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Fast Fashion: Slow Down and Breathe

By Bella Dunbar

Art by Penelope Spurr

Fast Fashion

Guilt, hopelessness, and an urge to online shop. An odd mix of emotions for me to attach to the term “fast fashion.” Even though I’m aware of the detrimental environmental impacts and inhumane worker conditions that come with fast fashion, I can’t shake the strong desire to buy an adorable pair of trendy earrings at H&M. What is fast fashion, why is it bad, and why is it so hard to fix?

What it is

Most of us know fast fashion is used to refer to stores like SHEIN, Forever 21, and Zara. Generally defined, fast fashion is a business model that churns out affordable, trendy clothing using cheap materials and labor. Items in the newest style are brought to the market at a rapid pace and last only a short time, necessitating constant new purchases and reeling in profit.

Good or bad?

At first glance, fast fashion seems to have a positive societal influence. The low price points democratize fashion for the masses. No matter what your budget is, you can rock the same look as your favorite social media influencer. Unfortunately, this benefit comes at a steep cost.

Fashion is the second most polluting industry on Earth, creating roughly one third of all greenhouse gas emissions.[1]Fast fashion drives this exorbitant environmental impact. In the last fifteen years alone, clothing production has roughly doubled, meaning emissions are set to rise exponentially if left unaddressed.[2] The industry sacrifices environmental consideration to maintain a breakneck pace, using cheap fabrics with a large carbon footprint and toxic textile dyes.[3]

Fast fashion has also led to more and more textile waste. The blindingly fast production speed has shortened clothing cycles dramatically, increasing the number of fashion seasons from two a year to around 50–100 micro seasons a year. Beyond the sheer amount of clothing produced, the business model has changed consumers’ mindset. Clothing is now seen as disposable rather than as an investment. Compared to the year 2000, the average consumer now purchases 60% more items of clothing and keeps each for half as long.[4] Nearly 60% of all clothing produced is disposed of in landfills or incineration groups within one year of being created.[5]

In addition to the environmental cost, fast fashion also has a human cost. Cutting corners for the sake of speed and profit accumulation leads to worker abuse. Fashion Nova, for example, came under investigation in December for underpaying workers and owing them millions in back wages.[6] One worker at an H&M supplier factory shared that she was beaten as punishment for not meeting her production quota at an H&M supplier factory. Another reported that she was grabbed by the hair and punched for bringing up wages.[7] The fast fashion model creates unreasonable production targets that translate into extreme pressure on underpaid, primarily female, garment workers.

The Fix

So, how do we respond to this? None of us want to kill the environment or support worker abuse. Yet the industry seems distant and unchangeable — especially compared to the more immediate pressure to keep up with the ever-changing trends without going broke. For girls and young women in particular, we are constantly judged by what we wear. Clothing is presented as an external, public expression of our identity. And, generally, we want to be trendy, in-style, and in line with those around us. So, shifting away from our dependence on fast fashion is difficult. It looks more like a journey than a simple decision.

Slowing down

Slow fashion, in contrast to the fast fashion model, uses high-quality and eco-friendly materials; has locally sourced, produced and sold garments; and has only a few specific styles per collection that are released only two to three times per year. Essentially, fewer items with a longer production time and closet life. This means less clothes produced and, ultimately, less mountains of clothes in landfills. Without the pressure of a breakneck production pace, the excessive strain on workers and the environment is relieved as well.

As lovely as slow fashion is, compared to fast fashion, it seems expensive and feels a bit boring. Thrift shopping and clothing rental, a growing trend, can help ease that adjustment issue. Both options extend the wear life of clothes, while being budget friendly and offering more frequent options to change it up.

What can you do? Change your relationship with your wardrobe.

Really the end goal is investing in fewer items of a higher quality and keeping them for longer. As British designer Vivienne Westwood put it, “buy less, choose well, make it last.” But that doesn’t mean the change has to happen all at once. Transforming your wardrobe and habits isn’t a one-time decision to never buy fast fashion so much as it is a journey. So, take it as an opportunity to think about what kind of clothes you like, season after season. Try building a wardrobe the same way that you would design a house: intentionally.

Start by simply trying to focus on getting some staples and basics that you’ll definitely want to keep around for a while. Add your local thrift store to your shopping agenda. Finally, make an effort to donate or resell clothes that you no longer wear instead of sending them straight to the landfill.


[1] MacArthur, E. A new textiles economy: Redesigning fashion’s future, (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017), 1–150.

[2] The Problem with Fast Fashion, (Battered Women’s Support Services, 2019).

[3] Schlossberg, Tatiana. How Fast Fashion is Destroying the Planet, (The New York Times, 2019).

[4] Drew, D., & July, G. The Apparel Industry’s Environmental Impact in 6 Graphics, (2019), 1–9.

[5] Drew, D., & July, G. The Apparel Industry’s Environmental Impact in 6 Graphics, (2019), 1–9.

[6] The price of fast fashion, (Nature Climate Change, 2018), 8(1).

[7] Nguyen, Terry. Fast Fashion, Explained (Vox, 2020).

[8] Hodal, Kate. Abuse is daily reality for female garment workers, (The Guardian, 2018).

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