What Is Fast Fashion?

By Leena Oijala

Fast fashion is described as "low cost clothing collections that mimic current fashion trends." These trends change incredibly fast, often causing new styles and trends to become obsolete in a matter of weeks. Fast fashion keeps up with these trends, but unlike with high fashion, fast-fashion garments are cheap and usually made out of lower-quality materials. Fast fashion is bought mostly by young consumers who have a deep desire to look stylish and appear on-trend.

L'Oreal Melbourne Fashion Festival - Day 4
credit: Graham Denholm/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images
Runway looks are translated by major fashion retailers in cheaper versions called fast fashion.

How it All Started

In the 1990's, designer fashion retailers were under pressure to increase profits as mass department store chains began to pose a competitive threat by developing their own low-cost and fashion-forward clothing. So, they decided to create more interest by offering an increased amount of fashionable 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. This allowed retail companies to respond quickly to runway looks and rapidly offer on-trend garments in their stores.

The Birth of Cheap Chic

Reports from the Ethical Fashion Forum show that by the year 2006, on average people were buying one-third more clothes than they had in 2002. This caused greater competition among high street brands like H&M, Zara, Topshop and The Gap, all of whom 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 such as 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?

According to the Fashion Theory Journal's article on "Fast Fashion, Sustainability, and the Ethical Appeal of Luxury Brands", the demographic that most consumes fast fashion is under 28 years of age, although older individuals are becoming more interested. Fast fashion appeals to the younger generations, as they typically are more aware of catwalk trends and want to emulate high-fashion looks without spending a fortune. Fast fashion offers the option of buying a number of stylish and trendy items that can or must be trashed after a few times of use since they do not represent a significant, durable investment.

Negative Impacts of Fast Fashion

Although fast fashion allows access to a large variety of on-trend clothing at cheap prices, factory workers and the environment are feeling the impact. Reports from the Ethical Fashion Forum indicate that factory workers have to work extremely long hours to complete orders for retailers. Use of cheap, easy-to-produce, petro-chemical-based materials such as polyester and acrylic also wreak havoc on the environment, as does the cultivation of pesticide-heavy and water-thirsty conventional cotton. Transportation exhausts 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. According to TriplePundit, 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.