What is Fast Fashion? Why It’s Harmful + How to Avoid It

huge pile of clothing on the ground of the Garment District, where clothing is sold by the pound for $2

When I first discovered Forever 21 over 12 years ago, I was hooked. I’d never been a big shopper up until then, but it was so easy to walk into the shop and come out with a trendy $5 dress or t-shirt. Then, when I was complimented on my latest purchase, I’d beam and brag about how cheap I’d gotten it for.

Fast fashion used to be celebrated for the same reasons it’s now castigated—its abundance of cheap clothing. At the time, I didn’t make the connection between its cheap prices, treatment of garment workers, environmental pollution, and my consumption habits. I only saw the piece of clothing and how convenient it was to purchase.

This post is not to shame anyone who buys or has bought fast fashion—I’ve been there (a lot). And, while I’ve quit fast fashion, I recognize that it can be hard to avoid completely, depending on your circumstances. But, if you’re wondering what exactly fast fashion is, why it’s harmful, and what you can do about it, here’s what you should know.

What is Fast Fashion?

It may be a surprise that the original definition of fast fashion doesn’t directly involve ethics or sustainability. The term “fast fashion” was coined by the New York Times in the 1990s to describe the way Zara could take a garment from design to stores in under 15 days.

The ultra-quick production model, however, often means poor conditions for garment workers, a lower-quality product, and heavy reliance on trends. For these reasons, fast fashion today is known as an umbrella term that refers to mass-produced clothing with little regard for the planet and its people. 

While fast fashion is often associated with cheap prices, most mainstream brands are fast fashion, including luxury brands. In fact, luxury brands are known to destroy unsold stock and use exploited labor.

Some popular fast fashion brands include the following, but this is no means a comprehensive list:

  • Forever 21
  • H&M
  • Zara
  • SHEIN
  • Urban Outfitters
  • Nike
  • Uniqlo

Fashion fashion not only refers to production methods, but also consumption habits. Because fast fashion is often cheap and trendy, overconsumption is common, with people spending hundreds of dollars at a time on clothing hauls. On the whole, consumers are becoming more wasteful with clothing. Americans buy five times more clothing than they did in 1980, averaging 68 items per year. Most of that clothing is only worn seven times before it’s discarded.

 So, fast fashion is both a systemic and individual issue.

Why is Fast Fashion So Bad?

Fast fashion has a severe impact on the planet and its people.

It’s estimated that there are 92 million tons of textile waste per year. Much of that waste is dumped in the Global South, where you can find used and unsold clothing graveyards like Chile’s Atacama Desert and Ghana’s Kantamanto Market (please click through the articles to see the images, as they’re quite sobering; I can’t publish them on my blog because they’re not free for use). These clothing dumps leech toxic chemicals and decimate the local textile industries.

Fast fashion is also heavily reliant on synthetic or semi-synthetic materials, as they’re cheap to produce. These materials shed microplastics each time they’re washed, which pollute our waterways. The production of viscose, a semi-synthetic wood-based material, can also lead to deforestation, and its production requires toxic chemicals.

Bird's eye view of logged trees
Photo by Pok Rie on Pexels

The fast fashion industry does not value the lives of its workers. In 2013, there was the notorious Rana Plaza disaster, where a factory building in Bangladesh collapsed, killing 1100 people and injuring 2500 more. Garment factory owners had been alerted to the cracks the day before, but refused to close the factories.

Brands also constantly underpay or even refuse to pay their workers. At the start of the pandemic, several major brands canceled billions of dollars worth of orders, some of which had already been made and shipped. As a result, garment workers lost their already-meager wages, and 75% of them went into debt just to buy food. After all this time and pressure from the public, several brands still haven’t paid

These examples are only a small snapshot into the detrimental impacts of fast fashion. Some people, however, will say it’s not their responsibility to worry about what these companies do. And sure, you’re not directly responsible for the atrocities that the industry commits, from slave labor to waste colonialism. But, these issues ultimately impact us all because they impact the planet we live on. It doesn’t hurt to have a little empathy and to avoid actively supporting fast fashion.

And even if you can’t get behind the ethical reasons to fight fast fashion, overconsuming has a direct negative impact on our personal lives. We spend tons of money on things we don’t even wear, we blindly follow trends so we don’t know our personal style, we “never have anything to wear” despite having a bursting closet, and we have so much clothing cluttering our living space. Slowing down will not only encourage more creativity with our style, but also make it easier to get dressed and simplify our space.

Alternatives to Fast Fashion

While fast fashion is harmful, it can be really tough to avoid completely, often due to income limitations, sizing availability, and access to thrift stores. For these reasons, I believe that it’s okay to buy fast fashion out of necessity. That said, I encourage you to consider these other options first:

  • Finding new ways to wear what you already own
  • Borrowing or swapping
  • Mending your clothing or going to a tailor
  • Shopping in thrift stores 
  • Checking online thrift platforms like eBay, Poshmark, ThredUP, Mercari (some of these are referral/affiliate links with discounts)
  • Browsing flea markets, estate sales, or garage sales
  • Searching Facebook Buy Sell Trade groups for specific brands

I explain all of these more in-depth in my post about free or affordable fast fashion alternatives.

Me wearing a retro turtleneck top and back skirt among magolia trees
Wearing an old mockneck that I got from my mom; she was going to turn it into clothing rags, but I saved it 🙂

Buying from sustainable brands is another option, but keep in mind that this is more expensive, and it is still possible to overconsume from sustainable brands (making it unsustainable). That’s why I always recommend limiting your consumption as the very first step, regardless of where you buy.

If you’re not sure whether or not a brand is sustainable, some key characteristics of ethical brands are:

  • Smaller scale and slower collections (don’t be tricked by fast fashion “conscious” lines!)
  • Natural, organic, or recycled materials
  • Labor transparency (third-party audits, code of conduct, payment of a living wage)
  • Circularity, or having an end-of-life plan for the garments

Unfortunately, some brands are really good at pretending to be sustainable, so I recommend that you check out my guide on how to spot greenwashing for an in-depth look at researching ethical brands. I also have a sustainable brand directory where I’ve already done some research for you. Most ethical brands are very niche, so I won’t suggest any here and will let you check out the directory for your needs.

How to Take Action Against Fast Fashion

While individual change matters, we also need systemic change to hold companies accountable. Some recent wins in the ethical fashion world include:

  • The renewal of the Bangladesh Accord (now the International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry). The Accord was created in the wake of the Rana Plaza disaster and was renewed in August 2021. The Accord holds brands accountable for providing fair and safe working conditions, and it’s helped remediate over 120,000 safety concerns since 2013. The new Accord has the potential to expand into countries beyond Bangladesh; you can email the ones that haven’t signed yet to demand their support.
  • Passage of the Garment Worker Protection Act in California, which requires brands to pay at least the minimum wage and holds brands accountable for the actions of their supplies. Previously, workers had been paid a piece rate, or payment per piece sewn. This, along with lack of supplier accountability, led to subminimum wages of $5/hour.

While it may seem intimidating to stand against these massive companies, your voice does matter. In fact, the #PayUp movement recouped $15 billion of lost wages due to the COVID-19 canceled orders. You can still show your support for the movement by signing the payupfashion.com petition; each signature sends major fashion executives an email demanding transparency, fair pay, and protections for garment workers.

To stay up-to-date on these reforms, I recommend following @remakeourworld and @fash_rev on Instagram. I also regularly post about sustainable fashion on my Instagram and TikTok.


 

If you’re new to sustainable fashion, I recommend these other posts I’ve written:

9 Common Misconceptions About Sustainable Fashion
The Problems with Sustainable Fashion

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2 Comments

  1. What a compassionate explanation of why fast fashion is highly problematic! I think it’s fantastic that you continuously point out that consuming less is the best thing we can do. We really need to look deeper than just buying from ethical brands. Our whole consumption behavior has to change.

    1. Thank you Nina! I’m really glad you found it compassionate, as I’m always worried about coming off too strong with fast fashion. I agree that the whole culture around clothing needs to change. We need to go back to the times where we valued clothing, kept it for years, and passed it down.

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