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Fast Fashion and its impact on the world

Clothing is about far more than protection, comfort, and modesty. Throughout history and across civilizations, fashion and clothing have been used for artistic expression, prestige, and beautification. The 1960s saw a new wave in the world of fashion to create huge varieties of affordable yet fashionable clothing, targeting the millions of Middle-Class Americans. This new approach to commercial fashion became known as “Fast Fashion”.

Origins and Impact

Figure 2: Paper dresses became popular in the late 1960s. It was a symptom that Americans were ready for casual, new fashion.

The origin story of Fast Fashion is as whimsical as the 60s in which the story took place. In 1967, a paper products company that specialized in napkins and plates wanted to advertise their new blended paper material, emphasizing its durability. Purely as a marketing gimmick, they offered paper dresses made of the material in two patterns. The idea was to create “single-use” dresses that would show off the material’s strength compared to regular paper. The dresses went viral, selling half a million units, and spawning a paper clothing revolution that had celebrities exchanging their Pradas for custom-designed paper gowns! Before the trend died out in the 70s, it had not only sold dresses worth hundreds of millions of dollars but inspired companies to experiment with new materials like Vinyl and Space grade Plastics and laid the foundations for modern age multi-billion-dollar Fast Fashion giants like H&M, Zara, and Forever21.

The positives –
Democratizing Fashion

Figure 3: Fast Fashion has changed the way fashion Catwalks happen.
Fast Fashion changed the way new designs were introduced. With a huge demand for practical yet eye-catching new ideas, Fast Fashion brands became major customers of designers at the Paris, Milan, and New York fashion shows. Eye-catching catwalk designs got adapted into new clothing lines within weeks, obliterating old models of four fashion seasons per year. The approach has clearly worked. The top five Fast Fashion brands today have combined yearly revenue of over $100 Billion, 30% higher than the top five non-auto luxury brands. As a result, collaborations between luxury and Fast Fashion brands (like Versace with H&M or Victoria Beckham with Target) have increased. The net result is an upswing in clothing stylishness and something of a “democratization” of fashion.

Figure 4: The outcome of a collaboration between Versace and H&M. This dress was always intended for H&M’s stores and was available in less than a month after its display on the catwalk.
Economic Boost
Glance at the label of almost any piece of clothing in your favorite store, and you’ll see names of a large number of developing countries like Vietnam, Honduras, and Bangladesh. The global fashion industry is worth over USD 1.5 Trillion, employing some 300 million people globally, 85% of them women. The downstream impact of that employment on the lives of the employees and their families is significant. Many Fast Fashion brands also contract directly with farmers and workshops to control costs, and in the process, create income opportunities for many people around the world.

Figure 5: Much of the world’s Fast Fashion clothing is manufactured in huge factories like this one in Bangladesh. Original Picture courtesy Fahad Faisal

And the negatives
Controversial Trade Practices

Fast Fashion brands have been embroiled in a number of controversies. From revelations of paying below-minimum wage salaries to employees to turning a blind eye to their contractors’ objectionable work practices, Fast Fashion brands have been in the news for all the wrong reasons. To many, Fast Fashion represents the worst of what is wrong with Capitalism and consumerism. Many anti-Fast Fashion advocates believe that despite their combined economic clout, Fast Fashion brands are too focused on their own bottom lines and not doing enough to improve fair trade, sustainability, or human rights conditions in their value chains.

Impact on the Environment
Cheap clothing is a disposable commodity- and we are treating it as such. Clothing production has gone up by 400% compared to twenty years ago, and 85% of all textiles are thrown away per year. In fact, the average American now throws away over 80 lbs. of clothing each year. Doesn’t it seem like much? Consider this- the average cotton shirt takes 700 gallons of water to produce, and a pair of jeans takes 2,000 gallons. Shocked? Here’s more- Clothes dyeing is the second largest contributor to water pollution globally, and the energy impact of clothing production is so high that it contributes to 10% of all environmental pollution! As consumer culture has permeated deeper into society, it has created wide-ranging, detrimental environmental repercussions.

Figure 6: Clothing manufacturing and usage is the second highest water polluter. Just washing clothes puts microfibers equivalent to 50 billion plastic bottles per year.

The future of Fast Fashion
Some brands and governments are starting to take note. Levi’s for example made a public pledge to educate consumers and redesign its manufacturing process to eliminate over 80% of its water usage. The French government made a pact with dozens of manufacturers to ensure transparency in their manufacturing processes.

Original Image: Levi Strauss & Co.

Fast Fashion is a trend-driven entirely by consumer behavior, which in turn is influenced by the actions of celebrities, mass messaging, and technology. In the future, sustainability will certainly play a greater role in the manufacturing planning process. Technology is likely to have a huge impact as well. Technologies like data-driven inventory management, Augmented Reality, and others like Automated Prototyping will likely result in lesser generalized inventory and a greater degree of “made-to-fit” products without the high cost associated with bespoke clothing. Greater use of technology will also allow some manufacturing to come back closer to the point of sale, and offset the cost of lead time associated with outsourcing. All of this may start changing attitudes of buyers to shy away from cheap clothing frequently bought back towards higher quality, more expensive clothing purchased once in a while and kept around much longer.

That said, there is the matter of fashion being a global phenomenon. While attitudes might change in the West, other places in the world are just beginning to step out of poverty and begin aspirational lives filled with the finer things in life, like clothing. Fast Fashion is a constantly evolving industry and will likely continue to be so. The rise of eCommerce, increased focus on Climate Change, supply chain reliability in the post-Covid New Normal, and changing regulations around fair-trade practices will all surely have an impact, but it is unlikely that Fast Fashion will reverse its growth trend anytime soon. Rather, retailers will simply adapt, as they have a hundred times before, to the changing market conditions and give the people what they want.


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