Fast Fashion: A Few Thoughts Sparked by Recent News

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She now spends most of her time in Asia researching a book about textile artisans. She also writes regularly about legal, political economy, and regulatory topics for various consulting clients and publications, as well as writes occasional travel pieces for The National.

Bloomberg recently reported in Retailers Chasing Fast Fashion Stumble Under Heavy Buyout Debts that ““Euro fast fashion,” featuring trendy clothing that can move from catwalks to stores in mere weeks, has taken the U.S. by storm, and distressed specialty apparel retailers are among the biggest casualties.”

That’s an unfortunate development, since as I’ve posted before, in The High Hidden Costs of Fast Fashion:

The fashion industry conceals many dirty little secrets. Its labour practices have long been notorious, with many low-cost producers relying on sweatshop production and in some cases, child labor. These and other problems have only worsened with the rise of fast fashion– cheap, shoddy clothes intended not for the long haul, but to be worn for a short while, and then discarded in favour of the next new thing.

The reasons for fast fashion’s out-performance in the US market are due in part to missteps by specialty retailers– especially the high levels of debt they’ve assumed. But there’s no doubt that  also due to fast fashion appeals to certain consumers, especially younger ones. According to Bloomberg:

Younger shoppers have gravitated to fast fashion brands not only because they’re more affordable but also because they’re able to quickly capture the latest looks and make them available in a fraction of the time traditional merchants need. Cheaper prices also mean customers of these brands, sometimes referred to as disposable fashion, have come to expect an ever-changing assortment.

And the fast fashion companies comply. A 2016 McKinsey article, Style that’s sustainable: A new fast-fashion formula, notes that each year, Zara introduces 24 new clothing collections, compared to H&M’s 12 to 16. When all European apparel companies are considered, the average number of clothing collections has more than doubled, from two each year in 2000 to approximately five each year in 2011.

Fast Fashion: Cheap at Whose Expense?

But this appeal brings with it considerable costs, two of which I’ll discuss in this post. One necessary condition for the low cost of “fast fashion” production is the poor pay workers receive. Most often, it’s people in developing countries who are paid low wages, and subject to appalling working conditions. Yet paltry wages in this sector are not just a problem for developing countries. A (UK) Channel 4’s Dispatches program, Undercover: Britain’s Cheap Clothes, broadcast earlier this month, revealed that UK fast fashion producers in Leicester were flouting minimum wage laws.

According to The Fashion Law:

Laborers in Britain responsible for making clothes for popular fast fashion retailers like River Island and New Look are being paid less than half the required minimum wage. An investigation by Britain’s Channel 4 television has revealed that Leicester-based manufacturers, Fashion Square Ltd and United Creations Ltd, which supply garments and accessories to River Island, New Look, Boohoo, and Missguided, among other retailers, paid their employees between 3 pounds ($3.74) and 3.5 pounds ($4.36) per hour. The hourly rate for the national living wage in Britain is 7.20 pounds ($8.97) for workers 25 years and older.

Channel 4 caught one textile boss on a secret camera admitting that his company is competing directly with Bangladeshi and Chinese companies to fill orders, and so must rein in its costs accordingly:

We don’t get paid much for our clothes, and we need to compete with China and Bangladesh. They can get it cheap there. How will they get it made cheaper here? If we pay everyone £10 or £6 then we will make a loss.

Burgeoning Environmental Costs

Another consequence of the rise of fast fashion is the considerable environmental costs it has imposed. Some of these occur at the production stage. Cotton– which McKinsey notes accounts for about 30 percent of all textile fiber consumption– typically requires copious amounts of water, pesticides, and fertilizer to produce. Synthetics require extraction and refining of oil– raising another set of concerns, according to Timeout for Fast Fashion, a 2016 Greenpeace report. That report also flags both the problematic use of hazardous chemicals in production processes (including dying) and high energy use (which in the countries with the largest textile sectors, typically comes from fossil fuels).

As I posted yesterday in Waste Not, Want Not: Right to Repair Laws on Agenda in Some States, one consequence of long sojourns spent outside the US is I’ve realized how wasteful so many basic American systems are.  Perhaps I’ll  express the point somewhat differently here — I mean, how excessive so many basic American systems are, and that excess translates into unnecessary waste.  Some obvious examples: the cars (or more often pickup trucks and SUVs) are HUUUGE compared to those in Europe, not to mention India and Asia (where I often find myself using three-wheeler auto rickshaws to get about—many of these powered by CNG or LPG). The food is over-packaged. I could go on.

One fact jumped out at me: the average fast fashion item is worn seven times, and is then either abandoned to the back of one’s closet or discarded, according to a 2015 survey of women’s buying habits conducted by the UK children’s charity, Barnardo’s.  In my earlier post, I quoted some statistics from a Newsweek cover story, Fast Fashion is Creating an Environmental Crisis, “In less than 20 years, the volume of clothing Americans toss each year has doubled from 7 million to 14 million tons, or an astounding 80 pounds per person. ”

I discuss some of these back-end environmental consequences at greater length in my earlier post. Much of this fashion waste ends up in landfills, 350,000 tonnes each year in the UK alone. Although there have been some efforts made to encourage recycling, this is both difficult and expensive to do at the fiber level (and the quality does not match that of virgin fiber, which is still preferred for quality production). Instead, recycling is done at the garment level, with the end product often being rags or insulation.  But there’s a limit to how many rags, or units of insulation, are necessary. What about sending garments to developing countries? Their leaders say: Enough!  Many fast fashion products are shoddy and not hard-wearing. The volume available has overwhelmed demand, and further, destroyed domestic textile production, so much so that some East African states have called for a ban on second-hand clothing to protect domestic producers.

The environmental problems are only expected to worsen as more residents of developing countries join the middle class. According to McKinsey:

While sales growth has been robust around the world, emerging economies have seen especially large rises in clothing sales, as more people in them have joined the middle class. In five large developing countries—Brazil, China, India, Mexico, and Russia—apparel sales grew eight times faster than in Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States [over the 2000-2014 period].

Even after this increase, the average developing-country resident purchases a fraction of the clothing that his or her developed-world counterpart buys each year. Overall clothing sales could rise significantly if developing-country consumers choose to buy more clothing as their purchasing power increases.

Technology Fairy Rides to the Rescue?

There are some new specialty products specifically designed to address the textile waste disposal issue, such as a new Adidas shoe made of biodegradable artificial spider silk that will decompose in the sink once you’re finished with it. As reported in a recent Treehugger piece,  Adidas’ new shoes will dissolve in your sink:

Adidas has invented a running shoe that will decompose in the sink. Once you’ve worn it out (the company recommends two years of use), you can immerse the shoes in water, add a digestion enzyme called proteinase, and let it work for 36 hours. It will cause the protein-based yarn to break down, and you’ll be able to drain the liquefied shoes down the sink – everything except the foam sole, which will still require disposal.

Now as a recovering science geek– I was an MIT undergrad after all, and also the first kid on my block to have a chemistry set– on first reading of this article, I found the concept of self-dissolving running shoes to be pretty cool. But after further thought, I noticed that the article’s a bit vague on how completely the shoes dissolve, and what, exactly, ends up going into your local sewer system once the “dissolving” is completed.  Bottom line is that it doesn’t look to me that massive ramping up of such a product– or its progeny– is going to offset the huge and growing environmental costs of fast fashion anytime soon.

So I return to my starting point: it’s sad to see that fast fashion is flourishing in the US, and that in this as in so many other areas, we’re hurtling away from thinking about what a sustainable system for textile production, sales, and disposal would look like– one that doesn’t rely so heavily on cut-rate labor, nor impose such considerable front-end and back-end environmental costs.



Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. PlutoniumKun

    I know you’ve quoted this figure before:

    “In less than 20 years, the volume of clothing Americans toss each year has doubled from 7 million to 14 million tons, or an astounding 80 pounds per person. ”

    If true – and I’m sure it is – it truly is astounding. A bit of googling gives the most common figure of 65 lbs per person, apparently based on EPA figures. I can’t even imaging buying that many clothes in a year, but I guess i’m not much of a shopper.

    One problem of course is the poverty paradox (I’ve heard it referred to as the poverty tax) – that buying long lasting quality things saves money in the long run – but to buy quality means you have to have available cash to buy it in the first place. So often, when short on money, the disposable fashion alternative is the only one affordable for many people.

    For a few years now I’ve intended to invest in a really good pair of leather shoes – the type my father would have had, and kept for many years, even decades, regularly getting them fixed and resoled in the shoe repairers. But each time I try to find one I find they are very expensive, so I end up getting something that looks identical in the sales, costs about a quarter or less than the high quality ones, but I know from experience will fall apart in 2 years and is unrepairable. In terms of mens clothes, you can apply the same logic to a good jacket, good jeans, a good suit, etc. Quality last for years and pays for itself, but you need to have the money first to buy it.

    1. Portia

      consignment stores have excellent clothing (even shoes sometimes, I got a great pair of Sorel boots for $5).

  2. Watt4Bob

    One more issue to address;

    Retailers have to dispose of unsold inventory at a loss.

    Doesn’t fast-fashion mean faster accumulation of un-sellable stuff, so faster losses?

    What could go wrong?

    1. PlutoniumKun

      Not necessarily, the most advanced fast fashion chains have very tight supply chains, with very rapid factory to shop deliveries, in effect, just in time systems. They keep very little inventory, this is why they rarely have sales. Its the more conventional shops with longer lead in times that are more likely to get caught with too much stock. In Europe, after the 2007 crash, it took a good year for lots of conventional retailers to clear their inventories, the fast fashion chains scarcely missed a beat.

      1. Pespi

        To second PLutoniumKun, their supply chains are tight like a balloon knot. There is not an excess of unsold goods. These supply chains have been sorted out and are well understood. The old days of going in and getting a bargain because the shop ordered too many of something are basically gone.
        Ironically the only place you really find that is at ultra luxury department stores, because people can find one 5,000 dollar dress immensely desirable and feel nothing for another. That is if the staff haven’t already bought it to sell online for a nice profit

  3. flora

    “One fact jumped out at me: the average fast fashion item is worn seven times, and is then either abandoned to the back of one’s closet or discarded, according to a 2015 survey of women’s buying habits conducted by the UK children’s charity, Barnardo’s. ”

    That sounds more like short-term renting of clothing instead of ownership. So if I buy a cheap blouse, wear it seven times, discard it and buy another cheap blouse, what is the cost per each wearing of a cheap blouse? I buy, say, a $28 dollar blouse, wear it 7 times, costing $4 per wear. I buy, say, a $40 blouse, wear it 14 times, costing $2.85 per wear. Fast fashion sounds much more expensive, in the long run, than buying a better quality at higher initial price from which I would get more use. Or maybe the problem isn’t initial cost but the throw-away mentality.

    1. Renee

      For many, it is the notion of having far fewer items of clothing that one wears in more settings. In France, you have a far smaller closet, but it’s way nicer. Same for children’s clothing.

    2. PKMKII

      Or maybe the problem isn’t initial cost but the throw-away mentality.

      More so, the “keeping up with the micro-season’s fashion” mentality that the fashion industry is dependent upon. Whole industry would fall apart if there wasn’t a large number of people out there who think the difference between this winter’s and last winter’s fashion is significant (I know he’s popular to cite on here, so William Gibson’s Zero History deals with this in length).

    3. crittermom

      One of the issues I understood from the article is that the ‘younger set’ of customers, especially, would prefer to keep up with the very latest (‘fast’) fashion, so after wearing the blouse 7 times it doesn’t matter to them that the more expensive (on the front end) blouse will last twice as long or more. It would be ‘out of fashion’ by then so they wouldn’t wear it anymore, anyway.

      Plus, as pointed out, it’s the initial cost they consider, wanting to spend as little as possible to ‘stay in style’, with styles changing ever more quickly.
      Vanity is playing a large part of the fast fashion.
      As a now a 65 y/o woman I’m most comfortable in boot cut jeans & a top or shirt.
      However, I still remember a different mindset of my youth.
      Vanity seems to fade when gravity & stress have taken their toll, tho’.

      1. jrs

        Yea but young people are often eco-conscious as well, so it really doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to get some of them to think about their clothing purchases more (of course they still may only have so much money to spend).

        1. jefemt

          Be careful what you think.
          Sterotypes are dangerous. There are many young people that may be environmentally educated and aware, but like the vast majority of parents and elders, for the most part have not made the profound and fundamental changes in their day-to-day living and choices. And many seemed leveraged to their hilts pursuing stuff

          Check out the recent movie, available on Netflix, Minimalism :

          There is a little bit on fast fashion in the film…

  4. Portia

    I have a lot of very good vintage designer clothes in my closet. I got them at consignment stores for $2 to $20. What does that make me, I wonder, these days? I have not shopped for new duds except for underwear and shoes and socks for about 20 years. I am a bad person.

    1. crittermom

      Portia, consider me another who is ‘bad to the bone’, as I shop thrift stores.
      While I often see some cheap ‘fast fashion’ in them, I’ve also scored some great upper-end clothing for almost nothing.
      A neighbor, for whom money is no problem, dropped her jaw when I showed her a beautiful designer sweater I’d bought–for 50 cents. I’d even found a great pair of cords to match for another 50 cents, also of good quality.

      Jeans can be the best find if you’re lucky. Nicely broken in & not the $40-50 they now sell for.
      Usually $4 or less & better quality.

      As a gift, she’d surprised me with an inexpensive (Cosco) pair of suede/shearling snow boots. The side seam pulled out (not sure it was ever secured in the first place) after I’d worn them just 4 brief times.
      Now wearing plastic bags in my ‘fast fashion’ snow boots to stay dry.

    1. crittermom

      Wow. Thanks for that link.
      A clothing designer friend is completely into sustainable clothing, currently using bamboo for her line.

      She recently discovered that there was too much pollution in the processing of it from her former supplier, however, so has now found another that is not as harmful to the environment.

      I’m passing this link along to her right now, so she can ‘think outside the box’ even a little more.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      I think it would depend on the company and where they are sold. The Zara chain is well known for keeping very tight supply chains, with much of their products made as close as possible to their shops (in Europe anyway).

      If you’ve ever seen the excellent Italian film Gomorrah, based on an investigative journalists book, it depicts how many ‘Made in Italy’ products are made in sweatshops entirely staffed with illegal Chinese immigrants. I suspect that tariffs would have the impact of creating an underground of dubious ‘finishing’ factories in the US, putting buttons on clothes made elsewhere.

      1. crittermom

        Yikes! My designer girlfriend’s new bamboo cloth is coming from Italy. (see my former comment to Portia)
        I hate to burst her bubble, but maybe I should mention this to her. Thanks.

          1. Waldenpond

            I remember rayon…. that used to be a generic term for variable recycled fibers (waste) that is now separated out as exotic fibers.

      2. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

        That’s a great movie.

        Authentic Chinese home cooking in Italy (also Spain, if I recall correctly).

        I suspect greed, not tariffs.

  5. Waldenpond

    It’s hard work to escape the US system. I rarely shop aisles and in the year without plastic, there were few goods to be had that aren’t in plastic (some glass and cardboard), I’d hit the bulk bins with fabric bags, but that is for dry goods. There is typically only a small section of produce that is not in plastic.

    It’s difficult to find clothing, shoes etc made in the US. Could someone make their own? What’s available for US raw goods?

    The instruction to just buy basics is also a challenge. Basics are cheaply made. Thrift stores might be a better option for durables.

    My pet peeve is corporations that destroy goods (will literally slice clothing) rather than allow the poor to get their hands on the clothing. We are a landfill society.

    1. jrs

      SAS (San Antonio Shoes) are made in the U.S.. Some New Balance shoes are (used to all be but they did some outsourcing). Of course some things made in the U.S. are prison labor, so one can never be too careful about what that label really means, but I have no idea about those shoes.

      1. Susan C

        I have purchased several pair of SAS shoes and sandals. Very comfortable and well-made. Made in San Antonio. As I recall you can visit their factory to see how the shoes are made.

  6. Ivy

    Adidas shoes dissolving in rainy climates? It may be a matter of time before their ‘sink additive’ goes native, to the detriment of many runners. Those in the PNW wear rain slickers, 60/40, GoreTex or similar outerwear to squeeze in that run even the most rainy days.
    I know, catastrophizing, but somebody has to do it when there are too many Onion-like blurbs in the media.


    Now as a recovering science geek– I was an MIT undergrad after all, and also the first kid on my block to have a chemistry set– on first reading of this article, I found the concept of self-dissolving running shoes to be pretty cool. But after further thought, I noticed that the article’s a bit vague on how completely the shoes dissolve, and what, exactly, ends up going into your local sewer system once the “dissolving” is completed.

    Sounds like they’re trying to appeal to the crowd that thinks Tesla cars are going to save the world. Greenish sounding stuff to get the STEM lord money, most who will just dispose of them the same way as any other pair of shoes.

  8. robnume

    I cannot stand shopping for clothing these days; everything is sooo cheaply made. I bought a new pair of Levis 505’s at JC Penney a few weeks ago. The denim is so thin and they don’t hang well like the Levis of old, when they were still made here. I still have a couple of pairs of these American made gems and the denim is thick and warm. I have a few more pounds of post menopausal weight gain to lose and I’ll be back in those puppies. Besides the environmental damage that these cheaply made new clothes cause, they do not hang well because the cloth is so thin. Also, if you’re looking for good old natural fibers like 100 % cotton they’re almost impossible to find.

    1. Susan C

      Noticed the pure lack of fabric in many women’s clothes for the past few years and how horribly they look, feel and fit. What a way for the manufacturers to make money. Started shopping at LLBean online where many of their clothes are 100% cotton and of a high quality. And they last for years. Very happy with this brand. For jeans I check out clearance aisles at Kohls to buy for almost nothing. The best jeans are the ones made over ten years ago.

  9. DSP

    I’ve found Gear Aid Seam Grip(McNett Corp.,Bellingham WA) Is the only glue that will keep a shoe together for a long time.It’s designed for fixing tents and backpacks and probably be got in an outdoor store.
    As for Thrifts,I’m finding that they are now caught up in the backwash of the Disposable Society.That’s where the stuff is disposed to.

    1. walt

      A search using the engine on “Gear Aid Seam Grip” came up with an ad from REI at the top. How retro is that: from the 1960s when Streisand created her fashion from resale shops.

      Vanity, thy name is woman.

  10. adrena

    Why not attempt to decrease the demand for “fast fashion”? I wear the same thing three days in a row and no one even notices. Best decision I ever made. Freedom from fashion slavery is good for your wallet, the planet and it frees up a considerable amount of time.

    It is possible to be satisfied with a lot less clothing.

  11. Scott

    I am somewhat nonplussed since I knew of a man who bought books by the pound to sell as pulp for paper products.
    I can’t see such clothes as desirable for all geographic locations.
    I’m trying to come up for a way to apply GDP Purchasing Power Parity to the issue of Labor in Contest with Corporations.
    It is unethical for a business to compete in shoddiness of product dependent for profit on exploitation of its labor force.
    Defense as a responsibly of a national government must go beyond then bayonets.

  12. Felix_47

    How about the fact that fast fashion is a way to lift hundreds of millions out of poverty… in Bangladesh…..and a wage in a sweatshop is a blow for freedom for many Bangladeshi women (and others in the paternalistic chauvinistic third world). That T-Shirt you get for 2 bucks gives ten cents to some downtrodden women so she does not have submit herself necessarily to one more pregnancy as an on demand semen receptacle. If we really cared about this issue how about a worldwide guaranteed minimum income and a worldwide effort at sustainable population growth. The money is there………the western women are throwing it away at Zara etc………but why not just leave out the clothing step and give the money to those who need it? Intelligent tax policy would be a start. I would gladly double my income tax if the doubled part went to economic development and birth control and I pay six figures in tax. Unfortunately the fat cat leaders of these beaten down countries would just take the money and buy villas in Southern France or Southern California.

  13. Andrew Baker

    I follow the mantra… Buy less, choose well and make it last

    Over 90% of my wardrobe is second hand. I carefully select what items I choose from in second hand shops, charity shops and ebay. I’ve found that buying pre-owned clothing from ebay and charity shops has worked well for me personally. In fact, I’ve found absolute gems on ebay, lovely cotton shirts. Obviously it doesn’t work for everyone. I do have to give in to certain habits, such as buying new underwear and shoes (cmon a guy has got to have one vice).

    I’ve only been on the this earth for 26 years and one thing I do know is that fashion goes round in circles. People should buy second hand for the simple fact that everything we wear now is not far off, if not the same, as what people wore in the 90’s, 80’s or 70’s, 60’s etc. I think even just a small rise in people buying second hand clothes would have a huge impact.

    I’m hoping to set up my first online store selling only pre-owned clothes. I don’t expect it to make much but I certainly feel strongly that people don’t need to buy into fast-fashion as it merely goes round-and-round. I also wonder how much social media is influencing the demand to stay ‘on-trend’ or leading to younger buyers wanting the newest things. Fast-fashion is simply not sustainable.

  14. Susan

    Is it an age thang or whut in this blog? Mebbe it’s cause I’m from the rust belt, but seriously, my young homies know that second hand is wussup. see: MACKLEMORE & RYAN LEWIS – THRIFT SHOP FEAT. WANZ

    Me? Been wearin’ my elder sister’s hand-me-downs all my life. Yep – shoes are the problem. Still, as one poster noted, those leather soled lace-ups last forever because they’re repairable. I’ve handed off pairs of brogues and wingtips my Dad bought in 1920 – still goin’ strong and oh, so stylish!

    For the older and more well to do, there’s Alabama Chanin And my friend’s business do-over clothes

  15. perpetualWAR

    This article makes me just sad. What a world and society we live in. I long for the days when toiling in the fields all day to feed our families was our biggest stress. Good, hard work and after the day is complete, you are physically tired and fall asleep without the need for sleep aides.

Comments are closed.