If you’ve been around the ethical fashion conversation for any length of time you may have heard the phrase ‘fast fashion’ thrown around. But what does ‘fast fashion’ really mean?
‘Fast fashion’ comes from the unsustainable practice of producing and purchasing clothing as if it were disposable.
This clothing tends to be high-volume, low-quality, and super-trendy. It’s the poorly made items that are meant to last one season, made by companies like Old Navy, Zara, Target, Forever 21, H&M, and Walmart. If you feel like you purchased an item cheap enough that you don’t mind throwing it away when it rips, odds are that the item is a result of fast fashion.
That clothes can be had for so little money is historically unprecedented.
Clothes have almost always been expensive, hard to come by, and highly valued; they have been used as an alternative currency in many societies. Well into the 20th century, clothes were pricey and precious enough that they were mended and cared for and reimagined countless times, and most people had only a few outfits that they wore until they wore them out.
In the past few decades, the cost of clothing has decreased dramatically. “Retailers today are now forced to sell exactly the same products for less than they did fifteen years ago. In 2008 the New York Times tracked the price of deflation in fashion and found that the price of Liz & Co. capri pants had fallen by a third and a Lacoste polo shirt by almost a quarter. A pair of Levi’s 501 jeans sells for $46 today, about $4 less than it was in the late 1990s, when adjusted for inflation. Of nine items that declined in price, the Times found that those that dropped the most were basics like underwear and t-shirts, by as much as 60 percent,” (Page 32, Overdressed; Eric, Wilson, “Dress for Less and Less,” New York Times, May 29, 2008). H&M’s $4.95 dress released in 2010 sparked the Vogue article, ‘Do I get a Coffee, a Snack, or Something to Wear‘? Is that something we should be asking?
Every other basic commodity has increased in cost over the years. Yet the price of clothing continues to drop.
What do we sacrifice so that clothing can be so inexpensive?
Money is saved in a number of places when you purchase a fast fashion item:
- Fabrics that are used in fast fashion clothing are lower quality, tending towards thinner fabrics with less natural fiber content and more polyester or other synthetic fibers. These lower quality fabrics are quicker to show wear, quicker to fall apart, harder to mend, and don’t hold their shape over time.
- Fast fashion clothing is produced with low quality construction methods. Sometimes this is done on purpose so that you will have to purchase more through a concept called planned obsolescence. For example:
- using thread that is too thick for the fabric so it will unravel or tear the fabric after several wears
- using the wrong type of machine stitch for the type of fabric (example: using a stitch that has no stretch on a stretch jersey fabric) – this leads to the thread ‘popping’ and unraveling
- sewing in buttons, zippers, or other notions without tacking thread when completed, leading to quick unraveling of these notions
- using fewer stitches per inch in the seams (wider gaps between stitches), leading to quickly unraveling seams
- not including extra buttons/sequins/other details in seams
- Many of these fast fashion companies have tremendous economies of scale, which means the orders they places are massive, enabling the factories to give them a lower price per item.
- There is little to no regard for matching patterns at the seams because it would take more fabric to achieve this detail. Overall, fast fashion has a lack of attention to detail because details take more time and money to achieve.
- Linings are left out of work pants, blazers, jackets, skirts, or other clothing items that would typically require a lining.
Most troubling, fast fashion companies cut costs by paying workers as little as possible. A huge savings occurs when workers are exploited through lack of a fair wage, unsafe work conditions, enslavement, or the use of underage workers. These workers are often hidden in the production chain when ‘brand approved’ factories contract work out to other factories that do not work directly with the brands.
Mass produced clothing or fast fashion, like fast food, fills a hunger and need, yet is non-durable, exploitive of the environment, dangerous to those in the garment industry, and wasteful.
We have discussed the reaction to fast fashion a little bit already. Slow fashion encourages taking time to ensure quality production, giving value to the product, and contemplating the connection with the environment. There are great companies that are springing up with models that are influenced by the slow fashion movement. We have so many options when we choose to spend our money!
We know this is uncomfortable information and that most of us rely heavily on fast fashion to fill our wardrobes. We encourage you not to feel overwhelmed or guilty, but to spend some time thinking about what you would like to do with this information. We will continue to discuss how to begin to move towards making more ethical decisions in a cost-effective way!
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