Clothes shopping used to be an occasional event—something that happened a few times a year when the seasons changed, or when we outgrew what we had. But about 20 years ago, something changed. Clothes became cheaper, trend cycles sped up, and shopping became a hobby. Enter fast fashion, and the global chains that now dominate our high streets and online shopping. But what is fast fashion? And how does it impact people, the planet, and animals?
It was all too good to be true. All these stores selling cool, trendy clothing you could buy with your loose change, wear a handful of times, and then throw away. Suddenly everyone could afford to dress like their favourite celebrity, or wear the latest trends fresh from the catwalk.
What is fast fashion?
Fast fashion can be defined as cheap, trendy clothing, that samples ideas from the catwalk or celebrity culture and turns them into garments in high street stores at breakneck speed to meet consumer demand. The idea is to get the newest styles on the market as fast as possible, so shoppers can snap them up while they are still at the height of their popularity, and then, sadly, discard them after a few wears. It plays into the idea that outfit repeating is a fashion faux pas, and that if you want to stay relevant, you have to sport the latest looks as they happen. It forms a key part of the toxic system of overproduction and consumption that has made fashion one of the largest polluters in the world. Before we can go about changing it, let’s take a look at the history.
How did fast fashion happen?
To understand how fast fashion came to be, we need to rewind a tiny bit. Before the 1800s, fashion was slow. You had to source your own materials like wool or leather, prepare them, weave them, and then make the clothes.
The Industrial Revolution introduced new technology—like the sewing machine. Clothes became easier, quicker, and cheaper to make. Dressmaking shops emerged to cater for the middle classes.
A lot of these dressmaking shops used teams of garment workers or home workers. It was around this time that sweatshops emerged, along with some familiar safety issues. The first major garment factory disaster was when fire broke out in New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in 1911. It claimed the lives of 146 garment workers, many of whom were young, female immigrants.
How to spot a fast fashion brand?
There are some key factors that are common to fast fashion brands:
- Thousands of styles, which touch on all the latest trends.
- Extremely short turnaround time between when a trend or garment is seen on the catwalk, or in celebrity media, and when it hits the shelves.
- Offshore manufacturing where labour is the cheapest, with the use of workers on low wages without adequate rights or safety, as well as complex supply chains with poor visibility beyond the first tier and of subcontracting.
- Cheap, low quality materials, where clothes degrade after just a few wears and get thrown away.