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 fast fashion field.\, Others include UNIQLO, GAP, and Topshop.
  • Affordable prices and instant gratification for consumers, more profits for companies, and the democratization of stylish clothing are among fast fashion's benefits.
  • 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.

$35.8 billion

The size of the fast fashion market in 2019. It's projected to reach $38.21 billion in 2023.

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 (see "The Disadvantages of Fast Fashion").

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.

Zara

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 10,000-plus pieces annually, vs. an industry average of 2,000 to 4,000 pieces.

In 2019, Zara's annual net sales (including those of Zara Home) were €19.5 billion (about $22 billion). It has 2,138 stores in 96 countries, as of mid-2020, but a strong online operation as well.

H&M

Founded in 1947, Sweden-based H&M (short for Hennes & Mauritz ) is one of the oldest fast-fashion companies. As of 2019, H&M operates in 74 countries with over 5,000 stores under its various brands which, along with H&M, include the slightly more upscale COS, and the youth-oriented Monki.

H&M 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 800 independent suppliers for its garments. However, these suppliers are overseen by 30 H&M production offices, using state-of-the-art IT systems to track inventory and communicate with corporate HQ. In some cases, H&M buys all of their stock. The factories are based all around Europe and Asia, with many located in Cambodia and Bangladesh.

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 2019 came to SEK 233 billion (about $24.8 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 next 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

Fast fashion is a boon for business. 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 what 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.

Fast fashion is also responsible for big profits, especially if a manufacturer is able to jump on a trend before the competition. The speed at which fast fashion moves tends to help retailers avoid markdowns, which cut into margins. If there are any losses, fast-fashion companies are able to recover quickly by launching a new clothing line, design, or product.

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. No longer is the latest look or being "well-dressed," or having a large wardrobe the province of the rich and famous.

For that reason, advocate argue fast fashion has had a democratizing influence on fashion—and on society. Even those of modest means can constantly buy smart new clothes, indulge in fun or impractical items, and wear something different every day.

The Disadvantages of Fast Fashion

Despite the advantages for customers, fast fashion has also been criticized because it encourages a “throw-away” attitude. 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're only wearing their purchases once or twice.

You could debate whether such a disposable mentality really results in the economy: If multiple purchases of fast fashion garments, cheap as they are, end up eventually costing the consumer more than buying a few pricier ones that last longer.

Certainly, it costs the planet more. Critics contend that fast fashion contributes to pollution, waste, and planned obsolescence, due to the cheap materials and manufacturing methods it uses. The poorly made garments don't age well, but they can't be recycled, since they're predominantly (over 60%) made of synthetics. So when they're discarded, they molder in landfills for years.

Most fast fashion companies outsource the production of their goods—usually to manufacturers 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. 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.

Fast fashion has also been criticized on intellectual property grounds, with some designers alleging that their designs have been illegally duplicated and mass-produced by the fast fashion companies.

Pros
  • Profitable for manufacturers and retailers

  • Offers fast, efficient delivery

  • Makes clothes affordable

  • Democratizes style and fashion

Cons
  • Uses cheap materials, poor workmanship

  • Encourages "throwaway" consumer mentality

  • Has negative environmental impact

  • Associated with exploitative, abusive labor practices

Fast Fashion FAQs

What Is Considered Fast Fashion?

Fast fashion relates to clothing and accessories that move from the designer sketchpad to the store in the shortest amount of time possible—often in a matter of a month, vs. close to a year in traditional industry practice. Fast fashion merchandise is produced cheaply and priced cheaply. The clothes don't last, but they're not meant to—they're often throwaways, aimed to cash in on a trend, worn a few times, and then discarded in favor of the next big thing or celebrity sighting.

What Are Some Problems With Fast Fashion?

To keep prices low, fast fashion companies tend to use outsourced and often underpaid labor in factories located overseas. There's frequently little oversight of working conditions or of manufacturing processes, which may be polluting the water, air, and land.

"More broadly, the blindingly fast pace at which clothes are now manufactured, worn, and discarded means that they’ve become more disposable, more commodities than keepsakes," as a Vox columnist wrote in 2020. Fast fashion encourages a wasteful, "disposable mentality" attitude among consumers. This, in turn, creates another environmental problem: Tons of clothing clogging up landfills and garbage dumps (since they're made largely of synthetic materials, fast fashion clothes can be recycled easily).

Is Fast Fashion Bad for the Economy?

It's debatable whether fast fashion is bad for the economy. 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 $38.21 billion in 2023. Fast fashion companies employ thousands in their offices, stores, and factories and make millions in profits each year.

But some critics argue fast fashion has ultimately negative economic results. It costs countries and their economies when workers are underpaid or become sick or injured due to poor working conditions (two charges laid at the fast fashion industry's door). The field's large carbon footprint can also cost a lot in terms of environmental clean-up. Finally, critics charge fast fashion encourages a wasteful, get-it-and-spend-it attitude among consumers, at the price of good savings and investing habits.

What Are Examples of Fast Fashion?

H&M (founded 1947) and Zara (founded 1975) are two of the oldest names in fast fashion. Other big companies include UNIQLO, GAP, Forever 21, and TopShop. Boohoo, Shein, and Fashion Nova are other up-and-coming, online-oriented fast fashion companies.

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." And also, the article noted, the exploitation of and danger to workers, promulgated by the need for speed and cost efficiencies that is fast fashion's whole raison d'être.

Whether fast fashion's downsides outweigh its upsides is a debatable question, though. And the debate is likely to continue, as long as people love being able to buy high styles at low prices.