Artificial hype, influencer marketing, and fleeting discounts – fast fashion uses marketing as a weapon to sell us as much clothing as possible. This, however, comes at a cost, sacrificing the health of consumers, garment workers, and ultimately, the planet.
Whether you’re seeking to shop more consciously or dismantle the consume-discard cycle, you should know how transnational corporations operate. In this guide, you’ll find out why fast fashion remains an unethical choice. So, let’s dive right into it.
Is Fast Fashion Unethical?
Fast fashion is considered an unethical choice, as it harms garment workers, the environment, and society. With low-cost production and synthetic fabrics, fast fashion encourages workers’ exploitation, generates irreversible textile waste, and promotes overconsumption.
1. Modern Slavery
While consumers in the Global North indulge in fashionable pieces, workers in the Global South suffer in inhumane working conditions. Bargain-priced clothing means making sacrifices – either in wages, working hours, or working conditions.
In other words, while fast fashion is cheap, it always involves a human cost. Unfortunately, the latter falls upon the most vulnerable demographic in the world – predominantly female workers coming from disadvantaged communities.
Undermining Women’s Rights
80% of garment workers worldwide are women. This means that fast fashion is leeching off of female labor, forcing women aged 18-24 into hostile working conditions.
According to Remake, any young women start working in garment factories as young as 14. These women spend an average of 14 hours in sweatshops, where they face sexual harassment, excessive workload, psychological pressure, and physical abuse.
A study conducted by the Fair Wear Foundation found that nearly half (43.1%) of Vietnamese garment workers have “suffered at least one form of violence and/or harassment.” From threats around contract termination to long working hours, workers tackle various levels of abuse – with migrant workers and younger women facing the harshest measures.
2. Synthetic Materials
As you ponder upon the question, “is fast fashion unethical”, think about all the garments in your closet – are they fully made of natural materials? If not, you may be getting bombarded with toxic chemicals, coming out of polyester, nylon, fake leather, and other synthetic materials, on a regular basis.
Believe it or not, fabrics have a direct impact on our health. Many pervasive chemicals lurking in fast fashion clothes enter the bloodstream as we wear them. These notorious chemicals include chromium, PFAS (also known as “forever chemicals”), flame retardants, formaldehyde, and antimony trioxide, which roam free in our garments in the absence of safety regulations.
A Body Burden of Chemicals
What’s the cumulative effect of it all? The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducted blood studies in 2001, finding that every U.S. resident bears the toxic burden of 700 or more synthetic chemicals. What’s more, a recent study by Environmental Working Group (EWG) has detected the aforementioned PFAS, also known as “forever chemicals” that are often present in athletic clothing, in umbilical cord blood samples.
This proves that fast fashion’s pervasive chemicals not only breach into your bodies but also may travel to fetuses, passing on to future generations through the womb.
Harmful even in small amounts
Some may argue that fast fashion doesn’t pose threats to consumers, as the chemicals found in clothes come in tiny amounts. However, the phenomenon of bioaccumulation disproves this – in the long run, even tiny levels of chemical exposure can snowball into major health concerns.
Besides, chemicals like PFAS are designed to persist in various environments, meaning they hardly ever break down. Once bioaccumulated, they not only get trapped in human body fat but also react with other chemicals, leading to synergistic toxic effects. These effects may lead to Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS), a disorder caused by petroleum-based products and chemicals, such as cleaning products, pesticides, carpets, gas exhaust, and most importantly, fast fashion clothing.
Fast fashion has been rewiring our brains to embrace change, shifting from seasonal collections to constant updates. As Dr. Sass Brown, the Founding Dean of the Dubai Institute of Design and Innovation, mentions, the fashion world needs a “cultural shift to ween consumers off their addiction to disposable trends.” She further compares fast fashion to smoking, claiming that a similar push is needed to get rid of the trend-chasing addiction.
In the recent decade, trends have been speeding up. As FIT Museum Director, Valerie Steele, claims, in the past “[trends used to change] more in terms of details like sleeves and decorations. But fashion even today doesn’t really make radical changes.”
That is to say, in today’s fashion, trends switch up major details in design, such as entire silhouettes, hemlines, cuts, and proportions. These changes rotate so fast that they never end up defining an era – instead, they result in temporary niche “style tribes” and subcultures, which cling to their individual tastes in trends, dictated by their fast fashion echo-chambers.
When did trends first emerge?
In the past, trends used to be far more theatrical and extravagant than they are now. In the early 1770s, women used to wear wigs so tall that you could only reach it by standing on a chair.
However, industrial revolution amplified the concept of trends even further. Drifting away from home methods, factories produced clothing quickly and affordably. This made trends more commonplace and convenient to follow.
The abundance of factory-made clothing began to signal social position, wealth, and status. According to social commentator, Thorstein Veblen, the main driver of fashion represents social mobility. Fast fashion, therefore, is nothing but a sartorial exhibition of excess, as people display their ability to splurge on and discard clothes heedlessly.
4. Aesthetic Flattening
Many consumers keep wondering whether digital-first brands like Cider, Shein, and Aritzia qualify as fast fashion, focusing on their underlying sustainability practices – whether it’s about fair labor, sustainable materials, or community-giving. However, when it comes to fast fashion, the most important (and obvious) idea to consider lies in aesthetics, or a lack thereof.
Some may claim that fast fashion doesn’t have a consistent look, with brands quickly jumping on the trend bandwagon. To illustrate, H&M adapts to consumer trends with real-time design. Its product designers detect trends years in advance, transforming sketches into showroom centerpieces in a short time. Such rapid and flexible production strategy makes us think that fast fashion constantly evolves, offering us something fresh and exciting every day.
However, while taking a quick glance at modern-day influencers, as well as what everyday consumers wear, aesthetic flattening dominates the fast fashion world. A lack of authenticity is evident in the same silhouettes, cuts, and designs, which fast fashion brands churn out and consumers gladly purchase.
Who’s the fast fashion audience?
Fast fashion brands may vary their styles, however, their target audience remains the same – those who dress for the camera.
The social media algorithm celebrates highly-curated images of empty, homogenous style. On Instagram, the Explore page favors those following the dominant trends, showcasing superficial styles and poses, which aim at garnering attention from the audience.
Ultimately, social media boils fashion down to a mode of self-expression that’s devoid of uniqueness and authenticity. Hence, it’s no surprise that target audience of fast fashion is mainly people between 18 and 24 years of age, as they’re the most avid users of social media.
Trends Vs. Fads
Trends enter the market temporarily in cycles, which creates an illusion that fast fashion embraces novelty, whether it’s through colorful animal prints, lace, ripped jeans, or shoulder pads. However, these novelties don’t just break with tradition.
If we deconstruct trends, we will notice that they’re merely classic pieces, embellished with additional details and twists. For this reason, they may appear and disappear through decade-long cycles. Yet, when it comes to fast fashion, retailers introduce microtrends, also known as fads, which are either short- or ultra-short-lived. Faster than trends, they lure consumers in an endless chase of the next shiny object.
5. Planned Obsolescence
How do fast fashion brands retain their customers? Well the dark secret behind their production methods lies in planned obsolescence.
There are two reasons why fast fashion utilizes cheap fabrics. The first one is that they’re cheaper. The second one, on the other hand, is that they break down easily, forcing the consumer to buy more clothing.
In other words, when their poor-quality items disintegrate after a few weeks, consumers have nothing to do but return to fast fashion stores. Be it fading colors or sequins falling off, clothes no longer reflect longevity. Instead, they reflect the need to dispose items as fast as possible.
This buy-discard cycle puts immense pressure on our planet, with 12.8 million tons of clothes ending up in landfills in the U.S. every year.
Is Fast Fashion Unethical? What Disposability Culture Tells Us
Due to the rise of fast fashion, clothes have transformed from a long-term investment into a form of entertainment. In the past, people passed down their garments to newer generations. However, we no longer bother with upcycling, mending, or fixing our clothes, as brands always offer us fast, trendy, and convenient solutions.
Here are a few statistics, which reveals the scale of throwaway culture in 2023:
- Consumers wear each item of clothing 50% less than 15 years ago.
- Most people own an average of 148 pieces in their wardrobe.
- On average, shoppers wear clothes only 7 times before throwing them away.
Pro tip: to go against disposability culture, follow the #30WearsChallenge and commit to getting the most out of your clothes by wearing each garment for at least 30 times.
6. Rampant Overproduction
You probably have heard stories about fashion brands burning unsold stock. The purpose behind this was to boost their sense of exclusivity, refusing to sell unwanted items at a discount.
From Burberry to Louis Vuitton, brands destroy unsold merchandise, accessories, and perfumes, claiming to do it in an environmentally responsible manner. However, with the snowballing environmental crisis, production destruction must not be the industry standard. Quite the opposite – brands must minimize overproduction, and the first step is to refine the way brands forecast demand.
Apart from inflating demand for their products, fashion brands fail to gain genuine insight into what consumers truly desire.
Studies show that by the time products undergo sampling, the trend window becomes obsolete. As a result, the products lose their value. In fact, nearly 75% of retailers have struggled with this, unable to deliver a new style to the market quickly enough for it to take off. In other cases, retailers overestimate the volume they need, resulting in overstock and unsold inventory.
Overall, the industry’s demand forecasting model is flawed, as it leads to overstocking, slow manufacturing, and ultimately, overproduction.
Shifting away from the traditional two- or four-seasonal approach, fast fashion brands create weekly collections. As of now, they curate 52 micro-seasons every year, accelerating the fashion production cycle and encouraging consumerism.
Producing garments that look dated after a few weeks, retails fixate upon fact-paced novelty. For instance, a fast fashion retailer, Zara has even introduced bi-weekly updates of its collections, keeping its consumers constantly excited for something new.
How do we know that a particular brand is ethical? Perhaps, we assume its ethicality on their recent ‘conscious’ collection or a PR campaign, where they claim to empower garment workers overseas.
Regardless of their exact source, our assumptions about a brand’s ethicality always come from media messages, which can be twisted in many ways to uplift brands’ reputation.
Why does greenwashing happen?
The Covid-19 pandemic has placed our socio-economic, ecological, and political issues under scrutiny. As Leonie Schreve, global head of sustainable finance at ING, states, it has “accelerated the urgency of sustainability.” This, obviously, reflected in consumer preferences.
In a 2020 McKinsey US consumer sentiment study, more than 60% of consumers said they’d pay more for an item that comes in sustainable packaging. That is, they would like to support green products that minimize their carbon footprint. What’s more, 75% of consumers view sustainability as an extremely or very important question.
Is Fast Fashion Unethical? What Green Advertising Tells Us
Naturally, consumers’ environmentalists desires translate into their purchasing habits. More than 60% of shoppers recycle, purchasing products in eco-friendly packaging. This is where green advertising comes into play, as brands compete for the hearts of eco-conscious consumers.
Yet, rather than actually making their products eco-friendly, brands revert to greenwashing, deceiving consumers into thinking that their operations, goals, and products are sustainable. In other words, they aim at building a green reputation without living up to their sustainability claims.
As a result, retailers launch campaigns on illegitimate environmental narratives, misleading the consumer and playing upon their good conscience. Such misleading messages makes is more challenging for consumers to answer the question, “is fast fashion unethical?”, exacerbating our suspicions around green marketing.
Sustainable and green messages move many. Thinking that they can make a positive impact, consumers fall for eco-labels, such as “conscious”, “eco-friendly”, and “natural.”
Here are some of the ways in which fast fashion brands employ greenwashing:
- The hidden trade-off – Many fast fashion brands ban natural materials like fur, leather, and animal hair in order to label their products as “vegan.” Instead, they opt for synthetic fibers (e.g. synthetic, PU leather), which are far more dangerous to our health than any of the banned fibers.
- No proof – Posing claims that can’t be substantiated, fast fashion brands refuse to provide third-party audits or certifications to back up their sustainability labels.
- Vagueness – With their false recycling initiatives, fast fashion brands like H&M follow unsustainable practices while making poorly-defined claims and disseminating eco-half-truths.
- Irrelevance – In their sustainability reports, retailers claim to maintain health and safety measures, reject the use of child labor, or pay the minimum wage to their workers. However, this is required by law. Similarly, some brands set ‘net zero’ goals for the future, while refusing to provide verifiable commitments to sustainability.
- The lesser of two evils – ‘Recycled’ materials that still release microplastics during washing? Some brands urge consumers to settle for seemingly sustainable solutions, masking them as completely ethical.
- Green jargon – “Eco-preferred”, “responsible”, “vegan-friendly”, and “conscious” – there are some of the terms that brands throw around without third-party certifications.
8. Resource Usage
When it comes to resource depletion, fast fashion spawns immense ecological damage, be it the reduction in water quality or energy consumption. However, unlike other polluting industries, fast fashion generates irreversible waste. Here’s why:
Textile Waste That’s Impossible to Recycle
Where do our purchases go when we donate them? The common myth is that charities give them away, mostly selling them locally to disadvantages of communities. However, the truth is, they end up in landfills.
Due to the excess of donated clothes, charities are incapable of selling our unwanted merchandise. As a result, our unwanted pants, t-shirts, and shoes clog up rivers in the Global South.
To illustrate, Chile’s Atacama Desert, which now contains a giant overfill of clothes, serves as a grotesque embodiment of fast fashion’s impact. 5 million tons of textile waste, which never make it into clothing, in tandem with excess unsold inventory, accumulate in different places in the world.
Is Fast Fashion Waste Permanent?
Municipal landfills refuse to take in fast fashion clothes, as they can’t biodegrade and contain dangerous toxins. As a result, they end up in rivers, ports, landfills, and disadvantageous neighborhoods.
Fashion represents the second most water-intensive industry globally. It is responsible for consuming around 80 trillion liters of water annually, generating 20% of industrial wastewater.
The industry poses threats to water quality not only during manufacturing and production but also during post-production. A single household’s weekly laundry spreads thousands of microplastics, which harm the surrounding ecosystems, bioaccumulating in lugworm, bluefin tuna, swordfish and other forms of marine life.
9. Ultra Fast Fashion
The pace, at which the industry operates, has rendered the term, “fast fashion”, obsolete. Just when we start thinking that things couldn’t get any worse in 2023, ultra fast fashion has appeared, which runs on cheap manufacturing, instant trends, and accelerated production.
What is Ultra-Fast Fashion?
Fast fashion brands like Cider, Cupshe, JollyChic, Shein, and Temu have pioneered a new business model that relies on complex algorithms. Tech-enabled fashion, ‘ultra fast fashion’ offers rock-bottom prices – all while analyzing data on emerging trends and consumer preferences.
To illustrate, labeled by experts as “retail in real-time”, Shein harvests data from its customers, based on which it launches “new designs, in as little as three days.” As it introduces new items, the data allows the brand to predict how many items will sell out. Thanks to this, it eliminates all the guesswork in production, as the data dictates what, when, and how the brand should sell.
The Rise of Fast Fashion E-Commerce
Recently, a new fashion store, Temu, has even surpassed Shein, with its dirt-cheap items and notorious marketing. $1.00 for a necklace, $1.92 for sunglasses, and $1.29 for a lip gloss – Temu’s scurvy items do not involve a middleman. That is, the brand does not own the products listed on its website, however, it connects the consumer with the manufacturer, only taking care of the shipping.
While Shein works with 6,000 suppliers, Temu cooperates with 100,000 manufacturers. The latter claims that cutting out the middleman is the “next-gen manufacturing model” – the one that redefines the way we shop.
The direct-to-manufacturer connection, alongside its tech-heavy production strategies, ultra fast fashion is faster than ever in 2023.
Hundreds of years ago, all clothing in the world was bespoke and relied on manual workers, tailors, and dressmakers. Hiring a professional tailor was expensive and it only pertained to the elite.
This, however, has changed over time. With simple cuts and designs, modern-day factories produce clothing that’s ready-to-wear, making fashion more inclusive and convenient. The question is, however, how did the prevalence of clothing affect the way we view it?
Democratization of fashion
Seemingly, the greatest benefit of fast fashion appears to be democratization. Nowadays, anyone, regardless of their income level, can purchase items on Temu, Aliexpress, or Shein for a few dollars. That is, the upper echelons of society no longer can deny everyday people access to being fashionable.
Yet, while the average consumer spends less for clothes, he/she buys twice the amount. From 2000 to 2015, clothing prices have plummeted while their production has doubled.
Therefore, the large-scale accessibility of fashion has generated nothing but streams of textile waste, molding clothing into a disposable resource and a heedless form of entertainment.
Overconsumption – At The Expense of Nature and Society
With pieces that become outmoded in months (or even weeks), fast fashion has become a tragedy of the commons. On the production front, transnational corporations deplete human and natural resources to roll out new collections every week. On the consumption front, however, consumers happily permit this dynamic, fulfilling their ‘false needs’ through clothes – whether it’s showcasing their social status, seeking novelty, or boosting their self-esteem.
Compulsive Shopping: Cause & Effects
It’s undeniable that fast fashion brands leech off of our urge to overconsume. However, did you know that even a simple act of online ‘window-shopping’ could turn into a detrimental habit?
In the United States, 6% of women and 5.5% of men suffer from compulsive buying disorder. Labeled as an uncontrollable urge to shop, compulsive buying satisfies one’s subconscious desires. In some cases, it even helps people self-medicate for anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues.
To hide their shopping addiction from their loved ones, people often revert to digital devices. That is, they browse fast fashion stores for hours on end, deriving pleasure from looking at, as well as purchasing clothes.
Fast Fashion Cashing In…
Fast fashion traps many shoppers running on the hedonic treadmill. Pleasure after pleasure, brands accumulate profit from our purchases. However, our constant pursuit of the next shiny object results in nothing but unfulfillment. Paradoxically, buying more leaves us wanting even more.
But why is fast fashion so addictive? Many brands play upon the so-called ‘shopping joy’ and its constituent neurological processes. This happens for the following three reasons:
- Low prices make clothes extremely accessible, which removes all the barriers to entry when it comes to shopping addiction.
- Refreshing collections frequently, brands grant shoppers something new to desire every week, which triggers compulsive buying. In fact, novelty-seeking stands out as a key risk factor for addiction in both humans and animals.
- Getting bombarded with an array of trends, shoppers grapple with decision fatigue. By the time they review their shopping cart to check out, they’re already exhausted. Their willpower becomes weak, so they can’t resist making impulsive shopping decisions.
On average, Americans purchase 64 clothing items and more than 7 pairs of shoes, representing approximately 3% of their income dedicated to clothing expenses. Unfortunately, such excess in consumption progresses steadily. With the current pace of the industry, clothing sales are expected to reach 160 million tons by 2050, harming our planet even more.
Curbing Fast Fashion: Consumer Responsibility
You already know all the answers to the question, “is fast fashion unethical?”, however, what steps should you take to combat the industry? Well, it all starts with your mindset.
As eco-fashionistas, we should strive to shift away from constant consumption. This comes with lots of benefits, such as minimizing decision fatigue, embracing long-lasting classic designs, and refining our own aesthetic self-expression. By building capsule wardrobes that cultivate minimalist attitudes, we can discover that excess doesn’t equate sophistication. After all, capsule wardrobe allows for creativity, rather than trend-chasing – straying away from what’s ‘in vogue’, it makes you cherish your uniqueness and one-of-a-kind sense of style.
Moreover, rather than buying new, we all can embrace the 3 R’s: reuse, recycle, repurpose. The truth is, we all have unwanted clothing hiding in our closets, so why not transform them into something new? With beginner-friendly, no sew upcycling ideas, it’s easier than ever to turn our boring shirts into statement tops, old jeans into cute skirts, and frumpy sweaters into crop tops.
After all, sustainable fashion is all about fulfilling the potential of what you already own. So, get off the fashion hamster wheel and discover new, exciting ways to fall in love with your closet.