What is Fast Fashion?
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What is Fast Fashion? Social and Environmental Impacts

Ever found an outfit you wanted, and waited a week or two to make your purchase only to find the next latest and greatest on-trend piece already here? And it left you wondering if fashion trends could really change that quickly. That is fast fashion for you.

Fashion produced in weeks rather than seasonally for affordable prices has become a big part of this global industry. So what exactly is fast fashion, and why does it have consequences for people and the environment?

Defining fast fashion

We use the term “Fast fashion” to describe clothing that moves swiftly from the design board to the retail stores. In contrast to how the traditional fashion industry ran, introducing new seasonal designs, many fast fashion brands produce new products as often as several times a week.

The designs presented at fashion week events or popularized by celebrity culture often inspire fast fashion designs. Taking a lead from what is popular and in style at the moment, fast fashion brands turn items around fast at high volume and offer cheaper price points.  In turn, this allows consumers to access clothing that gives them a feeling of inclusivity at affordable prices.

The top fast fashion brands include Forever 21, H&M, Gap, Zara, UNIQLO, Pretty Little Thing, Boohoo, Fashion Nova, and Missguided.

The industrial revolution made it possible for the clothing industry to grow into the economic driving force it is today. The global market value of fast fashion in 2019 was 36 billion US dollars. Industry experts estimate that it will grow to 43 billion US dollars by 20298.

Related: Fast fashion facts and statistics

How is fast fashion possible?

Innovation in supply chain management makes fast fashion possible. The concept of category management links the manufacturer with consumer trends in a collaboration that helps to speed up and refine supply chains. Appealing to the latest fashion week trends, streetwear, and consumer preferences, a fast-fashion brand’s affordability may be the chief reason for its popularity among consumers.

Fast fashion retailers enjoy certain benefits from expedited supply chains. The apparel market’s total size across Europe in 2019 was around 248 bn Euros1.

Much of this we can attribute to the frequent introduction of new products that replace rather than replenish old stock, an easy way to spot fast fashion brands. Consumers visit the stores often and make purchase decisions quicker. This is because an item they like may sell out and be replaced with a new design too soon.

Is fast fashion good or bad?

Fast Fashion Garments
Photo by Roman Pohorecki from Pexels

Fast fashion is profitable for retailers and cheap to consumers but costly to the environment. Critics dub fast fashion as “disposable” because the brands make clothing cheaply in a style that will change very quickly. It quickens not only clothing production; it speeds up clothing usage and disposal as well.

Lucy Siegle, a journalist, and author, collaborated with Andrew Morgan and Livia Firth to create the documentary “The true cost.” This documentary, released in 2015, reveals the not-so-pretty side of fast fashion.

The documentary examines the social, environmental, and human costs of fast fashion. It took two years to create, and it covered thirteen countries. According to the Fixing Fashion report2, the fast fashion business model encourages over-consumption and generates excessive waste.

Critics have also flagged fast fashion production for having questionable ethics relating to child labor and human rights.

Worker exploitation

In many ways, fast fashion is in a precarious position when it comes to human rights violations. The structure of South Asian and Chinese garment production markets lures global brands to source from them. China, in particular, has emerged as a leading international exporter of clothing.

Ethical issues surround the source of labor used to fuel this supply. Many fast fashion stores such as H&M, ASOS, Inditex, Primark, and New Look source their products from developing countries where labor is cheap.

These countries operate low-cost economies and include India, Bangladesh, China, Vietnam, and Cambodia. The International Labour Organisation estimates that 170 million children engage in child labor in the textile sector.

Consequently, working conditions may not put the worker's health and welfare as a priority. Global Justice Research shows that female garment workers in large brand supplier factories have suffered mistreatment and exploitation. They underpay the workers in fast fashion factories and make them work under unsafe conditions.

The collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh in 2013 cost about 1000 factory workers their lives. Meanwhile, between 2006 to 2012, factory fires cost over 500 Bangladeshi garment workers their lives.

Low pay and exploitation

Garment factory workers are among those who earn the lowest wages in the world. Some workers earn only a few dollars daily, which does not amount to minimum wage. Local authorities have beaten, injured, arrested, and even shot at Cambodian garment workers during protests for minimum wage.

The workers have no voice or platform to air their grievances. The government does not enforce favorable labor laws because of the fear of losing international investors. Unscrupulous fast fashion companies that invest in these nations prioritize cheap production.

In her book Fashionopolis, Dana Thomas talks about immigrant workers in Los Angeles sweatshops who are victims of wage theft and exploitation. The poor working conditions of garment workers seriously damage their health. They become prone to developing lung disease, cancer, and endocrine damage because of the hazardous work environment.

Fast Fashion’s Responsibility

Fast fashion brands claim to take responsibility for the conditions under which their production takes place. However, since they do not own the factories or directly employ the workers at these factories, brands avoid the direct responsibility for the mistreatment of the workers.

This does not mean that they are ignorant of the effects of low wages, factory disasters, and ill-treatment of workers and their role in it. Or, for that matter, responsible indirectly.

The Rana Plaza collapse caused an uproar that forced authorities to examine policies and practices that were in place at the time. But it seems a lot has not changed.

While fast fashion suffers heavy criticism for its contribution to people’s mass impoverishment in low-cost countries in the guise of providing much-needed employment opportunities.

Its supporters, like the director of the Free Market Institute, Benjamin Powell, argue that the factories are the best out of worse alternatives. He says that they are part of the processes of development over time. However, it is improbable that practices that do not meet the necessary human rights conditions can lead to prosperity for the nation.

Meanwhile, the issues of worker rights, exploitation, and the ethics of such practices have become better known. In turn, many brands have improved both transparency and mitigated the worst across their supply chains to avoid reputational damage and negative headlines. We’d like to also think many have acted because it's the right thing to do.

However, it's also safe to say that while there are pretty sequined tops available for a few dollars in our stores, manufacturers paid someone somewhere next to nothing to produce these garments to meet our consumer demand.

Environmental impact of fast fashion

The fashion industry is the second largest contributor to environmental pollution. Toxic chemicals, dyes, and other pollutants enter the environment through the production processes. This, in turn, has severe health and environmental impacts.

According to 2019 research by Oxfam, new clothes bought in the UK produce more carbon emissions in a minute than driving a car around the world six times. The research also reveals that the UK buys over two tonnes of clothing every minute. The textile industry contributes more to climate change than international shipping and aviation put together.

The textile industry is responsible for releasing 1.2 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions every year. The fashion industry contributes in no small measure to climate change, and research says it is responsible for 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions.

If we allow fast fashion to continue unchecked, the industry will use up over 26% of the global carbon budget3 associated with a 2-degree Celsius pathway by 20504. And that's a high price to pay for cheap clothes.

Pollution does not stop harmful gas emissions. It spreads to rivers and oceans too. Manufacturers dump toxic chemicals such as dyes, pesticides, herbicides, and other chemicals used in the fast fashion manufacturing process in waterways. They contaminate the water supply and endanger aquatic life, human health, and wildlife.

Polluting synthetics

Polyester fiber and cotton account for about 90% of United States garments. Their production has significant effects on both health and the environment. They make polyester and synthetic fabrics from petrochemicals, which is a non-renewable natural resource because, unlike plants, fossil fuel does not grow back.

Circular economy expert Lynn Wilson says that 65% of clothing in the world today is polymer-based. On the other hand, Cotton is renewable, but to keep up with the speed of fast fashion, farmers use vast amounts of fertilizer, pesticides, and water.

Read more: Environmental Impact of Cotton from Growing, Farming & Consuming

China and India, major cotton-producing countries, are already facing water stress in some areas. The fashion industry is responsible for about 20% of global wastewater.

Synthetic fiber is one of the most commonly used fibers in the fast fashion industry. It has all the properties of plastic, which means it is not biodegradable. When people wash clothes made with synthetic fibers, they shed plastic microfibers. A 6kg domestic wash can release about 700,000 microfibers.

Polyester will also break down into microfibers when it ends up in a landfill. Yearly, we release half a million tonnes of plastic microfiber into the ocean. These microfibers attract toxins and enter the food chain when fish and other wildlife consume them.

Disposable Fashion Culture

Disposable Fast Fashion
Photo by Anna Gregory on Flickr (CC-BY-2.0)

About 30 billion euros worth of unused outfits are rotting away in wardrobes across the UK. Each year’s clothing goes to landfills valued at 140 million euros7. Globally, we lose more than 500 billion US dollar value each year because of clothing’s underutilization5. For many fast fashion purchasers, just a few wears have become normal, and low-quality materials that result in an affordable price only exacerbate the problem.

Meanwhile, shoppers consume around 56 million tonnes of clothing each year, and we expect the trend to rise. By 2050 clothing consumption looks set to rise to 160 million tonnes a year. Now, this may be good news for fashion retailers. But considering that this increase also means that the amount of cloth thrown away will also increase, inevitably, it is terrible news for the environment.

The waste that results from fast fashion is enormous. Not only production waste but also consumer waste. An average person in Canada sends about 81 pounds of textiles to landfill every year. In North America, we trash 9.5 million tons of clothing annually, creating massive textile waste.

Figures from the fashion industry suggest that modern clothing will last for 2-10 years. But the fast-changing trends that influence consumer tastes, amplified by social media, artificially shorten their lifespan. And these trends mean economically driven fast fashion brands rise to the opportunity, rapidly producing high volumes to appeal to demand.

On the plus side, a growing crop of sustainable fashion brands is pointing to a better way of doing things for a lesser environmental cost.

Recycling only partially aids the issue.

Fabric recycling, while a great way of reducing the negative impacts of fast fashion and conserving resources, is not doing so great in reality.

Only 13.6% of waste clothes and shoes thrown away in the United States get recycled; the rest stay in landfills. Textile recycling around the world amounts to just 10%. The problem with recycling polyester is that low oil prices make it cheaper to use virgin plastics than recycled materials.

The design stage is vital in determining the longevity of garments. The speed at which the fast fashion market churns out trendy clothing hardly leaves time to ensure garment quality. Or measure its possible environmental impacts.

Social impact

Before the Industrial Revolution, we made our clothing at home or commissioned a dressmaker to do the honors. Before the 20th century, shopping for clothes was a major event. People would save up and make careful purchases when the fashion houses released their collections for the season.

Over the last few decades, fashion has become available to anyone at any time. The fast-fashion model makes it possible for you to buy new stylish clothes as often as you like.

You could buy a different dress every day for two years if you wanted; the designs come that fast and remain relatively affordable. It seems like fast fashion has brought us nothing but convenience, and there is nothing bad about convenience, is there?

High purchasing power and cheap clothing drive fast fashion garment production and consumption. With social media’s influence promoting new trends every week, we seem to have gravitated toward materialism. Being fashionable means staying on-trend, which requires buying more to keep up with new styles.

Even if you can afford such a lifestyle, does it guarantee satisfaction? Professor Tim Kasser says that as people focus more on materialistic values, they become less happy, more depressed, and more anxious.

Longevity and secondhand

People try to control their clothing waste by donating to charities; this disposal method has its challenges. One such challenge is the low quality of garments produced in fast fashion. The clothes are easily damaged and often don’t last long enough to warrant a second home. They become unwearable, and you may find you can not give them to charity at all.

When the clothes are still valuable enough to be donated, they still sometimes end up in landfills almost immediately. Charities upcycle, recycle, or thrift only about 10% of donated clothing. When they can not sell the donated clothing locally, they ship them to developing third-world countries.

This glut of extra cheap clothing weakens the local textile industry of such countries. And as with fast fashion everywhere, the imported clothes are quickly worn out and end up in landfills6. The waste management in these countries is even less sophisticated and poorly managed, leading to land and water pollution.

Apart from the waste problem fast fashion creates, it also diminishes the value of labor and creativity put into clothing design. The Gucci fashion house filed a lawsuit against Forever 21 in 2017 for infringing on its trademark stripes.

What does our continual patronage of fast fashion brands, despite knowing how unfairly people treat the workers who make their products say about our humanity?

The New York Times released a story about a fast-fashion brand, Fashion Nova. The report exposed the exploitative practices that went on in their Los Angeles-based sweatshops. Such methods’ inhumanity should be enough for shoppers to boycott the brand, yet that seems not to be the case with consumerism winning over ethics.

What stores aren't fast fashion?

It is abundantly clear that fast fashion is fast driving unwanted environmental and socio-economic impacts. What happens when we have worn out our natural resources and polluted the environment beyond repair? Nothing good.

Before things get out of hand, we must switch to sustainable ways to stay fashionable because fashion should not cost the earth. Thankfully, amongst the malaise, you’ll find growth in several useful concepts toward sustainable fashion and a number of ethical fashion advocates pointing the way.

We have minimalism, slow fashion, and circular fashion. Slow fashion is, of course, the opposite of fast fashion. It calls for a reduced speed of production, which will allow for better quality garments, transparency in the textile supply chains, natural materials, and fewer environmental impacts.

Using our clothes longer can help reduce fast fashion's and mass-produced clothing's climate impact. Using your clothes for an extra nine months can reduce carbon, waste, and water footprints by 30% for each cloth.

We need to care for them better to wear clothes longer and repair fixable damages. Not everyone has the skills required to carry out garment repairs, so it can prove a bit of a challenge for people who want to purchase sustainable clothing and practice sustainable fashion.

Resale fashion is a smart way to extend the lifespan of garments, and it is quickly becoming a trend. Fashion resale is just a fancy name for second-hand apparel.

Although it has suffered discrimination, fashion resale has proved to be financially and environmentally beneficial. To make fashion sustainable, the internet and shopping online have played a vital role in making fashion resale hip and trendy. Since fashion resale prices are lower, shoppers can save on the items they buy.

Thrift stores help to circulate fashion items and give longevity to garments. Popular online thrift stores include Thredup, Vestiaire Collective, Poshmark, and The Real Real.


These days people throw away clothing as easily as they buy them. The fast fashion trend has made it inexpensive to do so. The consequences, however, go beyond our wallets.

Our environment and garment workers are paying a heavy price. It is easy to point fingers at fashion retailers, but anyone consuming fast fashion has also played a part in the damage caused. We must put in efforts to reduce the real cost of cheap clothing in high street stores, as fast fashion affects a great deal more than our clothing budgets.

1Online as the key frontline in the European fashion market, May 2019, McKinsey & Co, Wiktor Namysł, Tomasz Jurkanis, Kasper Yearwood, Ewa Sikora
2Fixing Fashion: Clothing Consumption and Sustainability. House of Commons Environment Audit Committee (UK), 19th February 2019
3Fixing Fashion: Clothing Consumption and Sustainability. House of Commons Environment Audit Committee (UK), 19th February 2019
4Fixing Fashion: Clothing Consumption and Sustainability. House of Commons Environment Audit Committee (UK), 19th February 2019
5Ellen MacArthur Foundation, A new textiles economy: Redesigning fashions future. 2017.
6Ertekin, Zeynep. (2017). The True Cost: The Bitter Truth behind Fast Fashion. Markets, Globalization & Development Review. 2. 10.23860/MGDR-2017-02-03-07.
7WRAP, Valuing Our Clothes: the cost of UK Fashion, July 2017.
8The State of Fashion 2019, BOF & McKinsey
By Jennifer Okafor, BSc.

Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.

Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.

Main photo by Rio Lecatompessy on Unsplash
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