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How “Fast Fashion” Became a Phenomenon and Why It’s Bad For You and the Planet

Throughout history, people owned very few clothes and made them last. If we want to help the environment, we need to go back to “sustainable fashion”

by Carla Jonas

Shopping. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

For most of human history, slow fashion was the only fashion. Aside from wealthy individuals, the vast majority of people owned just a few clothes that they kept until they wore out. If someone outgrew a piece of clothing, the item was given to another family member or the fabric was repurposed. Nothing ever went to waste. Ethical and sustainable fashion made sense in the past, and it should be the way of the future if we want a healthy planet. But we’re still a long way from achieving that goal.

The roots of fast fashion lie in the Industrial Revolution in the early 1800s. Before the development of weaving machines, the average person had to grow, spin, weave, and sew their own cloth, a very labor-intensive and time-consuming process. Clothing was a precious commodity and wasting it was unheard of. The same went for accessories. Costume jewelry is a relatively new convenience, and precious gems and pearls were extremely rare. A woman might only own a single pair of stud earrings or a brooch which she likely inherited from her mother, and in turn passed down to the next generation. New inventions such as the sewing machine caused a precipitous fall in the price of clothing, which in turn boosted its manufacture.

Costume jewelry. Photo: Flickr

Although the number of textile and clothing factories rose through the 1800s and into the early 1900s, most clothing production was still being done in small workshops. Wealthy women went to highbrow couturiers and middle-class women visited local dressmakers, while the poor still sewed their own clothes. It wasn’t until after World War II that the production of clothing became standardized, and mass-produced apparel was born. As the middle class grew in number and their spending money increased, the range of fashion choices expanded.

The 1960s was a turning point in history in multiple ways, including fashion. The young wanted something totally new and different, but these styles needed to be affordable. Their parents would have been ashamed to be seen in worn-out or torn clothing, and it would have been unthinkable to buy clothes in that condition. This fact was highly appealing to the counterculture generation. Flaunting cheap fashion and wearing a mix of high- and low-end clothes became a way for hippies to renounce convention and show their support for ‘democratic’ apparel.


Fashion brands listened to what this new type of consumer wanted. One way clothing manufacturers were able to lower costs was by outsourcing labor to developing countries. Technology was already moving at an incredibly fast pace, and transportation had become a non-issue. But shortcuts have always come at a cost, as in the case of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that claimed the lives of 146 workers, mostly young women and recent immigrants. Such horror stories are not a thing of the past, and a chillingly similar event happened in a clothing factory in Bangladesh in 2013 in which 1,134 workers died.

A hundred years ago, there were two fashion seasons: Spring/Summer and Autumn/Winter. Then came Resort and Transition, but fast fashion demands constant change and has resulted in new collections coming out almost continuously. Brands like H&M, Zara, and Primark started life as modest shops in Europe after World War II. They zeroed in on the demand for inexpensive, trendy clothes, and by the early 2000s, they had all expanded their fashion empire to include the US. 

Fast fashion has also gotten a boost from celebrities. Influential women like Queen Letizia, Michelle Obama and Kate Middleton have been seen wearing dresses from H&M and Zara. This unofficial endorsement of throwaway fashion would have been unheard of in the days of Jackie O. or in Queen Elizabeth II’s youth.

Fast fashion describes both how fast a product gets to market and how soon the brand would like customers to buy their next offering. How do they do it? Unscrupulous businesses copy both big and independent fashion houses and have enormous factories at their disposal to churn out new fashions incredibly fast. Turnaround time can be as short as two weeks. While this is a truly amazing example of efficiency, it can spell disaster for the boutique fashion designer who actually created the original and relies on their unique offerings to survive.

A garment factory in Bangladesh. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

If fast fashion is a model of efficiency, what’s so bad about being able to offer stylish clothes at affordable prices? What people don’t see is the true cost of the $5 t-shirt. Low wages, dangerous working conditions, and minimal rights for workers are reason enough to reject fast fashion, but there are many more. According to Greenpeace, “The average person buys 60% more items of clothing and keeps them for about half as long as 15 years ago.”

A paltry 15% of post-consumer textile waste is recycled with the rest winding up in landfills. Textile landfill has increased some 40% since 2000, and the vast majority of fast fashion is made from non-biodegradable synthetics. These clothes are actually designed to fall apart, encouraging more buying, and accelerating the vicious cycle of consumption and waste. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, “One garbage truck of textiles is landfilled or incinerated every second.”

Fast fashion is also greedy in its water use. Synthetic fibers are clogging up our oceans at a rate of 500K tons of microfibers each year, the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles. But natural fibers like cotton aren’t innocent either. Cotton is often grown in hot, dry climates that are unsuitable for it, requiring extensive irrigation, and potentially consuming much-needed drinking water. A drought can spell disaster for an entire community. Also due to the hostile climate, extra pesticides are required to keep the crop alive, poisoning the ecosystem and the farmers who must handle them.

Plastics polluting the ocean. Photo: Flickr

Another threat to the water supply comes from the dye used in textile manufacture. Most of the 8,000+ dyes are hazardous to the environment, and many of these toxins get dumped directly into local rivers and lakes. It is believed that 90% of China’s groundwater is already polluted. Dyes are also toxic to the air and create an estimated 10% of the carbon emissions, exacerbating global warming. According to Ecowatch, the fashion industry releases 1.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year, making it the world’s second-worst polluter after the oil industry.

The “Iron Triangle Rule” of business says that you can make a product fast, cheap, or well, but you’ll never get all three. In the disposable fashion industry, fast and cheap hold sway. But cost-cutting practices and the insatiable demand for new things have come at too high a price and the whole planet will pay if we don’t do something, sooner rather than later. Don’t worry; no one expects you to run out and buy a flock of sheep and a loom, but the reasonable solution is to be more thoughtful when making purchases.

Here are a few tips: rather than grabbing the latest hot trend, it is best to invest in classic styles that are made from quality materials. They will long outlast cheaply-made pieces, and wind up being more economical in the long run as well as more eco-friendly. For special occasions, consider shopping consignment or renting rather than buying. When buying new, look for organic fibers. Labels such as Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), the Better Cotton Initiative, Bluesign, and B Corporations indicate sustainable practices.

Sustainable fashion was once the industry standard and when consumers vote with their wallet, it can be again.

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