Good question! And it’s well-timed, because it feels as though fast fashion brands are trying every greenwashing trick in the book to convince us that they are “going green”.
Let’s unpack that.
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First let’s remind ourselves about what fast fashion is. Fast fashion is a business model that is dependent on ever-increasing profits through overproduction and overconsumption.
Fast fashion brands create clothing — typically made from synthetic plastic fibers — that is cheaply and rapidly made in large quantities. This clothing copies styles worn on runways, by celebrities, on social media, and created by independent designers.
Some fast fashion retailers might even copy from other fast fashion brands’ designs (or knock-offs).
Fast fashion brands, such as Zara and H&M, release new styles on the weekly. Now we’re also seeing the rise of ultra-fast fashion giants — including Shein, Boohoo, and Pretty Little Thing — that introduce thousands of new styles daily, encouraging a rapid turnover of our closets.
Fast fashion is artificially cheap. Prices are kept low so that people don’t think twice about buying more. These low prices enable corporations to produce more, because it costs so little. This low cost hides the true environmental cost of this overproduction which includes carbon emissions, plastic pollution, excessive water use, and loss of biodiversity.
This cheap clothing affects people too. The people in fast fashion supply chains are stuck in cycles of poverty, because they are not paid living wages. The health of communities in garment production regions suffer because of the use of toxic chemicals and pollution. And communities in the Global South, as well as natural environments, shoulder the burden of the waste that comes from creating too much clothing.
So this business model is fundamentally dependent on unjust exploitation and extraction.
Because of this, the simple answer to your question is: no, fast fashion as a business model will never be sustainable.
But here’s where the confusion comes in. As we live through a climate crisis and the sustainable fashion movement continues to grow, fast fashion has caught onto these rising sustainability concerns.
In attempts to remain relevant and retain — or even grow — their customer base, they are trying everything from conscious collections made with natural and recycled fibers, in-store take-back programs that promise to recycle your old clothes, to sustainability reports, and sustainable fashion certifications.
To be clear, this still doesn’t make fast fashion sustainable. It’s a flawed business model, because the speed and volumes that these corporations produce completely overshadow any material innovations they are trying to convince us of.
We call these efforts greenwashing. These companies are cherry-picking sustainability efforts that align with their growth objectives, not investing in initiatives that will actually reduce waste or their emissions.
Instead of looking at a fast fashion brand’s marketing campaign, we should be exploring more into what they’re not telling us.
For example, a topic you’ll never see a fast fashion brand addressing (though they might say they’re addressing it) is improving the livelihoods of their workers and paying living wages. Sustainability isn’t only about eco-friendly materials, it’s also about ethics and caring for the people in your supply chain.
Fast fashion corporations will also never talk about slowing down or degrowth. No matter how much marketing fuss fast fashion brands make about their material innovations and attempts to go circular, unless they start producing less, their harm will always remain.
The mounds of clothing flooding Global South communities, like the Kantamanto market in Ghana, will continue to grow — even if they are now made of vegan leather or recycled polyester.
The reason that fast fashion brands are pushing their eco-friendly initiatives, without slowing down or improving the lives of workers, is that they see it as another opportunity for growth. And yet another opportunity for us to buy more. Fast fashion wants to “go green” without compromising on their profit margins and taking accountability for its social and environmental injustices.
The fast fashion business model is the fashion industry’s sustainability problem. Unless the business model changes, nothing else ever will.
But as a reminder, this doesn’t mean we should shame people who buy fast fashion when it’s what is most accessible to them. And wearing and loving the fast fashion garments you already own will always be sustainable. But more on that another time!
For a deeper dive into the harms of fast fashion, listen to this Conscious Style Podcast episode. And if you are feeling inspired to take action, you can read about how to become a fashion consumer activist.
About the Author
Stella Hertantyo is a slow fashion and slow living enthusiast based in Cape Town, South Africa. Stella finds solace in words as a medium for sharing ideas and encouraging a cultural shift that welcomes systems change and deepens our collective connection to the world around us. She is passionate about encouraging an approach to sustainability, and social and environmental justice, that is inclusive, intersectional, accessible, and fun.
Stella holds a B.A. Multimedia Journalism from the University of Cape Town, and a PGDip in Sustainable Development from the Sustainability Institute. She currently works as a writer, editor, and social media manager. When she is not in front of her laptop, a dip in the ocean, or a walk in the mountains, are the two things that bring her the most peace.