Fast Fashion or Fast Sustainability Destruction?

Since the 1990s, fast fashion has enabled everyday consumers to access the latest catwalk trends quickly and affordably. However, the sheer volume of garments produced, sold, and swiftly discarded has created a significant sustainability crisis. Rather than addressing these issues, the fashion industry is worsening with the advent of ultra-fast fashion, which accelerates the cycle of consumption and waste, exacerbating environmental and social problems.

Ultra-fast fashion brands like H&M, Shein, and Zara, operate on even shorter production cycles due to following a model which encompasses:

  • High Turnover Rates: Fast fashion brands introduced new collections multiple times a year, encouraging consumers to purchase more frequently.
  • Cost Efficiency: By outsourcing production to countries with lower labour costs, brands could offer lower prices and increase their profit margins.
  • Responsive Supply Chains: Advanced logistics and supply chain management enabled quick responses to fashion trends, minimising unsold inventory.

In turn, this creates new articles of clothing at lightning speeds compared to even their fast fashion predecessors, introducing new micro-trends such as balletcore, Barbiecore, and mermaidcore at breakneck speeds. These brands have moved away from traditional seasonal collections, producing massive volumes of clothing with minimal transparency regarding their supply chains. The consequences are severe

  • Environmental Impacts: The overproduction and rapid turnover of clothing contribute significantly to waste and the consumption of natural resources. If current trends continue, the fashion industry could consume 26% of the world’s carbon budget by 2050.


  • The fast fashion industry is a major consumer of water and energy. For instance, producing a single cotton T-shirt requires approximately 2,700 litres of water.


  • In the UK alone, an estimated 350,000 tonnes of used clothing ends up in landfill each year, contributing to significant environmental pollution.


  • The fashion industry accounts for around 10% of global carbon emissions, driven by energy-intensive production processes and extensive transportation networks.


  • Labour Exploitation: Ultra-fast fashion relies heavily on exploitative labour practices. Reports indicate that workers in factories producing for these brands often endure long hours and poor working conditions, with minimal safety standards being met.


  • Consumer Culture: The ultra-fast fashion model thrives on social media-driven demand, creating an insatiable appetite for new, cheap clothing.

To counteract the damaging effects of ultra-fast fashion, comprehensive changes are required at multiple levels:

  1. Programmes like the Seamless scheme in Australia aim to transform the fashion industry by 2030. This initiative promotes a circular economy by keeping raw materials in use for as long as possible and designing out waste. Members of the scheme contribute a levy to fund recycling, research, and educational campaigns.


  1. Policymakers must enforce minimum environmental standards and consider levies on clothing to discourage wasteful practices and encourage sustainable production.


  1. Consumers play a crucial role in driving change. By prioritising sustainability and reducing the frequency of new clothing purchases, they can significantly impact demand for ultra-fast fashion.

While initiatives like Seamless present a unique opportunity for industry transformation, there are challenges:

Free Rider Problem: Ultra-fast fashion brands might benefit from sustainability initiatives without contributing to their costs, continuing to flood the market with cheap, short-lived products.

Data Gaps: A lack of comprehensive data on the impact of ultra-fast fashion complicates efforts to address its environmental and social challenges effectively.

Despite these challenges, there is hope. Brands committed to sustainability, policymakers, and informed consumers can collectively drive the fashion industry towards a more responsible future. The potential government intervention by Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek for example, including the introduction of minimum environmental standards or a clothing levy, signifies a critical step in this direction. 

The transition from fast to ultra-fast fashion has intensified the fashion industry’s negative impact on the environment and labour practices. Addressing these issues requires a multi-faceted approach involving industry-led initiatives, stringent regulations, and conscious consumer choices. By fostering a circular economy and enforcing responsible practices, the fashion industry can mitigate its adverse effects and move towards a sustainable future. Our collective actions and advocacy for change are crucial in catalysing this transformation, ensuring a just and environmentally responsible fashion industry.