More and more is the discussion around the nasty side effects of consumerism growing, but so is the collective interest in cheap and accessible fashion. Understanding fast fashion is crucial to understanding what can be done to enjoy fashion ethically.
What is fast fashion?
Fast fashion is pretty much exactly what the name suggests. By having quickly made and quickly ownable items it has become one of the most popular forms of retail therapy. Fast fashion is generally seen as a cheap and easy method of purchasing the latest styles, without needing to break the bank. Shopping for clothes was once an event. Households would save their shops for occasions, saving up and buying essentials. This new form of consumerism has introduced the ability for a shopper to purchase cheap and trendy items, as and when they feel like it. High street brands such as Primark, H&M, and Zara are examples you may see in person, however online brands such as Asos, Missguided, and Boohoo have seen a sharp rise to popularity in recent years, providing high street fashion to customers, without the need to leave home.
Why is it popular?
The primary draw of fast fashion for many consumers is the simplicity of low-cost products. In January 2020, BBC News published an article outlining seven of the largest reasons for an increase in the cost of living on a global scale. This noted reasons ranging from fuel and energy prices hitting a seven-year all-time high, to skyrocketing shipping costs that have been driving up product prices to cover the cost increase. The rise of online marketing and cheap products has a certain charm for those impacted by rising prices and budgeted spending. Not only this, but online fashion brands hold a wider range of stock than many physical shops and offer the ability to purchase as much as you want without needing to leave your seat except to answer the door to receive the parcel containing your purchase. This method of retail is also good for the company, as shoppers are purchasing more items and visiting shops more often. In terms of profit, fast fashion sales are a huge contributor to overall profit.
What are the disadvantages?
For consumers, there aren't many immediately noticeable downsides, however, the cons do tend to outweigh the pros when considering the bigger picture. Criticisms of fast fashion suggest that cheaper products are made much more cheaply and therefore lead to a whole string of problems including:
Fast fashion encourages a throwaway culture, where the cheap pricing of products leaves a short lifespan for purchases. The first is cheaper production, which leads to poorer quality products that damage easily. Secondly, the ability to buy more items allows consumers to accumulate a wider selection of clothes to choose from, so items only get worn a few times before collecting dust and growing outdated.
Because of this, items get thrown away in larger quantities and much more often. Cheaply made items are over 60% synthetic in material, therefore not eligible for recycling, and do not biodegrade.
In terms of sustainability, fast fashion is a huge enemy to the environment. As of 2019, Greenpeace reported that 300,000 tonnes of clothes were being buried or burned at landfills each year. Synthetics take two centuries to decompose, leaving the ecological impact of fast fashion so huge that it is estimated that by 2050 it will take up a whole quarter of the globe's carbon budget.
Not only is it a threat to the environment, but a danger to workers. Many huge companies outsource their manufacturing to keep costs as low as possible on their end. Because of this, sweatshops and massively unethical methods of production make a large portion of what consumers purchase without a second thought. Household names of the fashion industry have been exposed for unfair treatment of workers. For example, H&M neglecting to pay 850,000 garment workers a living wage and GAP having a history of employing child labour.
If you wish to see a larger informative list of fashion companies that need to do better I recommend this article from Sustainability Chic.
Some helpful alternatives
There are still affordable ways to consume fashion. On a global scale, it may take re-thinking the consumer mindsets capitalist societies live by, but it is possible to change how we collectively impact the world as consumers.
Buy second-hand. Charity shops, vintage sales, or online sellers such as eBay, are good places to begin with second-hand clothing, and if you have clothes you don't need anymore, donating or selling on helps avoid that aforementioned throwaway culture.
Browse independent local sellers. Sometimes buying indie comes with an increased price tag, but it is much more ethical, and the price pays for not only the product, but the work put into creating it. Check out your local independent shops and markets if you don't know where to begin.
Explore Etsy. This can be a mixed bag in terms of affordability; however, it is always useful to browse and see what you may be able to purchase from independent sellers on the site.
Research online independent sellers. From jewellery to socks, there are artists and skilled craftspeople out there.
If you don't wish to spend more money, research how to upcycle or mend items worn down with wear and tear. It's a valuable skill.