What Is Fast Fashion?
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.
- Fast fashion describes low-priced but stylish clothing that moves quickly from design to retail stores to meet trends, with new collections being introduced continuously.
- Innovations in supply chain management among retailers make fast fashion possible.
- Zara and H&M are two giants in the fast fashion field. Others include UNIQLO, GAP, and Topshop.
- Fast fashion's benefits are affordable prices and instant gratification for consumers, more profits for companies, and the democratization of stylish clothing.
- On the downside, fast fashion is also associated with pollution, waste, the promulgation of a "disposable" mentality, low wages, and unsafe workplaces.
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.
Fast fashion follows the concept of category management, linking the manufacturer with the consumer in a mutually beneficial relationship. The speed at which fast fashion happens requires this kind of collaboration, as the need to refine and accelerate supply chain processes is paramount.
The size of the fast fashion market in 2021. It's projected to reach $39.84 billion in 2025.
Fast Fashion Leaders
Major players in the fast-fashion market include Zara, H&M Group, UNIQLO, GAP, Forever 21, Topshop, Esprit, Primark, Fashion Nova, and New Look. Many companies are both retailers and manufacturers, though they often outsource the actual production of clothing.
In addition, traditional mass-market department stores such as Macy's, J. C. Penney, and Kohl's in the U.S. have all taken a page from the fast-fashion book. For their in-house and proprietary brands, they've shortened design and production times to better compete in the market.
Here's a closer look at some of the leaders in fast fashion.
Spanish retail chain Zara, the flagship brand of textile giant Inditex, is all but synonymous with fast fashion, serving as an exemplar of how to cut the time between design, production, and delivery. Zara's designers can sketch a garment—the company sells men's, women's, and children's clothing—and have the finished piece appear on store racks in as little as four weeks. It can modify existing items in as little as two weeks.
Its secret to this rapid turnover is its ownership of a relatively short supply chain. Over half its factories are closely located to its corporate headquarters in A Coruña, Spain—including countries like Portugal, Turkey, and Morocco.
Its fast turnaround time aids another key Zara strategy: to stuff the stores with more goods, offering the consumer an unparalleled amount of choice. It produces 11,000-plus pieces annually, vs. an industry average of 2,000 to 4,000 pieces.
In 2021, Zara's annual net sales (including those of Zara Home) were €19.6 billion. As of mid-2022, it has 1,947 stores across the globe, as well as a strong online operation.
Founded in 1947, Sweden-based H&M Group (short for Hennes & Mauritz ) is one of the oldest fast-fashion companies. As of 2022, H&M Group operates in 74 countries with over 4,000 stores under its various brands, which, along with H&M, include the slightly more upscale COS and the youth-oriented Monki.
H&M Group functions like a department store, selling not only clothing for men, women, and children but cosmetics and home furnishings. It is more strictly a retailer: It does not own any factories but instead relies on about 600 independent suppliers for its garments. However, these suppliers are overseen by 16 H&M production offices, using state-of-the-art IT systems to track inventory and communicate with corporate HQ. The factories are based all around Europe, Asia, and Africa.
Part of H&M's strategy has also been not to offer just knockoffs but original creations via its much-ballyhooed designer collaborations with elite labels like Alexander Wang and Giambattista Vali. In early 2021, for example, it launched a collection designed by Simone Rocha.
H&M's annual net sales in 2021 came to SEK 199 billion (about $18.9 billion).
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; in addition, there are 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.
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.
- 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 molder in landfills for years.
- Associated with exploitative, abusive labor practices: Manufacturers are generally based in developing countries—and some have been none too stringent in overseeing their sub-contractors 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.
Profitable for manufacturers and retailers
Offers fast, efficient delivery
Makes clothes affordable
Democratizes style and fashion
Uses cheap materials, poor workmanship
Encourages "throwaway" consumer mentality
Bad for the environment
Associated with exploitative, abusive labor practices
Impact on the Environment and Workers
It's argued in some circles that fast fashion is wasteful and harmful to the environment. When accounting for quality of workmanship, materials, cheap labor, rapid turnaround, and low stock for quick sales on the newest fashion items, it's easy to observe that waste can occur.
However, the environmental impact is much more severe than a cursory look at the industry reveals. Here's a quick look at some figures:
- The industry uses 93 billion cubic meters of water per year.
- It takes 3,781 liters of water to make one pair of jeans.
- Of all the wastewater in the world, 20% is from textile dying and is highly toxic—many countries where clothes are made have reduced or no regulations for wastewater disposal.
- Microplastic fibers used in clothing make their way to the ocean, amounting to about 500,000 tons—close to 50 billion plastic bottles.
- Fashion emits more than 10% of global carbon emissions.
The apparel industry, in general, has been growing by as much as 8% annually (aside from the blip of the 2020 pandemic year)—and fast fashion leads the apparel industry. It's estimated to grow nearly 7% to $39.84 billion in 2025.
However, the industry growth is unlikely to be felt by the fast fashion manufacturing industry workers—profits are not returned to the local economies for the work being done. Instead, revenues are recognized in the countries the companies are headquartered in, leaving these local economies to stagnate while others enjoy the fruits of their labor.
Fast fashion companies employ thousands in their offices, stores, and factories, making millions in profits yearly. Unfortunately, workers are underpaid, work long hours, and are exposed to harmful chemicals used in the process.
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. 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 manfactured 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.
What Are Fast Fashion Examples?
Some examples of companies in fast fashion are Stradivarius, Victoria's Secret, Urban Outfitters, Guess, Forever 21, and many other popular brands.
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.
The Bottom Line
"The benefits of fast fashion are clear: more consumer spending, more profits, and the consumer satisfaction of being able to participate in a trend almost immediately after they see it in magazines or on their favorite celebrities," stated a 2020 article on the GlobalEdge, a Michigan State University business reference site. "However, fast fashion creates a host of issues that make it more problematic than it is beneficial… This industry contributes to climate change, pesticide pollution, and enormous amounts of waste." The exploitation of and danger to workers, promulgated by the need for speed and cost efficiencies, is fast fashion's whole raison d'être.
The debate around fast fashion, alternatives, and how to proceed will continue as long as people are willing to buy high styles at low prices and ignore the issues the practice creates.