Fast fashion is a modern phenomenon which is largely contributing to the very real crisis of climate change. It is doing so by promoting and encouraging an unnecessary amount of overconsumption that is resulting in an unprecedented amount of textile waste – which is currently destined to do nothing but lay buried in our earth for centuries to come. Fast Fashion initially began as a reaction to a consumer want for affordable clothing. But, since then, the tables have flipped. Big fast fashion giants such as BooHoo, H&M, ASOS, TopShop, etc., are creating a fast fashion frenzy of their own via the clever use of marketing combined with new technologies (such as online shopping, mobile apps etc), alongside regular heavily discounted sales. All three are commonly used together to convince consumers that they must have the latest X, Y and Z.
Fast fashion is a relatively new term used within society with the phrase only being popularized within the fashion industry throughout the early 2000s. In 2019, the term fast fashion has become something of a buzz word used to summarize the current disposable high-street trend and to describe the quicker speed of manufacturing of everyday apparel. These quick speeds of production constantly provide consumers with the latest trends, with catwalk replicas often available on the Highstreet just mere weeks or even days after they appear on the catwalks (Morgan & Birtwistle, 2009). But, not only does fast fashion give consumers a quick product turnaround, it does so at a very cheap price. This is due to the manmade, inexpensive, and ultimately low-quality fabrics that are used in the production of the clothing, (and also because of the cheap labour that comes with outsourcing that production to 3rd world countries). Combined together, all of these factors result in affordable, low-quality products.
The exceptional growth of fast fashion can be attributed to high impulse buying, an increase in retailers sourcing from low-cost countries from around the world, and a stark change in consumer attitudes “with the removal of the stigma attached to buying from value retailers”. Craig, et al (2000) also say that young consumers (18-25) care more about trends than any other age group and that they are the most active consumers of fast fashion (Craig, et al, 2000, pg.441- 453). In a 2017 report, it is claimed that by the year 2030, clothing consumption in the UK will have grown from 62 million tons to 102 million tons per year – which is equivalent to an additional 500 billion t-shirts (Global Fashion Agenda & The Boston Consulting Group, 2017).
Although the term fast fashion was only recently coined and widely understood for what it describes, the concept of providing consumers with cheap replicas of the latest catwalk trends has been present in British society since the 19th century (Bohdanowicz, 1994), just not at the excessively disposable, and outsourced rate which we are seeing today. The 19th century brought around technological advancements that were utilised within the fashion industry. Advancements such as the introduction of vertical knives, which enabled multiple layers of fabric to be cut simultaneously, and the introduction of electricity to power equipment (Welters, 2015, pg. 15), which enabled the quicker production of manmade “inferior textiles” (Farley et al, 2014).
In the book, Sustainable Fashion: Past, Present and Future, (Farley et al, 2014, Introduction, pg. XVII) it is said that by the 1940s a number of fashion designers had begun to “experiment with synthetic fibres”, (many of which will take hundreds of years from this day to biodegrade at best – other plastic-based materials will never be rid of) and natural materials such as cotton were started to be routinely grown with pesticides and fertilizers. This was done to enhance the speed at which they grew, to ultimately speed up the manufacturing process further and cater to the high demand for durable cotton. This method of growing cotton is still widely and routinely used in the industry today to continually meet and surpass the high demands for cotton throughout the fashion industry.
However, not only does this manufactured growth pollute the soil in which other produce and crops are grown, there is also a very high chance that the chemicals used in the fertilizer will also enter the nearby water systems, which in turn has the potential to severely affect the health of those living within close proximity to the growth site. And that growth site is unlikely to be in Britain, Europe, or any other western country. Statistically, it’s 3rd world countries who are left to deal with the consequences of the fast fashion industry.
By the 1950s and early 1960s, cheap throwaway fashion had begun to replace the before-seen classic styling of the era, as new man-made textiles such as spandex, vinyl and polyethene (All forms of plastic) began to be incorporated into new edgy fashion designs, such as women’s mini-dresses and jumpsuits (Welters, 2015, pg. 21), and men’s blazers and trousers. The demand for cheaper and faster fashion grew rapidly as the abundance of experimental designs and textures invited young consumers to experiment with different looks and edgy styles, all at a price that was lower than ever before. Upon realising its success, the fashion industry responded to the demand for more by churning out designer replicas and cheaper alternatives even faster (Morgan et al, 2009 pg.190-98). By the early 1990s, Bohdanowicz & Clamp, claimed that the fashion industry had grown and developed into being the 4th largest industry in the world, and more recent media from 2018, such as the BBC’s documentary: Stacey Dooley Investigates: Fashions’ Dirty Secrets, have made claims that the statistic is still as true today as it was back then. The BBC documentary also claims that the fashion industry is now the 2nd most polluting industry in the world with interviewee Lucy Siegle, a fashion journalist and researcher of sustainability, commenting that “there is credible evidence that suggests that garment apparel production is one of the top 5 polluters globally. It’s not sustainable, it’s on borrowed time.” (BBC, 2018).
Linda Welters suggests that the term and notion of sustainability has arguably been a part of the fashion industries repertoire since the 1960s after subcultures began to reject the mainstream styles of fashion and began to source second-hand clothing to wear in order to rebel against the constraints that a post-war rebuilding society had shackled them with, and to present themselves as the ‘alternative’. (Welters, 2015, Pg. 4) The act of reusing clothing wasn’t all that unheard of before this period of time but prior to this, wearing second-hand (also quipped as hand-me-downs) clothing was very telling of a person’s status and was not openly displayed.
During the pre-industrial era, fashionable clothing was reserved only for the elite due to the length of time and the cost it took to create fashionable garments. It was such a luxury that even those in the position to afford the fashion would savour their garments intensely by remodelling and reusing them time and time again until they become unusable. Then, the garments would be sold second hand to those who would repeat the process themselves. Welters goes on to comment that over the course of four centuries, sustainability has morphed from a necessary way of life into something of a choice in the modern era of plenty. (Welters, 2015, Pg. 5)
- BBC Documentary, “Stacey Dooley Investigates Fashions’ Dirty Secrets.” (2018) Onono, Emeka, director. Stacey Dooley Investigates Fashions’ Dirty Secrets, a performance by Stacey Dooley, season 1, episode 1, BBC, 2018.
- Bohdanowicz, Janet, and Liz Clamp. Fashion Marketing. Routledge, 1994.
- Craig A. Martin, Alan J. Bush, (2000) “Do role models influence teenagers’ purchase intentions and behaviour?”, Journal of Consumer Marketing, Vol. 17 Issue: 5, pp.441-453, https://doi.org/10.1108/07363760010341081
- Farley, Jennifer, and Colleen Hill. Sustainable Fashion: Past, Present, and Future. (2014) Bloomsbury
- Global Fashion Agenda & The Boston Consulting Group (2017). Pulse of the Fashion Industry. [online] Available at: https://globalfashionagenda.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Pulse-of-the-Fashion-Industry_2017.pdf
- Siegel, L. (2011). To die for (1st ed., p. 3). London: Harper Collins.
- Welters, Linda. SUSTAINABLE FASHION: What’s next? BLOOMSBURY, 2015.