The Rise (and Fall) of Fast Fashion

The Rise (and Fall) of Fast Fashion

There used to be a time when shopping for clothes was only an occasional treat. The family would pile into a station wagon and visit boutique shops where you would purchase an outfit or two that could be mended, cleaned, and worn without breaking down or fading.

 

Then, in the early 1990s, things changed… Malls were already local hangouts for teenage angst, but the average teen could no longer afford the high-end styles plastered on magazines and TV shows. In response, a new trend to sell eye-catching fashion at record speeds and low prices evolved. This was the birth of modern Fast Fashion.

 

When Marketing Meets Cheap Labor 

Companies have always embraced quick and low-cost labor. It is a sad reality that everything from computer chips to the fruits you put in your oatmeal is probably sourced from a developing country with cheap labor costs.

The clothing industry is no exception. When major brands like Zara, H&M, and Old Navy can produce a jacket in Bangladesh for pennies on the dollar and then turn it around to American consumers at $14.99 each, there is little incentive to change.

The goal of fast fashion is simple: Take advantage of rock-bottom labor costs and cheap materials sourced in third-world countries, market the latest trending design, and then sell those garments for dirt cheap prices. Companies like Zara would happily copy the latest runway style and quickly turn it around to sell in their store. This turnover became a leading marketing strategy where the company would advertise how “fresh” their styles were, encouraging people to buy more often to keep up with whatever was being featured next. This way, a buyer can walk into a major retail store and pick up a t-shirt for $5 made by someone earning less than that for an entire day’s work.

These are obviously not high-quality products. Why should they be? By definition, a “trend” is always going to be temporary. As a result, the majority of produced fast fashion ends up in a landfill. Clothing production has more than doubled since 2000, while the average number of times these items can be worn has only gotten smaller. We are sacrificing quality for cheap trendiness and the consequences are undeniable…

Fast Fashion is not Eco-Friendly 

Overproduction by clothing manufacturing industry results in around 13 million tons of textile waste each year. You may think we can then recycle these products through donations, but the quality is so poor that they cannot last long enough for reintroduction into the product lifecycle. In California alone, Goodwill, one of the most well-known resale and donation centers in the U.S., spends $7 million a year dumping clothes no one wants. 

The problem is that even the highest quality garment will not get used if it is based on a fleeting design trend. Look back at the trucker hat craze from Von Dutch or the low-rise jeans during the 2000s. Many of these brands tried to make higher quality products to fit the latest trends, but that did not matter when consumers would get hooked on a new idea based on a celebrity photo, trending TV show, or underground movement. Go look back at the grunge era of the late 1990s for evidence of that.

Fast fashion uses cheap materials to complement their even cheaper labor. Instead of recycled materials or quality-made textiles that are durable and will reduce overconsumption, these manufacturers embrace toxic textile dyes and pseudo plastic infused garments that are destined to stack up at the local landfill. 

Companies like Gap, Urban Outfitters, and H&M eagerly embrace these cheaper production resources to pump out endless micro-trends. Instead of waiting for seasonal fashions from the big houses in NYC or Milan, we see micro-trends popping up every time some celebrity gets a candid from Coachella featured on social media.

While the world was happily embracing cheaper clothing that could be purchased and featured for a day or two then casually tossed into the bin, developing nations were forcing human beings into almost slave-like conditions to produce them.

Then 2013 happened. On April 24th of that year, the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka, Bangladesh collapsed, killing 1,132 people and injuring more than 2,500 others. This facility housed five garment factories, forcing the world to recognize the poor labor conditions fueling the fast fashion industry.

Enter Slow Fashion

Many in the fashion industry began to take a hard look at what was happening. Little by little, a new term started hitting the lexicon of the fashion industry. Slow Fashion was coined by author, design, activities, and professor Kate Fletcher.

This was something new. The idea was that instead of focusing on the high turnover, high profit, poor outcome clothing that Fast Fashion emphasizes, manufacturers and retailers should create well-made and long-lasting clothes leaning into sustainable practices.

This counter-movement to the industry moguls has only grown in popularity. Now, you are just as likely to see a fashionista on Instagram in eco-friendly garments made with durable fabrics as you are to see the latest commercial from Topshop or Forever 21.

By using materials that hold up well and look fantastic, consumers can build minimalist versatile wardrobes they can invest in without sacrificing aesthetics or comfort. For example, you can make an entire capsule wardrobe, starting with a quality men’s Pima cotton t-shirt and then grow from there, slowly adding equally high-quality, versatile, and classic-style products to your closet.

How to Avoid Fast Fashion

The choice is always in the hands of the consumer. We can spend our money on cheaply made products that were not meant to last and manufactured by low-wage workers in developing countries. Or, we can invest in high-quality materials supporting eco-friendly movements that act as cornerstones to our style and personality.

If you would like to embrace the slow fashion movement, consider taking these actions:

  • Ask yourself who made the products you are about to purchase. Where are they sourced?

  • Take a minimalist approach to your clothing and stick to classic, versatile styles that have stood the test of time.

  • Look at the environmental costs of your clothing choices. Are they using eco-friendly practices as we do with our men’s premium t-shirts?

  • Consider creating a “capsule wardrobe” featuring fewer clothes that are versatile and can be worn to almost any occasion.

  • Shop second-hand stores for fun pieces that stand out. 

Most importantly, choose the products you know will last longer. When you purchase a men’s t-shirt bundle from IF… THEN WELL, you are getting 100% Pima cotton that significantly outlasts comparable materials. That same level of quality should also inform the choices you make at other retailers.

There are timeless trends that never go away and elevate your fashion choices. These are the minimalistic options you see everywhere around you in popular media. They are the simple white t-shirt and jeans from James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause all the way to the simple black suits of Keanu Reeves or staple looks of the late Anthony Bourdain. These are not outliers. They are proof that simplicity is sometimes the sexiest fashion decision we can make. 

If we want to ensure a brighter tomorrow and improve our world, then we need to turn our backs to fast fashion and embrace the high-class simplicity of the slow fashion movement.

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