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The History of Fast Fashion
A brief history of fast fashion and its impact on the planet.
100 billion items of clothing are produced every year. That’s a 50% growth in just 15 years and the main culprit for this growth – fast fashion – shows little sign of slowing down.
We’ve stitched together a brief history of fast fashion; from when fashion become fast, the impact it’s had on our blue planet, and what we can do to become sustainable fashion devotees.
First: What is fast fashion?
Fast fashion can be defined as low-cost, trendy clothing rapidly produced by mass-market retailers in response to the latest trends.
The focus of fast fashion is affordability and convenience – largely at the cost of people and the planet.
Fast fashion plays into the idea that outfit repeating is a fashion faux pas. If you want to stay relevant, it’s believed you should be sporting the latest looks while they’re happening.
Overproduction and overconsumption has resulted in the fashion industry being one of the world’s largest polluters. Jump here to read about the environmental impact of fast fashion.
But how did we get here?
Once upon a time, in a slow fashion world…
More than 20,000 years ago, people began hand sewing; using animal bones and horns as needles.
Up until the early 1800’s, most people raised sheep or saved up to purchase wool to spin yarn to weave cloth and hand sew… You get the idea.
Adding garments to your closet was a slow, infrequent process, driven by seasonal changes and growing pains.
When was the first sewing machine invented?
It was only in 1830 – during the Industrial Revolution – that the fast fashion story really starts with the invention of the sewing machine.
Barthelemy Thimonnier, a French tailor, invented a sewing machine that used a hooked needle and one thread to create a chain stitch (which is still commonly used in denim jeans).
With the advent of the sewing machine, clothes became easier, quicker, and cheaper to make. Clothing began to be made in bulk, in various sizes, rather than just being made to order.
Dressmaking shops emerged to cater to the middle classes and – for the first time – people started wearing clothing for style, not just practical reasons.
The fashion industry used to be slow. Sweatshops were the beginning of the end of that.
What is a sweatshop?
Sweatshops are factories or workshops, especially in the clothing industry, where manual workers are employed at low wages for long hours and poor (or downright illegal) working conditions.
To cater to the demand for clothing, sweatshops emerged in the 1800’s (and don’t be fooled: They still exist today.)
Clothing becomes a form of personal expression: 1960s
By the 1960s and 1970s, young people were creating new trends and using clothing as a form of personal expression.
There was increasing demand for affordable clothing. Textile mills opened across the developing world, and low-quality, mass-produced clothing took over.
Shopping for new clothes became a hobby and a means of social status.
When was the term fast fashion coined?
In 1990, the New York Times published an article using the term ‘fast fashion’ for the first time. The piece was about a new fashion retailer with a mission to transform a garment – from an idea in the designer’s brain to being sold on racks in store – in only 15 days.
It’s safe to say fast fashion had arrived.
By the mid-1990s, online shopping took off – accelerating what was already a dizzying rate of textile consumption.
No matter where you are in the world, chances are: If you see an outfit you like, online, you can buy it and have it on your doorstep in days. But at what cost?
Being fashionable shouldn’t cost the earth.
All areas of fast fashion – super speedy production, use of synthetic fibres and dangerous chemicals, and competitive pricing – have massive negative impacts on our blue planet and the people involved in garment manufacturing.
What’s more: Rapidly changing trends and clothing available at shockingly cheap prices instils a throw-away culture; as though clothing isn’t meant to be long-lasting or worn more than a few times.
5 fast facts about fashion’s environmental impact.
- 63% of textile fibres are derived from petrochemicals.
- 70 million barrels of oil a year are used to make polyester fibres in our clothes.
- A polyester shirt produces the equivalent of 5.5kg of carbon dioxide compared to 2.1kg from a cotton shirt.
- On average a person consumes 11.4kg of apparel each year.
- Garment manufacturing accounts for 20% of global industrial water pollution.
And that’s the tip of the iceberg.
We’ve hardly touched on overconsumption, water usage, waste and haven’t even mentioned microplastics yet. Read more about the impact of textiles on people and the planet.
How does fast fashion impact the Ocean?
Textiles in the fashion industry generally fit into two categories: Natural and synthetic.
Natural materials (like wool and cotton) are made from plant and animal sources. They tend to be more expensive and last longer.
Fast fashion relies on the cheaper (less, environmentally friendly) option: Synthetic materials. You’ll recognise these plastic-based materials in your clothing: Polyester, acrylic, and nylon.
Synthetic fibres make up almost 60% of annual fibre consumption. Said differently: Our clothes are around 60% plastic.
More than ever, our clothes are made of plastic. Just washing them can pollute the Ocean.
These synthetic fibres produce non-biodegradable waste that pollute the Ocean. How? A single 6kg laundry load releases up to 700,000 synthetic microfibres which pass through our drains and into our Ocean.
Once in the Ocean, microfibres are ingested by Ocean life and end up making their way back up the food chain, to us, and pose numerous health risks.
We can put fast fashion out of style.
More and more, consumers are demanding sustainable clothing and calling out the true cost of the fashion industry. As a result, we’re starting to see some changes in the fashion industry, but there’s a long way to go.
As recently as 2018, the fashion industry produced ~2.1 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions globally. Luckily for us, we can all directly influence the fashion industry and the impact it has.
As individuals, the first thing we need to tackle is our relationship with consumerism.
“What can I do to tackle fast fashion?”
- Continue to learn about how to spot fast fashion brands (then steer clear of them).
- Embrace buying less fast fashion items. (In a week or two, that item will be out of fashion anyway, right?)
- When you do shop for clothing, ensure you’re purchasing with long-term wear in mind.
- Support responsible, ethical clothing brands.
- Buy second hand.
- Only wash your clothes when they’re actually dirty.
- Be an outfit repeater (re-wear your clothing until it really is end-of-life).
- Repurpose clothing when they’re end-of-life.
- Remember that the most sustainable piece of clothing you have is the one already in your closet.
- Join the Wavemaker Programme for tools to accelerate your social actions.
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