Fast fashion, a three trillion-dollar industry, is ruling the apparel marketplace, changing the way consumers shop, and thus changing the fashion industry as a whole. Fast fashion refers to the growing trend of low-cost clothing collections that mimic current fashion trends and are produced in as little as three weeks, and is founded on consumers’ desire to wear the latest trends in fashion at affordable prices. Many in the traditional fashion industry view this phenomenon as disposable fashion since the trend is based on quick to market, low quality apparel that quickly obsoletes itself as fashion trends come and go. It’s estimated that consumers are buying 3 to 4 times the amount of apparel they did in the 1980’s, but disposing of it at an equally accelerated rate. A few major retailers of fast fashion include Topshop, Zara, H&M and Forever 21. The industry of fast fashion (or McFashion as it is referred to in some circles) is rooted in the 1980’s manufacturing model called “quick response.” As technology and manufacturing advancements are made, along with the minute-by-minute responsiveness of the internet, fashion has gotten “faster” in the last three decades.
Several studies of fast fashion have been done, including a popularly cited study by Cambridge University in 2006. They reported that fast fashion gathered pace from the end of the 1990’s when brands began to look for new ways to increase profits. Globalization had grown rapidly in the 80’s and 90’s – paving the way for value and mid-price brands to shift the bulk of their production to the developing world. A few fashion companies re-examined their supply chains and developed a system which several other brands then followed. They segmented their supply chain, keeping basic items manufactured in the far east but brought the production of the more high fashion items closer to home. Consumers reacted positively to this trend which in turn has resulted in the widespread speeding up of fashion – giving rise to fast fashion. They reported that in 2006, the population was buying a third more clothes than they were in 2002, and women had four times as many clothes in their wardrobe than they did in 1980.
The most recent -study was conducted by the University of Notre Dame in 2012, and focused more on the dissonance in consumers regarding this industry. They imply current consumers and upcoming generations (they focused on the Millennial generation) are more conscious of the sustainability concerns, yet still participated in the fast fashion marketplace. These sustainability issues include the use of toxic chemicals, increase in water consumption, vast increase in consumer waste, poor and fatal working conditions, wages well below a realistic living wage, and other environmental and social concerns. The fast fashion industry is viewed as one of the dirtiest industries in the world, next to Big Oil.
With the uprising trend of fast fashion, a new movement has come to light: slow fashion. Movement activists insist that “slow fashion” is not the antithesis of fast fashion, but can be seen as “mindful consumption;” a movement that encompasses education surrounding the fashion industry, celebration of unique personal style and mindful selection of quality rather than quantity consumption. However, as the Notre Dame study proved, a very small percentage of the population are participating in this movement, and the incongruency of consumer actions versus beliefs have remained.
For a deeper understanding of the ethical issues surrounding fast fashion, a plethora of information is available including the aforementioned studies and an award winning documentary, “The True Cost” (currently available on Netflix).