Supply chains exploiting the third world countries, (un)reasonably low prices very well weighing on the shoulders of forced or under-age labor, poor products quality impacting on the whole fashion industry, and irreparably serious environmental consequences: from the well known Zara’s empire to the new alarmingly rising Shein, these are the pillars that in the last years have shaped the fast fashion industry. And no, contrary to popular belief, fast fashion does not mean fashion for everyone. Instead, it represents one of the economic, social and environmental evils of modern times.
Fast fashion is characterised by an economic model based on large-scale production and low production costs. This approach, although it may lead to fashionable products at affordable prices, raises a number of ethical and social issues.
Suffice it to say that in the last twenty years the world’s population has increased by around 30%, while the production of fashion goods has more than doubled. This is accompanied by a collapse in the average lifespan of products, a vertiginous increase in purchases and consumption, dictated by the numerous collections that companies in the sector offer consumers every year. This creates the vicious spiral of consumption in fast fashion.
A global supply chain strategy allows companies to relocate production to countries with cheap labour, often sacrificing working conditions. Indeed, working conditions in textile factories in third world countries can be precarious, with workers facing long working hours, low wages and often unsatisfactory safety situations. Labour exploitation in the fast fashion sector is a strong concern, highlighted by tragic incidents, such as the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh in 2013, which has led to increased awareness of working conditions in the sector.
Furthermore, the constant need to reduce costs can also lead to unsustainable environmental practices, as large-scale production often involves resource-intensive practices and significant waste generation. Therefore, the analysis of the economic components of fast fashion requires careful consideration of the ethical and social implications, inviting critical reflection on the sustainability of this economic model.
Fast fashion is known for its rapid production and consumption cycle, characterised by incredibly fast production times and a constant turnover of new products. This approach aims at quickly meeting market demands and changing fashion trends. However, this speed has a number of consequences for both industry and consumers.
The accelerated production cycle often implies the use of less durable materials and less quality-conscious production processes, thus reducing the longevity of garments. Moreover, it promotes mass consumption and a trend causing garments becoming obsolete in a very short time. As a result, consumers are encouraged to buy very frequently, creating a continuous consumption cycle that can generate excessive waste.
The fast nature of the production and consumption cycle in fast fashion also poses challenges in terms of environmental sustainability. The intensive use of resources, waste generation and emissions associated with the entire process contributes significantly to the negative environmental impact of the industry. Addressing the environmental impact of fast fashion requires a profound change in industrial practices, promoting resource efficiency, waste reduction and the adoption of more sustainable materials.
Large-scale production requires an exorbitant amount of natural resources, with intensive cotton cultivation, for example, depleting water resources in specific regions. Furthermore, dependence on synthetic materials, often derived from oil, accentuates the unsustainable use of non-renewable resources, contributing to the broader problem of climate change.
In parallel, the fast production cycle and the constant change of clothing collections promote mass consumption, leading to problematic textile waste management. Consumers, attracted by affordable prices and changing trends, often quickly discard garments, contributing to the accumulation of waste that is difficult to recycle. This practice not only overloads landfills, but also limits the possibilities to reduce, reuse or recycle.
Greenhouse gas emissions during the production and transport of materials and finished products add further negative impacts on the environment. In addition, the widespread use of chemicals in textile manufacturing and finishing processes can contribute to environmental pollution, negatively affecting the health of ecosystems.
The role of consumers is crucial in this context. Purchasing decisions directly influence the way companies operate and can help shape the entire industry. Choosing to buy clothes based on price and short-lived trends often fuels the fast fashion cycle, encouraging large-scale production, intensive use of resources and poor waste management. However, consumers can play a key role in changing this dynamic by adopting more conscious behaviour.
Educating consumers about the ethical and environmental practices of brands can guide purchasing choices towards companies that adopt sustainable policies. The growing demand for ethical and environmentally friendly products can incentivise companies to improve their practices, prompting them to invest in sustainable materials, environmentally friendly production processes and transparency in the supply chain.
Last but not least, intellectual property theft emerges as another critical challenge raised by fast fashion. Where the thin line separating inspiration and plagiarism is not so thin. This phenomenon manifests itself through the unauthorised copying of designs, fabrics or patterns, often perpetrated by companies seeking to capitalise on the success of luxury brands or independent designers without paying due royalties.
This behaviour deeply damages small businesses and independent designers, who often depend on their unique creativity to thrive. The theft of intellectual property undermines their ability to compete fairly and maintain ethical production standards.
The impact goes beyond mere economics. Intellectual property theft erodes creative value and innovation in the fashion industry. Lack of protection for creative efforts can discourage designers from pursuing new ideas and original styles, undermining diversity and innovation in the industry.
Finally, if we cannot immediately hope to change this sick system by intervening directly on its actors, we can on the other hand make every consumer aware of the very serious and now almost irreparable damage that fast fashion is causing in social, environmental and economic terms. Consumers must be educated and acquire awareness. One less purchase. Prefer the vintage market. Sponsor the local small designer. As the wheel of fast fashion spins at an alarmingly fast pace and the companies that are part of it binge on the backs of everyone else, consumer awareness is slowly rising to the vitality of destroying this wheel as soon as possible.