What Is Fast Fashion?

By Leena Oijala

Chloe-esque dresses for $30. Givenchy-inspired boots for $40. That's what fast fashion is all about: trendy clothes and accessories at super-cheap prices. Thanks to mall stores like Forever21 and H&M, which quickly copy styles inspired by high-fashion runways, the masses have never been so fashionable.

What Is Fast Fashion?
credit: Ivanko_Brnjakovic/iStock/GettyImages
What Is Fast Fashion?

How It All Started

In the 1990's, fashion retailers were under pressure to increase profits as mass department store chains began to compete by developing their own low-cost and fashion-forward clothing. So, retailers decided to create more interest by offering an increased amount of collections. This became possible as several retailers segmented their supply chains so that basic items could be manufactured in the Far East, while trendy items could be manufactured closer to home in Europe or South America. Retailers could then respond quickly to runway looks and rapidly offer on-trend garments in their stores.

The Birth of Cheap Chic

By the year 2006, on average, people were buying one-third more clothes than they had in 2002. This increased the competition among high-street brands like H&M, Zara, Topshop and The Gap, all of which began introducing even more collections every year to meet consumer demands for on-trend clothing, increased variety and limited-edition collections. Even discount department stores like Target got in the game. Some fast-fashion labels now offer up to 18 new collections per year, mass-producing lower quality for lower cost.

Who Buys Fast Fashion?

The demographic that most consumes fast fashion is under 28 years of age, although older individuals are into it, too. Fast fashion tends to appeal to younger generations since they typically are more aware of catwalk trends and want to emulate high-fashion looks without spending a fortune.

Negative Impacts of Fast Fashion

Although fast fashion makes on-trend clothing affordable, factory workers and the environment are feeling the impact. Reports from the Ethical Fashion Forum show that factory workers have to work extremely long hours to complete orders for retailers.

Use of cheap, easy-to-produce, petrochemical-based materials like polyester and acrylic, and pesticide-heavy and water-thirsty conventional cotton wreak havoc on the environment. Transportation emissions have also increased due to shipping of numerous new collections. However, the largest impact on the environment is the amount of clothing dumped into landfills every year. In 2010 in the U.S. alone, 11 million tons of clothing waste were put into landfills, contributing to global warming with the release of methane as the fabrics decomposed.

So, you have to decide: is fast fashion worth it?