The problem with fast fashion

Fast fashion brands can afford to sell for less because they use cheap polyester, steal designs, and put garment workers in danger.

You know that kid that quickly scribbled a lousy attempt at homework as he rushed to class? He cheated off of peers and inevitably disrupted something in his race to his seat. Fast fashion is that kid. 

Fast fashion clothing

Technological advances throughout the 20th century enabled the production of more clothes faster. There wasn’t much, if any, regard to sustainability at that time. But the 21st century has been uniquely dominated by the problem of (and love for) fast fashion.

The problem with fast fashion

Fast fashion describes clothing brands that quickly produce low quality goods at low prices. They do this by copying the original designs of more expensive brands, using inexpensive but resource-intensive materials, and paying workers low wages in poorly regulated spaces. Hallmarks of fast fashion include:

  • Polyester: Plastic in fiber form, polyester derives from petroleum and requires an energy-intensive heating process and a lot of water. It is not biodegradable, meaning it will take up to 200 years to decompose. Furthermore the kind of dye that sticks to polyester isn’t water soluble, so waste water is toxic to the environment and the people that work with it.
  • Knocking off the intellectual property of independent designers: Fast fashion brands skip a huge brunt of the design process (and its expenses) by simply replicating designer pieces. With increased access to high-quality images via the internet, this has become even easier. Copyright law is nuanced enough that designers often don’t even attempt legal actions against the international companies stealing from them. By using shottier materials (like polyester) they can offer a lower price point than the original creator.
  • Clothes as a disposable commodity, not a necessity: In 2019 the global fashion industry accounted for $1.9 trillion in retail sales, which is a staggering 60+% increase from just a decade ago. We’re not buying more clothes because we need them, we’re buying them because we can afford to think of them as disposable.
  • “Sweatshops” and a lack of transparency in production: Towards the end of the 20th century America’s appetite for inexpensive and trendy clothing increased. Production was outsourced to nations where labor laws were less stringent, and therefore cheaper, than in the U.S. Today work is often contracted out and then sub-contracted again, making a garment’s origins difficult to trace. Worse case scenarios include the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 2013 where a breathtaking 1,134 people died. Less deadly circumstances include long hours, low wages, hazardous work spaces, and limits to employees’ ability to safely unionize. 

Its carelessness makes fast fashion easy to hate but it was born from a demand for equitable access to desirable clothes (and an unwillingness to accept the realities of climate change or regulate capitalism in a global economy, of course). The solution to climate change will inevitably be broad policy change, not sustainable individual decisions. Until we achieve that however, it’s worth noting that stores like Zara, Forever 21, and H&M are only as successful as our willingness to patron them.