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What is fast fashion and why is it a problem?

Alex Crumbie explores the growing concern about the social and environmental impacts of the fast fashion clothing industry and sets out what's wrong with fast fashion.

Fast fashion is ‘fast’ in a number of senses: the changes in fashion are fast, the rate of production is fast; the customer’s decision to purchase is fast; delivery is fast; and garments are worn fast – usually only a few times before being discarded.

The rise of fast fashion has had devastating consequences, from its reliance on plastic fabrics and its enormous carbon footprint to its erosion of workers’ rights.

In this article we explain what we mean when we say ‘fast fashion’ and why it is so bad for people and the planet. 

What is fast fashion?

Fast fashion is widely considered to be low-quality apparel produced rapidly to follow current trends in the industry and sold at rock-bottom prices. Although the monetary cost is low, textile workers and the environment are paying a high price. Fast fashion is cheap because workers are not paid adequately. Clothes are poorly made, widely purchased, rarely worn and quickly thrown away.

The goal of fast fashion companies is to encourage people to spend more money on more clothes that they use for a shorter time. That's what makes them money.

Fast changing trends

Fashion brands have long used new styles and lower prices to attract customers, but previously brands would plan new ranges many months, even years, in advance. The pace of change was relatively slow and there were fewer products on offer. In comparison, fast fashion is focused on responding to ever-changing consumer tastes as quickly as possible.

For example, in the BBC’s 2020 ‘Breaking Fashion’ show we see Manchester-based fast fashion company, In the Style, reproducing a bodysuit worn by Kylie Jenner. The company manages to have the piece designed, manufactured and on sale within 10 days of the piece first being worn publicly by the celebrity.

The rise of fast fashion is intertwined with social media and celebrity/influencer culture. A celebrity posts a photo wearing a new outfit, and their followers want it, so fast fashion brands rush to be the first to provide it. Fast fashion brands often target young people - so called Gen Zs -, who have been brought up amongst social media and influencer culture. 

Of course, the flow of causality is not that simple: fast fashion brands are not simply reacting to consumer demand, they are also creating it. But the essential point is that these brands operate on the basis of constantly producing new lines of clothes to meet the insatiable and ever-changing consumer demand for all things new.

Man sewing material on sewing machine

Fast production

Faster changing trends means that producers are under pressure to manufacture clothes more and more rapidly. Factories are expected to produce new lines with only a couple of month’s notice, meaning that their workload - and therefore the amount of employment they can offer to workers - is unpredictable and insecure.

The drive to produce garments rapidly has led many UK fast fashion companies to reshore clothing production to the UK, where previously almost all clothing brands sourced from less-economically developed countries such as Bangladesh or Vietnam.

Leicester has become a central hub for clothing production and many of the scandals associated with workers’ rights in the UK have been found in factories in the city.

The exploitation of workers in fast fashion supply chains is partly the result of brands pressuring suppliers to produce clothes as cheaply and quickly as possible. We talk about this more below.

Fast sale and delivery

The low-cost of fast fashion items encourages fast sale. The average person in the UK buys 60% more clothing today than in 2000. We buy more clothes per person in the UK than in any other country in Europe, and our addiction has grown - with online searches for ‘cheap clothes’ increasing 46.3% during the first coronavirus lockdown. 

Even if you are out-of-pocket you can buy items using Klarna and other easy credit services. Its post-purchase payment options allow you to defer paying for your garment for 14 to 30 days, much like a payday loan.

Most companies also offer cheap deals for quick delivery. At the time of writing, Boohoo offered unlimited next-day delivery for one year for just £9.99.

Fast use

It’s estimated that the average item of clothing is worn just 14 times, and in 2019 The Guardian reported that one in three young women considered an item worn just once or twice to be old.

Much modern clothing is not made to last. Due to super-fast production, designs are generally not well stress-tested before sale, and cheap synthetic fabrics are used in order to keep costs low. Much of it will end up in landfill after only being worn a handful of times.

Five things you need to know about fast fashion

Which are the leading fast fashion brands?

It is important to note that most of the fashion sector has become ‘faster’ in recent years. As such, even the more mainstream, established brands will be ‘fast’ to some extent.What used to be called 'fast' fashion is now called 'ultra fast' fashion. However, there are some brands that stand out as much faster than the rest:

If a brand is offering vast numbers of ‘new in’ clothes (usually thousands of new items every day) and its products are super cheap, then it is a fast fashion brand.

France to ban fast fashion

France, with its celebrated and economically significant fashion houses, is taking the political lead in challenging fast fashion.

In March 2024, the French parliament approved a bill that targets fast fashion and ultra-fast fashion sold by online retail giants such as Shein and Temu to counter the fast fashion industry's environmental impact. It makes France the first country in the world legislating to limit the excesses of ultra fast fashion.

It will ban the advertising of certain ultra-fast-fashion companies – and penalise low cost items with a surcharge of €5 (£4.20) an item from 2025, rising to €10 by 2030, to cover their environmental impact. The bill would also mandate that fast fashion retailers include an item's reuse, repair, recycling and environmental impact near the product's price.

The bill states: "This evolution of the apparel sector towards ephemeral fashion, combining increased volumes and low prices, is influencing consumer buying habits by creating buying impulses and a constant need for renewal, which is not without environmental, social and economic consequences."

France will apply criteria such as volumes of clothes produced and turnover speed of new collections in determining what constitutes fast fashion.

“Shein offers 900 times more products than a traditional French brand,” it states, adding that the brand releases more than 7,200 new models of clothing per day, with a total of 470,000 different products available overall.

The problems with fast fashion 

What are the environmental problems with fast fashion?

The endless creation of new clothes comes with a heavy environmental price. Every year the sector requires 93 billion cubic meters of water, which is enough to meet the consumption needs of five million people, and is responsible for around 20% of industrial water pollution as a result of textile treatment and dyeing.

There are also numerous problems with the materials and processes used. For example, cotton production uses 6% of the world’s pesticides and 16% of insecticides. 

The industry also has a heavy carbon footprint, which is responsible for up to 10% of total global carbon emissions, more than the total form flying and shipping, and is estimated to increase by 50% by 2030.

The above problems affect the clothing sector more broadly, but one issue is particularly endemic to fast fashion: plastic.

How much plastic do clothes contain?

Not only does fashion heavily rely on fossil fuel for energy to produce their garments and transport them across the world, but a staggering 69% of all textile fibres are derived from fossil fuels, with projections indicating a potential for further expansion in the future. 

Polyester is the most widely used of these synthetic fibres and is now found in over half of all textiles produced. It is generally produced from polyethylene terephthalate, better known as PET, a type of plastic derived from crude oil and natural gas – also used to make items such as plastic bottles.

Changing Markets' research found that in 2015, polyester production for textiles alone was responsible for emissions of over 700 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent – similar to the annual GHG emissions of Mexico or 180 coal-fired power plants. This is projected to nearly double by 2030, reaching twice the GHG emissions of Australia.

The ubiquitousness of plastic in clothing means that the textile sector accounts for 15% of total plastic use; the only sectors that use more are construction and packaging. 

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, clothes release half a million tonnes of microfibres  – the miniscule bits of fabric that are released when clothes are worn, washed, or disposed of, that find their way into our bodies and the natural world - into the ocean every year, equivalent to more than 50 billion plastic bottles. 

These fibres have been found almost everywhere: from the summit of Mount Everest to the placentas of unborn babies. We still do not know the effects they may have.

Clothing made of recycled plastics

Many fashion brands are pledging to address the issue of the use of virgin plastics in clothing manufacture, a material derived from the fossil fuel industry. However, this is often by replacing it with recycled synthetics.

Many brands are making a song and dance about using recycled plastics for their clothes, but a recent report by the RSA found that the actual level of recycled content was pitifully low. Across four major online fast fashion brands, the use of recycled fabrics was a mere 4%.

Our analysis of Shein’s website found its recycled content was even lower, at only 0.5%, despite the brand claiming, “When selecting materials, we do our best to source recycled fabric, such as recycled polyester.”

Recycling plastics where possible has some benefits, but it does nothing to address the problem of microfibres

And this may well be from recycled plastic bottles but, as a 2021 Guardian article points out: “PET bottles are also part of a well-established, closed-loop recycling system, where they can be efficiently recycled at least 10 times. The apparel industry is 'taking from this closed-loop, and moving it into this linear system because most of those clothes won’t be recycled', said Maxine Bédat, Executive Director of New Standard Institute. "Converting plastic from bottles into clothes may actually accelerate its path to the landfill, especially for low-quality, fast-fashion garments which are often discarded after only a few uses.”

The fashion industry, governments and consumers need to act to slow down consumption and ensure that garments are sustainable at every stage of their life cycle, from fibre production, to manufacture, to end-of-life.

How much waste does the clothing industry cause?

With the growing popularity of fast and ultra fast fashion, there comes a growing amount of textile waste.

The amount of textiles being produced globally per person more than doubled from 5.9kg to 13kg over the period 1975-2018. 

Many of the clothes bought are thrown away after being worn just a handful of times: the industry produces an estimated 92 million tonnes of textiles waste annually, much of which is burnt or finds its way to landfill, while less than 1% of used clothing is recycled into new garments.

Often textile waste is exported and ends up being dumped in countries such as Ghana and Kenya.  The environmental impact of all these garments, often richly laced with industrial chemicals, is severe for local ecosystems when they are dumped in their billions.

Some of this waste consists of new items that never even reached the consumer – clothing lines that have become outdated and so are destroyed instead of sold.

Piles of clothes in desert
Image from AFP

Atacama clothing mountain highlights over-consumption

The shocking reality of fast fashion’s waste problem hit the headlines in November 2021 with an Agence France-Presse (AFP) report on the mountains of discarded clothing ending up in Chile’s Atacama Desert. A total of 59,000 tons of second-hand clothing is said to arrive in Chile for resale each year from Europe, the US and Asia. However, an estimated 39,000 tons is unable to be sold and ends up dumped in the desert.

The situation highlights the myriad of problems in the fashion industry. The over-consumption of new clothing means that even an increasingly thriving second-hand clothing market cannot keep up, and this is exacerbated by the amount of poor-quality clothing not suitable for resale.

While second-hand markets certainly play a huge role in reducing the carbon impact of clothing when replacing the purchase of new items, a system where clothing gets shipped around the world multiple times, only to be wasted anyway is clearly not sustainable.

Why is it bad for workers?

Wages and conditions

In order to offer clothes at ultra low prices, fast fashion brands need their costs to be low. One of the main ways of doing this is to drive down the wages of garment workers in the supply chain. 

For years, brands have ‘chased the cheap needle’ around the world, seeking countries with the lowest labour standards so that garment workers can be easily exploited. In recent years, many UK fast fashion brands have found the cheap needle closer to home, often in quasi-legal factories in cities such as Leicester.

In the UK, Boohoo has become somewhat the symbol of fast fashion’s worker exploitation problem. Numerous exposés have shown that while the pockets of Boohoo’s directors are bursting at the seams, the people who actually stitch the seams of its clothing are paid a pittance, with some found to have been paid under half the minimum wage.

The Levitt report, which looked in depth at Boohoo’s Leicester supply chain, found that “The allegations of unacceptable working conditions and underpayment of workers are not only well-founded but are substantially true.” Levitt also claimed that these problems were endemic to the system and likely found across Boohoo’s supply chain.

Worker exploitation is an essential part of the fast fashion model. If an item is very cheap, chances are that the person who produced it was paid little. 

The Ethical Fashion Report published in 2023, 10 years after the first edition, found that although there has been some progress for garment workers, overall change is still too slow. Their research found that at the current rate of progress, it would be 75 years before all companies are paying a living wage at even a minimum of one factory per company. The vast majority of clothing companies (84%) were not sourcing from any factories which paid a living wage.

Harassment of women

A 2022 report Unbearable Harassment: The Fashion Industry and Widespread Abuse of Female Garment Workers in Indian Factories, found that every single woman spoken to for the report (90), had either experienced or witnessed gender-based violence and harassment (GBVH) carried out by male supervisors and managers at the factories they worked at.

“Verbal, physical, and sexual harassment exists in every garment factory – not just this one. It existed before COVID, it exists during COVID, and it will exist after COVID...” Smita, Tamal Nadu.

The report goes on to state that:

"Violence on the factory floor cannot be dismissed as just a factory-level problem; rather, it must be understood as an industry-wide culture of violence driven by the business model of global fashion brands”.

Garment workers protest in Bangladesh
Garment workers protest in Bangladesh - Image by Clean Clothes Campaign

Awful conditions at a Shein factory exposed

A Channel 4 documentary broadcast autumn 2022 went undercover at a Shein factory to expose predictably awful conditions and exhausted, exploited workers.

The brand is also shown to copy designs from independent designers, rely on unpaid influencers for its marketing, and use manipulative sales techniques such as countdown timers and multi-buys to encourage overconsumption.

Yet the company is hugely popular and massively outsells its fast fashion rivals. Despite many similar documentaries and decades of campaigning on garment worker rights, it seems that cheap clothes are an addiction we just can’t break.

Check out our clothing guides to find some much more ethical options for new clothes, or choose second hand.

The climate impact of clothing

Update from COP28 on fashion

A decisive phase out of fossil fuels wasn't announced at COP28 at Dubai in December 2023, but it was the first time a COP had acknowledged the need to shift away from fossil fuels. The COP called on countries to contribute to “transitioning away” from fossil fuels and for the first time delivered an unmistakable message that the time is running out on the use of coal, oil and gas.

According to Changing Markets, the fashion industry shifted from the side-lines to a more prominent role in the discussions at this climate conference. Panels, interactive events, sustainable fashion show and Stella McCartney’s pavilion exhibiting sustainable and innovative fashion materials signalled a growing recognition of fashion can play in mitigating climate change.

Some notable announcements at COP indicated a step in the right direction. Bestseller and H&M Group pledged to invest in a major offshore wind project in Bangladesh. While the project is still at the very early stages of development, it underscores that fashion brands hold immense power to support their suppliers in a just transition away from fossil fuel, provided they follow through with substantial investments. 

HSBC committed $4.3 million to the Apparel Impact Institute’s $250 million Fashion Climate Fund, which received an initial $40 million from lead funders, including Lululemon and H&M Group. The aim of the fund is to identify and scaling tools to reduce carbon emissions in the supply chain. However, in light of the estimated $1 trillion is needed to finance the fashion industry’s decarbonization by 2050, these efforts represent a drop in the ocean of what’s necessary. The industry still has a long journey ahead to achieve substantial change.

The Fashion Charter

The Fashion Charter was set up with the support of UN Climate Change in 2018 to provide a pathway for the industry to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, in line with global efforts to limit warming to 1.5C. Other commitments in the Charter include sourcing 100% of electricity from renewable sources by 2030, sourcing of environmentally friendly raw materials, and phasing out coal from the supply chain by 2030.

Charter members are expected to publicly report progress against interim and long-term targets annually, via the Carbon Disclosure Project CDP, a not-for-profit charity.

The charter currently has 130 signatories including brands such as H&M, Primark, Levi’s, Chanel and Adidas. Unsurprisingly, none of these companies are ultra fast fashion companies.

However, while 90% of signatories to the Fashion Charter are engaging suppliers with their green objectives, this reduces to just 50% when considering the entire fashion sector. Approved Science Based Targets (SBTs) falls to 10% on a sector-wide basis and reporting of total renewable energy consumed falls to 39%. Verified scope 2 emissions disclosures fall to 16% on a sector-wide basis.

Fast fashion coming under pressure

Whilst the global fast fashion business model is still based on exploitative low wages, the brands themselves are now coming under increasing pressure.

Profits at fast fashion pioneers ASOS and Boohoo are tumbling whilst last year Missguided, one of the UK’s flagship fast fashion companies went bust, all largely as a result of the cost-of-living crisis that’s seen soaring costs of everything from cotton to shipping.

In 2022, the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority launched an investigation into whether eco-friendly and sustainability claims made by the fast fashion chains Asos, Boohoo and George at Asda constitute greenwashing.

Meanwhile over in Europe, the EU is stepping up its fight against throwaway culture by aiming to end fast fashion by 2030.

In an ambitious initiative launched last year, the EU announced its intention to vastly expand its clothing design rules on recycling and sustainability. In just seven years’ time, all textiles sold within the EU must be recyclable, free of hazardous substances and contain a high percentage of recycled fibres.

All these actions are clearly good news for the environment but the bottom line is that fast fashion still demands the exploitation of garment workers.

However, it’s important to remember that the problem is with the clothing companies, not with the clothing industry.

“We all need clothes and the clothing industry provides millions of jobs around the world from farmers who provide the cotton and fabrics to workers in garment factories,” says Heather Webb, a former researcher at Ethical Consumer who has since worked within the fast fashion industry as an ethical trade analyst.

“Big fashion brands are consistently treating the factories they buy from poorly and it’s the workers and environment who suffer,” says Fiona Gooch from Transform Trade that campaigns for a more ethical global trading system.

“We need a fashion watchdog to regulate UK garment retailers along the same lines as the existing supermarket watchdog that’s successfully reduced the unfair buying practices of the UK’s largest food retailers,” explains Gooch. “A fashion watchdog would reduce abusive and unfair purchasing practices of the garment retailers which would ultimately benefit garment workers.”

Whilst acknowledging that a fashion watchdog would be a good thing, Anna Bryher believes that it wouldn’t fix the problem of low wages within the clothing industry. What’s needed says Bryher is new legislation to enable clothing brands to be held to account for their unfair purchasing practices.

Heather Webb agrees. “We need government intervention in the market,” says Webb. “One of the key things that could improve both the pay and working conditions of garment workers is a law outlawing the unethical buying practices of clothing brands."

Improving fast fashion - slow fashion

Despite the pervasiveness of fast fashion, things are beginning to improve.

We are wearing clothes for longer

New research from WRAP has found that compared with similar research carried out in 2013, we are wearing our clothes for slightly longer. Jeans, for example, now have a longevity of just over four years, compared to just over three in 2013. The research also found that more than half of us are happy to buy second hand clothes; nearly 60% of us put a lot of effort into maintaining our clothes; and that a similar proportion look for ways to repair clothes when they’re damaged.

The WRAP research also estimates that the UK's wardrobes hold 1.6 billion items of unworn clothes, an average of 31 items for each adult. And yet we’re still spending more than £4 billion on shopping for clothes each month. WRAP makes the point that as textiles and fashion are responsible for between 4% and 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions, we need a revolution in our clothing habits to make our wardrobes sustainable.

Circular clothing industry

The purpose of the WRAP research was to understand the population’s receptiveness to circular business models for clothing. These included second hand, upcycling, subscription, rental (pay-per-wear) and repair (where a brand repairs an item of clothing a customer has purchased from it for a fee).

WRAP found that 40% of people are likely to use a subscription service and that 58% are open to using a repair service. Among those who have already used a circular business model, the majority said they would do so again.

WRAP argues that this shows there is a clear case for clothing brands and retailers to adopt circular business models.

Read the full WRAP report into clothing longevity on their website and read tips on repairing and buying second hand in our article on upcycling and buying second hand clothing.

Buying secondhand clothes

Our own 2023 Ethical Markets report found that sales of secondhand clothes rose by 49% in 2022 compared to the previous year.

Other surveys have spotted the same thing. According to GlobalData's figures, the clothes resale market in the UK grew by 149% between 2016 and 2022. They forecast that it would grow by a further 67.5% between 2022 to 2026.

Some of this growth will be due to the ending of Covid 19 lockdowns and the consequent rise in charity shop sales. Some will also be due to a genuine change of behaviours. The Guardian reported that there were “signs that the popularity of fast fashion is on the wane”. The boom in pre-loved clothes has largely been driven by generation Z. 

A research project by Boston Consulting Group and resale site Vestiaire in 2022 showed that this demographic of consumers was most likely to buy (31%) and sell (44%) second-hand items, with millennials close behind. Depop reports that 90% of active users are under the age of 26 and the hashtag ‘vintage’ has 28.7bn views on generation Z’s favourite app, TikTok.”

Some of it will also be due to more suppliers and innovators entering the market. In 2022, it was reported that eBay saw a 24% increase of circular fashion businesses join their site, and searches for pre-loved clothing on eBay UK skyrocketed 1,600% during that period. 

Our Ethical Clothing guide looks at clothing resale websites as well as the usual ethical innovators we have been featuring for years. We have also reviewed charity shops, which saw an 11% rise in sales in the three months to the end of September 2022, with Oxfam’s sales up 40% in the run-up to Christmas 2022.

Read the full WRAP report into clothing longevity on their website and read tips on repairing and buying second hand in our article on upcycling and buying second hand clothing.

UK Government report on fast fashion 

In 2019 the UK Government published a report on fast fashion and sustainability. The Environmental Audit Committee published 'Fixing fashion: clothing consumption and sustainability', with a number of recommendations. Their report is available on the UK parliament website.

What can you do about fast fashion?

  1. Buy consciously and look for ethical brands
  2. Buy second hand or repair what you already have.
  3. Join a fast fashion campaign, such as Fashion Revolution or the Clean Clothes campaign.
  4. Follow our 10 tips to ditch fast fashion.
  5. Maybe most importantly, buy less clothing.