"Fast Fashion" was coined in fashion retail to describe the quick turnover of designs that move from the catwalk to current fashion trends, and became extremely popular in the early 2000s. Some of the largest brands in the fast fashion sector include: Zara, H&M, ASOS, Forever 21, Urban Outfitters, Fashion Nova, Uniqlo and many more. These brands have an incredibly quick design to market cycle and release a number of collections a year, focusing on mass production, low prices and incredibly high volume. The rise of fast fashion has been met with reciprocal rising consumption; the more these brands produce, the more we consume. This vicious cycle has led to the fashion industry becoming the world's second largest polluter (in terms of carbon emissions), second only to the fossil fuel industry. While acknowledging the flaws of the fast fashion industry is helpful, consumers must also acknowledge the flaws in their consumption habits in order to effect change.
The success of fast fashion must be considered from multiple angles. While brands and consumers have played a significant role, globalization, culture, technology, trade agreements and regulations are all integral factors to understanding this phenomenon in its entirety.
In 1980, China's most favorable nation status was instated by the United States, creating a reciprocal trade agreement between the two. In 1979, China's state run foreign trade corporations lost their monopoly, and thus new manufacturers began importing and exporting goods with foreign countries. This greatly increased China's economic power as foreign currency was used to develop industry in particular manufacturing zones. The 1980's mark the beginning of the exodus of American made consumer goods into China and other foreign nations. During the 1960's, 95 percent of all clothing worn in the US was made in America; during the 1980's, this figure dropped to 80%.
The 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) removed or limited all trade barriers between North American countries. Inexpensive labor in Mexico drove more manufacturing jobs to Mexico. Although it has been cited that NAFTA has had a generally positive effect on the average consumer, many jobs moved out of the United States. Today, a mere 2 percent of Americans’ clothes are made within domestic borders.
United States companies are not alone in their desire to move labor into more inexpensive markets. Manufacturers continue to chase cheaper labor and fewer regulations to increase margins and scale their businesses. This fact, met with increased technology in communication, logistics and transportation have all been catalysts to the rise of fast fashion. Consumer demand for cheaper products has driven these changes as well. In the fashion industry particularly, there is an ever present race to the bottom. The consumer price index on all goods has risen by 70 percent since the 1990s, while the price of apparel has decreased by 6 percent (adjusting for inflation).
The business models of fast fashion companies relies on mass consumption, inexpensive labor and revolving demand. Zara, the largest player in the sector has a design-to-retail cycle of about five weeks and introduces more than 20 different collections a year. This results in 18,000 designs each year, each design amounting 30,000 units. Fashion Nova’s CEO has said that it launches about 600 to 900 new styles every week. Designs that don't sell are quickly replaced with newer styles. 10 to 15 percent of the 150 billion garments made every year go straight to landfills pre-consumer.
Americans can’t stop buying clothes: the average consumer today purchases almost three times as one in the mid century. Clothing production from 1994-2014 rose 400%, to 80 billion garments each year. As prices for clothing continue to decrease, consumption will continue to rise. For context, in the 1950s if a woman wanted to purchase a ready-made dress, she could spend about $9 (or about $72 today) to order an item from a Sears catalog. Today, a shopper could walk into Forever 21 and buy a simple dress for about $12. Consumers are purchasing more clothes as the price continues to drop, and are keeping the clothes for less time. A survey conducted in the UK determined that British consumers will spend up to 2.7 billion pounds on clothes during the summer that’ll only be worn once.
The goal of our research is to bring awareness to the evils of a disposable society. Consumers are playing into the game of the fast fashion business model and the repercussions are going to remain for generations.
How to Be a Better Consumer
We have assembled a simple list of actionable measures to take to become a better consumer. This list is not comprehensive, but is a great starting point for those of us looking to make a change for the better in terms of our consumption of fashion products.
- Buy only what you need, and buy higher quality garments that will last longer.
- Brands that embrace this: American Giant, Patagonia, Outdoor Voices, and many more.
- Made in the USA (or wherever you live).
- B-Corps (for profit companies that are legally obligated under their incorporation status to follow ethical and environmental guidelines)
- Wash Less, Wash Cold, Hang Dry
- Washing and drying clothes is the most resource intensive element of the life of a garment, more so than manufacturing or shipping
- Washing cold and hang drying clothes keeps the garments lasting longer. This shouldn’t be reserved for just “delicate” or expensive pieces.
- Donate, trade, or sell your clothes you don’t want anymore.
- Shop vintage / secondhand clothing.
- Learn to mend and repair your garments
- Shop local to reduce the environmental impact of the supply chain
- Use your purchasing power to vote for the companies and products you think should exist.