What Is Fast Fashion — And How Can We Avoid It?

By Tamara Davison on December 20, 2023
What Is Fast Fashion — And How Can We Avoid It?
Tamara Davison
Tamara Davison

Tamara Davison is a journalist who specializes in sustainability and the environment. Reporting from around the world, she's seen firsthand the direct impact waste is having on coastal communities and our oceans. As a diver trained in ecological monitoring, the changes Tamara has seen in marine habitats inspired her to action. She's previously written for The Guardian, The Independent and the Evening Standard. She's also produced environmental documentaries for EuroNews.

The clothing industry produces 92 million tonnes of textile waste each year (Circular, 2020), and fast fashion is at the heart of this massive problem. 

Fast fashion hinges on brands mass-producing runway designs, offering consumers the latest looks quickly and affordably. However, it also comes with significant issues. 

Unsustainable materials, poor manufacturing, excess waste, and unethical working conditions are all features of fast fashion. This trend has led to a devaluation of the quality of clothes in favor of getting cheap, on-trend looks. 

So what’s the solution? Here’s everything you need to know about fast fashion. 


What’s on this page?

01 | What is fast fashion?
02 | When did fast fashion start? 
03 | Why is fast fashion bad? 
04 | Which brands contribute to fast fashion?
05 | What is ultra-fast fashion? 
06 | How to avoid fast fashion
07 | 7 facts about fast fashion 
08 | FAQS


What is fast fashion?

As the name suggests, fast fashion refers to the rapid manufacturing of cheap clothes inspired by runway looks. These designs are mass-produced in developing countries, meaning brands can offer shoppers the latest trends at low prices. 

According to the Retail Gazette, the average cost of a clothing item from SHEIN (one of the largest fast fashion retailers) is just £5. But how does that work, given all the processes and shipping involved? 

Fast fashion brands rush designs into circulation using low-quality, unsustainable materials, and poor manufacturing. While convenience and affordability may benefit shoppers, fast fashion causes more harm than good for the environment. 

Most notably, fast fashion contributes to mountains of landfill waste worldwide. Many items are worn a handful of times but leave a lasting impact on the environment after being thrown away. 

Sustainable clothing brands are starting to challenge fast fashion, but as long as cheap clothing is in demand, brands like SHEIN, Forever 21, and Boohoo will persist. 



When did fast fashion start?

Fast fashion started in the 1990s, when some brands began introducing low-cost fashion lines in stores. 

The globalization of business meant that textiles were getting cheaper, and it was easier to transport goods worldwide. The production of affordable, runway-ready looks then snowballed, as brands tried to compete for customers. 

High-street heavyweights like Zara, Primark, and Topshop dominated the fashion market at this time. A boom in online retail also made shopping a lot easier. 

By the 2000s, many e-commerce fast fashion stores like SHEIN had opened to the public. The recent pandemic further accelerated demand for online shopping, helping fast fashion surge into a global phenomenon. 


Why is fast fashion bad?

It’s no secret that fast fashion poses significant sustainability and environmental challenges — but here are the main factors we should be concerned about. 

Generates vast amounts of plastic waste

The fashion industry and its consumers have become alarmingly reliant on plastic packaging, which leads to significant plastic pollution and climate change

In most cases, fast fashion brands individually wrap each item before they send the plastic parcel to your door. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 72% of plastic packaging that consumers dispose of is mismanaged, meaning it ends up in landfills or leaks into our environment.

Not only does packaging pollute the environment, but synthetic clothes themselves will too. A 2021 RSA study discovered that fast fashion websites made 80% of their items from new plastics like polyester, acrylic, and nylon.  

These brands have also been slow to adopt sustainable materials, with just 3% of clothing on ASOS, Boohoo, Misguided, and PrettyLittleThing made from recycled materials. 

On top of this, clothes from fast fashion brands typically have a very short lifespan. For example, clothing from SHEIN has a lifespan of just ten wears

Once discarded, many fast fashion garments will deteriorate and release microplastics that impact the environment and wildlife for decades. Alarmingly, experts believe that synthetic clothes are the source of up to 35% of all marine microplastics.

Contributes to climate change

SHEIN revealed that the company had produced 9.17 million ​​​​tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) in 2022 alone, citing strong business growth contributing to its emissions rising by 52%. That’s the equivalent of powering more than 2 million cars for over a year.

Despite promises to reduce emissions, demand for cheap clothing makes any meaningful change difficult. 

But it’s not just demand that’s growing these emissions. Everything in the fast fashion industry — from manufacturing to shipping items — contributes to significant carbon emissions, leading to climate change. 

According to the World Economic Forum, polyester produces three times as many carbon emissions as cotton. Fast fashion brands champion cheap textiles like polyester, so you can see how this feeds into global carbon emissions.  

On top of this, most fast fashion manufacturing occurs in overseas warehouses in India, Vietnam, and Bangladesh. These facilities typically ship items globally in containers or via air freight. Reliant on fossil fuels, the international shipping industry reportedly releases emissions equivalent to Germany. 

Unfortunately, shipping doesn’t only go one way. The ‘haul’ shopping phenomenon means many customers buy clothes in bulk but send most back to the manufacturer. Studies have shown that customers will return 30% of purchased clothes — but alarmingly, most of this gets sent straight to landfills instead of re-sold, as resale revenue isn’t worth it. 

As for the future? The World Bank predicts a 50% increase in the fashion industry's greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

Damages the environment

Unfortunately, the environmental damage linked to the fast fashion industry is multi-faceted. 

Experts estimate that the textile and fashion industry fells over 200 million trees annually. Manufacturers turn these trees into wood pulp for materials like viscose, which is a material commonly used to make floaty summer dresses and clothing with a velvety feel. Deforestation is also linked to the fashion industry’s demand for leather products, clearing the way for more farmland to facilitate production. 

Beyond deforestation, the fast fashion industry also heavily impacts water resources. For example, producing a single pair of jeans consumes an estimated 3,781 liters of water

Mass production of clothing, as well as dyeing and finishing fabrics, consumes unprecedented amounts of water. When manufacturers carry out these processes in developing countries like Bangladesh, it strains drinking water supplies in nations already rocked by water shortages. 

The environmental impact of fast fashion also goes far beyond manufacturing. Most discarded clothing ends up in landfills, where it remains for decades. Synthetic fibers like polyester also take up to 200 years to decompose, releasing harmful chemicals into the environment and water supplies. Several dumping sites have emerged around the world, such as Chile’s Atacama desert, where mountains of clothing that weren’t sold have been left to decompose. 

Exploits workers 

Fashion Checker's recent survey found that around 93% of all brands failed to pay their garment workers a living wage. On top of that, 80% of garment workers are women, who also tend to receive lower salaries than their male counterparts. 

Fast fashion warehouses tend to be situated in locations that don’t have strong worker protections, meaning brands can cut corners and costs. 

One 2021 report found that workers creating garments for SHEIN worked 75-hour weeks and only received one day off a month. This narrative isn’t unique either — Boohoo, a brand that’s collaborated with everyone from Kourtney Kardashian to Megan Fox, was also accused in 2020 of paying Pakistani garment workers 29p ($0.39) an hour. 

Getting your hands on cheap clothes comes at the cost of others around the world. 

Harms animals 

Not all fast fashion brands intentionally harm animals. There’s been a lot of support worldwide to end harmful animal practices, such as the continuation of the fur and leather industries. Primark, for example, is Leaping Bunny certified and was among many brands that vowed to phase out mohair after learning of the practice's harmful impacts on animals. 

Arguably, the worst way fast fashion players still impact animals is indirectly through waste products. Up to 500,000 tonnes of microplastics from textiles enter our water systems each year while washing clothes and when thrown out. 

All sorts of marine and land animals ingest them, with studies finding these plastics impact both animals and can even enter the human food chain.


Clothes sales


Which brands contribute to fast fashion?

A growing awareness of sustainability has led to a surge in sustainable e-commerce outlets. At the same time, however, many high-street clothing labels are still considered ‘fast fashion.’ 

Some of the biggest fast fashion contenders include: 


The global brand reportedly produces 450 million garments annually and releases around 20,000 new designs.

Although Zara gives off a high-end feel, the mass production, fresh from the runway element, means Zara falls into the fast fashion category.

Zara is trying to support more sustainable practices to boost sustainably farmed crops as part of its 2030 sustainability goals. However, there’s still some way to go. 

Forever 21

Forever 21 is one of the world’s most well-known fast fashion brands due to its low prices and on-trend looks.

Ironically, Forever 21's website promotes social responsibility, like recyclable bags and eco-friendly materials, alongside bold 50% off sale ads.

While Forever 21 seems to be trying to make a difference, it’s also struggling to shake its appeal of affordable clothing. 


Topshop was a high-street staple before its parent company closed its doors and the brand went online as part of the ASOS family.

At the height of its popularity, Topshop sold a pair of jeans every ten seconds — which, as we’ve already mentioned, consumes a lot of water.  Most of Topshop’s on-trend items are fast fashion, produced from cheap materials, and inspired by the latest runway looks.

While there have been some steps to improve its sustainability credentials, such as its ‘considered’ line, there’s still a lot of room for improvement.  


Earlier this year, Primark revealed a bold sustainability strategy that outlined the brand’s commitment to less waste, more recycling, and reduced emissions.

However, they have a history of questionable practices. There have been several instances where ‘SOS’ messages have been found from garment workers left in items of clothing.

Nowadays, the brand aims to improve its clothing manufacturing methods without increasing prices. Whether this new approach successfully achieved sustainable fast fashion remains to be seen. 


While offering a different take on fast fashion from the other brands here, UNIQLO still has similar traits, such as mass production and low-quality materials like polyester and viscose.

The brand claims to be on a “path to sustainability” and has taken several steps to increase its environmental credentials.

However, criticism about Uniqlo’s lack of transparency regarding material sourcing has arisen. Moreover, the Clean Clothes campaign claims Uniqlo owed 2,000 female garment workers USD 5.5 million. 

What is ultra fashion fashion?

While we’ve referred to brands like SHEIN and Forever 21 interchangeably as fast fashion outlets, there’s a noted difference. Ultra-fast fashion is a byproduct of the fast fashion market, accelerating production and reducing costs even further. 

Ultra-fast fashion brands are aimed at younger shoppers looking for the latest looks. The businesses focus on tracking real-time microtrends to produce new clothing lines, sometimes in a matter of days. 

The rate at which this clothing is made means the quality is low, and working conditions are questionable. These items are often marketed at reduced prices and come with free shipping, among other ‘perks’. 

Examples of ultra-fast fashion include discounted e-commerce retail sites often linked to Chinese retailers, including SHEIN, Cider, Boohoo, and PrettyLittleThing. These brands are undergoing record growth, with SHEIN aiming to double its revenue to $58.5 billion in 2025.


How to avoid fast fashion

There’s a lot of pressure to dress a certain way in modern society. Influencers who get paid to promote fast fashion often make you feel the need to look and dress a certain way. But there are some easy steps you can take to avoid fast fashion. 

1. Shop from sustainable clothes brands

Around 65% of fashion shoppers surveyed by Fashion United said they care about the environment. As a result, many brands now put sustainability goals at the heart of their business mission. And they’re doing this in various ways, from developing natural materials to supporting plastic offsetting initiatives. 

While environmental behemoths like Patagonia donate millions to grassroots environmental projects, others like Vuori are committed to being plastic-neutral in all their garments and packaging. 

Want to support sustainable clothing brands but don’t know how to find them? Check out our brand directory to discover brands doing their bit for the planet. 

2. Buy second-hand items

Fashion lovers have been shopping from thrift stores and charity shops for decades. However, the second-hand market has also recently evolved thanks to technology. Now, countless apps like Vinted, Shopify, Depop, and eBay allow people to sell and buy second-hand clothes globally. 

Experts expect this market to grow by 127% in the next three years, signaling that people increasingly support circular economy models that allow good-quality clothes to remain in circulation instead of being thrown away. 

It’s worth noting, however, that less than 30% of clothing donated to a thrift store is re-sold. There are many reasons for this, such as the poor quality of many fast fashion garments and charity shop systems simply being overwhelmed by the donations they receive.

In many cases, clothes will be shipped to the global South to places such as South America. It’s common to see mountains of clothing featuring US prices on Goodwill tags in countries like Bolivia. 

The reality is that there’s still some way to go before the re-sale market makes a meaningful impact. 

3. Brush up on your greenwashing knowledge

Greenwashing is when companies falsely claim environmental commitment — and it’s rising as consumer pressure increases.

That’s why shoppers need to brush up their greenwashing knowledge and learn how to spot it when it's happening. That way, we can all make conscious decisions and support brands that make a difference. 

Looking out for buzzwords, making sure brands back up their claims, and doing your research are the best ways to spot greenwashing. 

Want to learn more? Check out our guide: What is Greenwashing — And How Can You Spot it?


7 facts about fast fashion

  • 92 million tonnes of textile waste are produced globally each year
  • The fast fashion industry employs 75 million garment workers, but less than 2% are thought to earn a living wage
  • One year’s worth of virgin polyester produces the same amount of carbon emission as 180 coal-fired power plants
  • The average lifespan of a fast fashion garment is just 35 days 
  • Synthetic materials — which the majority of fast fashion items are made from — can take up to 200 years to biodegrade 
  • The fashion industry consumes 79 trillion liters of water a year, making up 20% of industrial wastewater 
  • 60% of shoppers are ready to “ditch fast fashion” entirely 


Shoppers will throw away almost half of their fast fashion purchases within a year of being purchased. 

The thing is, consumers are increasingly aware of the environment and want to do something about it. To reshape the unsustainable cycle of fast fashion, brands, and shoppers must come together to reimagine our relationship with clothing and reassess how we engage with emerging fashion trends.

The solution requires a mix of education, engagement, and a commitment to a fashion-forward circular economy. Viewing the lifecycle of garments as cyclical, meaning they can be repaired, reused, and repurposed, is critical to combating throwaway culture. 

CleanHub is committed to helping brands and consumers embrace a more sustainable fashion world. Speak to our team to learn how we can help you become part of a planet-friendly future. 



What can we do to stop fast fashion?

To end fast fashion, we must stop supporting brands that carry out such practices. Educating yourself about sustainable fashion practices allows you to shop from brands that want to make a difference.

Want to find more eco-friendly clothing companies? Check out our guide on the Top 11 Sustainable Clothing Brands

Can you avoid fast fashion?

It is possible to avoid fast fashion. A ‘slow fashion’ movement is emerging where brands champion slow, ethical manufacturing and durable clothes that last a lifetime. By shopping for second-hand clothing, you can also delay excess waste and get your hands on high-quality products at lower prices. 

What is fast fashion, and why is it so harmful?

Fast fashion is when companies mass-produce cheap clothing based on the latest runway looks. It’s harmful because, to offer affordable prices, brands often use low-quality materials that can take hundreds of years to biodegrade. As the designs are rushed through manufacturing, the items are also low-quality, so they are often only worn a handful of times.

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