Fast Fashion vs Slow Fashion: The Lingering Impacts of a Fast Fashion Sector

Slow fashion sustainable clothes

Fast Fashion vs Slow Fashion: The Lingering Impacts of a Fast Fashion Sector

It is undeniable that in the past decade how the world shops has changed. Clothing has become disposable; trends fade quicker than a Snapchat story and fast fashion giants have come to dominate the market. As the fashion sector has created a hefty environmental bill, we’re left questioning: fast fashion vs slow fashion, what’s the difference and which is better?

What is Fast Fashion?

With fashion brands like Zara and H&M, walking down any high street you are sure to find some major players in the fast-fashion world. But what is fast fashion? In short, fast fashion brands are companies that mass produce generally lower quality clothing. This is then sold at relatively low prices, often imitating the styles being seen on high-end catwalks.

Today the average consumer buys 60% more clothing than they did in the early-2000s. 

Fast fashion brands operate on a model of ‘disposable clothing’, encouraging over-consumption through low prices and the rapid turnover of trends. No longer reserved for two seasons a year, fast fashion brands constantly release new clothing lines, outpacing legacy brands with low-quality imitations. A recent study cited that up to five mid-seasons are now frequently added to the standard two-season fashion pattern.

Fast fashion infographic

This approach to fashion has roots in the Industrial Revolution, when machines and factories allowed for mass-production in the fashion industry, but has grown to new heights within the last two decades. Today the average consumer buys 60% more clothing than they did in the early-2000s. 

The question fast fashion vs slow fashion is a multifaceted topic concerning both social and environmental issues. Slow fashion moves away from the overconsumption model of the fast fashion industry. The fast fashion sector as it stands is a major contributor to the environmental impact of the entire fashion industry.

The fashion culture that fast fashion has created may be built on the idea of cheap clothing, but it is not one without cost. The environmental impact of the fast fashion industry from production to disposal is astronomical. Relying on shadowy supply chains and forgotten factories, the heart-breaking social impact can be felt in communities around the world.

Fast fashion shopping sales
Photo by Artem Beliaikin on Unsplash

What Makes a Fast Fashion Brand?

When looking at fast fashion vs slow fashion it is important to look at the core pillars of the fast fashion model.

Multiple Fashion Collections

One of the main differences between fast and slow fashion is the number of collections released per year. Historically, clothing brands would release a “spring/summer” and “autumn/winter” collection, i.e. two collections or seasons per year, but the fast fashion system has way overtaken this.

It is reported that Zara releases up to 24 collections per year and H&M 12 to 16.  But they are being overtaken by “ultra fast fashion” brands such as Shein who reportedly release up to 1,000 new items a day to keep up with fashion trends! 

Rapid Production

Fast fashion, as the name may suggest, works quickly. What makes them “fast” is the time from drawing board to finished product. Zara can go from prototype to shop floor in 25 days. Shein can reportedly create new designs in as little as three days!

The industry has streamlined production to release imitation clothing styles in a matter of days, compared to the months that it takes for legacy brands to release new ranges.

cheap Outsourced Manufacturing

The fast fashion model frequently relies on outsourced factory labour, specifically the cheapest possible. These manufacturers are sadly those that don’t pay fair wages, use cheap materials made with toxic chemicals and are infamous for being rife with human rights and worker rights abuses.

Cheap Prices

Affordable clothing’ is the catchphrase of the fast fashion industry. This is often seen as a point for fast fashion and a reason against the slow fashion sector. However, it’s is an important factor when pitching fast fashion vs slow fashion. While rock-bottom prices are common for the fast fashion sector, the word affordable may be a trap. Clothing isn’t designed to last and this constant need for replacement can result in consumers spending more than they would have by originally buying a high-quality piece.

Product Drops

A marketing tactic not exclusive to fast fashion, this strategy is quite new to its playbook. Feeding into ‘hype’ culture, it involves releasing a product with limited availability and an often social media reliant marketing campaign to make it an exclusive, must-have piece.

Low-quality Materials

Fast fashion may be the master of cheap clothing, but these clothes aren’t made to last. Low-quality cheap materials are used to keep costs down and feed into the model of over-consumption.

The Real Cost of Cheap Clothes

Fashion workers with toxic clothing dyes
Photo by Vince Gx on Unsplash

So why should we care, bargain hunting for trendy style is harmless, right? Well, that comes under the concept of what is fast fashion and why slow fashion is better.

Although the prices may be low, fast fashion comes with a steep cost, and to put it plainly, the world can no longer afford to pay for our addiction to cheap, trendy clothing.

Chemical Usage

The garment industry is the second largest water polluter in the world. The use of toxic dyes is common. Plus growing crops like inorganic cotton relies heavily on pesticide and chemical use, substances that can contaminate land and water sources for years to come.

Studies have shown that these chemicals also have serious, debilitating, and life-threatening impacts on human health. These effects are keenly felt by workers along the supply chain and can also cause complications for the eventual wearer of the product.

The world’s love of fast fashion has quite literally become toxic. 

Human Rights

When comparing fast fashion against slow fashion, the tragic human rights abuses of the industry should alone be enough to stir a change in the hearts and minds of consumers.

Production is commonly sourced in underdeveloped countries; regulation is scarce and the faces behind our cheap clothing are only seen in the wake of disasters like the devastating Rana Plaza collapse. Worker exploitation and child labour is common in the industry while unsafe conditions have become uncomfortably expected in fast fashion factories.

Safe supply chains should not be a reason for a fashion brand to be commended, they should be an expected requirement. Instead of taking this viewpoint, fast fashion is built on exploitation and human rights abuse. 

But there are great brands out there too. To learn more about brands that never use child labour see here, and for those that pay a living wage here.

Water Usage

The fashion industry is the second-largest water consumer in the world. Producing just one t-shirt and pair of jeans requires nearly 5,000 gallons of water.

Cotton production accounts for a large percentage of the water used in the fashion sector. An incredibly thirsty crop, it takes roughly 20,000 litres of water to produce one kilogram of non-organic cotton.

Having used 79 billion cubic meters of water in 2015, the fashion industry is predicted to only keep on consuming. This number is expected to increase by 50% by 2030. To make a bad situation worse, studies show that close to 20% of water pollution can be attributed to the fashion sector. 

A Consumer’s Mindset

As uncomfortable as the fact may be, fast fashion exists because consumers keep buying it. This makes it all the more vital to understand the differences between fast fashion and slow fashion.

By normalizing rapidly changing trends and making re-wearing a fashion sin, we are breathing life into this incredibly damaging sector. However, this also means that we have the power to break the cycle, creating a fairer and greener tomorrow.

What is Slow Fashion?

Slow fashion less new = less CO2
Photo by Cherie Birkner on Unsplash

The growing slow fashion movement is the response to the environmental and social impacts of the fast fashion sector. It is an approach to fashion that is considered and thoughtful. It rejects overconsumption, and swaps quantity for quality investments that stand the test of time and were created with ethical and environmental consideration.

When questioning fast fashion vs slow fashion the answer can be found in the conscious consumerism mindset of the slow fashion industry.

In general, the slow fashion movement is built on foundations that represent the opposite of fast fashion culture:

Buy less

One simple way to avoid falling into fast fashion’s overconsumption trap is to buy less and buy only what you need. Not every Instagram story needs a new outfit and in buying less we can buy things we really love.

Buy classics

Instead of losing out on passing trends, slow fashion advocates for investing in timeless, classic pieces. Through investing in trans-seasonal, versatile styles, consumers can create a range of looks without having to partake in a disposable fashion mindset.

Buy vintage

Vintage styles are making a rapid comeback and with good reason. Apart from finding trendy styles, buying vintage reduces waste and the environmental impact associated with making new products. Buying second-hand online as well as in vintage stores is becoming more and more popular, for more about buying preloved online, see here.

Support sustainable fashion brands

Not every fashion brand shirks environmental responsibility or ignores worker exploitation. By buying from and supporting brands that match your values you are helping to support an industry that puts quality over quantity. This industry is working to be kinder and more sustainable, creating a more thoughtful tomorrow.

Photo by Edward Howell on Unsplash

fast Fashion vs slow Fashion

Slow fashion creates clothing that steps lightly on the world

When contemplating the difference between fast fashion and slow fashion, there are a lot of factors to weigh up. However, perhaps the clearest answers come with the idea that while fast fashion focuses on passing trends, slow fashion endures. Slow fashion puts value on human lives and environmental sustainability.

Fast fashion acts for today, creating consequences that we will be feeling long after the clothes have fallen apart. Slow fashion creates clothing that steps lightly on the world.

By supporting slow fashion you support sustainable brands and local manufacturers, you support enduring style, and you support a sustainable tomorrow.

Identifying Sustainable and Ethical Brands

As sustainable awareness has increasingly become a consumer priority, greenwashing has become even more creative to cash in on unsuspecting sustainable consumers. When engaging with slow fashion brands, it is important to consider these criteria to ensure a brand really is sustainable.

For tips on how to spot greenwashing, see our article here.

What materials are used in manufacturing?

Sustainable brands primarily use recycled, organic, or sustainable fabric innovations.

Is the supply chain transparent?

Transparency gives consumers an informed choice. Brands that can say where, how and who made their clothing, are allowing consumers to be sure that sustainability and ethical production were upheld throughout the supply chain. Fashion Revolution’s Fashion Transparency Index is a great place to start to examine how transparent the world’s larger brands are.

To find out more about brands that pay a living wage through their supply chain, see here.

Do they give back?

While not always a strict requirement, ethical brands often engage in giving back to the community and this can be a good starting point for gauging a company’s values.

Do they minimize their environmental impact?

Sustainable fashion brands work to minimize their environmental impact, providing measurable strategies and results to show this. These brands will also often encourage conscious consumerism rather than overconsumption mindsets.

Do they encourage a circular economy?

Many sustainable brands support a circular economy, in which used clothes can be returned to the company and then recycled into new garments or reused in other ways. A circular economy means less virgin materials need to be sourced. By using this model, sustainable brands help to reduce the levels of waste in the fashion sector.

Fashion Revolution slogan
Courtesty of Fashion Revolution

Fashion That Endures

Fast fashion is disposable, cheap clothing that leaves a lasting environmental and social impact

So still considering, the differences between fast fashion and slow fashion?

Fast fashion is shopping with impulse, it’s a model of over-consumption built on shadowy supply chains and questionable environmental policies. Fast fashion is disposable, cheap clothing that leaves a lasting environmental and social impact.

By engaging with sustainable and slow fashion companies consumers have the power to recraft the fashion industry into one that we can be proud of.

In the words of Coco Chanel, fashion fades, style endures.

So perhaps it is time to create a fashion sector that is all the more stylish.

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