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Let’s Define Fast Fashion—And Discuss Why We Need To Slow Down

“Fast fashion” is a buzz phrase in the sustainability world. But what does this term really mean? And as we continue to encourage the industry to move towards a more sustainable and ethical future, it’s helpful to know what we’re up against.

Fast fashion is a design, manufacturing, and marketing method focused on rapidly producing high volumes of clothing. Garment production utilizes trend replication and low-quality materials (like synthetic fabrics) in order to bring inexpensive styles to the public. These cheaply made, trendy pieces have resulted in an industry-wide movement towards overwhelming amounts of consumption. Unfortunately, this results in harmful impacts on the environment, garment workers, and, ultimately, consumers’ wallets.

But to better understand and define fast fashion, let’s first familiarize ourselves with the movement’s history and context. 

The History of Fast Fashion

Up until the mid-twentieth century, the fashion industry ran on four seasons a year: fall, winter, spring, and summer. Designers would work many months ahead to plan for each season and predict the styles they believed customers would want. This method, although more methodical than fashion today, took away agency from the wearers. Before fashion became accessible to the masses, it was prescribed to high society, and there were rules to be followed.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that a well-timed marketing campaign for paper clothes proved consumers were ready for the fast fashion trend. This resulted in the fashion industry quickening its pace and lowering costs. 

“It’s been customary for stores to have a towering supply of stock at all times, so brands don’t have to worry about running out of clothes.”

However, it wasn’t until a few decades later, when fast fashion reached a point of no return. According to the Sunday Style Times, “It particularly came to the fore during the vogue for ‘boho chic’ in the mid-2000s.”

Nowadays, fast fashion brands produce about 52 “micro-seasons” a year—or one new “collection” a week. According to author Elizabeth Cline, this started when Zara shifted to bi-weekly deliveries of new merchandise in the early aughts. Since then, it’s been customary for stores to have a towering supply of stock at all times, so brands don’t have to worry about running out of clothes. By replicating streetwear and fashion week trends as they appear in real-time, these companies can create new, desirable styles weekly, if not daily. The brands then have massive amounts of clothing and can ensure that customers never tire of inventory.

While brands like H&M, Topshop, and Zara have been the brunt of overproduction complaints, even luxury brands measure growth by increasing production. According to Fast Company, “apparel companies make 53 million tons of clothes into the world annually,” and the amount has surely increased since the article’s original release in 2019. “If the industry keeps up its exponential pace of growth, it is expected to reach 160 million tons by 2050.”

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