Ethical Fashion: Part 2, The Rise of Fast Fashion

Posted: Feb 26 2018


   Fast Fashion is a phenomenon that has completely revolutionized the garment industry within the past 10 years.  Until recently, the world of fashion has traditionally followed a 2-4 season cycle. Fast fashion, by contrast, has accelerated this cycle to a break-neck speed in which new product hits the floor constantly, at a whopping 50 cycles per year.  Zara, the Spanish retailer, was the first to introduce this process and totally blow everyone’s minds. Not only were they designing, producing, and distributing product at a fraction of the conventional speed, they were doing it cheaply and beautifully. Sounds like a huge step forward in retail commerce, does it not? Beautiful clothes, low prices, lightning fast turnover and presentation of new styles--what’s not to love about this? Let me answer with a question: What do you think of fast food, how it has impacted our lives, our environment, and our bodies? If you visit KFC on the reg, skip this post.

     Fast fashion is successful largely due to its low prices. When you follow the retail price down its production chain, you arrive at the garment worker who constructed it for less than $1. In order for the clothing to be affordable, it must be composed of the most inexpensive materials possible, which means that the product does not last much longer than one season. This formula (cheap labor + cheap textiles = cheap product) means that, world wide, people are shopping more frequently because prices are low and clothing has become basically disposable. We can now afford to have new clothing all the time.  Here are some quick stats on the growth of fashion consumption and disposal:

  • We are now purchasing 60% more clothing than we did in 2000, but keeping it half as long.
  • Fashion seasons have increased from 2 per year, to 50-100 microseasons
  • The world consumes 80 billion pieces of clothing per year, up 400% from 20 years ago.
  • Americans send 10.5 million tons of clothing to landfills every year.
    Fast fashion has made the market place so competitive, one rarely has to purchase anything at full price when they shop at a mid-tier store. You only have to scan the headlines to see the most recent rash of department store closings across the US. Look at the plight of J Crew, struggling to find their core customer who once valued quality, but now favors price. (Why spend $200 on a silk dress when you can get an almost identical polyester one for $28?) Established brands like Banana Republic and Gap are now struggling to keep up with the impossibly high bar of keeping prices as low as possible, and are forced to do sweeping discounts such as 40% off store wide on a regular basis.

         As a business owner, part of me thrills when I hear that someone has struck retail gold and as a former fast fashion buyer I know how crucial a healthy profit margin is. As a shopper I recognize that finding something I love at an unbelievable price gives me an emotional boost, a quick way to give myself a much-needed treat. As a Mom who has to replenish my growing kids’ wardrobes at least twice a year, I’m grateful for retailers who enable me to do this affordably. It’s hard to view this kind of business model as anything other than supportive and generous.

    Unfortunately, this is not the entire picture. Fast fashion is wreaking havoc in so many ways that will ultimately far outweigh any gratification we might enjoy now. My goal here is to paint a complete picture of the life of a single garment: its conception, its components, its construction, who sews it and their pay and working conditions, the waste involved in its production, and the waste involved in its disposal. I hope that the take away from this series will not be an added burden to our already overwhelmed minds and responsibilities, but an inspiration to explore alternative shopping strategies. Tune in next week for Part 3: The Evolving Psychology of American Shoppers.

    Love and light,