For many of us clothes-conscious-but-also-budget-conscious millennials (and Gen Z-ers), fast fashion items provide an easy out to keep up with ever-hastening trends. They’re quick to find, cheap, voluminous, and, yes, pretty darn good-looking. I mean, they’re no Phoebe Philo-era Celine pieces (shoutout to Yanna for the reference), but they do a decent enough approximation of current trends for our day-to-day commute. Some of them even claim to be sustainable.
But with climate scientists calling for a three to fivefold increase in greenhouse gas emissions targets, massive forest fires affecting places as far as Brazil and Indonesia, widespread water shortages hitting everyone from Mumbai to Metro Manila, and growing evidence that only 100 of the world’s largest corporations are responsible, directly or indirectly, for about 70% of the world’s current greenhouse gas emissions, it should be clear to many that "business as usual" cannot cut it.
Thus, it is important that we re-evaluate how we perceive and understand values like convenience and sustainability, in the framework of today’s best (and worst) fashion practices. Which brings us to our little explainer, which we’ve fixed up for you in a condensed Q&A session.
So what is fast fashion, exactly?
There are two key facets we need to consider when defining the term "fast fashion": The technical production side, and the retail side.
First, “fast fashion” is a broad term that qualifies the rate at which design and catwalk concepts make the transition from concept to mass production (usually about two to five weeks, end to end). More specifically, the term refers to the broad standardization of the processes by which trends and ideas are distilled into scalable, replicable clothing items, and processes by which no-longer-trendy and profitable clothing items are disposed of as waste.
More than just being a process qualifier, though, the term “fast fashion” more recently has also come to refer to fashion brands and houses that produce clothing lines that exhibit four to five general characteristics, namely: 1) uber-trendy clothing; 2) cheap prices; 3) the availability of limited quantities per style offered; 4) the use of offshore manufacturing centers in developing countries and economies; and 5) the employment of cheap, low quality materials.
Simpler, please. That is way too many business terms in an article about clothes. I just want to know if I can keep going to Uniqlo.
Alright! In short, fast fashion is a term that is used as a means of grouping firms that practice a certain business process, much like how “fast food” is a term that is used as a means of grouping certain kinds of food establishments. And in that same vein, fast fashion houses are then a lot like a fast food burger joint, only, instead of burgers and fries you get capri pants and T-shirts with A$AP Rocky’s face printed all over them. That, and if your burger patties were cooked in a combustible, formaldehyde-riddled factory somewhere in Bangladesh.
Sounds rough. But precisely what harm does it do to the planet?
If we’re being technical about things, then the answer is that we don’t know for certain. Most studies that attempt to quantify the specific contribution of fast fashion firms to global environmental degradation are few and far between. There is however an overwhelming number of studies talking about the adverse impacts of the modern fashion industry on the planet, so we’ll be using that as a reasonable proxy instead.
Why? Because math, honestly. Fast fashion processes, much like fast food production methods, or standardized assembly lines, are designed to serve one purpose and one purpose only: the speedy production of stuff, at the lowest possible economic cost. To (over)simplify things, this business model only becomes profitable for the clothing producer or fashion house if it produces a massive amount of stuff, which most of them do.
Massive how, exactly?
We’re talking massive to the tune of over 150 billion garments and 25 billion pairs of shoes per year as per a study done at MIT in 2012. That’s about 20 to 21 garments of clothing per person, or about approximately 250 garments per cat (don’t ask).
Well, yes, but I mean, that’s just a number, right? Everyone needs more than just one set of clothes. That, and how sure are we that all of this production can be traced back to the fast fashion industry?
While that is true, it does bear noting here that a lot of the problem with fast fashion’s production model stems from both the quantity of waste it generates (as a prominent subset of the generally quite wasteful fashion and textiles industry as a whole), and the culture of waste it promotes.
The exceedingly fast rates at which fast fashion houses produce clothes and cycle through trends mean that there is a greater incentive for us clothes-wearers and consumers to dispose of clothes at much faster rates.
How fast are we talking here?
No definite figures, but roughly after a year of use or just slightly more.
According to the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and the H&M-funded Ellen MacArthur Foundation, approximately 73% of the estimated 92 million tons of clothing we dispose of every year end up occupying landfills (if we’re lucky), or being converted into additional carbon dioxide emissions through clothes-burning disposal techniques.
The latter is especially appalling given that a 2016 report commissioned by the global consulting firm McKinsey and Company projected that over 60% of the clothes incinerated within a given calendar year were also produced within that same year or year and a half, and that such techniques were seemingly widespread amongst fashion houses of all sizes. Notorious perpetrators include a popular Swedish retailing giant and a stately British luxury goods brand. It’s also worth slipping in here that the life cycle of an average clothing item in use has decreased 36% over the past 15 years while clothing sales have doubled over the same period, according to the same MacArthur Foundation study cited previously.
Great! So this is the part where we talk about solutions now...right?
We haven’t even started talking about how water intensive the whole industry is, and the labor conditions many fast fashion manufacturers and retailers put laborers through.
First, the United Nations attributes at least 20% of global wastewater production to the activities of the fashion industry alone. The MacArthur Foundation report also states that the fashion and textiles industry as a whole consumes about 4% of the world’s water supply, with approximately 80-90% of that consumption occurring in areas that are already experiencing severe shortages of clean and potable water (e.g. India, China). About 1.5 million tonnes (or 50 billion plastic bottles’ worth) of microplastics are additionally dumped into the ocean each year as a result of textile and fashion industry activity (e.g. washing, dyeing).
Also, labor conditions in many fast fashion chains’ manufacturing plants aren’t the greatest, to understate things. Garment workers operating in these textile and garment manufacturing plants often have no choice but to expose themselves to hazardous and carcinogenic chemicals. Workers in notable chain-affiliated garment factories allegedly receive below minimum wage rates for their efforts (without their consent), ply their trades in substandard working conditions (e.g. buildings that don’t comply with national fire codes and workstations that have a shortage of safety equipment), and slog through 100+ hour work weeks. The 2015 Kentex factory fire in Valenzuela, which killed 72 factory workers, and a 2013 garment factory collapse in Dhaka which killed over 1,000 both come to mind here.
(And if you think I’m being too unfair to a certain fashion retail group, here’s a 2015 Atlantic report on human trafficking allegations in the manufacturing arms of a well-lauded and environmentally-active “slow fashion” American outdoor clothing company.)
Are there alternatives to fast fashion or big retail companies that I can patronize?
There’s a movement that sprung out of the “conspicuous consumption” crusade of the late 2000s actually called “slow fashion,” and it’s pretty alright.
What is slow fashion?
It’s the opposite of fast fashion, to put it simply. No, okay, kidding aside, if the “fast” in fast fashion refers to the speed at which brands and organizations are able to cycle through seasons, products, trends, and production methods, then “slow” fashion refers to a specific cluster of brands and organizations that advocate for the deliberate deceleration of lead times between product conceptualization to shelf-readiness.
To put that mess of a statement in simpler terms, “slow fashion,” much like fast fashion, can refer to both a category of fashion houses that adhere to a specific process of producing clothes, or the actual clothing lines produced by these fashion houses and brands.
First, with regards to the former, “slow fashion” primarily refers to the comparatively longer time gaps placed between collections (or at least the process by which ideas become collections, and collections become wearable shelf-items, and shelf-items become waste if at all).
This all still seems very abstract. How can I better distinguish “fast” fashion from “slow” fashion?
To make things easier, you can spot “fast” and “slow” fashion labels by their attentiveness to seasons. While a fast or “conventional” fashion house might produce multiple, new apparel lines every season (i.e. Spring-Summer, Fall-Winter), slow fashion companies might produce clothes once every few years, or once a season, or only whenever the owners or designers feel like there’s a credible new development in trends or technologies that absolutely cannot be done without.
And while “slow fashion” is a rather informal and fluid term, it can, much like fast fashion, also be distilled into four to five primary characteristics, namely: 1) The use of old clothes, garments, and materials in the production of a “new” product, 2) a limited set of clothing items or lines, 3) a commitment to minimizing waste in its production schedule, and 4) a more public and measurable commitment to ethical and community-based labor practices.
If I’m again to use the burger joint example, then slow fashion companies are ideally a lot like those free-range, employee-owned food communes where foodstuffs are sourced locally and prepared in full compliance with regulatory standards (though maybe not made to order).
That sounds great! Any brands you’re feeling as of the moment?
I’m glad you asked! A few brands I’m looking at (and own a few pieces of clothing from) include: Veja (men’s and women’s sneakers), Noah (casualwear—and the head designer used to be the ex-head designer for Supreme!), and Patagonia (sort of). For ladieswear, I hear Reformation and Stella McCartney are pretty good.
I'm all for more conscious consumption, definitely, but slow fashion brands often aren't priced for mass markets. They can get mad expensive and even people who can afford them find their prices off-putting. This isn’t to mention the fact that many people can’t afford these clothes. To call slow fashion a “primary solution” is to ignore other interconnected societal issues, such as rampant income inequality, or you know, late stage capitalism. Is there a way slow fashion can be more affordable?
Yes! “Slow fashion” in my book also means not buying stuff and going second-hand unless you absolutely have to get something new for your wardrobe...but more on that later.
Going back, while slow fashion is a more conscientious alternative to purchasing good clothes, it’s not exactly what I’d call a “sustainable” answer to today’s fast fashion-driven clothing waste problem, first because, economically speaking, conspicuous consumption is not an option available to large swaths of the population, as you mentioned.
It’s good to note here as well that consumption for consumption’s sake, for all economic and ecological intents and purposes, defeats the purpose, regardless of what kind of product one buys. By “consumption for its own sake,” I mean the uncritical mindset of simply buying a “sustainable” clothing item because it is labeled as “sustainable.” To patronize “sustainable products” after all, we must realize, is just half the solution (i.e. making sure we minimize whatever necessary carbon footprint we must produce in order to fulfill our basic needs).
The other half (and the more proactive half, I must add), involves cutting down on our own overall consumption of clothes. And to that end, I personally believe that “fast” and “slow” fashion labels play less of a part. Why? Because in the end, “fast” or “slow,” at least from our standpoint and not the manufacturer’s, is just a matter of how willing we are to maximize (or how flippant we are with disposing of) the clothing items we own.
Simply put: Someone who buys a “sustainable” fleece jacket only to have it hastily replaced after 3 weeks is not a “slow fashion patron,” in the same way that your run-of-the-mill Instagram clothing reseller is not necessarily a “fast fashion” advocate when he/she hawks his/her second-hand pair of Big Retail Brand X low-cut jeans.
Noted. But lastly, what do you want me to do, specifically? How can we combat fast fashion’s considerable waste problem, now that slow fashion as an alternative is out of the picture?
Okay, first: Slow fashion, we need to stress here, however, does not just refer to clothing brands that follow relatively more sustainable sourcing and labor practices. “Slow fashion”, much like “fast fashion,” refers primarily to an ecosystem of clothes producers, designers, and users that adhere to shared principles regarding clothes production, use, and disposal. It’s the mindset, more than the actual brands, that we’re trying to get you to explore and, hopefully, embrace.
As for actual, direct actions you can take to combat the waste issue: First is to only buy the clothes you need! Keep your wardrobe minimal if you can afford to. Unless there’s an absolute, functional need for you to go out and buy that cute new top, maybe think again before pulling the trigger.
One of the key takeaways we want you to have from this article is that the fast fashion sector’s primary problem is overproduction. We produce over 150 billion garments per year, only to have a vast majority (73%) of the garments we produced within that same year reduced to carbon dioxide and landfill deposits. There’s a heavier imputed cost to buying new clothes nowadays. Do your part to at least not make things worse.
That being said: That doesn’t mean that buying new clothes for yourself is a sin! Absolutely not. Times and people and seasons change. Shirts start to shrink in the laundry. Your pants get too tight (or too loose). The graphics on your favorite T-shirt get so worn out that passers-by can literally see through your shirt straight through to your skin. It’s a fact of life that wear and tear occurs and that we need to replace things. All and good!
In that case, then maybe take the time out to invest in a few truly “slow” pieces that can grow alongside you. Additionally, don’t be afraid to go searching for second-hand items! A lot of us over here at Preview do it (and we’d like to think we look great!). Who knows, after all—the beauty of going through a lot of these secondhand outlets is that you often chance upon pieces that speak to you and only you. You can’t put a price on that connection, you know? Much like how you can’t put a price on our connection to Mother Earth.
More than the conscientiousness after all by which we curate our brands, or pick out clothes in our closet, perhaps it’s time we start getting more judicious with respect to what we’re consuming. Brands come and go, and when styles, trends, designers, and (yes) even our looks fade away, the planet keeps on turning. And when it turns, note that it isn’t just turning for you. It’s turning as well for those who’ve yet to come, and those who’ve yet to explore who they are.
Get dialed into the broader climate justice movement!
The first step, after all, towards being able to combat climate change, is to arm yourself with, as Greta Thunberg would it put it: “the science.” When you have time, read climate reports. Do your homework. Try and monitor your own carbon footprint at home.
Additionally, follow the news and stay informed! Many outlets don’t even require you to read full reports anymore. Sites like @bbcminute have started putting news out on Instagram in cute, digestible, 5-7 minute chunks. It also helps you understand the inherent intersectionality of many climate issues. For starters: Extrajudicial environmental activist killings locally have at least tripled in the last three years.
And if you think you have what it takes to really step up, then participate in local environmental advocacy orgs. There are a number throughout the Metro that I personally think do good work, from well-known ones such as Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund, to smaller ones such as Youth Strike For Climate Philippines, the Philippine Movement for Climate Justice, and even Bye Bye Plastic Bags PH! Never, ever underestimate the power of collectives in forwarding issues of common good.
And speaking of common good—the key takeaway from all this is the fact that the environment will more likely than not outlast us all. Brands, designers, and styles come and go, but throughout it all the planet keeps on turning. And when it turns, note that it isn’t just turning for you. It’s turning as well for those who’ve yet to come, and those who’ve yet to explore who they are.