‘Fast fashion’ refers to clothes which are designed to deliver current style trends to shoppers as quickly and cheaply as possible before consumers move on to the next craze. High street and online retailers commission the mass-production of whichever item of clothing is in present demand, with the aim of selling as many units as possible before customers move on, and the items have to be removed from sale. As a result, ‘fast fashion’ has triggered the most wasteful and unsustainable trend in fashion history.
The transitory nature of these ‘fast fashion’ trends has led to the reduction in not only the actual price of clothes but also their value for consumers. The item was bought at a low cost, so there is no great loss for the buyer if they just throw it out once the trend has passed. ‘Fast fashion’ has become synonymous with ‘disposable fashion’ as more than half its products are disposed of in less than a year as trends fade away . With 300,000 tonnes of textiles being sent to landfill in 2018  and less than 1% of the material used to produce clothing being recycled into new clothing , the fashion industry is responsible for a significant amount of waste. This takes on an even deeper environmental significance as a large amount of these ‘fast fashion’ items are produced using synthetic fibres, which do not biodegrade.
The synthetic materials used to make these ‘fast fashion’ items are produced from fossil fuels, with viscose often being manufactured from petrochemicals, and acrylic, nylon and polyester production using oil and coal . A Circular Fibres Initiative report exposed global textiles productions for producing 1.2 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions in 2015 – more than the emissions of all international flights and maritime shipping combined . In addition to this, the textile industry relies on vast quantities of water in its manufacturing processes, and its use of synthetic dyes on its materials has led to the severe pollution of waters around factories .
When questioning the sustainability of ‘fast fashion’, the ethics of its manufacture must also be brought into question. The most notorious example of the true cost of the fashion industry came with the collapse of the Rana Plaza complex in Bangladesh in 2013, which led to the deaths of around 1,300 people – most of whom were young female workers . Alongside high-end designers such as Prada, Gucci and Versace, the factories manufactured items for ‘fast fashion’ perpetrators such as Matalan, Primark and Walmart . However, such horrors cannot be dismissed as far away disasters. An exposé of workshops in Leicester in 2010 discovered dangerous ‘sweatshop conditions’ and workers being paid half the legal minimum wage at the time. These workers were producing clothes for brands including BHS and New Look .
Some ‘fast fashion’ brands have made an effort to address the sustainability of their production. From 2011 to 2014, Topshop partnered with Reclaim To Wear to create three collections made from discarded surplus stock or production off-cuts . In 2013, H&M launched their ‘Garment Collecting programme’ which was designed to prevent unwanted clothes from going to landfill, with all clothes collected in their stores being reused or recycled . As well as this, many high street brands belong to initiatives such as the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan, the Better Cotton Initiative, or the Industry Acting on Microfibres group. All of these collectives aim to reduce the environmental impact of the fashion industry.
Whilst it is good news that high street retailers are participating in sustainability-focused schemes, it is impossible to assess how successful they are, and whether they are making any significant changes. When considering the grand scale of ‘fast fashion’, it seems impossible that it could ever be sustainable. It is a fashion practice based upon rapid consumption, fast turnover and low costs; reliant upon customers valuing keeping up to date more than spending more money on long-lasting pieces. The only way to make ‘fast fashion’ sustainable would be to take advantage of the millions of abandoned materials for sale in second-hand shops. Fashion is cyclical, and a surprising amount of current trends can be found amongst discarded, donated clothes. Taking advantage of the is not only the most sustainable way to shop but also cost-effective. Win-win.
 Sandra Laville, 'Stella McCartney calls for an overhaul of 'incredibly wasteful' fashion industry' (2017). URL: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/nov/28/stella-mccartney-calls-for-overhaul-of-incredibly-wasteful-fashion-industry
 Lucy Siegle, ‘Fast fashion is on the rampage, with the UK at the head of the charge’ (2019). URL: https://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2019/jun/21/fast-fashion-is-on-the-rampage-with-uk-at-the-head-of-the-charge
 Sarah Butler, 'Is fast fashion giving way to the sustainable wardrobe?' (2018). URL: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2018/dec/29/fast-fashion-giving-way-sustainable-wardrobe
 Unknown author. URL: https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/materials-science/synthetic-fiber
 Farah Maria Drumond Chequer et al. URL: http://cdn.intechopen.com/pdfs/41411/InTech-Textile_dyes_dyeing_process_and_environmental_impact.pdf
 Unknown author, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2013_Dhaka_garment_factory_collapse
 Martin Hickman, 'Retail giants shamed by UK sweatshops' (2010). URL: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/retail-giants-shamed-by-uk-sweatshops-2128022.html
 Unknown author. URL: http://www.reclaimtowear.com/2012/topshop-reclaim-to-wear/
 Unknown author. URL: https://www2.hm.com/en_gb/ladies/shop-by-feature/16r-garment-collecting.html