Fast Fashion 

by Francesca Lea - English literature Student at the University of York

February 15th, 2022
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To be in fashion is to be on-trend, and to be trendy is to be in fashion. Fashion and trends go hand in hand. People desire to keep up with trends, something not new to the 21st century. However, is this attitude itself outdated? Is our excessive consumption distasteful?

With increasing discussion over our throwaway society and the fast fashion industry, more sustainable and ethical practices are necessary. With the increasing media coverage through the COP26 and Earthshot Awards, many are aware of the fashion industry’s contribution to water pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and landfill. Not to mention the ethical implications. The low-priced constant provision and surplus of new styles produced by fast fashion do not make a circular economy possible. However, perhaps it is worth looking at where fast fashion starts to understand what needs to be changed.

Fast fashion replicates the popular trends produced in high fashion and makes it more accessible to all with lots of different colours, sizes and styles. There are many ways in which an outfit can become trendy and commercialised, with most of these trends ending up on the runways of designers and worn by celebrities, later appearing in fast fashion.

From the runway to the street, celebrities to articles, where there are cameras, there is the ability to share fashion and create trends. But with the proportion of those in the media being of the wealthy having a major following on social media and access to expensive price tags, perhaps designer fashion is given the most exposure in the media, making them the primary starter of fashion trends.

Even before social media, celebrities started trends: Jennifer Anniston and the Rachel haircut. However, this impressionability and their influence have only grown through social media. Kim Kardashian is often associated with the trends she sparked, contouring and clothing that defines an hourglass figure. Finding the roots to trends, such as back in fashion Crocs and claw clips, is much harder. Paid endorsements and advertisements litter the media and these trends move fast. 

2021 saw four fashion events within the space of a month: the Met Gala, London Fashion Week, New York Fashion Week and Paris Fashion Week. Celebrities are dressed by a designer’s collection, each event often wearing a new outfit. At each designer’s show, celebrities are often dressed by the designer, themselves advertisements of the brand. They become a marketing technique. 

A large exposure to designers is garnered at the Met Gala. Otherwise known as “fashion’s biggest night out”. The theme for the Met Gala this year was “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion”. At the event 12 celebrities wore outfits from designers sourcing materials eco-consciously, featuring Emily Bode, Collina Strada, Gabriela Hearst, Iris Van Herpen and Conner Ives. The rising designer Conner Ives made his debut with Natalia Bryant’s gown made from recycled plastic. The well-established designers such as Stella McCartney dressed Ella Emhoff in a bodysuit made from recycled ocean plastic.

However, with a small representation of sustainable fashion, these outfits too are unlikely to be worn again. With celebrities attending many events, always in the camera’s eye, they often don’t wear the same outfit twice. As many items are gifted and not loaned, these are unlikely to be recirculated and worn again. 

The celebrities’ outfits shared in the media from events such as the Met Gala have the power to spark and establish trends. To an audience who observes new outfit after new outfit, rarely seeing them twice, they witness an acceptance to not reuse. Consequently, designer fashion and celebrities are somewhat accountable for the attitude that it is acceptable to live in a “throwaway society”. Perhaps designers should look to reinvent looks, create versatile outfits, as well as generate more sustainable and ethical practices in the sourcing and production of materials. Designers should be the forerunners of the circular economy in the fashion industry. Perhaps trends in the revival of vintage fashion will promote this change. 

Reusing and recycling looks have been proven to be possible by public figures such as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. At the Earthshot Prize Awards at London’s Alexandra Palace, Kate wore a lilac Alexander McQueen gown and William a green suit previously worn in 2019. At this event, guests were asked to not purchase new outfits. Even Emma Watson upcycled a wedding dress. 

The Earthshot Prize Award aims to repair the planet by incentivising change through five awards: Protect and Restore Nature; Clean Our Air; Revive our Oceans; Build A Waste-Free World; and Fix Our Climate. In contrast to the COP26 agreement that discusses action rather than taking action, the Earthshot Prize Award gifted £1 million to winners so they could grow technologies and initiatives to further environmental repair and change. 

While the Earthshot Prize Awards production was carbon neutral, the COP26 agreement in Glasgow was not. In fact, this came under heavy criticism by activists for its irony. At this meeting, a global agenda was set on climate change for the next decade to build upon those set in the 2015 Paris agreements. At the COP26 there was the agreement to phase out fossil fuel subsidies and leaders from more than 100 countries agreed to stop deforestation by 2030. The fashion industry was not overlooked as a major contributor to climate change and recognised its need to take an active part in achieving these goals. 

Textile Exchange, a non-profit organisation that enables brands, retailers, and suppliers to lead in the sustainable fibre and materials industry, is backed by 50 companies and organisations to incentivise environmentally conscious fashion practices. Textile Exchange demanded incentives for the use of environmentally preferred materials and to engage with the industry that used 109 million tons of fibres in 2020. Big brands such as Chloe, Gap Inc. and Superdry are the voices behind this non-profit organisation. Stella McCartney, the Creative Director of her brand, stated that:

“Governments need to step up by enforcing supply chain transparency, materials traceability and data-driven environmental impact measurement standards. I am proud that we release our Environmental Impact Report (previously EP&L) report annually, which measures our impacts and helps us understand them. If not, how else would we guide innovation? Governments can actively support change by incentivising better materials in order to shift the fashion industry in a more nature-positive direction and reduce its contributions to the climate and biodiversity crises before it is too late.”

While this is very promising, let’s hope it’s not too little too late and that this is not just part of the fashion industry’s next show. Many are sceptic about these promises being held.  We only need to look at PrettyLittleThing’s “Pink Friday” sales of up to 100% off clothing to understand there is still a long way to go.

However, this Black Friday event has nothing loving and kind to which pink suggests. Rather it emphasises the brand’s profit-driven ethos that enables them to practically, and rather ironically, throw away their clothes, as well as demonstrate the ethical implications these transactions negate. 

PrettyLittleThing is owned by The Boohoo Group which has a net worth of $2 billion in December 2021. Also, owners of MissPap, BoohooMAN, Nasty Gal, Warehouse, Oasis, Karen Millen and Coast, as well as having taken over others that had collapsed, this company is powerful in the fast fashion industry. 

In 2019, the BBC found that Boohoo was responsible for selling the same product for different prices at their different brands’ sites. The same coat that cost £55 at Dorothy Perkins, cost £89 at Coast. What this goes to show is that brands still only care about profits and demonstrates the overlapping quality between Highstreet retailers. They can forgo quality and longevity for consistent and reassured profits. The fashion industry is driven by profits. It furthermore suggests the difficulty in trusting brands that lack transparency. 

Misguided, also in the fast fashion industry, uses the motto, “shopping is a right, not a luxury.” This motto corroborates that shopping in fast fashion is about consumption. It’s not about the clothes and items, it is about the experience of buying. Fast fashion feeds the consumers desire to consume fashion at a cost unknown to themselves. It does not promote a cyclical economy. Though fast fashion aims to make clothing accessible, to make it “a right”, the industry does not make clothes to be treasured and last beyond a few wears. It is certainly not value for money. 

In Greta Thunberg’s series, Greta Thunberg: A Year to Change the World, she records her experience of sailing by wind between America and Europe to avoid carbon costly air travel. In this series and in an interview with Vogue Scandinavia, she stated she does not buy new clothes; as of August 2021, her last purchase was second hand three years prior. Instead, she borrows things from people she knows. Greta demonstrates her sustainability does not inhibit her. Greta Thunberg also made her way to Glasgow for the COP26 meeting, and stated, "it is not a secret that COP26 is a failure. It should be obvious that we cannot solve a crisis with the same methods that got us into it in the first place."

So while the textile industry must source, produce and manufacture fibres more sustainably, there also needs to be a mental change of consumers. The fashion industry needs to take the lead to educate and change the mentality of the system to create a circular economy. With designer fashions and celebrities’ abilities to set trends, they should be promoting versatile outfits, upcycling and the reduction of consumption. Transparency would make the realities of this industry known to the consumer, bringing awareness and a thought process to the consumer’s consumption. We can no longer consume our resources ignorantly; we must make conscious decisions and make full use of the fabrics and materials we do have. The fashion industry must take environmental responsibility and not just make it part of a show.