By Katrina Froelich

Fast fashion is defined by Vogue as “an accelerated system of clothing production that promises a quick turnaround of trends at low prices and is reliant on a supply chain that snakes through some of the lowest wage economies on Earth.” Fast fashion merchandisers like Forever 21 or Zara focus on speed and low costs in order to frequently deliver new collections at incredibly affordable prices.

Right now, fashion cycles are moving faster than ever; what used to be four seasons in a year has quickly become 11 or more. The top fast fashion retailers grew 9.7 percent per year over the last five years, topping the 6.8 percent of growth of traditional apparel companies, according to the financial holding company CIT. Fast fashion is growing, and with that growth will come inescapable environmental and humanitarian consequences. Here’s what you need to know:

Environmental Impacts Of Fast Fashion

According to Forbes, consumers purchase 400 percent more clothing today than they did a mere 20 years ago. Part of the increase in clothing can be attributed to the decrease in price and the increase in access -- you don’t have to leave your room to find the perfect affordable outfit. All of this means that people are buying more clothing than ever, and more clothing means more waste.

According to the EPA, textile waste occupies nearly five percent of all the landfill space. And textile waste generation keeps on increasing. According to the EPA, textile waste increased from 14.33 million tons in 2012 to 15.13 million tons in 2013. Fast fashion has a huge environmental impact because there is such a high turnover between collections, with companies often throwing away previous collections to make room for the new ones. That’s not to mention the clothing that get thrown away after a single use (we’ve all bought a $5 H&M top that rarely saw the outside of our closets). Furthermore, the clothing is not made to last long, so even when pieces are purchased and  worn multiple times, they are designed to fall apart and be thrown away, creating the need for more.

Fast fashion’s issues begin before pieces are even distributed. In her book Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, Elizabeth L. Cline writes that the fiber production now takes roughly 145 million tons of coal and between 1.5 and 2 trillion gallons of water. We’re already seeing countries like China and India experience water shortages.

Human Rights Impacts Of Fast Fashion

Child labor and extremely low wages are still a huge problem in the fashion industry. According to UNICEF and the International Labor Organization, an estimated 170 million children are currently working in the clothing industry all over the world. The employment of child labor may not be limited to fast fashion, in particular, but as the demand for cheaper clothing continues to increase, the demand for cheaper (and often exploitative) labor practices increases as well.

It’s not just child labor that’s a problem, though. Workers are paid in barely livable wages, which can lead to not only an uncomfortable life, but an unsustainable one. The math is pretty easy to do once you think about it, as Laura Heller writes in her article “The Real Cost of Fashion” for Forbes. “How can a retailer [specifically Forever 21] sell camisoles for $1.80 and T-shirts for $3.80? Bangladesh comes to mind," she writes. "Fast fashion chains are expanding quickly. H&M, Gap and Fast Fashion’s Uniqlo are all opening stores in China at a brisk pace.”

But what should we do? It’s really hard to ask someone to give up the economic ease that fast fashion provides. Keeping real economic setbacks in mind, “slow fashion” can be seen as a luxury but there are more affordable ways to shop sustainably. Second-hand stores are a great way to give clothes a second life and to reduce textile waste. There are also new clothing services (The Stylist LA or Rent The Runway) that allow you to rent clothes, rather than purchasing them. Rental services, however, present their own set of challenges. On one hand, renting a slow fashion item usually means that there was more care in producing said item, and that items won’t be discarded after one use. On the other hand, the rapid shipments that these services entail can have harmful environmental impacts.

It’s important to note that second-hand shopping might overtake fast fashion. A report by U.S reseller ThredUP is estimates that resale fashion will soon overtake fast fashion, with an expected market worth of $41 billion USD by 2022. (It should be noted that the report might come from a biased source as ThreadUP is a fashion resale website). The report does provide some hope however. It seems that consumers are moving toward a more sustainable way to shop.


So What Does This All Mean?

Basically shopping with a conscience isn’t easy, and the current market is specifically designed to make it that way. Companies lure the consumer in with low-cost pieces that are “on-trend” and available immediately. While the consumer might be under the impression that they are saving money, they actually aren't. By buying cheaply produced clothing -- that isn’t designed to last more than a couple months -- the consumer ends up spending more money. Laura Jones of Huffington Post actually did in experiment and found that she ended up saving money by shopping ethically. In her article “How I Somehow Saved Money When I Started Spending More On Clothes” she writes “When you are in the habit of buying pieces that push the limit of what you are comfortable spending, you usually spend much more time deliberating over whether you truly need it. It’s amazing when you take the time to assess the value of something in your life how often you’ll decide you actually don’t. And really, that just means more money in the bank for the item you find that you truly fall in love with.”

The clothes that are affordable, easy to find, in stock, and available for free shipping are usually from fast fashion outlets whose clothes come with huge environmental and human rights impacts that ought to be considered.


Katrina Froelich is the Fashion Editor at Tough to Tame. She’s worked in the fashion industry for over four years, gaining experience in PR and Editorial work at companies such as GUESS and Forme. You can reach her at katrinafroelich@toughtotame.org