The Truth About Fast Fashion: Brands to Avoid and Why

The article exposes the unethical labor practices and environmental damage associated with popular fast fashion brands, offering a list of companies to steer clear of and recommending more sustainable options.

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The Truth About Fast Fashion: Brands to Avoid and Why

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Key takeaways

  • Fast fashion is a term used to describe the rapid production of inexpensive clothing that copies the latest runway trends and celebrity outfits.
  • Fast fashion has various negative environmental and social impacts, such as the production of waste, exploitation of workers, and environmental degradation.
  • Identifying fast fashion brands through indicators like rapid turnover, imitation of trends, and low prices can help you avoid contributing to the negative cycle.

Introduction

In today's hyper-paced world of ever-evolving trends, fast fashion brands have established their dominance, offering a seemingly endless array of styles for the modern consumer. Yet behind the glitz and glamor lies an unsettling truth.

In this article, we'll look at some of the most popular (and infamous) fast fashion brands and how to spot them. We'll also explore the impact of fast fashion brands and how to avoid them.

What Is Fast Fashion?

Fast fashion is a term used to describe clothing designs that move rapidly from design to physical or online stores. Fast fashion designers usually draw inspiration from runway shows and celebrity outfits, quickly turning these ideas into mass-produced garments within a few weeks or even days.

Fast fashion has gained popularity in recent years thanks to the rise of e-commerce and the availability of cheap labor in developing countries. While fast fashion's reliance on cheap labor and inexpensive materials has allowed consumers to purchase trendy clothing at affordable prices, its lightning-fast production cycles have come at a detrimental cost.

What’s the Problem With the Fast Fashion Industry?

While fast fashion has enabled consumers to access trendy, inexpensive clothing, its impact on the environment, society, and the global economy is far from glamorous. Here are some of the most pressing problems with fast fashion:

Environmental Impact

Fast fashion's rapid production and disposal cycle have dire environmental consequences. Producing cheap clothing involves using low-quality materials and harmful chemicals, contributing to water pollution and soil degradation.

The fast fashion industry uses a staggering 93 billion cubic meters of water annually —enough to meet the needs of about five million people yearly (UN, 2021). Sadly, most of this water becomes polluted due to dirty production processes like textile dyeing, and it ends up in water bodies. In fact, it's estimated that the fast fashion industry accounts for up to 20% of global industrial water pollution (Reporter, 2012).

And that's not all. Besides being a leading water pollutant, the fast fashion industry also accounts for nearly 10% of greenhouse gas emissions because it relies on energy-intensive production processes (UNECE, 2018). Greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide are the largest contributors to global warming.

The production of fast fashion garments also results in the production of a lot of textile waste. Many consumers dispose of their garments frequently to keep up with the latest styles, thanks to fast fashion's rapid production cycles. This results in the accumulation of massive volumes of textile waste in landfills. 

In fact, it's estimated that 92 million tonnes of textile waste produced annually ends up in landfills (Igini, 2023). That's almost the equivalent of a rubbish truck full of clothes disposing of waste in a landfill every second! Tragic.

Exploitative Labor Practices

Behind the glitz and glamor of fast fashion lies a horrendous world of exploitative labor practices. Many fast fashion brands outsource their production to developing countries with lax labor laws to keep production costs low and profits high. 

Workers in these countries often endure atrocious working conditions, including long working hours, poor pay, and limited access to rights, such as the right to self-organize. In extreme cases, some workers have even been subjected to forced labor or human trafficking. 

The Rana Plaza factory collapse in 2013 in Bangladesh, which claimed the lives of over 1,100 garment workers and injured nearly 2,500 people, is a prime example of the human cost of fast fashion (Wikipedia contributors, 2023).

Unsustainable Consumption

Fast fashion fuels a culture of overconsumption and impulsive buying. With new trends emerging frequently, fast fashion tempts consumers to purchase items they may not need or even want. This thoughtless consumer behavior not only strains people's finances but also results in environmental degradation and waste. 

Decline in Quality

Fast fashion's relentless drive to churn out new collections at breakneck speed often compromises garment quality. Fast fashion garments are often made with low-quality materials and hasty craftsmanship to lower manufacturing costs. As a result, fast fashion garments tend to wear out quickly, so people dispose of them faster. Fast fashion clothing, as exemplified by the ultra-fast-fashion brand SHEIN, can pose safety concerns for wearers, with a recent Greenpeace Germany report revealing that certain SHEIN products contained hazardous chemicals exceeding EU regulatory limits, including alarming levels of phthalates in shoes and formaldehyde in a baby girl’s dress.

Economic Implications

The fashion industry employs about 75 million people worldwide (UNECE, 2018). Most of these workers reside in developing countries like India, Bangladesh, and Vietnam. While the fast fashion industry has been a boon for the economies of developing countries, it has also negatively impacted the local textile and garment industries in these countries.

In many developing countries, traditional artisans and small-scale manufacturers struggle to compete with the low prices offered by fast fashion brands, leading to the loss of livelihoods and traditional skills.  

How to Recognize Fast Fashion Brands

Identifying fast fashion brands is essential in making conscious and ethical fashion choices. By learning to distinguish these brands from others, you can avoid them and choose more sustainable options. Here are some key characteristics common to most fast fashion brands:

Rapid Production Cycles

Fast fashion brands are notorious for their extremely short turnaround times from design to stores. If you notice that a brand releases new collections every week or month, it's likely a fast fashion label. 

Generally, most fast fashion brands aim to flood the market to keep consumers constantly engaged with the promise of new trends, encouraging frequent purchases.

Imitation of High-End Designs

Fast fashion brands often mimic designs from high-end fashion houses, replicating runway looks and celebrity outfits at a fraction of the cost. For instance, the ultra-fast fashion company SHEIN has repeatedly come under fire for allegedly stealing other fashion designers' designs (Button, 2023).

If you spot garments that closely resemble those seen on the runway or celebrities, there's a high chance you're looking at fast fashion pieces.

Extremely Low Prices

Unbelievably low prices are a telltale sign of a fast fashion brand. These brands prioritize affordability to appeal to a wide range of consumers. Unfortunately, this affordability often comes at the expense of quality. If you stumble upon a garment that’s priced too good to be true that it feels like a steal, it’s likely from a fast fashion brand.

Frequent Sales and Discounts

Many fast fashion brands rely on marketing tactics like offering limited-time sales and discounts to entice shoppers. If you find that a brand constantly offers steep discounts or sales promotions, it's likely trying to create a sense of urgency to encourage impulsive buying.

Lack of a Transparent Supply Chain

Many fast fashion brands are vague about their production practices and supply chains. They provide little or no information about where they source their materials, how they dispose of waste, and what they do to reduce their environmental impact.

If a brand provides scanty information about where and how it makes its products, it could be a sign that they aren't prioritizing ethical and sustainable practices.

Substandard Garment Quality

Low-quality materials and shoddy craftsmanship are common features of fast fashion clothes. If your garments start piling after just one wash, have exposed zippers, or feel flimsy, they're likely from a fast fashion brand.

Lack of Size Inclusivity

Since fast fashion brands manufacture clothing to attract a wide range of consumers, they don't prioritize size inclusivity. If you notice limited size ranges that exclude larger or smaller body types, it suggests a lack of consideration for diverse consumers.

Exploitative Labor Practices

Many fast fashion brands set up their operations in countries with weak labor laws to circumvent them. Many of these brands don't provide safe working conditions for their employees or liveable wages. Worse still, some fast fashion companies use child labor (UNICEF, 2020).

Research any reports of exploitative labor practices associated with a brand to evaluate their commitment to the fair treatment of workers.

Celebrity Partnerships

Many fast fashion brands often collaborate with celebrities to promote their collections. While these partnerships aren't always a telltale sign of a fast fashion company, they can sometimes be a signal. For instance, Shein often partners with A-list celebrities. Some celebrities it has partnered with include Khloé Kardashian, Christian Siriano, and Law Roach (Minton, 2021).

Lack of Focus on Sustainability

Sustainable practices aren't a priority for fast fashion brands. They're an afterthought. If a brand doesn't provide information about sustainable initiatives, such as sustainable fabrics, recycling programs, or ethical sourcing, you should avoid it.

Greenwashing

Greenwashing is a deceptive marketing practice where companies purport to be environmentally friendly or sustainable to attract conscious consumers. Some fast fashion brands use buzzwords or vague terms like ''organic'' or ''eco-friendly'' without providing detailed information about how they make their products. 

If you suspect a brand might be providing misleading information to hoodwink consumers, read its garment labels carefully and check whether it has any sustainable fashion certifications like the Fairtrade, Certified B Corporation, or OEKO-TEX certification. Also, ask the brand for more information about its sustainability practices.

Fast Fashion Brands to Avoid

If you're concerned about the environmental impact of your purchases, here are some fast fashion brands you might want to steer clear of if you want to have a conscious wardrobe:

Shein

Shein is one of the world's most popular ultra-fast fashion brands, with over 30 million followers on Instagram. The brand adds about 500 products to its website every day, many retailing for under $10 (Shein, 2020).

While Shein's affordable offerings have enabled many consumers to keep up with the latest trends without breaking the bank, its rapid production cycles have come at the expense of the environment. It's estimated that the company produces 6.3 million tons of carbon dioxide annually, about the same amount of carbon dioxide produced by 180 coal-fired power plants (Rajvanshi et al., 2023).

Additionally, the brand isn't transparent about its supply chain and doesn't provide adequate information about where it sources its materials. Many indie designers have also accused Shein of copying their designs. For instance, Elexiay, a black-owned fashion brand, accused Shein of copying and mass-producing one of their designs. Shein later removed the garment from its website (Pruitt-Young, 2021).

Finally, while Shein asserts that it provides textile workers with above-average wages and safe working conditions, investigations have found that these assertions aren't true (Otter, 2023). 

Fashion Nova

Fashion Nova is another popular ultra-fast fashion brand. With over 20 million followers on Instagram and partnerships with celebrities like Cardi B, Blac Chyna, and Kylie Jenner, Fashion Nova is particularly popular among millennials and Gen Z. 

However, behind the company's glittering facade, it has received backlash from several quarters for its environmental impact. The brand releases over 1,000 new collections weekly, thus promoting unsustainable consumption (Fashion Nova, n.d.). Worse still, most of these garments are made from unsustainable fabrics like spandex, polyester, and nylon.

Moreover, Fashion Nova has also been accused of unethical labor practices. In 2019, a New York Times expose revealed that many Fashion Nova workers earned less than the minimum wage and worked in deplorable conditions (Kitroeff, 2019).

Zara

Zara is a household name in the fast fashion industry. Established in 1975, Zara is renowned for its rapid turnaround times and imitation of high-end designs. The fast fashion giant carries about 11,000 pieces annually in thousands of stores scattered around the globe, compared to the industry average of 2,000 to 4,000 pieces (Hugos, 2023). Unfortunately, these stats mean that Zara contributes significantly to overconsumption and environmental degradation.

 

While the brand has made some efforts to promote sustainability, such as eliminating single-use plastics and using organic cotton, it isn't entirely transparent about its production processes.

The brand has also come under fire for its terrible labor conditions in several countries, including Spain, Brazil, and Myanmar. It faced heavy scrutiny in the latter country, with several workers decrying long working hours and unlivable wages (Sainato, 2020).

H&M

H&M is a poster child for fast fashion. Established in 1947, H&M is one of the oldest fast fashion brands and the second largest one (behind Zara). As of 2023, H&M operates in 76 countries, with over 4,000 stores under its umbrella brand, including the women's clothing brand & Other Stories and the slightly more upmarket COS (H&M, n.d.).

While the brand has made some efforts to implement sustainable initiatives, such as rolling out a garment collection program at all its stores, its fast fashion model contributes to overconsumption and environmental issues.

Besides its impact on the environment and consumer behavior, H&M has also been accused of questionable labor practices. In 2018, the fast fashion juggernaut was accused of ignoring the plight of textile workers in India, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of workers (Pandey, 2018).

Boohoo

Boohoo has faced controversies related to labor exploitation and unsafe working conditions in its supply chain. It has been accused of prioritizing profit over ethical and sustainable practices.

 

Many workers have reported low wages and poor working conditions at its factories. A Sunday Times investigation found that workers at one of its factories in Leicester were earning about £3.50, below the minimum wage in the UK (Wheeler & Swinford, 2022).

Boohoo has also been accused of greenwashing (Morton, 2022). While it claims to provide sustainable clothing, investigations have found that the company might be using misleading information to deceive customers that they're a sustainable and ethical fashion brand.

Primark

Primark is known for its incredibly affordable and trendy clothing options and wide selection of items. While Primark appeals to consumers looking for low-cost clothing, eco-conscious consumers might want to avoid the brand.

Since Primark outsources its manufacturing, it has no control over the working conditions of garment workers. In fact, the working conditions in some of its garment factories were so atrocious that one worker left an SOS note in a pair of trousers denouncing the inhumane working conditions (BBC News, 2014).

Forever 21

Forever 21 is an American brand known for its inexpensive clothing and wide collection of clothing items. However, while it offers cheap and trendy clothing, the brand has faced heavy scrutiny over its questionable labor practices.

At one of its textile factories in Los Angeles, it was found that workers working for up to 11 hours a day earned just $6 an hour, far below the state minimum wage (Kim, 2017). Moreover, in the wake of the Rana Plaza collapse, the brand declined to sign the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, underpinning its abusive labor practices. 

To top it all, the brand also doesn't disclose where it sources its materials and how it makes its garments. 

Missguided

Missguided takes immense pride in offering trendy, inexpensive clothes and ''rapid fashion.'' With a rapid design-to-market model, the brand releases about 1,000 new styles weekly, fueling overconsumption and impulsive buying. In fact, its commitment to sustainability is so bad that it was listed as one of the least sustainable fashion brands in the UK, alongside Boohoo (Petter, 2019).

Ironically, while Missguided is a women's clothing brand that aims to empower women, its female workers are paid much less than their male counterparts (Duncan et al., 2019). The brand has also been in the spotlight for selling products marketed as ''faux fur'' that actually contained real fur from rabbits, dogs, and cats (Sky News, 2017).

How to Avoid Fast Fashion Brands

Fast fashion brands aren't created equal. While some brands make some efforts to adopt sustainable and ethical practices, most of them don't. So it's generally best to avoid fast fashion brands altogether if you're concerned about the environmental and ethical impact of your purchases. 

That said, here are some practical strategies to help you avoid fast fashion brands:

Educate Yourself

Start by educating yourself about the negative impacts of fast fashion. Read widely and extensively on its environmental, social, and ethical implications. Knowledge is power and an invaluable tool that can help you make conscious decisions.

Prioritize Quality Over Quantity

Inexpensive, fast fashion garments don't last long. Rather than purchasing a large quantity of cheap clothing, consider investing in high-quality pieces. Quality garments are made to last, reducing the need for frequent replacements and curbing the cycle of overconsumption.  

Research Brands

Before purchasing clothing, research the brands you're considering. Explore their production practices, labor conditions, and sustainability initiatives. Support brands that prioritize transparency and ethical sourcing.

Buy Second-Hand Clothing

Give old clothes a new lease of life by purchasing second-hand clothing. There are many great places to buy second-hand clothing, such as thrift stores, consignment stores, and online marketplaces. Buying pre-loved clothes is an excellent way to extend the lifespan of clothes and reduce demand for new garments.

Practice Mindful Consumption

Practice mindful consumption by asking yourself whether you truly need a new item before purchasing it. Consider whether the item aligns with your style to avoid purchasing it out of impulse rather than because you genuinely need it.

Build a Capsule Wardrobe

Introduced in the 1970s by author Susie Faux and then popularized in the 1980s by American designer Donna Karan, the capsule wardrobe involves creating a collection of versatile, high-quality, and timeless pieces that can be mixed and matched effortlessly to create countless outfits. Consider building a capsule wardrobe to encourage intentional and sustainable dressing.

Set Budgets

If you often overspend on clothing, set aside time to create a clothing budget to prevent impulsive buying. 

Participate in Clothing Swaps

Organize clothing swaps with family, friends, or within your community. Swapping clothes allows you to refresh your wardrobe without contributing to new production.

Mend and Upcycle

Rather than disposing of damaged clothes, learn how to mend and upcycle them to extend their lifespan. Mending and upcycling clothes can breathe new life into older pieces and reduce textile waste.

Consider Renting

Consider renting clothing rather than purchasing for special occasions like weddings, business conferences, and formal cocktail parties. Clothing rental services offer a sustainable alternative to owning, allowing you to get trendy clothing at a fraction of the cost.

Donate Old Clothes

Don't discard old clothes. Instead, donate them to thrift stores or charitable organizations that accept second-hand clothing, like Goodwill, The Salvation Army, and Dress for Success. Donating your old garments will ensure they don't end up in landfills and give them a new life. However, be sure to donate wearable clothes that are in good condition.

Support Local Designers

Support local designers who create unique and sustainable pieces. By supporting local designers, you can not only reduce the environmental impact of your purchases but also support your community's economy.

Explore Vintage and Retro Styles

Vintage and retro styles offer a timeless appeal and a break from the rapid trends of fast fashion. Explore vintage shops or online marketplaces for unique, high-quality pieces.

Opt for Natural Fibers

Choose clothing made from natural and sustainable fibers such as organic cotton, hemp, bamboo, linen, and Lyocell (Tencel).

Practice Delayed Gratification

When you find a garment you like, practice delayed gratification by giving yourself time to think about the purchase. This reduces impulse buying and allows you to make more thoughtful decisions.

Evaluate Your Wardrobe

Regularly assess your wardrobe to identify items you no longer wear. Consider donating, selling, repairing, or upcycling these pieces instead of letting them go to waste.

Follow Sustainable Fashion Bloggers

Follow sustainable fashion bloggers and influencers like Marie Kondo, who share tips, insights, and recommendations for ethical and eco-friendly brands. Their guidance can help you to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle. 

Create Awareness

Share the negative social and environmental impacts of fast fashion brands with friends and family. Creating awareness about the negative impacts of fast fashion might inspire others to make conscious choices as well.

Advocate for Change

Have a huge following on social media? Use your social media platforms to agitate for change within the fast fashion industry. Also, support initiatives that call for transparency, fair labor practices, and reduced environmental impact.

Choose Ethical and Sustainable Brands

Seek out brands that prioritize ethical and sustainable practices. Generally, sustainable brands have certifications like the Climate Neutral Certification, which indicates a commitment to social and environmental responsibility.

Ethical and Sustainable Clothing Brands

Many ethical and sustainable clothing brands are committed to reducing their environmental and social impact. If you're an eco-conscious consumer looking to purchase clothes from brands that prioritize human welfare and the environment, here are some noteworthy brands to consider:

Patagonia

Patagonia is a sustainable fashion brand that primarily offers outdoor gear. With a commitment to environmental responsibility and social impact, Patagonia uses recycled materials, promotes fair labor practices, and donates a substantial amount of its revenue to conservation efforts (McCormick, 2022).

People Tree

People Tree is a trailblazer in sustainable fashion. The brand collaborates with artisans and farmers in developing countries, ensuring they receive liveable wages and work in safe conditions. 

Amour Vert

Amour Vert is a sustainable clothing brand that offers contemporary women's clothing and accessories. In partnership with American Forests, the brand plants a tree for every T-shirt sold (Amour Vert, n.d.).

Pact

Pact is committed to promoting fair trade and using sustainable materials. The brand uses organic cotton to reduce harmful chemicals in production and is FairTrade certified, meaning its garments are ethically and sustainably produced.

Allbirds

Allbirds offers sustainable footwear made from natural materials like merino wool and eucalyptus. The brand prioritizes comfort, simplicity, and environmental responsibility.

FAQs

What brands are known for fast fashion?

Several brands are widely known for their fast fashion business model. Some of the most well-known fast fashion brands include Shein, Zara, H&M, Fashion Nova, and Boohoo.

What is the biggest fast fashion brand?

The biggest fast fashion brand in the world is Shein. With rapid production cycles, trend duplication, and a strong social media presence, the brand rapidly grew to overtake competitors like Zara and H&M to become the world's largest fast fashion brand. As of 2022, the fast fashion giant was estimated to be worth over $100 billion.

Is Zara fast fashion or luxury?

Zara is a fast fashion brand. Like many fast fashion brands, Zara is known for its quick turnaround times and relatively low-cost clothing. However, due to its savvy marketing, which positions itself as a luxury brand, some people confuse Zara for being a luxurious brand. 

Is Nike a part of fast fashion?

Whether or not Nike is part of fast fashion is up for debate. While some people consider it a fast fashion brand because it produces clothes rapidly, others argue that it isn't a fast fashion brand because it uses higher-quality materials compared to most fast fashion companies.

How to not buy fast fashion?

You can avoid fast fashion by prioritizing quality over quantity, learning the telltale signs of fast fashion, renting or borrowing clothes, purchasing second-hand garments, purchasing garments from sustainable fashion brands, and repairing or upcycling old clothes.

Is Brandy Melville fast fashion?

Yes, Brandy Melville is a fast fashion brand. Like many fast fashion brands, Brandy Melville releases new collections frequently and offers trendy clothing at affordable prices. Similarly, like many other fast fashion companies, Brandy Melville has also been accused of its limited sizing options.

Conclusion

While fast fashion brands may offer trendy and affordable clothing to consumers, these benefits come at a hefty cost to the environment and society. By recognizing, avoiding, and replacing fast fashion brands with ethical and sustainable alternatives, you can mitigate the effects of fast fashion and contribute to a brighter future that values the well-being of our planet and its inhabitants.

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Alyciah Beavers

Committed to promoting sustainability and am pleased to have the opportunity to share my enthusiasm with you.

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