An Introduction to the Ultimate Guide to Fast Fashion in 2022
We’ve been writing about fast fashion for a good few years now. We’ve written posts looking at how to reduce clothing waste, clothing waste in 2020 and what’s wrong with fast fashion? Despite this, each year we come back and think there’s still something more we can contribute and share. It’s what led to the creation of the fast fashion database. However, this year we wanted to provide you with something else – the ultimate guide to fast fashion in 2022. In this guide we’ll cover everything you need to know about fast fashion including:
- What is fast fashion?
- The four elements of fast fashion
- What are the problems with fast fashion?
- Fast fashion’s cumulative impact on biodiversity
- What can you do to combat fast fashion?
- Hopes for the future of fast fashion
What is Fast Fashion?
The definition of fast fashion is typically considered to be the cheap and fast production of clothes in order to reflect quickly changing social trends. We say ‘considered’ because their is no official definition of fast fashion.
For example, Good on You, an ethical brand rating organisation, describes fast fashion as “cheap, trendy clothing that samples ideas from the catwalk or celebrity culture and turns them into garments in high street stores at breakneck speed to meet consumer demand.”
Environmental news organisation, EcoWatch, describe fast fashion as “mass-produced clothing that’s made quickly, cheaply, and in trending styles”. And, in a previous post we’ve described fast fashion as “mass producing clothes that are up to date with the most recent fashion trends for relatively low prices“.
Today we would describe it as “the mass production of clothes that represent the latest trends at high speeds and low costs to maximise profits”. As you can see though, all the definitions vary. However, they all have the same four base elements that underpin fast fashion, being cheap, quick, trendy and mass produced.
The Four Elements of Fast Fashion: Cheap, Quick, Trendy and Mass Produced
Four elements underpin the concept of fast fashion: cheapness, quickness, trendiness and mass produced. Together they differentiate fast fashion from other types of fashion. Let’s take a look at each one in more detail.
Fast fashion garments are cheap to make. The cheaper they cost to produce the higher the profit margin is. This means those operating within fast fashion are always looking for cheaper ways to produce clothing items. In doing so, manufacturers use cheap labour and less quality materials as this cuts costs. However, this directly links to and causes human and environmental rights abuses.
Fast fashion garments are quick to make. It’s a time old adage that time is money. In the fast fashion world this means that the quicker an item is made, the quicker it can be sold. Again, cheap labour and poor quality materials help expedite the production of fast fashion items. By quickly producing new items, fast fashion producers can encourage consumers to buy new ‘trendy’ items before they’ve even made use of the original item they purchased.
Fast fashion garments are trendy. They reflect the latest fashion trends as this makes them easier to sell to society. By reflecting current trends fast fashion producers can encourage and guilt-trip consumers to have the latest items so they ‘stay on trend’. Ultimately, this is where the societal power of fast fashion lies. It exploits consumers insecurities so much that demand is always strong.
Mass production is central to the fast fashion industry. To maximise profits and keep costs lower, clothing production occurs or a mass scale. This increases the material input and leads to the overstock and underselling of garments that if are not sold at huge discounts are thrown away. This is a waste. Mass production also helps compliment the speeds required to keep producing and reflecting the current trends.
Connecting the Four Elements
The four elements of fast fashion are all linked. They support and compliment each other. For example, the speed at which clothes are made helps the industry reflect current trends. Similarly, the mass production of clothes helps keep costs low.
The production of cheap trendy clothes that are available quickly keeps the system moving. It helps the industry maximise profits. However, in doing so, the problems with fast fashion become visible.
What Are the Problems With Fast Fashion?
There are many problems with fast fashion. Some of the worst problems include high carbon emissions, water consumption and wastage, water pollution and microfibres, wasting resources, poor labour conditions and extensive land use. Let’s take a look at them in further detail.
High Carbon Emissions
The fast fashion industry has an extremely high carbon footprint (like these types of food!). In fact, it’s estimated that fashion accounts for around 10% of the greenhouse gas emissions related to human activity. This includes all aspects of the industry. From sourcing the materials, to producing the garments and delivering them to consumers. In 2018, it was estimated that the textile industry alone was contributing 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent to the atmosphere each year. That’s the equivalent of using 2,778,253,682 barrels of oil!
The carbon emissions from the clothing industry are so impactful that they contribute significantly to each country’s total annual emissions. For example, in the UK, the clothing industry contributes 3.1 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year. Research has also shown that new clothes bought in the UK produce more carbon emissions per minute than driving a car around the world six times.
Water Consumption and Wastage
It may not be obvious, but water consumption and wastage is a huge issue in the fashion industry. In fact, fast fashion’s water usage quantities are quite staggering. A pair of jeans uses 3,781 litres of water when being made. This contributes to high annual water usage figures. For example, in 2017, the fashion industry consumed 79 billion cubic meters of water. This is enough to fill 32 million Olympic-size swimming pools. Furthermore, a study as recent as 2020 estimates that the fashion industry now consumes 79 trillion litres of water per year.
Different materials have different water footprints but many are water intensive. Cotton, which is used predominantly in clothing, uses 10,000-20,000 litres of water per 1 kilogram produced. This is a huge amount when considering the world faces an ongoing water crisis. For example, 1.1 billion people lack access to water which is only going to get worse as the climate crisis continues.
Water Pollution and Microfibres
Fast fashion also causes water pollution. This happens in a number of ways. For example, synthetic clothing, which forms a huge part of the fast fashion industry, causes many issues. One of these is microfibres. Microfibres are the plastic fibres that come off clothing when it’s washed. They are typically known as microplastics.
Microfibres are released into the environment at multiple stages of the supply chain. This is problematic as it means that microplastics can and have ended up anywhere including our oceans. A 2019 study, showed that for every 1000 litres of ocean water tested, 8.3 million pieces of microplastic was found. This is a worrying trend considering the importance of our oceans.
However, the fast fashion industry pollutes water in other ways as well. Toxic pesticides are often used to help grow materials like cotton which then runs off into the water supply. It’s estimated that nonorganic cotton accounts for 18% of worldwide pesticide use and 25% of total insecticide use. Similarly, textile dyes used in the fashion industry often pollute water. Both Bangladesh and China have seen rivers change colour due to dyes seeping into the water. This also negatively impacts wildlife.
The fast fashion industry uses an incredible amount of resources. This is a problem in and of itself. However, it’s made worse by the fact that much of this is wasted. In fact, each year, the fast fashion industry produces 92 million tonnes of waste. Because many garments are now made synthetically, they don’t break down when sent to landfill. This creates further issues especially when you consider that 85% of textile waste in the US ends up in landfill.
Annually, 100 billion clothing items are produced. However, a large proportion of these do not reach consumers. In fact, in extreme cases, clothing companies have acted horrifically to protect their brands. An example of this is Burberry who in 2017 destroyed clothing, accessories and perfume with a combined value of £28.6 million to stop them being sold cheaply. While Burberry claimed that energy captured from the burning was used making the act environmentally friendly, it disregards the fact that resources were consumed and wasted in the production of those items.
Extensive Land Use
Sometimes we can forget that the fashion industry requires the use of extensive amounts of land. The materials commonly used to produce garments like cotton, rubber, leather, viscose and wool all require land to either grow the relevant plants or to raise the relevant cattle.
Due to this, fashion is a huge contributor to global deforestation rates. By 2030, the fashion industry is estimated to use 35% more land – a staggering 115 million hectares – than it already does.
This is without considering the physical spaces retail stores occupy. The below map shows the expansion of some of the world’s most popular fashion brands giving you a demonstration of how the industry has taken over! (Click on “show timeline” below and then press the play button to see how this has grown over time).
Poor Labour Conditions
A widely known issue of fast fashion is the unsafe and unfair working conditions many labourers have. Campaign organisation, Labour Behind the Label, summarise these issues as “poverty pay, long working hours and denial of trade union rights“. However, they also go on to explain there are huge issues in relation to health and safety. For example, workers have to contend with:
- Unsafe buildings
- Lack of ventilation
- No access to clean drinking water
- Limited access to the bathroom
- The use of dangerous chemicals
This goes on despite the the huge revenues the fast fashion industry makes. By 2025, it’s expected to reach a global market value of $163,468.5 million. It’s also important to note that this issue is not unique to one location. It happens across the world. The brand Boohoo paid workers in Leicester, UK as little as £3.50 as recently as 2020, while there are clear links between the industry and the human rights abuses of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, China.
Fast Fashion’s Cumulative Impact on Biodiversity
The problems of the fast fashion industry are typically taken in isolation. However, they have a dire cumulative impact on the world’s biodiversity. Many fashion brands have committed to take up the fight against climate change however, biodiversity loss, while related, is a separate issue.
Due to the wide-ranging nature of biodiversity loss it’s a difficult metric to measure. However, new research from McKinsey & Company has begun to address this. It demonstrates the cumulative impact that high carbon emissions, water wastage, water pollution, wasting resources and extensive land use has ecologically.
Other organisations have followed suit, like Fashion Values, who’ve produced a superb resource on the relationship between fashion and biodiversity. They highlight the impact fast fashion has on soil, which we know is incredibly important to life on Earth.
What Can You Do to Combat Fast Fashion?
This wouldn’t be a helpful ultimate guide to fast fashion in 2022 without sharing the steps you can take to combat fast fashion. Fortunately, despite the many problems of the industry there are many steps you can take to combat fast fashion. By following the steps below you will, with others, begin to turn the tide against the fast fashion industry.
Stop Buying from Fast Fashion Brands
An immediate step anyone can take to combat fast fashion is to stop buying from fast fashion brands. This stops direct support of those brands both economically and socially. It may take a while, but as more and more people do this, the brand will be pressured into changing it’s ways. If you are unsure which brands are sustainable and ethical then check out Good On You to see each brand’s ethical rating.
Buy from Sustainable Fashion Brands
Of course, you’ll still need to buy clothes. Fortunately, there are now hundreds of sustainable fashion brands. Such brands champion slow fashion and take care to ensure their products are both produced at no harm to the environment and in support of their workers. A quick online search reveals there are many sustainable brands. It’s worth warning though, these are often more expensive than fast fashion items. However, the quality is better and they will last much longer!
Buy from Charity Stores or Second Hand Shops
Another way to support sustainable fashion is to buy clothing from charity shops or second-hand shops. You can usually find incredible bargains and clothing can still be in very good condition. It’s a great way to get new clothes without supporting the fast fashion industry. You’ll be giving clothes an extra lease of life and extending the use of them. This helps get the most out of the resources that went into making them.
Exchange Clothes with Friends or Family
Another way to support sustainable fashion is to exchange clothes with friends or family instead of purchasing new items. In certain situations it can be easier and cheaper to trade clothes rather than buying more. It can be quick and easy and long or short term. This is particularly useful for when you need clothes for a specific event where you would usually only get one use out of any new items purchased.
Repair or Fix Items of Clothing
We often look to buy new clothes when they develop a hole or a tear. However, repairing items of clothing is making a comeback. It may take a bit more time but by learning a new skill you can also save yourself a lot of money, get more use of out existing clothes and won’t be lending your support to fast fashion. It may be daunting to repair your own clothes but there are wonderful online resources to help you get started. One online community project called Fixing Fashion, has been designed specifically to give you the resources to fix your own clothes.
Repurpose Old Clothes
A super easy way to make an impact is to not throw old clothes out. All items will eventually reach a phase where they have no more uses but generally, it’s possible to find another use for something. Doing so keeps clothes out of landfill which will have a huge impact on the environment. Depending on the other use you find for it, it may help you save money purchasing another item. There are many things you can do with your old clothes. If you’ve already tried repairing them, passing them to a friend or family member or donating them to charity, you could try:
- Using them as rags or dishcloths
- Cutting them into strips to give cushions further padding
- Using them as material to repair other clothes
- Sewing them together to make a rug
- Composting them (only items made from 100% natural fibres)
- Creating face masks
The list is endless. You can find tonnes of further ideas online!
Minimalism is a way of life that promotes only owning material possessions that have actual worth to you or add value to your life. The Minimalist, Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus, describe it as “freedom from the trappings of the consumer culture we’ve built our lives around“. Fast fashion is built on consumer culture so minimalism can be a tool used to combat it.
Educate Yourself Further
The issue of fast fashion is vast. You’ve seen the number of problems it poses but you can always learn more. Learning more will help inform the choices you make. It will also put you in a better position to raise the issue, respectfully, with others. There are many organisations who provide extensive education and tips in this area!
Share What you Learn With Others
It will take a cultural and societal shift to move away from fast fashion. By bringing it to the attention of others, this may happen more quickly. Sharing what you learn can be simple. You can share this article (using the links below), share the other resources you’ve come across or simply talk to them!
Support or Donate to Organisations Tackling Fast Fashion
If you have spare time or are looking to donate to a charity, then supporting an organisation tackling fast fashion can help. There are many organisations working in this sphere. Some will focus more generally on the issue while others will have a particular focus. There are community groups, charities, social enterprises and not-for-profit organisations. To help you locate these organisations we’ve created a database of the key organisations tackling fast fashion.
The Ultimate Guide to Fast Fashion in 2022 – Hope for the Future
Despite the many issues associated with the fast fashion industry, there is hope for the future. And that’s how we want to end the ultimate guide to fast fashion in 2022 – with hope.
The reasons to be hopeful begin with the fact that fast fashion is quickly becoming a known issue. Where before it was a new issue, more and more people are now aware of the harms of fast fashion. This is in part down to the excellent work of the key organisations tackling fast fashion.
Another reason to be hopeful is that laws and regulations are beginning to get tougher on companies. Evidence of this can be found in a recent bill presented in New York. The new sustainability legislation, if accepted, requires “transparency of at least 50% of the goods sold from raw materials to shipping regarding their environmental impact“. While it will not solve the industry’s issues overnight, it will represent a shift and will start bringing more transparency to the industry.
The final reason to be hopeful, and how we will sign off this ultimate guide to fast fashion in 2022, is you, the individual! All change starts with an individual deciding to make a stand. Individuals making personal choices that benefit the planet and all it’s species represent a hope to us all. You may be extremely experienced in this area or this may be the first you’ve heard of fast fashion. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. You’re here now. It’s a journey we are all on and one we will all have to take.
CHEC’s Articles on Fast Fashion
If you’ve enjoyed our ultimate guide to fast fashion in 2022, you may also enjoy our other articles on fast fashion: