Let’s talk about…Fast fashion

The true cost of cheap online hauls

(A student’s perspective) 

This week, there were a lot of pictures circulating showing the mountains of discarded clothing piled up in the Atacama desert in Chile. At least 39,000 tonnes of clothing is dumped in the Atacama desert, the driest desert in the world, a clear-cut example of the devasting effects fast fashion is wrecking in modern times.

The term ‘fast fashion’ describes the mass production of ‘trendy’ clothing at low cost, a practice that high-street brands have been guilty of for a long time. By carrying out clothes production overseas where workers aren’t paid fairly for their labour, and by using cheap, synthetic materials, these companies are able to churn out huge amounts of clothing at a fraction of the more realistic cost, in a fraction of the time. Naturally enough, this decrease in quality and increase in quantity has led to massive amounts of clothing waste, as evident in the pictures of the Atacama desert that were circulating this week.

However, it is not just in the dumping of discarded clothes that fast fashion hurts the environment; the production process itself is extremely harmful. Given the hugely competitive aspect of fast fashion between brands and the pressure to reduce cost and speed up production, companies often cut ‘environmental corners’ to maximise profits. Additionally, the nature of the synthetic materials used leads to significant environmental effects during production, adding to global warming and microplastic pollution. However, even when synthetic materials aren’t used, and clothing is made from cotton or denim, the sheer amount of garments being made requires a substantial amount of water. All this considered, it comes as no surprise to learn that fast fashion is one of the world’s highest polluting industries after oil and gas.

Fast fashion has been a phenomenon since the early 1990s, when the term was first coined by the New York Times to describe Zara’s mission to get a garment from design stage to being available for purchase in as little as fifteen days. However, as of 2020 the fast fashion giant Shein had managed to get this process down to only three days.

Shein is an online fast fashion brand that exploded in popularity recently, particularly due to the hype it received on social media for being even cheaper and trendier than its high-street counterparts. In fact, if you found yourself scrolling through TikTok at any point in the last year or two, chances are you came across your fair share of Shein ‘hauls’. The haul has been a popular convention on social media for quite some time, and relatively harmlessly so, but lately, there has been a tendency for these hauls to come about as a result of bulk buying fast fashion.

It seems social media is sometimes guilty of giving fast fashion a platform on which to thrive. The aforementioned hauls act as a form of free advertising for these companies, as well as adding to their sales directly – as do the posts which recommended dupes for those whose only affordable option is fast fashion.

The impact of social media on these brands’ profitability is what saw Shein rocket to success via TikTok last year, and brands are very aware of this impact. Trend cycles have shortened drastically in just the last handful of years, likely in large part due to the availability of new, cheap clothing that fast fashion provides. However, it appears to me that the advent of social media has played a role in this too.

Upon new releases, brands will send out PR packages to every influencer with a big enough audience, leading to a sudden saturation on social media with that brand or particular item. In turn, people begin to buy into the trend, until eventually it becomes old news, until the next thing comes along and it all begins again. Of course, the dying out of a fashion trend is understandable, but it is the sheer pace at which these trends are dying out that is feeding into the fast fashion problem. When clothes are cheap enough to be bought on a whim, and when fashion trends are subject to the short attention span of the internet, we end up the surplus of microtrends that fast fashion thrives on.

Fortunately, due to increasing eco-consciousness, the tide is beginning to turn. More and more people are abandoning fast fashion, or at least reducing their consumption of it. Of course, not everyone can afford to shop sustainably, and besides, this is not a problem that can be solved by the consumer. Fast fashion remains a multi-billion euro industry and a serious threat to our planet, something which cannot be undone by individual actions alone. Hopefully, an effective solution to fast fashion will come out of COP26 and future environmental measures, and in the meantime, shop slow when you can – it’s better for the environment, and it’ll last you longer.