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02 May 2022
For us to understand Ultra Fast Fashion, we need to take a brief history lesson on fashion and how we have come to where we are now.
Source for this history lesson: Fashionista & eco.styles. Full list of sources found at the bottom of this blog.
Textiles were seen as a valuable and labour intensive resource with garments being cut, sewn, and made to order by small dress shops. Any repairs to the garments were done at home, mostly by the women of the household.
1846 - Birth of the sewing machine
The invention of the sewing machine saw the rapid decline in the price of clothing as well as an enormous increase in the scale of clothing manufacturing. Women from middle-class homes had their clothes made by local dressmaking businesses, while women of lower incomes continued to make their own clothing. Local dressmaking businesses often included a team of workroom employees, although some aspects of production were outsourced to "sweaters," or people who worked from home for very low wages. Hence, the term sweatshop.
Although a lot of technological advancement was made during this time, much of the clothing was still produced in the home or by small local dressmaking shops. It's during WWII where fabric restrictions and more functional styles were necessary that led to an increase in standardised production for all clothing. After becoming accustomed to such standardisation, middle-class consumers became more receptive to the value of purchasing mass-produced clothing post war.
1960s - 1990s
It was the 1960s that saw the pace of fashion speed up as young people embraced cheaply made clothing to follow new trends and moved away from the traditional methods of making clothes. Soon, fashion brands had to find ways to keep up with this increasing demand for affordable clothing, leading to massive textile mills opening across the developing world, further leading to the model of outsourcing labour. Most designers started creating designs for the fashion seasons.
Officially fashion is divided into 4 seasons. The Spring/Summer (SS); Autumn/Winter (AW), Resort and Pre-Fall. The SS and AW collections are showcased during fashion week in Paris, Milan, New York and London. Resort as a "season" came about because the wealthiest fashion house clientele would purchase these designs on their vacations.
The seasons served as global timing for the worldwide fashion business, defining the speed and time for developing, marketing, and selling new collections.
2000s - The Rise of Fast Fashion
The 2000s ushered in an era of Fast Fashion. Whereas previously we saw clothing collections and new styles over 4 seasons, Fast Fashion brought in and fed our insatiable appetite for more trends and created 52 micro seasons. This means we saw new items and styles each week which gave way to single-use clothing.
Now that you have an understanding of how fashion has evolved, it's good to understand a little deeper what is Fast Fashion and why it is so bad for people, animals and the environment.
Fast fashion is the mass-production of cheap "on trend" clothing bought and cast aside in rapid succession as fashion trends change. This insatiable appetite for clothing has resulted in disastrous consequences for human rights, the environment and the degradation and exploitation of those most vulnerable in society. It has produced a race to the bottom in search for cheaper production of clothing.
According to Greenpeace, the average person buys 60% more items of clothing every year and keeps them for about half as long as what we used to 15 years ago - generating a large amount of waste, most of which ends up in landfill.
Huge amounts of waste - Globally, there’s one garbage truck of clothing waste dumped into landfill or burned EVERY SECOND!
Fast fashion launches fads and trends each week, filled with poor quality clothing that are manufactured in environmentally devastating ways. According to the University of Queensland, here in Australia, we now send 85% of the textiles we buy to landfill every year. In fact, Australia is second-largest consumer of new textiles after the US, averaging 27 kilograms of new textiles each year. We buy it, wear it once or twice, get sick of it—or realise it’s gone out of fashion—and bin it only to begin the cycle all over again.
Working conditions and wages are deplorable - The human impact of fast fashion is devastating with workers paid wages that are unable to meet daily subsistence needs. Most fast fashion brands produce garments in developing countries where workers face poor safety and health conditions, long working hours and the constant pressure to keep up with orders. The use of child labour in the industry is rife.
Environmental impacts - Fast fashion creates significant carbon footprint with most fast fashion clothes being made from petroleum-based materials such as acrylic, nylon and polyester (synthetic materials that take up to 1000 years to biodegrade).
The dumping of textile waste in our landfills is also a huge issue. Chemicals from textile factories are polluting rivers and oceans, high levels of energy use and pesticides from cotton growing contaminate agricultural land. According to Greenpeace, one of the biggest costs to the planet comes from the rising use of synthetic fibres, in particular polyester, that emits 3 times the CO2 emissions in it's lifetime compared to cotton, as well as polluting marine environments with plastic microfibres.
Towards the end of 2010s, we saw the rise of Ultra Fast Fashion which takes everything bad about Fast Fashion and then makes it exponentially worse - in all aspects.
Wherein fast fashion aimed to get new styles into stores weekly, Ultra Fast Fashion posts new items DAILY. So that means faster production cycles, faster trend churn, and faster to landfill. The clothing is ultra cheap in terms of materials used and the quality of the garment. It is made from plastic, think nylon, polyester and acrylic, and as we wash these clothing items they will shed microfibres into waterways.
Ultra Fast Fashion is characterised by staggeringly low prices which has garnered a devoted consumer base drawn in by an ever changing carousel of new clothing and accessories. According to Good On You, these brands are posting thousands of new styles every day!
Ultra fast fashion retailers have no brick and mortar stores. They keep their operations entirely online, where their overhead costs are low, and prey on impulse purchases. There is very little to no transparency about forced labour or the wellbeing of the workforce and operations are kept very secret. A late 2021 report from NGO Public Eye revealed that workers were putting in 75 hour weeks, receiving only one day off per month, and pay per item of clothing—all in gross violation of labour laws.
It's no coincidence that Ultra fast fashion focuses its efforts overwhelmingly on social media, especially on TikTok, where they work with a vast network of teenage and early twenty-something shopping influencers. Both social media and ultra fast fashion have pushed forward the notion that clothes just need to look good for Instagram or a TikTok video and then can be cast aside.
Lauren Bravo, a journalist and author of "How to break up with Fast Fashion" said it beautifully -
"People are no longer shopping for clothes, they are shopping for content".
Most people on TikTok or social media know very little about the devastating impacts of Fast Fashion and now Ultra Fast Fashion. Even if the prices are very cheap, don't be fooled - we are paying a heavy price with the exploitation of workers and the devastation caused to our environment.