There’re few feelings better than going on a shopping spree to spruce up your closet. Picking out new sweaters for your fall attire or finding the right sunhat for the beach – it all sounds like the perfect plan for an afternoon. Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Millions of clothes are sold daily, and it’s rare for the shopper to wonder how their blouse arrived on the racks. Fast fashion forms the backbone of many of our favorite retail stores.
Fast fashion…fast fashion…what exactly is it? Chances are, you’ve heard this phrase a few times in your life. Fast fashion is the newest buzzword – but not in a good way. Often, it applies to any company that’s great at churning out thousands of designs a year, but at a heavy cost not seen by the consumers. Below, we’ll take a deeper look into fast fashion and brands to avoid.
Is Fast Fashion Bad?
Fast fashion gets outfits out of the factory and into your dresser – but at a heavy cost. While it’s easy to go to the nearest store and revamp your fits for the season, it takes a toll on Mother Nature and exploits several workers. If you didn’t know about this in the past, don’t worry! Companies using fast fashion are good at hiding the messy and harmful creation process.
We’ll take a deeper dive into the pros and cons of fast fashion. If you’re interested in learning more details about fast fashion brands, you may also enjoy reading up on some disturbing facts and statistics.
Pros and Cons of Fast Fashion
Pro: Fast fashion is affordable. Outfits no longer cost a fortune, and you can get that skirt you’ve been eyeing for less than $20! It’s affordable for the working class, and you don’t need to think before creating your dream outfit.
Con: Fast fashion is exploitative of the workers. It’s cheaply priced because the labor conditions are lacking, from the factories where people have to work to their pay rates. From the $17 you pay for a shirt, only $0.18 goes back to the worker who’s created it.
Pro: Fast fashion comes out with many styles in a year. With thousands of choices, it’s easy to find something tailored to your own taste of fashion and own that look for the upcoming season.
Con: Styles are something fast fashion excels in, with 52 “micro-seasons” a year instead of only 2 seen in the past. With a new collection every week, the styles aren’t meant to last. You may find your new purchases going out of fashion soon after purchasing them!
Pro: Fast fashion is convenient. They’re seen everywhere, from department stores to higher-end retail stores. And if they look good…is there really a downside?
Con: Unfortunately, creating that much clothing is taxing on the environment. The availability of choices comes at a price – namely, pollution. In fact, 20% of industrial water pollution comes from textile treatments and fast fashion, with 90% of wastewaters from production being discharged directly into rivers of developing countries.
Pro: Fast fashion means consumers have more control over their outfits! They can purchase clothing without spending too much money, and they can build up their closet to have all the essentials when it comes to dressing up.
Con: However, fast fashion is strongly tied to “disposable fashion”, when clothes are only worn a few times before being tossed away. You may like the newly acquired crop, but how many times are you really going to wear it before purchasing a cuter blouse to replace it? As it turns out, the average article of clothing is only worn seven times before getting thrown out.
What Are the Worst Fast Fashion Brands?
We might be outlining some of the general reasons for how fast fashion is harmful, but we’ll take a deeper dive below. Through several of the following examples, you’ll be able to pick up many trends that can help you spot fast fashion brands and distinguish them from more sustainable options!
ASOS is an international online fast fashion store, currently offering clothing for women and men in their twenties and thirties. Even if you haven’t heard of this brand, you’ve likely bought from them before. They own Topshop, Topman, Miss Selfridge, and HIIT (among several others). Past employees have described the working conditions as a “modern-day sweatshop”.
After various investigations that stretched over 3 months, it’s been shown that they discourage workers from taking bathroom breaks or water breaks. In addition, the worker’s pay can be unfairly docked at times, and contracts are exploitative as workers can be fired at any given moment.
2) Fashion Nova
Fashion Nova somehow manages to lag behind other US-based fast fashion companies when it comes to paying workers. And with such a low bar, it’s impressive they managed to limbo right under it. They’ve been shown to pay sewers and workers as little as $2.77 an hour! In addition, workers are owed nearly $3.8 million in back wages alone.
Each sewn shirt, after all, only earns the worker a few cents. Compare that to the reasonable price point online, and you can see the wide price margin this company has. They get exposure from celebrities such as Kylie Jenner and Cardi B. have showcased outfits from the site, and their ads plague many Instagram feeds as people scroll along. In addition, they’re not great with transparency, scoring a solid 0% in the 2021 Fashion Transparency Index!
When it comes to profits, it’s hard to outshine H&M – but that’s far from a compliment. The owner is Stefan Persson, currently with a net worth of $20.1 billion! He is a fast fashion pioneer and Sweden’s richest person, but garment workers underneath him don’t feel the benefits of any of that money. H&M has been also guilty of child labor, female abuse, and extreme working hours.
It is no secret that they’re greenwashing, pretending to care about the environment without living up to their promises. The H&M Conscious line is heavily advertised as environmentally thoughtful – even though it’s a tiny fraction of their offering and uses a small percentage of eco-friendly materials. Even with their clothing recycling bins, only 35% of collected materials are actually reused.
You might know Missguided from their recent short documentary series, but it doesn’t dive into any of the real horrors of the company. The show emphasizes “girl power” which is great in concept – but completely ignores the strong environmental impacts that this company has. After all, a company producing “1000 brand new styles every week” can’t be sustainable!
A company that genuinely believes in feminism wouldn’t be paying their workers only £3.90 an hour. It’s worth noting that 80% of the workers are women, going against their stated “core values”. These unfair labor laws are the only reason they were able to produce their £1 bikini back in 2019. It highlighted the pinnacle of disposable fashion, with many tossed into landfills after only a few times of wear.
When it comes to famous brands, Nike is one of the most recognized names. Everyone and their cousins have a pair of Nikes, and it’s easy to see why. After all, Nike has a record of selling 25 shoes every second. By the time you’ve finished this article, they would’ve made thousands of sales! And with the average shoe taking 40 years to decompose, that’s quite a lot added to landfills in the future.
Not only have they paid unlivable wages to their workers in China, but they’re one of the worst groups when it comes to their environmental impact. Part of this is due to their large production quantities. They don’t even have a reasonable profit margin – they make enough to sign multi-million contracts with sports superstars like Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, and Rafael Nadal, all while underpaying those who make their products.
It doesn’t take much digging to realize Boohoo isn’t great for the environment – or the workers. In 2019, it was considered one of the least sustainable fashion brands in the United Kingdom through a report from the EAC (Environmental Audit Committee). In addition, they are also lacking transparency, scoring only 10-20% in the 2021 Fashion Transparency Index.
Boohoo also owns PrettyLittleThing and recently acquired Nasty Gal to save it from going bust in 2016. Their workers are paid less than £4 an hour, paving way for their high-profit margins. And those margins aren’t used to improve conditions – but they were used to give away £10,000 on Black Friday! Maybe they should focus on taking care of workers before aiming for more publicity.
If you’ve ever tried online shopping before, you’ve likely bumped into this brand. Adverts for Shein are seen everywhere, and it seems their online stores are never-ending, with thousands of styles and fits for any occasion. One look at TikTok and you’ll see that #shein has 10.8 billion views! Almost half the videos are #shienhaul, showing just how disposable the clothes are. It’s no wonder that 2020 was its 8th consecutive year of doubling revenue.
In addition, their cultural sensitives…aren’t the best. With phone cases displaying handcuffed black men and selling Muslim prayer mats as decorative rugs, the company has barely addressed these offensive mistakes. In addition, many smaller artists and designers have accused the company Shein of stealing designs.
8) Urban Outfitters
Urban Outfitters seems to be in every shopping mall around. They’re known for their trendy clothing – but it comes at a high price. They’re seasoned at greenwashing – they claim to study product packaging and revamp their “reuse and recycle” strategy, but there’s been no evidence of them actually minimizing waste.
In addition, they’ve had issues with racial profiling. The owner implemented code words used to describe those who seem likely to shoplift, such as “Nick, Nicky, or Nicole”. However, many of these code words were disproportionately used on people of color. Not a great look for the company.
9) Victoria’s Secret
Victoria’s Secret has never been transparent about its production process, but its disposal process is even more abysmal. With reports of hundreds of Victoria’s Secret bras discarded from the stores for landfills, the environmental impact is deadly. Worst of all, all unsold bras are damaged to unusable conditions before getting thrown away.
In addition, they’ve just started getting into the fast fashion industry to increase profits, but that doesn’t even get into their human rights issues. The company’s Twitter account has tweeted transphobic remarks in the past, and there’s often a lack of diversity in their advertisements.
10) Forever 21
Forever 21 is one of the oldest fast fashion brands, founded back in the 1980s. They haven’t improved much when it comes to worker treatment, and a 2016 report from the Los Angeles Times showed workers in California being paid less than $4 an hour! They’d have to work several hours to buy one of the cute shirts with a terrible caption on the back. Not worth it at all.
However, its influence seems to be dying down recently, especially as new, online brands like Shein take prominence. However, that doesn’t mean we should avert our eyes from their company culture. After all, they’re notorious for greenwashing as well, and one of the few policies they took on was donating a nickel for every consumer who uses a re-useable bag. Literally nickels from their $2.7 billion in revenue yearly.
11) Inditex: Zara
The Inditex Group has a reputation for its not-so-sustainable clothing. Their most popular brand is Zara, a name which dominates the European fast fashion market. Brand Finance marks Zara’s company value as second only to Nike, far ahead of competitors like H&M. Rosalia Mera, a cofounder of Inditex, was one of the richest Spanish people of their time with a net value of over $6 billion. Inditex also owns other companies such as Bershka, Pull&Bear, Oysho, and Massimo Dutti.
Inditex does just as poorly as other brands on this list when it comes to environmental and labor conditions. They’re still not paying workers livable wages, and they haven’t been great with human rights. Inspectors in Brazil might even put Zara on the “dirty list”, a list of companies which have unfairly exploited workers.
Primark (or Penneys) is one of the most notorious fast fashion brands in Europe. They’ve consistently had terrible working conditions from the first day and their standards haven’t improved. In 2009, they’ve used illegal immigrant labor in the UK so they could get away without paying minimum wage. Then in 2013, their manufacturing was linked to the Rana Plaza factory collapse that took 1134 innocent lives. Even though Primark had a reasonable response in the aftermath of the horrific event, this shows how little they cared about the safety of their workers.
In addition, these conditions have unearthed several controversies and conspiracies. In 2014 and 2015, multiple SOS messages were found from customers, likely from workers calling for help. In 2018, a human bone was found in Primark socks. So... what kind of shady business have you been up to, Primark?
Zaful is very open about what they’re doing to help the environment, but they’re almost impossible to search up. One look and you realize no one really knows how their products are made, where the labor is sourced from, and how much workers are paid. That in itself is a red flag.
However, it doesn’t stop them from boasting about their smaller accomplishments. They’ve held their “Greener Fashion” panel in 2019 where it donated 1300 pieces of clothing. In addition, they’re looking at water-based printing inks. However, their rapid restocks of stores and thousands of styles being churned out aren’t so great – and they’re rarely mentioned anywhere.
Based in Brazil, Riachuelo is often hailed as the Brazilian H&M. However, similarities stretch past their profit margins. Riachuelo produces the same unsustainable, low-quality clothing just like other fast fashion brands. They were the fastest-growing fashion business in Brazil, growing from 169 to 216 stores in just two years! Now they operate over 300 stores in Latin America.
Unfortunately, many of the facts around the company remain hidden from the public. However, we do know that they’ve had over R$ 9.5 billion ($1.4 billion - USD) in sales for 2019 and that they managed to produce a whopping 200,000 items a day under the guidance of their former CEO Flávio Rocha. In their own words "Sustainability is part of Riachuelo’s DNA", yet only 0.04% of the 2020 revenue will be invested in sustainability.
While Riachuelo has a Code of Ethics and Conduct and claims Social Responsibility, it is not clear if the workers in Brazil and China are paid a living wage.
15) New Look
New Look has made attempts in the past for fair labor, but their recent efforts have fallen through. They’ve reverted to using a blacklisted UK manufacturer, Knitwear, even though that manufacturer doesn’t mean the human rights conditions. Why is Knitwear blacklisted in the first place? Part of it was due to the fact they only paid workers £3.50 an hour.
However, they’re not the worst brand on the list. We give credit when credit is due, and New Look has worked to prevent deforestation through their company. However, their greenhouse gas emissions remain just as high, and this doesn’t make their low standards for worker health any better.
Spotting Fast Fashion Brands
That’s so easy because they will always be in your face! Beware of gigantic stores housing 1000s of styles that constantly seek your attention with flashy deals and sales promotions. And check out who's flooding your social feed with ads and viral influencer content featuring silly hashtags such as #fashionhaul, #tryonhaul, and #outfitoftheday.
If they somehow fall under your radar, there are a few questions you can ask yourself to get an idea of how ethically a brand produces its clothing. For example, ethical brands are very open (and proud) of their supply chain. They provide information on how materials are sourced and where clothing is made. If a company is trying to hide that information, it might show they’re not as ethical as they’d like consumers to think.
In addition, you can look at how fast they’re producing. If they’re coming up with fresh new fits every week, it’s unlikely that those are ethically produced. After all, ethical brands won’t have anywhere close to 52 micro-seasons!
Finally, you’ll want to take a close look at the materials used for clothing. Are the outfits meant to last, or are they meant to wear out quickly and get you back in the store by next month? Are they created with sustainable organic and recycled materials, or are they mostly polyester? Are they reasonably priced, or is it scary how inexpensive it is? If you’ve answered the former for the questions above, it’s likely the company is another fast fashion brand.
How to Avoid Fast Fashion (And Save the Environment!)
When you’re first trying to avoid fast fashion, it can seem like an impossible task. After all, over 60% of fabric fibers are now synthetic, meaning they won’t be decomposing anytime soon. And seeing how quickly people discard their clothing for new outfits, it’s an alarming amount of waste entering our landfills. Below are some fast tips to help you get started.
- Choose eco-friendly fabrics. Prefer organic, recycled, and certified fabrics that are gentle to the environment. Examples are GOTS certified organic cotton, polyester from recycled PET bottles, ECONYL®, TENCEL™, and more!
- Ask #whomademyclothes. Don't let brands get away with "behind-the-scenes" work. Demand transparency, humane labor conditions, and living wages for garment workers.
- Buy what you know you’ll wear! Because purchasing your seventh oversized hoodie is just as bad for the environment as it is for your wallet.
- Keep your clothes around. Wear them as long as possible, so you won’t head to the stores too often for more purchases.
- Look for quality, timeless clothing instead of ones that fit the latest fashion styles. If you can envision yourself wearing it after a few years, it’s a solid choice.
- Thrift! Shop used clothes to keep them in the loop for longer. In addition, you will discover some unique, vintage styles in great condition without breaking the bank.
- Support ethical fashion brands rather than fast fashion. Scroll down to discover great alternatives to fast fashion.
Fast Fashion vs Slow Fashion
Slow fashion describes a more sustainable approach when it comes to outfit designs. They’re not trying to push out new clothes every week, rather focusing on a sustained, steady rate of production. This also helps alleviate the disposable mindset of many consumers today.
In addition, slow fashion has the benefit of lasting much longer. Fast fashion is meant to be replaced, but articles built through the slow fashion methodology will stay with you throughout the years. You’ll be wearing these clothes a lot more than just 7 times!
Fast Fashion vs Sustainable Fashion
Unlike fast fashion, the sustainable fashion model is designed to balance purpose and profit. Clothing is made, advertised, and sold through ethical practices with care for the environment and people. High-quality, organic, recycled, and certified textiles are the building blocks of this new industry. By using these materials, the companies have the potential to:
- Slow down the effects of global warming
- Save forests – and the endangered species residing there
- Improve water quality and quantity (especially in developing countries)
- Protect animals and preserve biodiversity
- Maintain nutritionally complete soil
- Reduce plastic waste
Contrary to the idea of cheap and disposable clothing, sustainable fashion opposes the idea of cheap labor and overproduction. People in the supply chain are not exploited or harassed. In addition, they’re able to work in safe conditions and are paid a living wage.
Alternatives to Fast Fashion
Check out our selection of 18 Affordable and Sustainable Alternatives to Fast Fashion
- For Days - Great organic basics, 100% designed for Zero Waste.
- Pact – Affordable slow fashion brand specializing in comfortable, day-to-day outfits from GOTS-certified organic cotton.
- NU-IN - A European brand driven by social and environmental sustainability which wants to be an affordable alternative to the bigger profit chasing brands.
- Reformation - Chic and trendy sustainable fashion for women, ideal for exciting nights out.
- Two Days Off – A woman-owned brand for a carbon-neutral lifestyle with ethically, and sustainably made clothes.
- Whimsy & Row - Eco-friendly clothing that looks and feels great. Locally made in downtown LA!
- Grammar – Slow fashion with chic, business-attire style clothing
- CHNGE – Sustainable unisex t-shirts featuring feminist and BLM prints.
- Rent the Runway – A brand that allows you to rent clothes as needed, ranging from affordable to expensive prices.
- Valani – As a plant-based clothing brand, they offer dreamy styles from Hemp and TENCEL™, focusing on reusability and textile waste management.
Solutions to Fast Fashion
The best solution is to stop purchasing from the most harmful brands. Money is power, and you have the ability to give, or withhold, that valuable resource from any place you see fit. If you’re trying to make the jump into slow, sustainable, and more ethical fashion, you can also check out the SelflessClothes App which holds a wide selection of clothing choices – without the harm from fast fashion!
Taking that first step today already moves you one step closer to helping the environment. Even if you only purchase one or two non-fast fashion items, it’s still an improvement. With time, it’s possible to escape the hold that fast fashion has put on the American fashion industry with one purchase at a time.