What Is Fast Fashion — and Why Is It a Problem?

Colorful garments placed tightly together on a circular rack
The average American purchases about 70 pieces of clothing per year.

Andrei Stanescu / Getty Images

Fast fashion describes cheap, stylish, mass-produced clothes that have a huge impact on the environment. These garments appeal to shoppers because they are affordable and trendy. But because they aren’t built to last and quickly go out of style, these clothes are quickly discarded, piling up in landfills.

In addition to environmental issues, fast fashion garments spark a lot of ethical concerns. They are often made in sweatshops where workers are employed for long hours in unsafe conditions.

The Definition of Fast Fashion

In 1960, the average American adult bought fewer than 25 items of clothing each year. The average American household spent more than 10 percent of its income on clothing and shoes. And, about 95% of clothes sold in the U.S. were made in the U.S.

But things began to change in the ‘70s. Massive factories and textile mills opened in China and other countries throughout Asia and Latin America. With the promise of cheap labor and material, they could mass-produce inexpensive garments quickly. By the ‘80s, a few big American retail stores began outsourcing production.

“Any company making clothing in the United States couldn’t compete,” writes Elizabeth Cline in “Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Fast Fashion.” “They either had to shut down or move on to importing.”

With clothing being so cheap, consumers are able to buy more. Today, the average American purchases about 70 pieces of clothing each year, but spends less than 3.5 percent of its budget on clothes. Now only about 2 percent of clothes sold in the U.S. are made in the U.S.

In 1960, the average American adult bought fewer than 25 items of clothing each year. The average American household spent more than 10 percent of its income on clothing and shoes. And, about 95% of clothes sold in the U.S. were made in the U.S.

With such hunger from consumers for new items, fashion companies have moved from releasing clothes seasonally (four times a year) to a model of frequent releases.

Common fast fashion brands include Zara, H&M, UNIQLO, GAP, Forever 21, and Topshop.

The Problems With Fast Fashion

Although consumers might enjoy having inexpensive and stylish clothes, fast fashion has been criticized for its environmental and ethical impact.

Textile Waste

We’re more likely to throw away cheap, trendy clothes than more expensive, timeless pieces. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 16.91 million tons of textile waste were generated in 2017, of which only 2.6 million tons were recycled.

textile waste
The average American throws away about 70 pounds of clothing and textiles each year.  Srdjanns74 / Getty Images

The average American throws away about 70 pounds of clothing and other textiles each year, according to the Council for Textile Recycling. The equivalent of one garbage truck of clothes is dumped in landfills or burned every second in the U.S., according to a 2017 report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a U.K.-based charity working towards a circular economy.

According to the report, an estimated $500 billion is lost annually because of clothing that’s hardly worn or not recycled. 

CO2 Emissions

Besides the sheer bulk of waste in landfills, fast fashion has an impact on the environment through carbon emissions. The fashion industry is responsible for 10% of global CO2 emissions each year, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. That’s more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. Researchers project that if things don’t change, by 2050 the fashion industry will use up a quarter of the world’s carbon budget.

Carbon emissions occur during transportation from factories to retail outlets. Then they occur again by the consumer during purchase, either in person or online. They can occur a final time when the consumer discards the product and it is taken to a landfill and sometimes burned.

Water Pollution

In addition to CO2 pollution, these clothing items can contribute to marine pollution. Clothes made out of synthetic fabrics can contain microplastics. When they are washed or if they are sitting in a landfill and are subject to rains, these tiny shreds of plastic are flushed into wastewater systems and eventually make their way out into the ocean.

Studies have shown the plastic fibers can end up in the stomachs of marine animals, including some that wind up as seafood. A study published in Environmental Science and Technology found that more than 1,900 fibers on average can be shed by a synthetic clothing garment during just a single trip through the washing machine. 

Unsafe Labor Conditions

In order to mass produce so many inexpensive garments so quickly, items often aren’t ethically made. Factories are often sweatshops where laborers work in unsafe conditions for low wages and long hours. In many cases, children are employed and basic human rights are violated, reports EcoWatch.

Workers can be exposed to caustic chemicals and dyes and may work in dangerous situations where safety may not be a concern.

Alternatives to Fast Fashion

The aptly named alternative to fast fashion is slow fashion

Coined by eco textiles consultant and author Kate Fletcher, the phrase is about buying ethical, sustainable, quality garments.

“Slow fashion is a glimpse of a different – and more sustainable – future for the textile and clothing sector and an opportunity for business to be done in a way that respects workers, environment and consumers in equal measure,” Fletcher writes. “Such a future is but a garment away.”

When shopping, try to consider quality over quantity and timelessness over trendiness. Will the item last for a long time and will it stay in style so you’ll want to keep wearing it? Also, when shopping, try to research to see if the manufacturer uses sustainable and fair labor practices.

You might also want to consider skipping new clothes and buying secondhand items instead. Most thrift stores not only give clothes a new life, but they also use funds to donate to charity.

Repairing, Caring, and Donating

There are more steps you can take to make sure the clothes you have last longer or don’t end up in a landfill.

  • Wash clothes only as necessary, then use a gentle detergent, to extend their life.
  • Repair rips, broken zippers, and lost buttons instead of tossing damaged items.
  • Donate what you no longer wear. Use this location finder from the Council for Textile Recycling to find a donation/recycling center near you.
  • Have a clothing exchange with friends.