What is fast fashion ?
To contextualize why I quit fashion, first consider what fast fashion is. In very simple terms, fast fashion should be thought of as synonymous with fast, high volume, trendy and cheap. Merriam webster defines fast fashion as an approach to the design, creation, and marketing of clothing fashions that emphasizes making fashion trends quickly and cheaply available to consumers.
The backbone of fast fashion is cheap prices and high volume, you could say fast fashion is a cheaper imitation of runaway or celebrity fashion. Fashion Nova CEO defines the company as having a ultra fashion model, releasing a whopping 600 new designs a week, compared to traditional fashion houses like Ralph Lauren or the Gap, which follow the traditional two seasons model (summer/spring and winter/fall). Fast Fashion brands have 52 micro seasons with shipments coming into stores like Zara, Top Shop and H&M every day. That’s a lot of clothes fast. Where are all these clothes going to go? Oh yes, landfills! I am glad I quit fast fashion. We need to do everything to change course – fast fashion is the antithesis of sustainability.
The rise of fast fashion
Whenever my baby boomer parents describe how they either made their own clothes using pattern books or ordered from catalogs, it all sounded very foreign, especially when I still consumed fast fashion. I recall learning, in graduate school 10 years ago, that Zara successful fashion model, but we did not describe the business model as fast fashion. Instead, we glamorized it as an efficient business model. Not sure this is how business schools still describe the fast fashion business model but, to me, there is nothing desirable about it. I am not sure how the term fast fashion came into the lexicon but found an article in the New York times from 1989 aptly titled “two stores that cruise the fashion first lane“. The article describes two stores, Zara and Express, that were new to the USA. Direct quote from the article:
“One shop has a faux French accent and the other a real Spanish one, but they both speak the same fashion language. It’s a language understood by young fashion followers on a budget who nonetheless change their clothes as often as the color of their lipstick. Two new boutiques on Lexington Avenue within a block of each other are now vying for these young women constantly seeking out the latest trend.”
The article went on to describe Zara’s business model as fast fashion, taking only 15 days to design and bring a garment to market. It is interesting how the article described fast fashion in idyllic terms, as such a novel thing. Fast forward 30 years and fast fashion is the go-to fashion for most young shoppers, is what is readily available to the average consumer.
Why I quit fashion fashion
1.The environmental impact of fast fashion
Perhaps the main reason I quit fast fashion is the carbon footprint. While the environmental impacts of fast fashion are clearly understood by most eco-conscious consumer, most consumers don’t have any understanding of the adverse environmental impacts of fast fashion consumption. In addition to this blog I have an instagram account focusing on sustainable fashion. Through that medium, I have found that people get overwhelmed when they fully learn about the adverse environmental impacts of fast fashion.
The adverse environmental impacts of fast fashion fall into two categories: environmental impacts from textile manufacturing (including cultivation) and environmental impacts from clothes in landfills (discussed further below). According to the nature journal, textile production is the world’s second most polluting industry after the oil industry. The total greenhouse gas emissions from textile production currently stand at 1.2 billion tonnes annually, which is more than those of all international flights and maritime shipping combined. In a state of fashion report 2018 by consulting firm McKinsey & Company, it was projected that fast fashion is set to continue to grow, perhaps with efforts to reduce carbon footprint. I am pessimistic that the fast fashion industry can adopt practices that meaningfully reduce the industry’s carbon footprint.
The fast fashion business model relies on quantity of sales, regularly bring too many clothes into circulation, many of which are then throw away. Because these garments are largely made up from synthetic fibers, they take years and years to decay, leaving an indelible negative imprint on the environment.
2.The horror stories associated with making fast fashion garments
No questions some eco-fashionistas tend to project self-righteousness, but there is nothing self-righteous about not wanting people to work in horrible conditions, get paid unfair wages and in some cases die making $5 shirts. For me that alone was sufficient, and I would expect that that would be reason enough for most other people to quit fashion. The scenes of the tragic Rana plaza collapse that killed over 1000 garment workers in Dhaka, Bangladesh, are one of the grim reminders of the cost of fast fashion. Apparently, the building was not safely built and that combined with the unsafe working conditions produced a deadly result. Some companies associated with the factory include inditex which is the parent company of fast fashion giant Zara.
Also, it was reported by The times and numerous other media outlets that Boohoo and Nasty Gal were paying their Leicester factory workers below minimum wage, as low as $3.50 per hour and not providing adequate protective gear.
3. Not eco-friendly fabrics, high plastic content
Fast fashion brands don’t use eco-friendly fabrics. The most common used fabrics are cotton and polyester. Both fabrics have significant adverse environmental and social impact. Cotton, although a natural fiber uses, uses a lot of water because it requires a lot of irrigation, a lot of pesticides which are harmful to farm workers’ health and these toxic pesticides run off into rivers and other water bodies. According to the made by environmental bench mark for fibers which ranks fabrics on sustainability on a scale of A to E, conventional cotton ranks E, the worst grade. Most fast fashion brands still use conventional cotton.
Polyester is the most frequently fabric in fast fashion industry because it’s versatile and cheap. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF), about 63 % of synthetic fabrics are usually produced from oil. Polyester is the most common synthetic fiber (check your labels to confirm this fact yourself). Polyester is a non-biodegradable and according to ‘good on you’, it can take about 200 years to decompose. Let that sink in, the polyester shirt you throw away could out-live your great, great grand kids. Before you ask, whether sustainable brands also use polyester, the answer is no, unless it’s recycled polyester.
4.Fast fashion garments shed microplastics
If you are not yet convinced to quit fast fashion, you might get convinced after you read that even washing your synthetic garments is polluting the water. When you wash synthetic fibers, they shed tiny plastics known as microplastics. A study by Plymouth University in the UK found that a single load of laundry can shed about 700, 000 microplastics which is about the size of a pack of chewing gum. These microplastics enter our oceans and seas are ingested by fish. Microplastics have also been found in food we eat!
5.Landfills are piling up with our clothes
Fast fashion has created a disposable fashion culture and as such we throw so much away. One garbage truck of clothes is burned or sent to landfills every second! Which is mind-blowing! We consumed 60% clothes in 2014 than we did in 2000 and 69% of millenials are buying clothes they don’t need compared to the their parents, baby boomers or Gen X who are at 45% and 53% respectively. All bad in my opinion, but we are certainly consuming too much more than our parents do/did.
6.Fast fashion is not that cheap because brands use psychology to make you buy more
Fast fashion brands need to sell high volumes to be profitable. According to Broke Generation, fast fashion brands use tactics such as rearranging stores often and thereby tempting consumers to re-browse, changing stock often so that there is always something new online or in-store and by focusing on trends that make the stuff you bought last year less desirable. You find yourself shopping often and it all adds up. Resist this and quit fast fashion, you don’t need most of the stuff you buy.
7. Fast fashion garments are not designed to last
When I still bought clothes from Zara, they’re not cheap, given the quality, so with better information this became a factor in my decision to quit fast fashion. I recall buying a Zara dress for $89, which was generally trendy at the time, but it was 100% polyester; it’s now out of trend☹. I realize now that I could have spent a little more money and bought a timeless/evergreen dress, a sustainable dress or thrifted something cheaper that would last beyond current trends and last longer due to better quality. Fast fashion focuses on delivering trendy items fast and this put less emphasis on the longevity of the clothes. Sadly these clothes then end up in landfills.
8. Dumping fast fashion waste in developing countries
Because we consume too much fashion there is a lot of clothes we donate or throw away. A lot of the clothes we donate end up in African countries and this has negatively impacted the local fashion industry, due to cheap secondhand clothes flooding the market. I have personal experience with this. Growing up in Uganda there was a lot of secondhand clothes sold in a famous secondhand market called Owino market. Another impact is that some of the clothes sent to these countries are in such a bad state that they are not usable and as such end up in landfills those countries Africa. This was a strong personal reason for me to quit fast fashion.
9. Greenwashing environmentalism by fast fashion brands.
Before I quit fast fashion I had bought into the green-washing done by fast fashion brands. Greenwashing is when brands make largely false environmental claims by focusing on a small eco-friendly attribute, while ignoring so many other bad environmental practices. These include the recycling garment programs for example H&M’s recycling for 15% off. It sounds amazing at first blush but does H&M actually recycle these clothes into new fabric? Only about 0.1% of H&Ms recycled garments are woven into new fabric meaning that the brand still uses virgin fiber. For more information on this, watch Hassan Minaj’s Netlfix’s patriot act episode (linked) which highlighted the absurdity of the sustainability claims by fast fashion brands.
10. There are toxic chemicals in the clothes
Another reason I quit fast fashion was when I learned about all the toxic chemicals in the clothes. The toxins in our clothes come from a couple of sources, including the round up that is sprayed on conventional cotton, to the chemical treatments used to make clothes wrinkle free or flame resistant. As per Fashion United, chemicals such as Chrome VI used in leather tanning is a recognized carcinogen. Also, chemicals used for washing and dyeing clothes (alkylphenols) are hazardous. Genuine sustainable brands avoid such chemicals.
Fast fashion alternatives
So, after reading this post, are I am hoping that you have elected to quit fast fashion and may be wondering what other options are out there for you. Here is what you can do instead:
- Actually wear the clothes you have, shop your closet!
- Thrifting and vintage. New to thrifting? Consider, an online consignment store, thredup.
- Shop from sustainable brands
- Wash your synthetic clothes in a guppy friend bag or use you a microfiber filter to help trap microplastics