Once upon a time, the fashion industry updated its collections with the seasons. Which made a lot of sense in the real world – after all, spring, summer, autumn and winter can bring very different weather conditions (and special occasions). So, for decades, followers of fashion were given the chance to adapt or extend their wardrobe four times a year.
Then the internet happened. As did streamlined production processes, disturbing backsliding on workers’ rights, and selfie-heavy social media to stoke an ever-increasing demand for new and novel outfits. And so fast fashion was born – a state of competition in which high street and online retailers compete ever more frantically for the disposable income of floating consumers.
For a while, this churn of styles was undeniably exciting – but it’s become obvious, just as quickly, it’s ultimately a race to the bottom, for all concerned.
First, and perhaps most obviously, since the individual items of fast fashion come at a cheaper price, they’re simply not built to last.
And so, consumers end up with more choice – in the short term. But also more clothes they’re, realistically, not going to wear much. When you consider that most adults have fairly finite storage space, it’s likely that many of the cheaper outfits will be worn while fresh – then discarded (while more expensive items retain their place in drawers).
But even worse – when every piece launched is a novelty, it’s also a gamble. And so many manufacturers are seeing huge increases in unsold inventory. For every surprise hit, there are countless clothes that will never be sold – or even worn.
Naturally, all the extra industrial activity needed to create these outfits will likewise impact the environment. It’s long been documented that the clothes industry is one of the world’s worst polluters and fast fashion only accelerates this.
Especially prevalent is water pollution, with dyes and other chemicals often pumped directly into public waterways. This not only does damage to plants and animals in the area, but has also been documented entering the human food chain. In fact, it’s quite possible that – were environmental laws toughened up (and followed) – the turnaround of fast fashion wouldn’t even be possible.
Thankfully, brands are finally waking up and taking action. For instance, Bonds are committed to diverting all of their fabric waste away from the landfill sites which have become sadly common.
Given the world-changing impact of the other points on this list, to say fast fashion devalues the role of fashion itself might seem glib.
But it’s still worth mentioning because the very pleasure of owning clothes – how we wear them and what they mean to us – is still a huge reason why the industry exists in the first place.
And when trends – which respond creatively to changes in society – are replaced by a constant rush of copies ripped straight from celebrity photoshoots, we lose something which brings us together.
Finally, and most importantly, it’s worth remembering that people made the mass of clothes which drive fast fashion. While automation has made ever deeper inroads into many assembly lines, no robot yet designed can sew fabric together skillfully and fast.
Assembling clothing from pieces is a skilled job – but it’s often not recognised as such – especially in the pay received by the legions of mostly women staffing clothing factories all over the world.
And when the industry’s emphasis is on quantity rather than quality – it’s workers who bear the brunt. War On Want are among the charities taking their side – but remember, less demand for disposable items equals less motivation for exploitation. It starts with you.