Fast Fashion or Fatal Fashion


Vivian Krevor and Lucie Tenenbaum

Fast fashion is a phenomenon that many, including ourselves, are guilty of contributing to. The term was coined to describe the fast production and marketing method used to produce a large amount of clothing, usually using low quality materials. Upholding fast fashion may look like someone purchasing a lot of cheap clothes online to only wear a few, videos of massive SHEIN hauls, wearing clothes a few times before throwing them away, or only wearing half of the clothes in their closet. We have made many of these mistakes, but are navigating ways to decrease our contribution to fast fashion with smarter purchasing decisions. These shopping habits, encouraged by society and what we see in the media, are rapidly worsening the climate crisis.


The History of Fast Fashion

Historically, fashion designers produced clothes according to the four seasons and weather patterns. Designers took months to devise new collections. In comparison, many brands now produce clothes according to 52 “mini-seasons” according to TheGoodTrade. This is equivalent to one new “collection” from a certain designer per week. The first fast fashion trend was in the 1960s, where millions of dollars of paper clothes were purchased. The somewhat peculiar and colorful trend included an infamous zebra-print pantsuit.
The clothing brand Zara was somewhat of a pioneer for fast fashion, shifting to releasing new collections to consumers every two weeks in the 2000s. They were able to produce clothes more quickly as fast fashion trends cycled at quickening rates. Companies started to think of ways they could earn more money from sales, which meant lowering materials costs. As the products prices lowered, so did their quality. The amount of time that clothes withstood typical use decreased drastically, meaning that consumers started to buy clothes at a much faster rate. This led to fast fashion today, reflected heavily by Zara, H&M, Shein, Victoria’s Secret, UNIQLO, Topshop and numerous other brands.


Negative Impacts of Fast Fashion

In a report by The Good Trade, fast fashion produces around 10% of the world’s total carbon emissions, meaning that clothes produce more carbon dioxide than plane travel and cargo shipping combined. The fashion industry is the second largest consumer of the world’s water supply due to textile dyes and pesticides contamination. Water used to produce clothes is polluted with dyes and harmful chemicals. In 2015, over 79 billion square meters of water were used for clothing production. This is incredibly concerning considering the United Nation’s estimation of 80-90% of waste water being untreated and recirculated into the environment.
Fabrics such as polyester, nylon and acrylic use a lot of fossil fuels to be produced and release tiny microplastics-most of which end up in the ocean-that can not decompose.
“There was an estimate from the International Union for Conservation of Nature, 35% of all microplastics [in the ocean] come from the laundering of synthetic textiles like polyester,” Parmer-Lohan referenced. “Basically when you wash-not even when you throw it away- when you wash certain textiles, like with polyester or plastic materials, it’ll actually come off in the wash, and then end up in waterways, which eventually ends up in the ocean as microplastics. “
Along with their carbon emissions when creating and exporting their clothes, a study by FastCompany, an American business magazine, found that around 100 billion clothes are produced each year; keep in mind there are only around 7 billion people in the world. The same study said that H&M had over $4.3 billion worth of overstock clothes that they acquired after months of markdowns. The company ended up incinerating the clothes, leading to the release of over 2,988 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour, a much greater rate than that from the burning of coal, in 2018. People consider H&M’s actions as the “great bonfire of 2018”.
In addition to the extensive environmental impact, many clothing workers are in other countries without humane working rights. Selling cheap clothing or generally adhering to fast fashion requires the exploitation of workers. According to Sustain Your Style, these workers typically have a 96 hour work week, and work through the weekend. Many companies advertise that they pay their workers minimum wage, also inferring that other companies pay below minimum wage. However, minimum wage can be as low as 19% of the living wage, or the wage required to sustain basic living needs of a family. Presenting paying workers at minimum wage in the fashion industry as an achievement can be deceptive.
The working conditions are unsafe the majority of the time, regularly involving interacting with toxic materials for clothing production. There is often no ventilation within the workplace. When they don’t achieve their fashion brand’s production goal for a given time period, workers may face abusive punishments. Examples of this include not being allowed to take breaks, or even refusal to drink water.


Why so Many People Purchase From Fast Fashion

People buy fast fashion because they woud like to keep up with the latest trends and styles with a low cost, or because they can’t afford to shop sustainably. Many fast fashion campaigns can place an unfair social and environmental responsibility on those that have financial struggles. For those that can only afford cheaper clothes, fast fashion may be their only option.
We empathize with those who buy into fast fashion as a necessity, but as fast fashion upholds inhumane labor in other countries, the lower income people in more stable countries are supporting a system that negatively impacts low income people in unstable countries. This can raise the question of whether this is prioritizing the low income people of stable countries, over those of unstable countries.
Another reason people buy into fast fashion is to keep up with trends and the idea of getting large amounts of clothing for low cost is appealing. People feel less pressured to wear a cheap article of clothing many times. They don’t feel as if they are wasting their money by wearing a low cost item only a few times, although this comes at the expense of the climate and industry workers.
The media normalizes supporting fast fashion. Fashion trends can recycle every few weeks on social media platforms such as TikTok or Instagram, and buyers may no longer like their clothes a month or two after purchasing them. Viral videos of massive clothing hauls-normally purchased from unsustainable brands such as SHEIN-can be seen on the For You or Discover page and as pop-up ads in apps such as TikTok, Instagram and even Snapchat.
“In terms of media coverage, I feel like [awareness of fast fashion] it’s pretty limited right now…for like the average person, average consumer, it’s really difficult to know the signs of fast fashion,” said senior Gregory Parmer-Lohan, president of the Sustainability Club. “Companies won’t be like, ‘oh, yeah, this is our environmental report.’”
In addition, people may not want to wear an article of clothing ‘too many’ times because many celebrities and influencers are almost never seen wearing the same thing twice. This enforces the societal idea that wearing the same articles of clothing isn’t fashionable. With little coverage on the topic and seeing this behavior regularly online, it’s sadly easy to see why people, despite having steady incomes, continue to support it.


What is “Slow Fashion”

“Slow Fashion” is a term referring to sustainable fashion, and the opposite of fast fashion. The term advocates for buying higher quality pieces of clothing that will last longer, without the expense of unfair treatment to people, animals and the planet. It refers to wearing more high quality, natural and sustainable materials like recycled cotton, hemp and linen. There are other futuristic types of sustainable fabrics such as cellulose fabric, vegan leather, recycled fabric and synthetic spider silk. “Slow fashion” supports the idea that people should buy more locally produced garments with cleaner materials, and that the clothing people wear should reflect the cultural background that the clothes have come from.


What is Greenwashing?

A strategy called greenwashing markets environmentally friendly products to customers without the products actually being sustainable, prioritizing their reputation over the environment. Many companies make this decision, even if it requires blatant lies. Around 66% of consumers have been reported to pay more to companies presented as more sustainable or going sustainable, according to a study by NielsenIQ.
Forms of greenwashing include the changing of a companies’ name or slogan or rebranding to seem more appealing to sustainable customers. Companies may use complex technical terms with customers to make their products seem more environmentally friendly. They may use phrases without a legal definition, like ‘eco-friendly’ or ‘all natural.’ Companies accentuate their sustainability, when in reality their products are just as harmful towards the environment as other companies’ products are.
“[Companies] don’t want to tell the consumers ‘Hey, like we don’t pay our workers anything,’ Because then they won’t buy any clothes from [them],” Parmer-Lohan said. “It’s pretty deceptive and it’s like the only presented things [are] the good sides of their operations.”
Many claims by companies to sound more sustainable can be vague or can’t be proven with accurate or trustworthy sources, and yet the brands present the information as true despite the lack of legitimacy. Some of the companies that greenwash include, Lululemon, H&M, Zara and IKEA. These big brand companies have started “becoming green” at the expense of the environment and consumers’ trust.


How to Not Contribute to Fast Fashion

It may be overwhelming to hear about the various components of fast fashion, although there are a few simple steps you can take to minimize your contribution. Making a few small changes in your shopping habits is much better than nothing.
A general motto used by environmentalists all around the world is “buy less, choose well, make it last.” Be thoughtful in purchasing clothing articles that you will actually wear, and can be paired with multiple outfits. Choosing clothes that can be worn for a long time is a major way to lessen personal contributions to fast fashion. In addition, you can be aware of repurposing or recycling your clothes after they are no longer wearable, especially if you didn’t wear them for a long period of time. You can also research the ‘eco-friendliness’ of brands and avoid synthetic materials like polyester. With the QR code at the bottom right of this page, you can search for the sustainability ratings of most major fashion brands.
You can also shop second-hand. Some of the stores in the Bay Area that are great places to shop at include GoodWill, Savers, Thrift Center Thrift Store, Family Tree, Pick of the Litter Thrift Shop and St.Vincent de Paul Thrift Stores. If you’re not able to purchase at in-store places, you can always go online to stores like Poshmark, thredUP, Depop, The RealReal, Tradesy, Urban Renewal and Patagonia Worn Wear.
“[Shift] your value system…consumerism is a big part of our culture, and that is definitely driving the problems of fast fashion,” Parmer-Lohan said. “There are so many people buying pieces of clothing all the time…trying to unlearn the things that marketing and companies told you to do. Like, ‘go on a shopping spree Black Friday,’… and move towards… making purchases that are more thoughtful for the future.”