It’s everywhere. Completely surrounding you. You may even be wearing it right now. It’s fast fashion, created to encompass the latest current trends, enticing you in with its cheap pricing, trendy pieces and sometimes promise of “sustainability”. With its explosion within only the past decade, due to the rapidly shortening trend cycle, it’s no wonder that online influencers perpetuate its popularity on social media by encouraging microtrends and shaming people not considered “fashionable”... But I’m getting ahead of myself here. What even is fast fashion, and what has it got to do with micro-trends?


According to the Cambridge dictionary, ‘fast fashion’ is simply clothes that are made cheaply and quickly, so that people can replace them often. Some of the most popular fast fashion retailers are H&M, ZARA and Shein, the latter being one that rapidly accelerated in mid 2020, a time when much of the Western world was stuck indoors, desperate for some form of escapism and thus allured by the infinite images of online fashion. With this  constant desire to fill a void, a boom in haul videos on apps like Tiktok and Youtube encouraging mass overconsumption, and the arrival of the new phenomenon, the “micro-trend” in which trends gain popularity rapidly and fall even more quickly, it isn’t really any wonder that fast fashion saw a massive boom. The constant desire to acquire has never been greater than now, nor has the ease in which the newest fashions can be purchased with the simplest touch of a screen or a few clicks. So what’s the problem? We can experience instant gratification and not make a huge dent in our wallets so why should we be concerned about this industry and the true ethics behind it?


If you’ve been in any clothes shops recently or scrolled aimlessly through an online fashion retailer, you may have noticed some wonderful buzzwords floating around like “sustainable”, “natural”, or “biodegradable”. These reassuring messages and friendly green marketing make you feel good as a buyer. Ah, this cunning ambiguity makes greenwashing an all too easy tactic to lure in the buyer into a false sense that they’re doing something good by buying from the supply chain. H&M’s “conscious” collection, for example, has products said to be “ecologically grown”... whatever that means. But the realities of these stores are sadly much more dire. Horrifyingly inhumane working conditions exist in many of the supplier’s factories; in producing cotton seeds alone, there are half a million child labourers. This creates a vicious cycle of poverty as children are forced to work as opposed to getting an education, not to mention the dreadful toll it takes on their mental and physical health meanwhile oftentimes not even receiving the minimum wage. Even if these factories do pay the minimum wage (which in many cases they don’t) in most manufacturing countries, like China and India, this represents from half to a fifth of the living wage. Take Bangladesh for example. The minimum wage is a mere 19% of the living wage - $49.56 vs $259.80 respectively. So fashion TNCs boasting about paying over the minimum wage is not exactly the great ethical achievement they would have us believe.


But this barely even scratches the surface of the damage inflicted by the fast fashion culture and industry. As Greta Thuberg remarked, “You cannot mass produce fashion or consume 'sustainably' as the world is shaped today”. As well as appalling social impacts, the effects on the environment cannot be underestimated. Cotton production uses around 16% of the world’s insecticides and around 6% of the world's pesticides, reducing biodiversity and polluting thousands of litres of drinking water. A shocking 20,000 litres of water are also used to make 1 kilo of cotton, which only roughly equates to one t-shirt and one pair of jeans. In many of the developing countries where fast fashion is produced, untreated toxic waste is directly dumped into water sources, which can include toxins such as arsenic, mercury and lead. The manufacturing  processes used to create these garments boost the fashion industry’s global carbon emissions to make up 10% of all carbon emissions (more than international and maritime shipping combined!). All of these terrible impacts are created only for garments to then be disposed of once the fashion trend is over. What’s more, planned obsolescence means clothing breaks easily. The result is that  a garbage-truck load of clothes is deposited  into landfill every second. Worryingly, many items of clothing are now made of the polymer PET, so microplastics are also shed into the ocean, are consumed by fish, and end up in your food.


But does it have any negative effects on the customer too? With the fast fashion model created by one of the leading brands Shein, products can go from design to shipping in as little as 3 days, keeping up with the constantly shifting trend cycle developed mainly by and for young people. This can nurture a tendency for many young people to develop materialistic tendencies which can have a damaging effect on mental health. Studies have proven that increased consumerism can decrease life satisfaction, vitality and social cooperation. Rapid trend cycles upheld by fast fashion brands, as well as clothing which is not designed to last more than a few wears, fuel the constant desire for more which is ultimately unhealthy.


Now that was all very disheartening, but fear not dear reader as there are several things that we as individuals can do to end this dangerous cycle perpetuated by fast fashion. Change needs to start happening on a macro level within fashion, but all macro changes can only result from collective micro actions. Here are three changes we can all make from today:

1 - Develop your own personal style 

This will stop you from being entirely influenced by the newest microtrend, and instead slowly curate a long term wardrobe that truly encompasses you. Use clothing items you already own and find new ways to wear and combine them

2 - Donate or sell your old clothes

If they are still in good condition, donating or selling your clothes as opposed to simply throwing them away will reduce landfill and clothe someone else.

3 - Consume less

Choosing to invest in fewer, but higher quality items of clothing will mean that you are breaking the cycle of high consumption, and having pieces that truly encompass you.


However, shaming people who buy garments from fast fashion brands is never acceptable. In many conversations about the consumption of this unethical fashion, classist undertones are present, with the lack of acknowledgement of the price demanded from most ethical fashion brands, and the time and energy required to go secondhand shopping, not to mention the rising prices at many charity shops in the UK.