Fast fashion is a fairly recent phenomenon if we consider the history of clothing. It was in the early nineties when the term ‘fast fashion’ was first used by the New York Times, and it was used to describe Amancio Ortega’s (founder of Zara) mission, which was to get an item of clothing from a designer to the rack within 15 days.
Today, Zara is one of the leading fast fashion brands, and you would know some others like H&M, Top Shop or C&A. Even traditional department stores have started to adopt the fast fashion model because it is a cheaper and faster method of producing clothes.
On one hand, fast fashion gives consumers the ability to buy the latest trends and styles at a very affordable price, but on the other hand, there is the growing negative impact on the environment, workers and the planet in general.
What is the history of fast fashion?
As we discussed above, the term ‘fast fashion’ was first used by the New York Times in the early 90s. The real beginnings of fast fashion started because clothing brands were able to move production overseas, which reduced the cost of manufacturing to go down significantly.
The Industrial Revolution led to the creation of technology such as the sewing machine, and once these technologies were available globally, third world countries adapted and offered their large scale manufacturing services to first world countries.
Who led the demand for fast fashion?
Fast fashion has its origins in Europe. The changing lifestyle and preferences of younger people in the 60s and 70s onwards led to a surge in demand of the latest fashion trends at a fraction of the costs, which was eventually met by clothing manufacturers who started outsourcing manufacturing.
It was individuals like Amancio Ortega who created a new supply chain by outsourcing manufacturing to countries where the costs of labour and materials is relatively low. Companies like Men’s Warehouse, which sells affordable suits, were able to offer the kind of prices it did because their suits were being manufactured in Hong Kong and China. George Zimmer, the founder of Men’s Warehouse, on a business trip to Hong Kong in the 70s, saw an opportunity when he saw the costs at which suits were being manufactured and sold in the city.
The mass adoption and use of fast fashion became a common thing in the western countries from late 90s and onwards. The internet made it easy for everyone to learn about the latest trends. Then came the fast fashion heavyweights such as H&M, Zara, and Topshop who started to dominate the shops as well as online retail. The internet also made it easy for some companies to reduce their costs by not having to operate expense shops. Fashion Nova and Boohoo.com are two such examples offering a range of disposable clothing.
Fast fashion’s growth was fuelled by the fact that these companies offered high fashion trends and styles at a very affordable cost.
Why is fast fashion considered bad for the environment, the people and the planet in general?
Fast fashion is damaging in many ways because of the practices involved. Being able to manufacture clothes in a limited amount of time means the workers work in conditions, which are far from ideal. Having to transport the clothes using containers halfway around the globe adds to the carbon footprint of each item.
Then there are the manufacturing practices of fast fashion which has a devastating impact on the environment. The use of man made fibres such as polyester contributes to global warming. Every time you wash a clothing item made from polyester, it sheds fibres, which make its way to the ocean. Most polyester fabrics are derived from plastics.
Then there is the use of toxic textile dyes, and large use of water which affects not only the environment, but water stressed countries suffer further from lack of water for other important purposes.
Due to the volume of clothes being bought from fast fashion companies, the average American household produces 32 kg of textile waste every year. European Union generates a total of 5.8 million tons of textiles each year. Discarded clothes occupy roughly 5% of all landfill space around the world.
As you read before, fast fashion brands outsourced manufacturing to third world countries where workers often have to work in dangerous environments, at very low wages, and there are severe issues with human rights, which are not at all addressed. Animals and oceanic wildlife is also impacted by the toxic dyes released in waterways and the microfibres that are often ingested by ocean life.
What can you do to help lessen the impact of fast fashion?
There is already a change occurring in the way we consume products. From foods to clothing, there is a growing movement for ethical, safer and sustainable products being made available to consumers.
Fast fashion brands are listening to changing their practices to meet the needs of the consumers. H&M has targets to be a 100% ‘climate positive’ brand by 2040. Alongside their ‘Conscious Exclusive’ collection, H&M take a number of steps towards becoming more sustainable. By 2020 Zara aims to eliminate the use of hazardous chemicals, cut out fibres that are made from endangered or ancient forests and set up donation boxes in store for their clothes to be recycled.
By 2023, Inditex, the parent company behind Zara plans to stop all use of single-use plastics in packaging and by 2025, the company wants to stop sending any waste to landfills.
At Colity, our aim is to educate visitors on how to buy clothes which limit impact as well as last longer. Fast fashion might be the current trend, but it can and will change based on how consumers needs.