By now you’re probably well aware (and hopefully wary) of the concept of fast fashion. You’ve no doubt conjured up thoughts of mega retailers like Zara, H&M, Forever 21, and even family-focused chains like Old Navy and The Children’s Place. But quickly overtaking these giants of the 2000s is a new kind of fast fashion. A version that’s somehow quicker, cheaper, more disposable, and more addictive than its predecessor. Join us as we take a brief look at ultra-fast fashion: what it is, who it affects, and what it means for the future of fashion.
What is Fast Fashion?
Fast fashion first started to gain popularity in the mid 2000s as a go-to choice for teens, young families and folks on a budget. In contrast to the traditional quarterly fashion calendar, these multinationals ushered in a new era of consumerism with their speed to market and low costs. Brands like H&M could take a trend from fashion week and have it designed, sewn, shipped, and merchandised in a store within just a few weeks. Most Zara shoppers can attest to the rapid turnover within stores, inciting an insatiable need to buy. In fact, this Atlantic article noted, “whereas the average shopper visited any given store about four times a year, Zara shoppers stopped in once every three weeks.”
Motivated by the ever-changing styles and a low financial risk, customers flocked to fast fashion brands. The financial recession of 2008 solidified this new business model’s hold on both consumers and investors. Fast fashion was seen as affordable and accessible, and as a result, it was here to stay.
Many argue that this was the moment our relationship to our clothing began to shift. From 2000-2015, clothing production increased twofold, but prices continued to plummet. The average consumer was spending roughly the same amount on clothing each year, but getting double the amount. “At its peak, in 2015, Forever 21 made $4.4 billion in global sales,” according to The Atlantic.
It’s easy to see how the constant availability of cheap, trendy clothing has changed the way we consume fashion. According to Bloomberg Green, Americans dispose of up to 11.3 million tons of textile waste a year. That’s equivalent to 2,150 pieces per second. And with this comes a steep environmental and social toll.
At least 60% of our clothing is made from synthetic materials like polyester and nylon (and is expected to double by 2030). Harsh dyes and chemicals are used to treat and finish clothing, most of which ends up polluting waterways and impacting the local quality of life. When these petroleum-based fabrics break-down in landfill, they release harmful gases like methane into the environment, contributing to global warming. To keep costs down, fast fashion brands typically rely on subcontracted work from countries with exploitative environmental and labour laws. Clothing is shipped all over the globe in order to take advantage of the cheapest regions to produce in, leading to even more emissions caused by transportation.
What Is Ultra Fast Fashion?
Now, we find ourselves in the middle of yet another shift in fashion. One that moves away from the brick-and-mortar retail goliaths and towards the agile and decentralized world of eCommerce. Today, companies such as Shein, those within the Boohoo group (boohoo, boohooMAN, PrettyLittleThing, Nasty Gal) and Fashion Nova are dominating. Guided by the same unethical business practices and disregard for the environment, this ultra-fast business model relies on many factors including cheap labour, favourable import/export laws, minimal or no physical locations, less inventory on-hand, quicker turnaround times and, most of all, our data.
What sets this new wave of companies apart is their use of technology to predict demand and track customer behaviour. Most of us have had the experience of viewing an item on a website, only to have it stalk us on our social media for days, or even weeks after. Companies like Shein and boohoo are able to reach millions of people through social media without even needing stores.
In a conversation with Vox, Beijing-based writer and technology analyst Mathew Brennan described this new process as “real-time” retail. In a traditional fashion model, it can take anywhere from 6 months to a year for a brand to design, create and receive feedback about their products. With the use of tracking technology and analytics, ultra-fast fashion companies can track demand, get almost instant feedback, and shift strategy. If a style suddenly goes viral, they can increase their order size almost immediately.
As a result, we’ve become even more obsessed with newness. A quick scroll through TikTok and YouTube reveals thousands of #haul videos depicting mostly young women showing off piles of plastic-wrapped clothing they paid next to nothing for. Younger generations are getting swept up in the quickening pace, even admitting they would rather buy something new than be seen in it again. And when a new dress costs the same as lunch, that’s entirely possible.
As Lauren Bravo, author of “How to Break up with Fast Fashion”, explains, “people are no longer shopping for clothes –– they’re shopping for content.” Where fast fashion retailers used to boast about having fresh styles twice a week, eCommerce brands like Shein are now adding somewhere between 500-2000 new styles a day, according to various reports.
When trends never stop changing, it’s impossible to keep up. And the more we buy, the less satisfied we seem to be. Ultra-fast fashion succeeds by playing to our deepest insecurities.
It harnesses the power and influence of social media, convincing us that what we have isn’t enough, and that with the click of a button we too can bask in the warmth of belonging — until the excitement wears off, at least. It’s an endless cycle that many of us are intimately familiar with.
What Can We Do About Ultra Fast Fashion?
It’s going to take a combination of government regulation, verifiable sustainability initiatives and consumer activism to see real industry-wide change. That being said, there are endless ways to have a more conscious relationship with fashion. In our culture of excess and instant gratification, slowing down is a radical act. Take a look at our list below and be sure to leave your own suggestions in the comments. Change starts with us!
- Mending & tailoring clothes you already have
- Upcycling worn-out materials into useful items
- Shopping secondhand & vintage
- Learning to sew/knit/crochet
- Choosing responsible brands as much as possible
- Re-wearing & taking care of your clothes
- Considering when and how often you’ll wear something before buying
- Unfollowing social media accounts that constantly encourage you to buy
- Taking social media breaks
- Sharing information about fast and ultra fast fashion with your family and friends
- Developing your own personal style