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Fast fashion – a critical look into the closet

The global fashion industry, and the fast fashion industry in particular, is producing more and cheaper clothing in a very short space of time. Many young people are tempted by short-lived trends and discount campaigns to buy fast fashion on a regular basis.

What is fast fashion anyway?

The fast fashion phenomenon is a fashion retail business model based on the principle of offering a large number of collections in the shortest possible time. Clothing is often sold in low quality and at a low price. Instead of offering two collections per year – a spring/summer collection and a fall/winter collection – as was previously the case, fashion brands in many countries now bring out over 20 collections a year. Fast fashion leads to bargain shopping, overconsumption and a throwaway mentality among consumers. Between 80 and 150 billion items of clothing are produced worldwide every year. Compared to the year 2000, customers are buying 60% more items of clothing, but are also throwing them away more quickly. Fast fashion items that are rarely worn or never used do not even spend a year in the closet before they are discarded.

Large quantities of clothing

Online retail is also becoming increasingly powerful and the bond between customers and fashion brands is becoming closer through social media marketing. The Chinese company Shein is now worth more than H&M and Zara combined and offers up to a thousand items a day in its own online store. The overproduction is creating a great desire to buy, especially among young people, and the feeling that they always have to have something new. The consumption of bargains often triggers feelings of happiness after the purchase, as many new items have been bought for little money. If you buy a T-shirt for three euros, it doesn’t matter if the seam comes undone the first time you wash it. The product can be bought again the next day without any problems. The demand for quality drops for many people when the product price is very low.

The origin of fast fashion

In the 1980s, two thirds of the clothing worn worldwide was manufactured in China. In the last 20 years, production has shifted to South and Southeast Asia, where wages remain low, in order to be able to produce even more cheaply. Currently, countries such as Myanmar and Ethiopia are also being chosen by fashion companies as locations for even cheaper production.

Fast fashion and the true costs

The current fashion system leads to a high production speed, extremely short service life and, in addition, to major environmental pollution.

Ecological consequences

Fast fashion has a poor environmental footprint. Water and wastewater, CO2 emissions, waste and the use of chemicals to dye textiles are particularly affected. Worldwide, the fashion industry currently causes more CO2 emissions than the entire aviation and shipping industries combined, and water consumption is enormous. Around 11,000 liters of water are needed to produce one kilo of cotton. For example, 90% of the Aral Sea on the border between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan has already dried up as a result of cotton production in recent decades. The Aral Sea was once one of the largest inland seas in the world.

Clothing often ends up in landfill or is incinerated after its useful life. Used clothing has also become a global problem. A large proportion of used clothing is shipped to African countries, especially Ghana. But thousands of tons of discarded clothing from Europe are also stored in the Atacama Desert in Chile to be sold on to the USA or Asia. However, as there is such a huge supply of clothing, mountains of textile waste are piling up in the Chilean desert. The fast fashion industry is also responsible for environmental pollution caused by toxic chemicals and microplastics in synthetic clothing, which are released into the environment via various routes.

Cotton on the field
A closer look at microplastics

Social consequences

The social consequences of fast fashion are also devastating. Fashion production is relocated to countries in the Global South due to low environmental standards and low wage levels. The poor pay of textile workers in low-wage countries is what makes fast fashion consumption by consumers worldwide possible in the first place. According to the Cleanclothes campaign, as of 2019, not a single one of the 45 fast fashion brands surveyed paid workers a living wage. The majority of clothing is still produced in Bangladesh in particular. The country is the second largest textile producer in the world after China. However, not only cheap clothing but also expensive designer fashion is often produced under similarly precarious conditions. As already mentioned in our article on sustainable shoes, the supply chains in the fashion industry are mostly non-transparent and parts of production are carried out by homeworkers. But it’s not just China and Bangladesh, there are also production countries in Europe, such as Romania and Bulgaria, that continue to pay poor wages for seamstresses.

Slow and fair fashion as counter-models

If we carry on as before, clothing production will continue to grow steadily and will be three times as large as it is now by 2050. To counteract this, we need sustainable models such as the slow fashion and fair fashion movements. These concepts stand for conscious, sustainable and decelerated fashion consumption. Fashion should be produced under fair and ecological conditions. In addition to alternative models to fast fashion, society also needs to rethink. Clothing should generally be consumed less and instead be valued, cared for and repaired. The use of second-hand clothing and clothes swaps are particularly effective alternatives in the fight against waste. If you want to find out more about the working conditions at various fashion brands, you can find out more at the European Fashion Checker campaign. Among other things, the campaign calls for fashion companies to pay living wages in the future.

Slow Fashion / Wear-Repair-Remake-Repeat


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