Why Fast Fashion Industries Are Worse Now Despite Slow Fashion Trends

Rachel Lark - November 8, 2023

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Environmentalists have been fighting against fast fashion for decades. Fast fashion industries are some of the most wasteful on the planet, and despite earnest efforts, it doesn’t seem to be repairing as fast as it should. A few cultural shifts raised awareness of an alternative — slow fashion. However, fast fashion is taking a new look in the 2020s with even more aggressive, inexpensive, and unethical business practices that keep consumers returning for more.

A Quick Brief — Slow vs. Fast Fashion

Fast fashion clothing brands attempt to replicate high-fashion trends on a budget. They focus on mass-producing inexpensive clothing informed by what is in style with a hyper-fast turnaround. Fashion used to be released seasonally, where businesses had collections for each of the four seasons. 

Fast fashion brands took that a step further and released new lines of clothing once a week. This is why there is completely new stock every week when you walk into fast fashion stores. Because of the aggressive output and timelines, clothes are usually low-quality and made in unsustainable, unethical working conditions. Some famous fast fashion brands include:

  • Zara
  • H&M
  • Forever 21
  • ASOS
  • Urban Outfitters
  • Primark
  • American Eagle
  • Old Navy
  • Topshop

Many more have popped up since the early 2020s, forcing fast fashion to regain some of the traction it lost from bad publicity.

Slow fashion is a sustainable, ethical answer to fast fashion. It focuses on producing high-quality pieces with well-paid labor. It also prioritizes the environment, acknowledging how fast fashion industries are some of the most damaging to the planet regarding waste and water use, among other factors. Slow fashion brands are becoming more popular as people become more aware of the evils of fast fashion. Is it enough to create long-term change?

The Rise of Slow Fashion, a Cry for Help

Slow fashion became semi-common vocabulary in the late 2000s and early 2010s, even though the “slow movement” has been a concept known to fast fashion industries for longer. There are countless influences on why the subject became public knowledge and more publicized, but some cultural shifts are how it became so big.

The first is the scathing documentary “The True Cost,” which emerged in 2015. It is a dramatic, albeit realistic, look at the lives of garment workers and how wasteful and harmful these practices are to the planet. It exposed the shameful working conditions of fashion factories, where fast fashion megacorporations exploit workers in underdeveloped countries with meager wages without remorse. 

The film explores the social justice side of environmentalism while juxtaposing it against the hyperconsumerist behaviors of Western, privileged cultures. The documentary also shows footage from several fashion factory tragedies, including the 2013 Savar building collapse in Bangladesh that killed more than a thousand laborers. 

From Greta Thunberg to YouTube influencers, plenty of people speak out against fast fashion’s impact on the planet. Their platforms were another catalyst for a fashion revolution. YouTube and TikTok fast fashion clothing hauls were met with “unhauls,” where people donate or repurpose clothing instead of buying more. They also started calling out brands for greenwashing, such as H&M’s false textile take-back and recycling claims.

These narratives were working. Fashion companies tried to rebrand, appealing to environmentally aware consumers. Education spread to consumers. People researched clothing brands before purchasing items. Then, SHEIN and similar companies broke it all.

The SHEIN Shift, a Dismantling of Environmental Progress

According to LinkedIn’s Global Green Skills Report in 2022, sustainable fashion saw a 90.6% increase in workers with expertise in pollution prevention. Green shifts were everywhere in the sector, from manufacturing to design. How much did this matter?

Shein is guilty of the following, all catalyzing climate change and the toxic impact of the fashion industry on culture and the planet:

  • Selling products spreading cultural appropriation
  • Advertising harmful, racist jewelry
  • Stealing designs from artists
  • Selling low-quality products
  • Releasing toxic chemicals and microplastics into environments
  • Unethical wages and abusive working hours
  • No transparency about business practices and material sourcing
  • Cruel use of animal products like exotic animal hair and feathers

To some, Shein is single-handedly making the planet irreparable, which may ruin previous efforts to normalize slow fashion. It inspires companies to adopt similar business models, such as Temu, which sells more than fast fashion. Influencers are crying for action, especially as recent sponsorship deals with Shein are red flags for greenwashing.

Shein hauls are rampant on social media platforms, becoming the most discussed brand. Posting these videos is profitable and trendy, making Shein more prominent despite its unsustainable model. Because of its Gen Z popularity, it amassed $100 billion in 2022, more than several fast fashion brands combined. 

The trend has made fast fashion complacency culturally acceptable again, especially in light of the pandemic and quiet quitting. People want cheap clothes again. Playing ignorant and buying into the app is easier than committing to slow fashion.

The Fast Fashion Impact, a Highlight Reel

Shein and the resurgence of fast fashion will make climate change worsen. Here are some recent statistics about fast fashion that should sound alarms to anyone, even if your favorite store is a fast fashion brand:

  • Fast fashion is 10% of carbon emissions.
  • 85% of textiles go to landfills, an average of 82 pounds of waste per American.
  • Fast fashion is the world’s second-largest industry in terms of water consumption.
  • Synthetic fibers contribute to 35% of all microplastics in the ocean.
  • Consumers buy 80 billion new clothing items yearly, a 400% rise in consumption.
  • Fifty billion plastic bottles worth of microfibers end up in oceans annually.

Fast Fashion Industries Thrive, a Time for a Revolution

There is no need to shut down every fast fashion brand. What should happen is an overhaul of fashion industry scripts. Ethical and sustainable consultants can guide these companies on a better path, demonstrating the climate optimism the world needs in the face of capitalist exploitation. Nations and organizations are making companies promise to change, but only time will tell if the efforts make a difference.

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About the author

Rachel Lark

Rachel serves as the Assistant Editor of A true foodie and activist at heart, she loves covering topics ranging from veganism to off grid living.