Fast fashion is an approach to the design, creation, and marketing of clothing that focuses on making trends available to consumers quickly and inexpensively (Cook and Yurchisin, 2017, p. 143). The fast fashion movement took off in the 1980s and 90s as big brands began to look for ways to increase their profits. They did so in two main ways: First, they shifted the bulk of their production to the developing world (“off-shoring”) where labour and overhead costs were much cheaper than in North America or Europe. Second, they began increasing the number of fashion collections produced per year so that the styles would keep changing and consumers would need to keep buying new clothes to stay on trend.
This ongoing pattern has ultimately created our cultural mindset of buying things cheaply and throwing them out. The average garment was not made to last anyway. The fabrics tend to pill, stretch, or fall apart after a few washings, so that it’s always time for something new!
Fast fashion preys on our desire for instant gratification or a quick fix. Advertisements bombard us with manufactured needs and promise to meet them with trendy ease. We can pop into outlets and superstores or click a button on an online shopping cart to get new clothes effortlessly and inexpensively.
Buying clothes can also make us feeling like we are filling the voids we feel in other parts of our lives (boredom, loneliness, deficiency, unattractiveness, etc.), at least temporarily. We drape ourselves in fabric to boost our self-esteem. We may also gain a momentary feeling of control over our lives with our purchasing power. In an emotional and impulsive rush, we buy things we didn’t even know we wanted and call it “retail therapy.”
Fast fashion also thrives on the particular cultural attitude of “good value.” In fact, it is often called “value fashion.” Why buy a pair of jeans for $120.00 when you can get a pair for $20? I mean, do the math! Is it good value for your money? Depending on our income, we may feel we don’t have a choice but to buy clothes that come cheaply. Even if we have a more substantial income, we may feel like we are wasting money unless we buy clothing on sale or at the cheapest price possible. Besides that, we may feel that the only way to keep up with the ever-changing trends is to buy them on the cheap. Or we may live in a place where there are few shopping choices beyond big box stores or online. After all, small boutiques, local designers, and other shopping alternatives only exist in larger cities, and even there many have gone out of business in recent years. What can we do when the draw is so strong and the options seem so limited?
The first step is to better educate ourselves about the problems of fast fashion. The second step is to recognize the sustainable alternatives to fast fashion. The rest of this article will explore each of these two steps in turn.
The truth when comes to “good value” is that if we aren’t paying much for something, chances are someone or something else is. What immediately comes to mind are the laborers who sew our clothes. We’ve all heard about the poor conditions, long hours, and meager pay in garment sweatshops. And most of us can point to the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in Bangladesh, where 1100 employees were killed in 2013 because building safety codes were ignored.
We might also think of the environmental unsustainability that comes from cheaply-made, synthetic garments ending up in landfills, unable to decompose. Or the toxic pesticides contaminating the soil used to grow natural fibres as quickly as possible so that they can be manufactured into garments. Or the synthetic dyes used on these garments polluting waterways and destroying the species therein. The environment is paying for our desire for fast clothes.
We may, however, be less aware of the other hazards involved in the production of our clothing. In the sobering documentary, “The True Cost” (2015), Andrew Morgan highlights some of chilling aspects of fibre farming, like the monopoly on genetically modified seeds used to grow cotton in India; the negative effects of pesticide use on farmers’ health and the health of the surrounding community (including cancers, mental illnesses, and birth defects); and the high rate of suicides when farmers cannot keep up with the costs or produce a high enough yield and lose their farms.
Also chilling is the production process for making some of our most popular fabric like viscose and rayon. This material is a semi-synthetic fibre branded as “plant-based” and thereby “ecologically sustainable” because it originally comes from the cellulose of wood pulp: beech, pine, or bamboo. The process, however, of turning wood pulp into a usable fibre, requires dissolving the pulp with aqueous sodium hydroxide and carbon disulphide, producing a cellulose solution that is ultimately used to spin the viscose or rayon fibres. While this may sound benign to non-chemistry lovers, medical researcher Paul D. Blanc, in his book Fake Silk (2016), shows how workers breathing in the carbon disulphide can suffer serious neurological, psychological, cardiovascular, reproductive, and liver problems, burns, and blindness. They pay the price for creating this widely used “plant-based” fibre.
In sum, there are two key areas where the hazards of fast fashion are most palpable: First, on the people growing and making our fabrics and those sewing our garments. And second, on the natural environment taking the brunt of our manufacturing processes and waste. Below are useful data and well-researched statistics to consider in these regards:
“Slow fashion” is an alternative to fast fashion. The term "slow fashion" was coined by Kate Fletcher in her 2007 article for The Ecologist, where she compared the eco/sustainable/ethical fashion industry to the slow food movement. Just like slow food, slow clothes are good quality, cleanly produced, and fairly acquired:
We can also add other elements like “locally made” (or made in Canada), “up-cycled,” “naturally dyed,” and “vegan” to the mix.
Currently, one key goal in the slow and sustainable fashion movement is to adopt a “closed system loop,” in which garments and their components are “designed, manufactured, used, and handled so as to circulate within society for as long as possible, with maximum usability, minimum adverse environmental impacts, minimum waste generation, and with the most efficient use of water, energy, and other resources throughout their lifecycles” (“The Issues: Waste”). I think we can all agree that this is an excellent ideal and goal to aspire to.
But here’s the rub: Fast fashion is a vicious cycle because there are so many incentives to keep buying without changing the system. Most of us are drawn to buying clothes quickly and cheaply; to save money and get more for less; or to be consistently on trend. We may know that fast fashion is ultimately an unsustainable model—with a terrible strain on the environment and deplorable conditions for workers in developing countries—but often our immediate needs, our limited budget, or our aesthetic desires trump our ethical principles. This phenomenon is called the “intention-behavior gap” by researchers.
Statistics show that “30% of consumers have the initial intention to purchase responsibly. However when this is to translate into behavior, only 3% of the original group of consumers actually purchase responsibly” (James and Montgomery, 2017, p. 13).
Here are some reasons why our good intentions don’t necessarily translate into responsible purchasing behavior:
So how do we take action and make the shift from fast fashion to ethical and sustainable “slow” clothes? To answer that question, check out the second article in this series, “Embracing Slow Fashion”!
“Animals Used for Clothing.” Peta.org
Bick, R., Halsey, E. & Ekenga, C.C. “The Global Environmental Injustice of Fast Fashion.” Environ Health 17.92 (2018).
Blanc, Paul David. Fake Silk: The Lethal History of Viscose Rayon. Yale University Press, 2016.
“Buy Less, Choose Well, Make it Last.” Be Quality. May 22, 2020.
Cook, Sasikarn Chatvijit and Jennifer Yurchisin. “Fast Fashion Environments: Consumer’s Heaven or Retailer’s Nightmare?” International Journal of Retail & Distribution Management 45.2 (2017), 143-157.
Fletcher, Kate. “Slow Fashion.” The Ecologist, June 1, 2007.
Hobson, John. “To Die For? The Health and Safety of Fast Fashion.” Occupational Medicine 63.5 (2013), 317-19.
Jaffer, Mobina, and Salma Ataullahjan. “Fast Fashion: Working Conditions in the Garment Industry: Report of the Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights” (2015).
James A.M., Montgomery B. “The Role of the Retailer in Socially Responsible Fashion Purchasing.” In Muthu S. (ed). Textiles and Clothing Sustainability. Springer, 2017. 1-39.
Joy, Annamma et al. “Fast Fashion, Sustainability, and the Ethical Appeal of Luxury Brands.” Fashion Theory 16.3 (2015), 273-295.
Kannuri, N. D. and Jadhav, S. “Generating Toxic Landscapes: Impact on Well-being of Cotton Farmers in Telangana, India.” Anthropology and Medicine 25.2 (2018), 121-140.
Lejeune, Tamsin. “Fast Fashion: Can It Be Sustainable?" Common Objective. April 17, 2018.
“Made in Bangladesh.” The Fifth Estate, CBC News. Official Airdate: October 11, 2013.
Morgan, Andrew. "The True Cost” Documentary (2015).
Plell, Andrea. “There are Hidden Chemicals in our Clothing.” ReMake, January 5, 2018.
The True Cost. Directed by Andrew Morgan, produced by Michael Ross, Life is My Movie Entertainment/Untold Creative, 2015.
“The Issues: Waste.” Common Objective. Feb 1, 2018.
Thomas, Dana. Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes. Penguin, 2019.
Wong, Zoe Bayliss. “The Fashion Industry Just Outlined A Vision For The Future. Will #RewiringFashion Be Good Enough?” Forbes, May 23, 2020.