What is Fast Fashion and Why Is It Still So Popular?

Olivia Gecseg Monday, 20 January 2020

It’s a term we, as passionate believers in all things sustainable and ethical, love to hate - but what exactly is ‘Fast Fashion’ and why is it so bad for the environment and the fashion industry’s reputation?

The apparel industry is booming. Every year, 62 million tonnes of clothing are consumed globally and this is only set to rise to over 100 tons by 2030. In the UK alone, 350,000 tonnes of clothing are being sent to landfill annually. 

These towering figures summarise the vastly wasteful nature of today’s fashion industry, fuelled by large, high-street retailers such as Primark and H&M, selling copycat designs of the latest runway looks at rock bottom prices. To add insult to injury, a new wave of online fashion retailers are swooping in to clean up the market, with Boohoo (who last year made headlines with £5 dresses), reporting profits that were up 53% on last year's.

Google 'Fast Fashion' and you won't receive a favourable impression: "Why I'm giving up fast fashion', or "How to break up with fast fashion" are a couple of recent headlines. Films like The True Cost (2015) or Stacey Dooley Investigates, Fashion's Dirty Secrets (BBC3), that expose the sinister reality of cheap clothing are widely available to watch. However, the statistics paint a different picture: the Fast Fashion market is booming, which begs the question - why is this kind of clothing still so popular among consumers despite high-profile negative press?

In the first of a three-part blog series, I'm going to explore what exactly is Fast Fashion, how it has developed since its 'birth' in the 1990s and what paradox makes it so popular among consumers despite the damaging truths that have been exposed about it. 


Key facts about Fast Fashion:

  • 62 million tonnes of clothing are consumed globally each year [Traid]
  • This figure is expected to rise by 63% by 2030 to 102 million tonnes [Traid]
  • In the UK alone, 350,000 tonnes of clothing was sent to landfill in 2018, 30% of all unwanted clothing [Clothes aid]
  • The term 'fast fashion' was coined by the New York Times when Zara first opened in New York in the early 1990s [The Well Essentials]
  • 52% of UK and US shoppers want to see more sustainable practices in fashion, but only 29% want to pay more for it [Forbes]

What is 'Fast Fashion' and why is it so bad?

We hear this term a lot, but what does 'Fast Fashion' actually mean?

Let's start with a definition. The Cambridge Dictionary defines 'Fast Fashion' as: 

"clothes that are made and sold cheaply, so that people can buy new clothes often". 

This definition suggests Fast Fashion is an enabler, it's a system that allows people to achieve something. In this case, it's 'buy new clothes often', which is a claim that some may argue is a positive. Democratising fashion, making it more widely available to people who cannot afford to spend vast sums on clothing is probably the strongest (and perhaps only) argument on Fast Fashion's pro side. However, those who argue for this side are not likely to fully appreciate the extensive negative side effects of making clothing available on such an extensive scale, nor at such a low cost. 

So how does it actually work?

Fast Fashion is a term specifically applied to the production model that allows retailers to manufacture and sell clothes at lightning speed, capitalising on humans' need to be fashionable and acquire stuff for social status reasons. The system takes advantage of the traditional fashion calendar, which drives forward new trends in clothing, and takes it to extremes, with more than 52 "seasons" now being turned over every year. The production model compresses every process involved in making clothes with the sole aim of getting products in front of customers as quickly as possible. At every stage of the supply chain, corners are cut, and although the system is now highly evolved, it remains fractured and is heavily reliant on low-tech human input to make it work.

What really is terrible about this model, which could arguably be said to have started as simple supply-and-demand, is that it produces excessive quantities of garments that no human could possibly consume sensibly. And in turn, the constant availability of fashion at prices as low as a cup of coffee in some cases is instilling a convenience mentality about how the fashion system should work for us - i.e. if it's not available immediately, then it's almost not worth the bother!

In addition to this, the high volume of clothes produced by the industry, paired with the poor quality manufacturing and cheap materials used to make them, lead to short lifespans and very little circularity in the system. People discard clothing almost as much as they consume it - and this is not the only source of fashion's big waste problem. Manufacturers are also guilty of dumping huge quantities of unsold stock or batches that have mistakes

Where did Fast Fashion come from?

The growth in the ability to manufacture clothing on such vast scales has correlated with human's decline in understanding of how clothing is made, where clothing fabrics come from and how they are manufactured, and how to repair and maintain garments for longer lifetimes. 

The abundance of cheap, mass-manufactured, ready-to-wear clothing in the 1960s democratised the previously stuffy and elitist fashion industry. No longer did one have their clothes tailored or made up by a seamstress or a home sewing machine, but instead younger consumers flooded into stores on the high street packed with cheap and cheerful dresses in every colour. The quality was notoriously abysmal. Clothing from the famed BIBA, for instance, today revered for its vintage glamour, was known for falling apart after just a couple of wears.

The 1960s was when shopping really took off as a hobby among young people too and the notion of buying new became associated with status, no matter the price tag of the garment. 

Fast Fashion today plays on human weakness for new shiny objects in much the same way. The phenomenon can be traced back to Zara's first opening in New York in the early 1990s and was coined by the New York Times to describe the drastically sped-up production model that allows a look from Fashion Week to quickly be available in high street stores. 

Over the years, we have seen companies push copycat fashion culture to the extremes. The trend today seems to be a constant release of new styles, intended to keep up with the influx of images offered up to the world by celebrities, influencers and everyday fashionistas on social media and blogs. It's now part and parcel for companies to track trends on a granular level. [See our Masterclass on Trend Forecasting for in-depth insight into how this system works.]

Fast Fashion retailers are using the immediacy of the online world in new and clever ways, often following up on ideas so quickly that they admit to throwing out strategy in their business decisions. Within 24 hours, some brands are copying styles seen on influencers' social media accounts and turning them into design samples, with marketable collections following within the next two weeks. Others are working with influencers in paid promotional gigs to launch collections that are available to purchase from the moment the look goes live on a blogger's Instagram feed. 

The popularity of Fast Fashion - despite the negative press

With environmental concerns increasingly making the headlines each year, it's not unreasonable to think that practising more eco-friendly lifestyles is going hand-in-hand with this heightened awareness. However, last year, a report into UK and US online shopping habits exposed the harsh reality of 52% of consumers wanting more sustainable practices in fashion, but with only 29% saying they would be willing to pay more for it. 

That shortfall between the groups is the best explanation for why Fast Fashion is not losing its momentum just yet. Cost is a crucial factor for consumers, particularly those in the younger age brackets. The high cost of living today makes quick and small purchases more attractive to young consumers when the perception is generally that homeownership and even starting a family are off the cards for them. The likes of Boohoo and Misguided are succeeding in attracting young shoppers through influencer partnerships and heavily targeted social media advertising. Owning items from their latest collections also succeeds in creating a sense of community. People are able to share their own styles, tagging their favourite brands and celebrity idols - making them feel a part of something simply by purchasing a £5 dress.

Beyond cost reasons, accessibility is also a big influencer on Fast Fashion's popularity. With increasingly busier lifestyles, the ability to have a dress delivered at the drop of a hat after finding it a mere 15 minutes earlier is a very appealing prospect for most people. Fast Fashion retailers, with their vast array of products - and often their ability to pay for high search rankings - make them highly visible in the eCommerce space. 

Furthermore, people will always like the process of acquiring stuff. Possessions are how we distinguish ourselves from our neighbours; fashion is inherently a method of demonstrating to the world who we are through an accessory or colour choice. It will be a long time before anyone is able to stamp out this instinct in human nature.

I would go so far as to call Fast Fashion an addiction - it is an inherent problem in our society and shapes the way most people in the Western world shop. Despite people knowing the negative consequences of buying cheap garments, they will continue to do so as long as they are widely available. What we can do, is to continue to spread awareness of the issues the Fast Fashion industry cause. 


Stay tuned for my next blog post, where I'll be addressing the negative impacts Fast Fashion has on the environment and the choices we can encourage consumers to make to reduce them.

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