The History of Fast Fashion

Green leaf poking out of a jean pocket, representing sustainable fashion. Shared by Ocean Generation.

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?  

Definition of fast fashion: Fast fashion is low-cost, trendy clothing rapidly produced by mass-market retailers in response to the latest trends. Fast fashion has a massive impact on our planet. Ocean Generation is sharing a brief history of fast fashion.

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). 

The first sewing machine was invented in 1830 by
Barthelemy Thimonnier. It had a hooked needle and created a chain stitch, which is still used on jeans today. Shared by Ocean Generation in the history of the fashion industry article.

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.

Shared by Ocean Generation this is a sweatshop of Mr. Goldstein, 30 Suffolk Street, New York City, photograph by Lewis Wickes Hine, February, 1908

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.) 

“Fast fashion isn’t free. 
Someone, somewhere,  is paying.” 
Quote by Lucy Siegle regarding the fashion industry. In the image, an asian woman wears pink gloves poised under her chin.

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.  

This was the first article ever published using the term fast fashion. In 1990, the New York Times published an article about Zara stores coming to New York. Ocean Generation is sharing the impact of fast fashion on the planet.

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?  

Two sets of socked feet are up in the air. One pair of feet is wearing green socks and the other is wearing mustard yellow socks. They are both wearing white strappy high heels and blue jeans.

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.

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.

Woman breaking through a piece of clear plastic with her hands. Learn about plastic pollution with Ocean Generation.

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.  

Rainbow over the Ocean. It's like the Ocean is a pot of gold and really: it is. Our Ocean provides us with many resources and produces half the oxygen on Earth. Learn about the Oceans with Ocean Generation.

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. 

Asian woman surrounded by a pile of clothing. Just her face showing amongst all the clothing and textiles. This photo represents the overconsumption in the fashion industry.

“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. 
  • Subscribe to our newsletter for Ocean news, stories, and science.  

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