Fast fashion is the term used to describe clothing designs that move quickly from the catwalk to stores to take advantage of trends. The collections are often based on styles presented at Fashion Week runway shows or worn by celebrities. Fast fashion allows mainstream consumers to purchase the hot new look or the next big thing at an affordable price.
Fast fashion became common because of cheaper, speedier manufacturing and shipping methods, an increase in consumers’ appetite for up-to-the-minute styles, and the increase in consumer purchasing power—especially among young people—to indulge these instant gratification desires.
Because of all this, fast fashion is challenging the established clothing labels’ tradition of introducing new collections and lines on an orderly, seasonal basis. In fact, it’s not uncommon for fast-fashion retailers to introduce new products multiple times in one week to stay on trend
Understanding Fast Fashion
Shopping for clothing was once considered an event. Consumers would save up to buy new clothes at certain times of the year. The style-conscious would get a preview of the styles to come via fashion shows that displayed new collections and clothing lines several months in advance of their appearance in stores.
But that began to change in the late 1990s, as shopping became a form of entertainment and discretionary spending on clothing increased. Enter fast fashion—cheap, trendy knock-off garments, mass-produced at low cost, that allowed consumers to feel as though they were wearing the same styles that “walked the runway” or were sported by a sexy entertainer.
Fast fashion is made possible by innovations in supply chain management (SCM) among fashion retailers. Its goal is to quickly produce cost-efficient articles of clothing in response to (or anticipation of) fast-shifting consumer demands.
The assumption is that consumers want high fashion at a low cost. While the garments are often carelessly made, they’re not intended to be worn for years or even multiple times.
The traditional clothing-industry model operates seasonally, with the fall fashion week displaying styles for the upcoming spring/summer and the spring fashion week showcasing looks for the following fall/winter.
There are also often pre-fall and pre-spring or resort collections too. In contrast to these four seasons, fast-fashion labels produce about 52 “micro-seasons” a year—or one new “collection” a week of clothes meant to be worn immediately instead of months later.8
Advantages and Disadvantages of Fast Fashion
The Advantages of Fast Fashion
- Profitable for manufacturers and retailers: The constant introduction of new products encourages customers to frequent stores more often, which means they end up making more purchases. The retailer does not replenish its stock—instead, it replaces items that sell out with new items. Accordingly, consumers know to purchase an item they like when they see it, no matter the price because it’s not likely to be available for long. And because the clothing is cheap (and cheaply made), it’s easy to get people back into stores or online to make fresh purchases.
- Quick to consumers: As for advantages for the consumer, fast fashion has enabled people to get the clothes they want when they want them. Also, it’s made clothing more affordable—and not just any clothing, but innovative, imaginative, stylish clothing.
- Makes clothes affordable: Even those of modest means can constantly buy smart new clothes, indulge in fun or impractical items, and wear something different every day.
- Democratizes fashion: No longer is the latest look, being “well-dressed,” or having a large wardrobe the province of the rich and famous. Everyone can look good.
The Disadvantages of Fast Fashion
- Cheap materials and poor workmanship: Because the clothing is made overseas, fast fashion is also seen as contributing to a decline in the U.S. garment industry, where labor laws and workplace regulations are stronger, and wages are better. If a consumer buys multiple fast fashion garments, cheap as they are, it eventually costs them more than buying a few pricier ones that last longer.
- Encourages a “throw-away” consumer mentality: That’s why it’s also called disposable fashion. Many fast fashionistas in their teens and early twenties—the age group the industry targets—admit they only wear their purchases once or twice.9
- Bad for the environment: Critics contend that fast fashion contributes to pollution, waste, and planned obsolescence due to its cheap materials and manufacturing methods. The poorly made garments don’t age well, but they can’t be recycled because they’re predominantly (over 60%) made of synthetics. So when they’re discarded, they mold in landfills for years.10
- Associated with exploitative, abusive labor practices: Manufacturers are generally based in developing countries—and some have been none too stringent in overseeing their subcontractors nor transparent about their supply chain. That’s led to critics charging that fast fashion is built on bad working conditions, poor pay, and other abusive, exploitative practices.
- Intellectual property theft: Some designers allege that their designs have been illegally duplicated and mass-produced by fast fashion companies.
Fast Fashion vs. Slow Fashion
If fast fashion is getting garments to consumers as quickly as possible, regardless of the impact on workers and the environment, slow fashion is the exact opposite.
Slow fashion—a concept first introduced in 2008 by fashion and sustainability consultant Kate Fletcher—uses environmentally friendly processes and materials through “mindful manufacturing,” focusing on quality rather than quantity.
1213 Mindful manufacturing, an idea championed by 3D printing company Stratasys, is the concept of developing more efficient production, sound chemical and solid waste disposal practices, reusable materials, and recycled packaging.
How to Avoid Fast Fashion
It’s difficult to avoid products manufactured by companies that practice fast fashion completely; however, it’s not impossible. One of the issues is consumerism and price; many people cannot afford the actual products fast fashion imitates but are still obsessed with the latest fashions.
Apart from resisting the urges of consumerism, there are some steps you can take to reduce the impact of your purchases:
Investigate the brands you like and see if they use sustainable processes and fair labor practices. You can buy your clothes at secondhand stores, which helps to reduce the amount of garment waste and extends their usage.
Additionally, speaking up and advocating against fast fashion and consumerism is one of the best ways to ensure awareness spreads. Most people are unaware of fast fashion’s social and environmental impact—only with everyone doing their part to raise awareness will accountability be forced onto the companies making these products.
What Is Fast Fashion and Why Is It Important?
Fast fashion is getting garments that imitate new styles to market as quickly as possible, regardless of the impact on the environment and people’s health.
Who Benefits From Fast Fashion?
Consumers who enjoy the latest fashion with the convenience of low prices benefit, but the primary beneficiaries are investors, owners, and other stakeholders who profit from the practice.