Rethinking our Wardrobes: What is Fast Fashion?

We first began hearing the term “fast fashion” in the early 1990s. The New York Times used it to describe the emerging retail model that was bringing high-end fashion trends straight from the runway to storefront in massive quantities, at lightning speed, and all for a dirt-cheap price. Who was the Times describing with the term? Zara. “It takes 15 days between a new idea and getting it into the stores” touted the Spanish retailer. 

Now, there are far too many fast fashion retailers to even try to name them all. But some of the most infamous that often come to mind are Zara, H&M, Forever 21 and more recently, Boohoo, Pretty Little Thing, Missguided, and Fashion Nova. They’re able to pump out thousands of new styles and as many as 52 different “micro seasons” every year. Unfortunately, the speed, affordability, and the enormous selection of styles all come at a cost not reflected in the price tag. Fast fashion has resulted in horrific working conditions across the supply chain, health hazards, environmental contamination, unprecedented amounts of textile waste, and a growing sense among consumers that clothing is disposable. 

Fast Fashion’s Impact on People and the Planet

As recent as the 1960’s, the U.S. was still making 95% of its clothes. Today, the U.S. makes just 3%, outsourcing the rest to lower income countries around the world. Lower wages and relaxed environmental regulations motivated brands to move manufacturing abroad. In turn, the threat of taking their business elsewhere, keeps those wages low as countries attempt to remain competitive. While far from an isolated incident, the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh that killed over 1,100 people highlighted the poor and often dangerous conditions garment workers face under the ever mounting pressure to make their products faster and cheaper. Brands often do not own the factories in which their clothing is produced, nor do they directly employ factory workers. Instead, clothing is manufactured through an obscure supply chain that often lacks transparency, absolving brands from direct responsibility and leading to devastating abuses of human rights.  

Across the supply chain, the environmental impact is massive. From the pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers used to grow crops like conventional cotton, to the toxic chemicals and dyes involved in processing and finishing, from the carbon emissions of petroleum-based fabrics like polyester and nylon, to the carbon emissions released from transporting the garment around the world. Fashion is wreaking havoc. Consider too, the thousands of tiny plastic microfibers released into waterways when we wash polyester clothing. Or the ever increasing amount of textile waste we’re sending to landfills, an amount that has increased by about 400% per capita since 1970 according to the EPA. It’s clear that fashion needs a clean up.

It’s Time to Rethink Fashion

Unfortunately, the full extent of the fashion industry’s impact is still unknown. We need solid data and robust research to effectively tackle this mess and come up with truly sustainable solutions. Misinformation swirls around in reports about the fashion industry, and while well intentioned, it skews the truth and makes it difficult to know what exactly needs to be tackled and how. For example, it’s widely claimed (even by reputable organizations) that fashion is the #2 most polluting industry, second only to oil. Turns out, the stat was unable to be traced back to any credible source. The fashion industry is definitely high on the top polluters list. But second? There’s no data to back it up. 

Fashion needs transparency, research, and regulation. The New Standard Institute, a new think tank aiming to transform the apparel industry using data-based objectives, recently released a roadmap for citizens, the media, and for fashion brands big and small. When it comes to big fashion brands, the NSI is calling for a clear map of their supply chain that provides transparency across all tiers. Then, they must measure where they’re currently at and what improvements are needed. Targets are then set and reports are to be released detailing both current performance and reduction goals. Big brands must invest in non-biased research in order to guide their solutions. 

What can we do as citizens?

Transparency, investment in non-biased research, hard data, commitment from brands, and regulation from government will be what drives change. But that doesn’t mean our individual actions don’t matter. We can demand better. And with enough of us demanding change, we can collectively make fast fashion go out of style for GOOD.


  • Educate yourself!

Research the impact of fast fashion and stay up to date with the latest news. Search for articles, books, documentaries, and activists exposing fashion’s dirty secrets. Just starting your research? We recommend watching the documentary “True Cost.”

A few resources:

  • Clean up your social media!
    Many influencers promote fast fashion brands and entice you to buy the clothes in which they’re photographed. Replace them with influencers that promote brands that align with your values. You’ll learn more, discover brands you’ve never heard of, and you won’t be tempted by fast fashion-sponsored posts. 
    Who we follow: 
    @ajabarber (Aja is a writer and fashion consultant. Be sure to follow her on instagram and join her Patreon to learn how to buy better!)
    @inspiroue (subscribe to the inspiroue YouTube channel for short, educational videos about sustainable fashion)
    @ecocult (check out ecocult’s blog for deep dives into the fashion industry and other sustainability topics)
    @gittemary (subscribe to Gittemary’s Youtube channel for all things zero waste, including vintage clothes and informative videos about fast fashion)


    • Buy less and shop your closet first.

    Normalize re-wearing clothing over and over again!

    • Take care of your clothing.

    Treat your clothes well! Hang dry to extend their life. Learn to repair rips and tears.

    • Buy Secondhand.

    Search for local thrift stores near you or browse online secondhand shops like Poshmark, ThredUp, and Ebay. Patagonia has a discounted site for its used clothes called Worn Wear and REI has something similar for its used gear

    • Buy new, but buy from a brand that values transparency, strives to be as sustainable as possible, and publicly sets goals for how it can do better

    We like supporting brands whose values align with our own. If there’s something we need that we’re having trouble finding secondhand, we look for a solid, sustainably-minded brand. No brand will be 100% sustainable, so we look for ones that are conscious and transparent about their shortcomings and are always actively striving to do better.

    • But before buying new; research.

    Browse their website. Read their mission statements, their “about us” pages, etc. Do they mention sustainability? If so, can they back up their claims? If they provide vague details, reach out and ask for further information. Not sustainable enough? Let them know you demand better.

    We like to start our research with sites like Remake and Good On You that rate brands based on the information they share publicly. Simply search their directory for the brand in question to see how well it scored. Their systems are not perfect, however, so we still recommend that you don’t stop there and continue with your own research. And again, reach out to brands with any questions related to their sustainability measures.

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