The Fuel behind Fast Fashion 

Nanditha Ram '25

In the Mid-1990s, when Zara opened its New York operations, the term “fast fashion” was born. It was used to describe the company’s ability to produce clothes in as little as 15 days, while other fashion corporations took months [1]. While it may seem efficient, in truth, the lasting consequences of fast fashion undermine whatever ease the process creates. Fast fashion, although new, continues to grow, another indicator of the overconsumption that threatens many parts of our world. 

In general, the term “fast fashion” describes a business model of many fashion brands: quickly replicating clothing trends, then taking them off shelves just as quick. The model is most commonly associated with popular brands SheIN, H&M, and Zara, although many other mainstream fashion brands employ the model. Quickly replicating popular clothing allows companies to make higher profit, since consumers have a wider selection of clothes, leading to easier shopping. On average, Shein itself adds 6,000 new items to its catalog per week [2]  – and the results are shown through their 10$ billion profit in 2020 [3]. But though the profits are great, the consequences on our planet are much greater. 


Environmental impact

Fast production is only made possible through the use of cheap mass production, which results in heavy pollution in order to make enough clothing. The fashion industry is responsible for ⅕ of the world’s water pollution due to toxins from dyes and leather. Other pollution is also substantial – Chinese textile companies alone generate about three billion tons of soot (air pollution) each year by burning coal [4], and washing textiles releases more microplastics into the already polluted ocean. The problem is aggravated as many textile factories operate in underdeveloped countries, where governments cannot regulate the excess pollution. Although some of these problems have always existed in the fashion industry, as the amount of clothes people buy increases, even more clothing is wasted. 62 million tons of clothing end up in landfills per year [2], a number predicted to rise greatly over the coming years. Low quality clothes increase the amount wasted due to their shorter lifespan. 


Worker Exploitation

Garment factories employ 40 million workers globally, of which 60% live in the Asia-Pacific region [5]. These workers are grossly undercompensated  for the important job they perform. Most individuals work for low wages in dangerous work environments, a situation that has deteriorated when COVID-19 hit, interrupting the running of many industries. This uncertainty prompted many fashion companies, such as Kohls, to cancel already completed orders, leaving factories with tons of clothing and lacking their promised billions of dollars. In response, worker wages were cut, leaving 80% of workers in the South Asia region hungry and destitute [5]. As fashion companies begin to recover from the pandemic, wages slowly increase for those on top of the supply chain, but garment workers remain in crisis, as they are not reimbursed for billions of dollars in lost wages. Even as companies such as Remake make billions of dollars in profit, they do not pay factories back for cancelled orders. Therefore, this effect is estimated to last for the next several years, as factories make up for losses. 


Why fast fashion?

As fast fashion grows, its existence has been at the forefront of recent media. However, it has still grown largely, despite negative press and protests, due to its cost and accessibility. Being able to find products that fulfill  each person’s needs is a major motivator in buying from fast fashion companies – especially for plus size consumers, who are often neglected in the fashion industry. And while 52% of consumers want fashion to be more sustainable, only 29% are able/willing to pay for the change [6]. 

A change in mindset has also influenced fast fashion’s growth. With the rise of social media, the amount of styles to emulate has grown largely, allowing for millions of “micro-trends” – short lived trends that last only up to 2 years [3]. Main offenders are TikTok and Instagram, whose recent “coconut girl” and “y2k” styles are among many of quickly enjoyed, then discarded micro-trends that their respective 1 billion members follow. As trends are discarded, so are millions of tons of clothing, a cycle that repeats each year. To afford the amount of clothing needed to participate in this cycle, fast fashion is an easy medium for younger people, a main factor in the rise of companies such as Shein and H&M. 

But on some level, the recent fashion changes speak to the rise in overconsumption in general worldwide. Chiefly in privileged areas, people have gotten used to consuming a wide range of products, a major part of our current society. The US alone makes up 5% of the world’s population, but uses 30% of its resources, a number that increases exponentially as the population grows [6]. As the economy of developed countries grows, so does the amount of goods consumed – but recent events have made it evident that the world cannot support the level of consumption many are used to. 

The change in the fashion industry is not an easy one to revert to – as long as people keep consuming, companies will continue to mass produce clothing, usually cutting corners to do so. Now, the burden to tackle the devastating effect of fast fashion lies on governments, corporations, and individual consumers. The first step is understanding the problems with overconsumption and its relation to environmental degradation.