This is an aggregate term meant to describe several different phenomenon which came together in the early part of the 2000s to drastically (1) increase the rate at which the average consumer buys clothes, and (2) decrease the length of time a style is considered fashionable and desirable.
There are three market and business trends that have come together:
Clothes manufacturing became much cheaper and more efficient. Manufacturing companies proliferated in countries with very low-cost labor and supply chains were refined to drastically lower the costs of production. Additionally, most of these companies are located in countries with relatively lax intellectual property laws.
Media saturation exposed the public to more ideas and trends, and caused those ideas to spread more quickly.
The effort for a manufacturer to bring new goods to market (before even having to even produce them), and the effort for a consumer to buy those goods, was vastly reduced by the rise of ecommerce.
The result is that fashion trends and cycles have compressed – they have become “faster.” Designers used to have “spring” and “fall” collections that would eventually trickle down to the broader market and have non-trivial costs attached to them.
But today, within a week of something appearing in a runway show and being covered by dozens of media outlets, a vendor can copy the design without fear of legal consequences, have pictures on ecommerce websites a few days later, start taking orders, and have garments moving in shipping containers a week after that.
The result is that our expectation for the quality and longevity of clothes has dropped. We don’t buy clothes to last several years – we buy them with the expectation that we’ll wear them briefly until the styles change. As our financial investment has reduced, so has our need to get a return from it – we’ll toss out a $20 pair of jeans much more quickly than a $200 pair.
(Consider the men’s denim jacket. This was a fashion staple from the 1950s through the 1980s – it was basically a required thing when I was in high school. It had a “cycle” of about 35 years before falling out of fashion in the 90s.)
The claimed negative effects are two-fold:
- Environmental. Clothing waste is considerable. Clothes are poorly recycled, and when customers return items, many manufacturers find it cheaper to simply dump them, rather than re-sell them.
- Human. The drive to lower costs has caused manufacturing wages to drop or stagnate.
I’ve long-admired this clip from The Devil Wears Prada where Miranda pointedly explains to Andy how fashion cycles work, and how what she’s wearing at the moment “trickled on down to some tragic ‘Casual Corner’ where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin.”
Great acting and snark aside, this is a clear description of traditional fashion cycles. Today, this has been compressed to the point where the shade of blue introduced by the “2002 Oscar de la Renta collection” that Miranda mentions would have been duplicated and for sale on clothing websites within a week.
There doesn’t seem to be a direct opposite to fast fashion. I found some articles that claimed “slow fashion” was a thing:
Our efforts to stymie the fashion industry as a whole, slow and fast, must be focused on promoting the concept of staple style, a concept already in existence, and already being practiced by a small minority of clothing fans. […] These brands are referred to as classics, staples, legacy and heritage labels, all terms that define them as the opposite of fast fashion
However, the feeling I got from them is that “slow fashion” was just “how things used to be.” They’re not claiming something new, they’re just saying we should return to the old ways that clothing used to proliferate and be evaluated.
Put another way, I don’t think anyone back in the 1970s acknowledged that “this is slow fashion.” Rather, it was just normal because no one could have conceived of the changes that led us to where we are today. I that sense, I think a more accurate term for fast fashion would be “faster fashion,” because the phenomenon only makes sense by comparison.
Why I Looked It Up
My stepmother showed me a short documentary about clothing waste and the lack of recycling. It concentrated on the retailer H&M, and how they have implemented a clothing recycling program which is mostly ineffectual. The documentary pointed out how clothing is very hard to genuinely recycle, and most of it ends up in landfills in the Third World.
The phrase “fast fashion” was used dozens of times in the documentary.
It reminded me of this 2013 SNL music video skit literally called H&M.
Man: I only have $60 and I need to buy six shirts and four pairs of pants.
Associate: You came to the right place. That’s what we do at H&M.
The term “fast fashion” is never stated, but the entire video is based on (1) how cheap H&M is, (2) how trendy the styles are, and (3) how poor the quality is.
Got no money but you’re trying to look like a star. […] The prices on the clothes are great, [but] put ‘em in the wash and they’ll disintegrate.
I also became vaguely aware of the concept of “fast fashion” a few years ago when a certain type of top became fashionable for women – the top with the shoulder cutouts. This style was everywhere…for a few months. I have little clue about fashion, but I remember looking that at that and thinking, “Pretty soon, that’s going to look ridiculously dated,” and I was right. I suspect the number of times the average woman wore that style of top was in the single digits.
Mostly, I looked this up because I was curious if there was any hard definition about it. Turns out there’s not. It’s just a general term for a set of business, social, and market trends that combined to cause several secondary effects. And it’s the secondary effects that defined the term – “fast fashion” is pejorative. It seems to exist just to explain the damage that it does.