately, a complete rethink of manufacturing processes and laws would be necessary to change the safety of these garments.
One shocking study of children’s pajamas found that they can contain chemicals that will still be detected in urine five days after a single night’s use
Companies can take steps to reduce their use of chemicals, such as avoiding hazardous chemicals and substituting them with safer alternatives.
But the burden still largely falls on consumers to make more informed decisions by choosing clothing made from organic materials and avoiding clothing with chemical treatments, such as wrinkle-free and stain-resistant finishes.
That’s also the best way to encourage the fashion industry to take action to implement sustainable and safer manufacturing practices to curb the use of hazardous chemicals and protect our health and the environment.
A significant problem with fast fashion brands is that most items—including unsold deadstock, returns, and those disposed of on the consumer end— are neither recycled nor donated.
Instead, they make their way to landfill (where they may take 200 years to decompose,leaving behind microplastics as they do…all for something in style for two weeks) or to be incinerated. What a waste!
4. Why Fast Fashion Is Bad For Workers
Now that we’ve answered the question, “How is fast fashion bad for the environment?”, let’s switch to the social side of things and examine fast fashion problems as they relate to worker wellbeing.
The garment industry is overwhelmed with various issues affecting workers’ livelihoods and safety.
The fast fashion clothing industry, in particular, has created a humanitarian crisis that has remained largely hidden from the public eye. Garment workers face an unbearable workload, receive meager pay that falls below the living wage, and work in hazardous conditions.
Unfortunately, most of these issues go unreported in mainstream media.
One of the most significant tragedies was the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013. The Rana Plaza building was a commercial building located on the outskirts of Savar in Bangladesh. It housed approximately 5,000 workers across eight floors before the building collapsed, killing 1,134 workers and injuring 2,600 others.
An alarm had been raised days earlier over some worrying structural cracks in the building. Despite this, management insisted the garment workers come to work to fulfill recent orders for large companies such as Cato Fashions.
That occurrence put fashion industry ethics in the spotlight, but even in years since under greater scrutiny and more widespread awareness, such large-scale tragedies often go unnoticed in mainstream media, leaving workers to continue to fight in silence for fair labor practices.
Unsafe conditions are far from the only fast fashion issues as they relate to labor rights. Poverty wages, human trafficking and slavery, child labor, physical and sexual abuse (most garment workers are female), and overall exploitation can also be added to the long list of reasons why fast fashion is bad.
While some clothing brands may theoretically be in favor of improving worker wellbeing, the fact of the matter is that most supply chains for fast fashion companies are so monstrously large that traceability in the supply chain hinders their ability to do much.
After all, clothing brands can’t change what they don’t even know is occurring somewhere along the supply chain.
While non-fast fashion brands aren’t automatically immune to these problems, the sheer scale of them to match the ceaseless production demand (and low prices) of fast fashion exacerbate these issues to an unprecedented degree.
Workers’ welfare should not be compromised for the sake of profit, and their safety and dignity must be upheld at all times. A more sustainable garment is less valuable if the workers aren’t treated fairly.
5. What Is The Opposite Of Fast Fashion?
If all that is what fast fashion is, what is not fast fashion? What’s the alternative?
Well, ideally, not buying clothing at all, but that’s not always possible. Sometimes we just need new clothes—and that’s okay. When the need arises, there are more sustainable shopping avenues to pursue than your local H&M or Forever 21.
Beyond that, shopping new-to-you is the most sustainable choice.
Who doesn’t love a day out shopping in thrift stores, or hours spent scrolling through unique vintage clothing online?
If you’re creative, try upcycling clothing you already have into something fresh. By buying second-hand clothes, repairing and repurposing old clothes, or simply buying less, we can make a positive difference in offsetting the problems with fast fashion.
The next step is to support brands actively working to reduce their products’ environmental and social impact by using eco-friendly materials and ethical clothing production practices.
These brands are often called ‘slow fashion’ brands. Contrary to the fast fashion’s make-make-make production model, slow fashion takes its foot off the gas by producing limited annual collections, timeless designs that won’t readily go out of style, and quality, long-lasting garments.
By shopping from these sustainable brands instead of money-hungry corporate companies, we can help create a demand for more sustainable clothing options overall.
Fast fashion brands have a significant environmental impact and equally large impact on garment workers throughout the supply chain. It’s up to all of us to make conscious choices and support sustainable fashion instead.
Closing Thoughts On The Dangers Of Fast Fashion
To summarize: what is a fast fashion brand?
One to be avoided at all (low low) costs.
Fast fashion brands have taken the world by storm over the past few decades, offering consumers trendy clothing at an affordable price.
However, the actual cost of these garments goes far beyond what we pay at the checkout counter. The fast fashion industry is responsible for various environmental and social issues, including pollution, waste, and worker exploitation.
Despite these issues, the fast fashion industry sadly continues to grow.
The first step in addressing this problem is to raise awareness about its negative impacts. By educating ourselves and others, we can begin to understand the actual cost of cheap, trendy clothing, and the importance of making more sustainable choices—pressuring fast fashion retailers to do the same.