Fast Fashion is new, fashionable clothing sold at a low cost and designed to be worn only a few times. With fast fashion, consumers can see an outfit worn on the runway or on the red carpet and then buy it online at lightning speed. Shein, one of the most prominent names in fast fashion today, adds an average of 6,000 new styles to its site every day, giving consumers an endless stream of new items to shop. Consumers can now shop for clothing faster, cheaper and more conveniently than ever before. So what’s the point?
Behind the shiny, brightly colored clothing found on the pages of Zara, Forever 21, H&M and Shein lies a much darker and uglier story. Fast fashion poses significant threats to the environment and the human labor it employs.
Clothing production is responsible for 2-8% of annual greenhouse gas emissions. That’s more than all international flights and sea freight combined. In addition, our collective washing of clothing containing synthetic materials accounts for 35% of all ocean microplastics and industry as a whole is responsible for 20% of all industrial wastewater. The cotton industry pollutes with heavy pesticide use that affects people, groundwater and biodiversity. Every year 150 million trees are flattened for rayon or silk thread. And every year landfills and incinerators are filled with 40 million tons of discarded clothing.
Child labor, low wages and unsafe working conditions are rampant in the garment factories employed by the fast fashion giants. In April 2013, a building in Bangladesh that housed five garment factories collapsed, killing 1,132 people and injuring more than 2,500. Garment workers continue to face life-threatening working conditions just to be paid as little as $3.43 a day.
The harmful effects of fast fashion on the environment and its people are no secret and impossible to ignore. However, a recent report estimated that the global fast fashion market will grow from $91.23 billion in 2021 to $99.23 billion in 2022 at a compound annual growth rate of 8.8%.
So why does the industry continue to grow at such an alarming rate? What drives the mass consumption of clothing? Is it just price and convenience? Or is it attributable to a change – a new culture of individual consumerism, and if so, what is driving it?
Fast fashion and social media
“Today, buying a dress is like buying a Big Mac; cheap, fast and, judging by the poorer quality seen in fast fashion clothing, not very healthy.”
– Christina Dean, Redress founder and CEO
Social media has been a huge catalyst in the spread of fast fashion. Many brands use social media to market their products. With thousands of social media ads, brands reach consumers at any time of the day or night and wherever they are. Exposure to fast fashion marketing is inevitable.
Social media influencers play an important role. Studies show that there is a positive correlation between the number of influencers consumers follow and the frequency with which they purchase clothing. When influencers post their new outfits with the brands tagged in the post, consumers feel compelled to buy new outfits as well.
The culture of consumerism is clearly reflected in social media. Instagram launched its store tab in 2020, aligning it with consumer profiles and home feeds and essentially turning Instagram into a pseudo-online store. Other social media platforms have followed suit – Snapchat recently added a feature called Screenshop, where you can scan any outfit and find it or similar outfits online for purchase.
Social media is all about showing off, and users want to share the details of their lives with their followers – including what they’re wearing. A problem arises when users fear being seen twice in the same outfit. According to a survey conducted in 2017, 41% of women between the ages of 18 and 25 felt pressured not to wear the same outfit twice when going out. This fear of repeating an #outfitoftheday drives consumers to buy more and more outfits.
When interviewed by the New York Times, 16-year-old Mia Grantham said she wouldn’t want to be seen in an outfit more than once because “people might think [she] there was no style if [she] wear the same thing over and over again.” It stands to reason that if consumers plan to wear clothes only once or twice, they will want to buy the cheapest items possible.
Particularly popular on social media are the fashion ‘hall’ videos posted by social media influencers who make a living by creating content that showcases outfits worth hundreds – even thousands – of dollars. Carriers can partner with brands and are paid commissions on sales generated. Influencers offer discount codes to their fans; these are tracked and earn them a commission.
Carriers are attracted to certain sites like Instagram and TikTok, where they can expect high engagement with the public. A popular carrier is one that is perceived as honest, reliable and likable. Unfortunately, they encourage overconsumption by featuring low-cost, fast fashion brands.
Tricia Palanqui, a fashion hauler, started at age 15 posting shopping mall outfits on YouTube, but switched to fast fashion hauls because that’s what got the most views. She realized that even though the product quality might be low, the clothes were cheap and plentiful, meaning she could make more videos and get more views.
Fast fashion and brains
Shopping is a rewarding form of entertainment for many, and the speed and low cost at which new styles are produced only adds to the seemingly endless fun of buying fast fashion. In a report by the Urban Land Institute, it was found that half of men and 70% of women consider shopping to be a form of entertainment.
Shopping can be problematic. In 2007, a team of researchers from Stanford, MIT, and Carnegie Mellon conducted a study on the brains of subjects as they made decisions about whether or not to purchase a particular item of clothing. The researchers found that when the subject came across an item of clothing they wanted to buy, the brain’s pleasure center was activated. Furthermore, the amount of activity in the pleasure center was positively related to how much the subject liked the item.
When consumers can get clothing at a cheaper price, they get the maximum sense of satisfaction from their brain. The study determined that “While pleasure comes from just the act of looking, there is also pleasure in buying, or more specifically, in getting a bargain.” Many retailers even artificially inflate their prices in order to lower them later.
With endless streams of brand new items to see and desire, the fast fashion industry feeds this brain loop, creating something akin to an addiction. Buying clothes, especially at a bargain price, makes many people feel good – and buying fast fashion allows them to do so at a higher volume and with greater frequency.
Fear as a catalyst in buying
“The need to avoid missing out—or what we might refer to as FOMO (fear of missing out)—combined with our ingrained desire for novelty causes an adrenaline rush that contributes to the excitement of shopping experiences. The hits of dopamine and adrenaline create a reward-seeking loop that keeps us reaching for our debit card over and over again.”
– Amy De Klerk, Harpers Bazaar
Fashion plays on aspirations and insecurities at the same time. With fashion life cycles shorter than ever and microtrends running rampant, many young consumers fear missing out, unable to stay up to date with the next best thing. If consumers don’t quickly buy something they like from a fast fashion store, the fear is that it could disappear in an instant. In fact, consumers of fast fashion brands like Zara stop in-store on average once every three weeks compared to the average shopper who visits each store about four times a year.
Price and convenience
“We all know fast fashion’s low prices are intentional. Above all, it’s about volume. But psychologically, low prices mean that we place less value or expectations on the item. So if it’s poorly made or wears out quickly, we’re not that worried because it was so cheap. Likewise, if something extremely similar comes out in 2 weeks, we’re more likely to buy it even though we’ve already bought something like it because hey, it’s only $25. Why not?!”
– Emma Edwards, The Broken Generation
Fast fashion is good at making consumers believe that it is not only convenient but also harmless. The clothes are easy and quick to buy, and the delivery time is also quite short. This shopping experience makes it seem like clothes “come out of nowhere” and consumers don’t have to think about who made their clothes and where they will go after they are no longer wanted. These smooth transactions contribute to consumers’ idea that clothing itself is ephemeral, coming and going with the ease with which it is purchased.
Change for the Future
“Look for quality not just in the products you buy, but in the life of the person who made it.”
– Orsola de Castropioneer and leader in sustainable fashion
The new culture of consumerism is a culture of overconsumption of clothing and is extremely harmful to the environment and to all living things. To change the course of fast fashion, there must be a drastic change in the mindset of those who support fast fashion.
An important distinction between fashion and style is quality. Although fast fashion items may seem new and exciting, and the price is too good to refuse, consumers will ultimately end up spending more money on low-quality items that need to be replaced frequently rather than nicer products. , better made that outlast trends. And if consumers start to shift to the mindset of treating themselves as best they can, they’ll feel better about investing in and wearing high-quality clothing.
To learn more about sustainable fashion, test your knowledge and find out what you can do to stand up to fast fashion, visit EARTHDAY.ORG’S Fashion for the Earth site. It’s time for consumers to take matters into their own hands when it comes to fighting for the environment, garment workers and our collective future.
In the meantime, here are some shopping tips:
- Try to assess whether you really like a garment and will put it to good use
- Ask if an item will work with other things you own
- Buy only one item you need and avoid impulse purchases
- Check the quality of the clothing. If it looks poorly made, it can soon fall apart and be thrown away, wasting time, money and the planet’s resources.
- Make sure an item fits and avoid returns that waste more energy, time and cost the planet
- Don’t shop because the ‘trend’ is telling you to. Trends change every week and what you already own will be back in style in no time
- Try to buy what you know looks good on you. Not all trends suit everyone. And sometimes a good ‘classic’ look can be much more flattering than a ‘trendy’ style.