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The Hidden Costs of Fast Fashion: What You Should Know Before Your Next Purchase


There is fast fashion everywhere. You’ll find dozens of fast fashion brands in a shopping mall or on crowded streets. Not to mention the many online-only companies. Fast fashion companies are all able to produce the newest trends at the lowest possible prices, no matter where or how long they have been in business.

Fast fashion’s convenience is what drives many shoppers to shop. The affordability of fast fashion is what attracts many consumers to shop (and shop, and shop). This quick and cheap model may have hidden costs, especially when it comes down to pollution and unethical work conditions. Although many fast fashion brands are making efforts to improve and evolve their practices, it is important to understand the true impact.

If you are curious about fast fashion’s evolution, what it has to offer, and its shortcomings, then here is everything you need to know about this business model.

What is fast fashion?

According to Merriam-Webster, fast fashion is an approach to the design, creation, and marketing of clothing fashions that emphasizes making fashions quickly and affordably available to consumers. Fast fashion is a term used to describe brands that mass-produce clothing regularly in order to keep up with current trends, using low-quality synthetic fabrics to speed up the manufacturing process. These cheaper items, unlike higher-quality investment pieces, tend to deteriorate quickly after a few washes and wears. This causes many consumers to discard them immediately.

Fast fashion is designed to keep pace with the fast-paced trends of today. Fast fashion can produce items within weeks or even days, while luxury brands and smaller businesses may take months to create a collection. Fast-fashion companies would boast about releasing a new design in just two weeks. Boohoo is able to do it within a few days.” the Atlantic in 2021.

When did fast fashion start?

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Fast fashion has its roots in the 1800s. According to Fashionista, the introduction of sewing machines in 1846 and the subsequent outsourcing of garment manufacturing to factories led to a reduction in clothing prices as well as an increase in the number of clothes produced.

In the 1960s and 1970s, textile mills opened all over the world in order to satisfy the demand of consumers for affordable and stylish clothes. According to the Victoria and Albert Museum, in 1966, paper dresses became popular when the Scott Paper Company developed a disposable shift made of cellulose, which could be thrown away after one use. The paper dress was originally designed to promote a brand’s disposable tableware, but it became so popular that many businesses began creating their own versions.

H&M opened its first store in Sweden in 1947, and Zara in Spain in 1975. However, the majority of fast fashion brands did not reach the U.S. for decades. The New York Times coined “fast fashion” when Zara opened its first store in New York City, in 1989. This was to describe the brand’s policy of changing its stock every three weeks.

In the 2000s, social media and influencer cultures accelerated the growth of fast fashion. Instagram #OOTDs fueled the desire to shop as having a different look every day became a thing.

InStyle 2020 reported that “because of fast fashion and low prices, I believe the definition of style is changing a lot.” Elizabeth L. Cline was the author of Overdressed as well as The Conscious Closet. Style is not just about the latest trends and the latest fashions. It can be much more than that. The style was not just about newness or being trendy. It was also about quality, fit and good-fitting clothes.

Fast Fashion and Its Impact

According to a McKinsey and Company study, clothing production doubled between 2000 and 2014 while the number of garments purchased increased by 60 percent. According to a McKinsey and Company study, between 2000 and 2014, the clothing industry doubled and the number of purchased garments increased by 60%. The fashion industry is a major polluter because of this process of rapid consumption and overproduction.

According to the United Nations, the synthetic fibers used to make fast fashion garments also create pollution during laundering. Synthetic textiles account for 35 percent of microplastic pollution in the world’s oceans. The synthetic fibers that are used in fast fashion clothing also cause pollution when they are washed. According to The New York Times, synthetic textiles contribute 35 percent to the microplastic pollution of the oceans. Garment disposal also plays a significant role. According to the United Nations Climate Change Conference, 85 percent of clothing ends up in landfills or is burned instead of being recycled.

Many fast fashion brands are investigated for their unsafe working conditions, and for paying garment workers wages that are below the minimum legal wage. The New York Times published a report in 2022 about a United States Department of Labor inquiry that revealed Fashion Nova paid sewers as little as $2.77 per hour in Los Angeles factories. It is just one example of how cheap fashion comes at a cost to workers.

Some fast-fashion companies are changing some of their practices. H&M is aiming to be circular by 2040 and have 100 percent recycled materials or other sustainably sourced materials by 2030. According to Reuters, Zara’s owner announced in July that they will explore new recycling practices and sustainably sourced fibers to reduce their environmental impact.

What are the Fast Fashion Brands?

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Fast fashion is dominated by brands such as Boohoo ASOS Fashion Nova H&M Forever 21 Zara Shein and Boohoo. You can easily identify fast fashion retailers, whether you are shopping online or in-store, by paying close attention to product details. Fast fashion is characterized by synthetic materials (think polyester or acrylic), off-shore manufacturing locations (where the labor costs are often lower), and a constant stream of new styles reflecting the latest trends.

Fast Fashion Alternatives

Slow fashion is growing in popularity and encourages brands to use durable materials and fair labor. The consumer is changing his or her shopping habits. This means that they are buying fewer clothes, renting them for special occasions, upcycling clothing, and creating a capsule wardrobe.

Cline said to InStyle in 2020, “It sounds a little scary for us right now to think about clothing becoming more expensive or the fashion industry slowing down.” In the past, clothing was more expensive, and fashion moved slower. We were okay.

Cline suggests taking a step away and focusing on long-term investment over the latest trends. “It leaves more room for other things clothing can be, such as cultivating a connection with a dressmaker or tailor in your locality, or having a sewing or mending group.”

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