The meaning & history of fast fashion

Michael Wilkins

The term ‘fast fashion’ may not be all that familiar to everyone. After all, many of us have never had to think twice about shopping at the most popular clothing stores, as they are affordable and accessible to a wide range of people. The trendiest items are available at our fingertips. There’s no doubt that we feel good about ourselves when we’ve just bought a new piece of bargain clothing, giving us some extra confidence the next time we go out!

But let’s dive in deeper. Fast fashion refers to the mass production of trendy, low-cost, and typically poor quality clothing. Big names in the fast fashion industry are Primark, Shein, H&M and Boohoo, but there are many, many more.

Today, fast fashion has a bit of a dichotomous connotation. Some see it positively, in the sense that it can be affordable and accessible for minorities, or for low-income communities. Or because it gives people a creative outlet, so they can express themselves and feel good in their skin. But more people seem to see the dark side to fast fashion, with some even boycotting it, for reasons which we’ll dive into towards the end of the post.

How does fast fashion work?

Today, a whopping 100 billion items of clothing are produced annually. If you ask us, that number is so vast that it’s even strenuous to visualise! Fast fashion’s focus is on convenience, accessibility, and affordability. The latter means that costs are reduced wherever possible. One example of how this is achieved is through garment production being outsourced to countries where many people need labour and where the cost of labour happens to be cheapest. Bangladesh, China, India, and Vietnam are some of fast fashion’s go-to countries for manufacturing labour.

Brands get their ideas for trends from catwalks and celebrities, which they then turn into garments quick enough to meet the demands of people. Their focus is on rapidly producing high volumes of clothing to take advantage of trends before they fade away.

But of course, it wasn’t always like this.

Today, a whopping 100 billion items of clothing are produced annually.

The history and timeline of fast fashion

Before the Industrial Revolution and the invention of the sewing machine, fashion was slow. People made their own clothes and cared to repair them when necessary. Clothes were often tailored to the individual and designed to last a lifetime. Imagine that being the norm! Then, people slowly moved towards wearing clothes for style and not because of practical features like durability.

The concept of ‘fast fashion’ began with the mass production of cheap quality clothing, with the term officially being coined in the 1990s by the New York Times, with Zara’s new accelerated production model being their inspiration – where clothes were taken rapidly from the design stage, inspired by Fashion Week, to the stores for anyone to buy.

Here’s a timeline of the history of fast fashion that goes into a bit more detail.

What’s the real issue with fast fashion?

Fast fashion can appear innocent on a superficial level, but there are many hidden costs. Most buyers these days are aware that the industry is harmful in some way or another but the exact extent is not common knowledge.

  • Exploitation of workers: Garment workers often work in unsafe – and yes, even deadly – conditions, with extremely low wages that aren’t nearly close to a living wage, with an absence of fundamental human rights. The reason is to reduce as many costs as possible, so brands take advantage of outsourcing in countries where protection of worker’s rights is virtually nonexistent. For example, some of the world’s leading fashion brands are complicit in the forced labour and human rights violation of Uighur people in China. Child labour may even be used in some cases.
  • Pollutes the planet: Producing excessive amounts of clothing at shockingly cheap prices instils a disposable culture, as the clothing is not meant to be long-lasting due to the choice of cheap materials that don’t last. The amount of clothing thrown away has doubled in the past 20 years, averaging at as little as 7 wears per clothing item. And we haven’t even started talking about microplastics. Read more about those tiny plastic monsters and other environmental impacts of fast fashion here.
  • Psychological pressure: A constant release of new styles (fast fashion averages a new collection weekly) promotes an overconsumption mentality, making people feel like they need more and more stuff to feel comfortable. Some even suggest they feed a kind of addiction through instant gratification and the release of dopamine. Not to mention that more environmentally friendly shoppers can feel eco-anxiety when faced with shopping fast fashion.
  • Greenwashing: As if those weren’t concerning enough, brands will often go out of their way to hide their supply chain and production processes, and try to gain a sustainable or even ethical image. A recent report from the Changing Market’s Foundation revealed that nearly 60% of eco-claims within the EU by popular fashion brands are misleading (96% in the case of H&M!). Some fashion brands may try to gain a feminist brand image but they won’t share what steps they are taking to ensure the safety of their garment workers, who are 80% women.
  • Rewards the ultra-rich: Despite brands being complicit in factory suppliers not paying their workers a living wage, the fast fashion industry employs some of the richest people in the world – many of them multi-billionaires.

Bangladesh, China, India, and Vietnam are some of fast fashion’s go-to countries for manufacturing labour.

From the 1800s when people would have to sew their own clothes out of necessity, to today when trendy clothing is available at our fingertips, the fashion industry has sped up to become harmful and exploitative. Luckily, there is an increasing interest in sustainable fashion brands who do things differently, and slowing things down.

At SANVT, we strive to be part of a movement that reverses the trend of fast fashion. Our clothes are:

  • Made by craftswomen and men in the EU
  • Crafted from high-quality sustainable fabrics
  • Designed to last, in timeless styles
  • Climate neutral, which can be transparently tracked through labelling.

Read more about our company philosophy and how we want to change things here.