Fast Fashion is a business model gaining popularity that relies on mass production, design, and marketing. The manufacturing focuses on creating trendy styles based on the high fashion and celebrity world with low-quality materials to produce relatively inexpensive clothing for the general public. These cost-saving items resulted in a large-scale and fast movement. The fast fashion movement originated in the 1960s to promote paper products. It became a marketing push towards utilizing cheap materials to create disposable clothing. In present times, fast fashion is known for its efficient supply chains, responsive design methods, inexpensive labor, sweatshops, and bulk low-labor manufacturing industries located in various regions throughout Asia. Many fast fashion companies outsource to different countries to minimize labor costs.  Examples of fast fashion brands include Uniqlo, H&M, and Zara. They have similar business models based on producing inexpensive clothing through their efficient and fast production lines. Their goal is to create seasonal and trendy designs that are continuously marketed at a fast pace toward fashion-conscious consumers.
- 1 Origins
- 2 Business Practices
- 3 Technology in Fast Fashion Practices
- 4 Ethical Implications
- 5 Solutions and Alternatives to Fast Fashion
- 6 References
The emergence of fast fashion practices can be dated back to The Industrial Revolution when the sewing machine emerged. Making clothing was easier, quicker, and cheaper to make than in the past. Many of the middle-class clothing shops utilized teams of garment workers or home workers, allowing the concept of sweatshops to emerge.  The average person owned around twenty-five items of clothing around this time, and ninety-five percent of clothing that was being sold in the United States was manufactured there.
The Paper Clothing Trend
The "paper clothing trend" was introduced in the 1960s. In 1966, Scott Paper Company created two styles of shift dresses as a viral marketing campaign to promote a new Dura-Weve material used in their toilet paper and napkins. In the time span of eight months, 500,000 units were sold, and by the end of 1966, national sales of paper clothes had topped $3.5 million. Different companies such as Hallmark began adopting the same method as Scott Paper Company: using disposable dresses as a marketing tactic. These paper clothes were designed to be easily disposable and reflected fashion as an artistic statement. In 1968, paper clothing went out of style due to a shift in design trends and a cultural focus on the environment. This trend prompted fast fashion businesses during the late 20th century to adopt cheaper and more efficient manufacturing processes, utilizing new materials such as polyester and nylon.
Phasing Out Miltifiber Arrangement (MFA)
In 2004, the Multifiber Arrangement (MFA), which previously imposed quotas and restricted clothing exports from developing countries to developed countries, was phased out. Without these quotas, importing clothing was now based on labor costs, local input materials, tariffs, and a firm's ability to produce trending clothing. Businesses have been able to lower the prices of products due to the recent focus on labor costs.
Current popular fast fashion brands, such as Zara, Shein, Uniqlo, H&M, ASOS, and Topshop, rely mainly on cheap labor and inexpensive global outsourcing to quickly develop, construct, and ship clothing items.
Zara's Business Practices
Fast fashion brands typically develop their seasonal clothing prior to the start of the season. Zara typically develops clothing up to nine months in advance. Zara relies on sales data, store managers, industry publications, the internet, and trend spotters to get information on current trends in order to manufacture clothes out at a fast pace. During the season, Zara can create clothing in four to five weeks and modify it in two weeks. Traditional industry model could take up to six months to complete the same process. At Zara, creative teams thus focus on "products for the current season by creating constant variation, expanding on successful product items and continuing in-season development, and on the following season and year by selecting the fabrics and product mix that would be the basis for an initial collection." Due to the short design cycle, fast fashion companies like Zara can continually manufacture merchandise during the fashion season instead of relying on execution before the season starts.
Shein was founded by Chris Xu, and opened in October 2008. Its parent company, Shenzhen Globalegrow E-Commerce Co. Ltd, is headquartered in China. The company also hosts several other fast fashion businesses, such as Zaful. It is known for its extremely cheap prices, and produces about 500 new designs a day. Aside from the lower quality of these items, their production also has greater implications. Their use of sweatshops has violated international human rights guidelines and their production also has a large impact on pollution in the area of factories. Shein has been accused of stealing several designs from small businesses as well as producing offensive items.
H&M's Business Practices
H&M is a Swedish retailer, and the second largest retailer in the world. H&M has taken steps to become more sustainable in the past few years. They have set a target goal to achieve the use of 100% recyclable or sustainable material by 2030. In the past, H&M has faced controversies regarding its labor conditions. In 2013, the company came under fire for the Rana Plaza disaster, which occurred in Bangladesh.. Following this, they joined Bangladesh Fire Safety Accord. They also promised to pay their workers livable wages by 2018, but failed to meet this commitment. In 2018, they came under fire for abuse of female employees, and were listed in reports by Global Labour Reports.
Technology in Fast Fashion Practices
Nowadays, fashion brands, including fast fashion and high-brand names, use modern technology to better understand their market and customers. Through online data collection, companies can use Artificial Intelligence (AI) to reshape the company's approach to product design and development, which allows them to predict what customers will want to look for and buy next. Big data analysis has taken on a significant role in forecasting customer behavior and buying patterns. The brands with the resources and funds to obtain these analytics utilize this competitive advantage over other smaller businesses. Fast fashion brands can revamp their marketing tactics to find and create the best, most profitable products to bring to their consumers using big data analytics. To be successful within the fashion industry, brands need to predict fashion and industry trends to stay in touch with the ever-changing consumer preferences. Big data analytics can provide companies with many valuable services, mainly through analyzing trends, identifying target markets, and improving cross-selling. Helping companies understand market trends by using data-driven sentiment analysis solutions on social media and other platforms aids them in creating and marketing their products correctly to keep up with the times.
Implementation of AI
AI is becoming the fore-front force in fast fashion practices. AI in the fashion industry is starting to transform how companies operate and maximize their profits. AI and machine learning (ML) based technologies provide automated solutions to provide the most efficient, cost-saving methods in the age of digitalization.
AI can act as a clothing designer because it can reduce forecasting errors by detecting new, in-demand trends. Fashion trends can vary rapidly, so AI designers keep up with the latest styles by analyzing designs through images to copy those popular styles. The product life cycle is short and there can be up to 10,000 unique items (measured in stock-keeping units) to model. It is hard to forecast future trends using traditional means in a short amount of time. AI benefited forecasting despite these conditions and often includes multiple models working in conjunction.
AI can directly design clothing items. For example, Pinar Yanardag and Emily Salvador utilized AI to create a little black dress. They trained a GAN (Generative Adversarial Network), which generated designs for humans to then pick features from the designs to incorporate into the final design. The final design was then handmade. In addition, certain jewelry creation uses a similar process.
AI also plays a role in manufacturing and supply chains. AI can perform labor-intensive tasks such as sewing and sorting with a faster speed and accuracy, reducing the extra cost of employees. Fast fashion companies can also mass-produce their clothing because AI-enabled machines and robots can perfectly stitch the fabrics while detecting any material faults. In inventory and supply chain management, AI speeds up the product's routes by cutting the logistic supplies and shipping costs. Using these AI benefits, companies can offer faster delivery options and find alternate routes for vehicles if derailed by unforeseen circumstances. Manufacturing marketplaces can also utilize AI to assess whether or not designs are feasible and can provide estimates on cost and production time, which potentially eliminates long periods of communication with suppliers. This is a crucial role for mass production because the more products they create and send out ultimately leads to more profit for the business. Vendors tend to be less responsive to small-quantity orders unless they are specifically set up for that scale because of the shift towards mass production and AI methods.
Virtual Fitting Rooms
AI provides virtual fitting rooms in which customers can virtually try on items. Consumers provide their personal data such as the consumer's height, weight, and fit preferences, and this information is used in conjunction with AI and 3D cameras. These algorithms combine customer information with existing databases of various items, styles, and sizes to recommend the best products from brand partners to consumers. This allows for personalized recommendations and easier access to products with contactless methods.
Amidst the rise of fast fashion, there are drawbacks concerning the ethical implications surrounding this movement. The high street fashion market relies on high product variety, low predictability, relatively low margins, and high levels of impulse purchasing. Fast fashion involves vertical disintegration and outsourcing products to independent subcontractors that are generally located within lower labor cost countries. The goal of these companies is to continue to drive down prices. Previously, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Taiwan were popular locations for low-cost manufacturing labor, but currently, the more common locations include Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Cambodia.
Worker Exploitation and Unsafe Conditions
Ethical transgressions within supply chains pose a challenge to fast fashion in regards to child labor and worker exploitation. There are clear concerns as it is difficult to execute strategies that are competitive enough to keep up with the fashion industry alongside being socially responsible. Many of these nations where production occurs have poor working conditions, weak regulatory compliance, and corruption in the production contexts. For example, in the U.S. about 90% of clothing is made from cotton or polyester, which are both associated with significant health implications from the manufacturing and production processes. Within many of these factories there can be respiratory hazards from poor ventilation and musculoskeletal hazards from repetitive motion tasks, some of which lead to health debilitating and life-threatening health implications.
Ali Enterprise Fire
One notable example of poor working conditions is what occurred in Pakistan when there was a massive fire at Ali Enterprise textile factory in September 2012. There were about 650 people working inside the factory, where 258 of the workers were killed. KiK (a German clothing retail company) was the factory’s main customer, and they ended up agreeing to pay $5.15 million to the affected families and survivors. In addition, the fire spread so quickly because of safety standards that were violated, such as locked and blocked emergency exits. This incident exemplifies unsafe working conditions within factories that help fast fashion produce products as quickly and cheaply as possible.
Rana Plaza Collapse
Rana Plaza, a factory located in Savar, Bangladesh contained over 5,000 people working to manufacture clothes for big fashion brands. The building collapsed on April 24, 2013, and the collapse caused the fourth largest industrial disaster. 1,100 people died and 2,500 were injured. Mostly young women were affected as they make up the primary demographic of workers in Rana Plaza.
Workers had complained about the potential danger of the building before the collapse. They noticed cracks in the building and notified superiors that they were afraid to work in the building. An engineer came to inspect the cracks and deemed the building unsafe. The first floor shops shut down days before the collapse due to the unsafe conditions, yet the factory workers had to continue on.
In 2018, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported 17 million tons of textile waste. 2.5 million tons of that waste was recycled. An American individual throws away around 70 pounds of clothing each year, and they feel more comfortable throwing away cheap clothing that was trendy for a period of time than more expensive and classic pieces. Every year around $500 billion is lost due to clothing that is not recycled or worn. 
The fashion industry creates 10% of the yearly global carbon emissions due to transportation, customer buying practices, and discarding of clothing. If this trend continues, the fashion industry will be responsible for 25% of the global carbon budget.
Microplastics from synthetic fibers in clothing can pollute marine life. These plastics are washed away from landfills and end up being eaten by sea animals. They can also end up in water systems from clothing shedding fibers in the washing machine. A synthetic clothing item sheds around 1,900 fibers during one time in the washing machine.
Design theft is a staple of the fast fashion economy. It allows brands to stay up to date on the latest styles and trends without having to invest much capital into designers of their own. Design theft is a quick, easy, and cheap solution that also serves to steal a significant share of profits from competitors when a stolen design is sold for less than the price of the original.
In the United States design theft is often a game of cat and mouse because when copyright laws were being written in 1976, fashion was considered a manufacturing industry as opposed to a creative one. Clothing brands, and the future of the industry, were never fully considered under U.S. copyright law so often copycats and knockoffs are considered legal. The one exception to this oversight is distinguishable labels, prints, and logos because, according to Julie Zerbo, New York lawyer and founder of Fashion Law, “copyright law says that if you can separate creative elements of these useful articles from the utilitarian function of the useful thing ― the dress, for instance ― then those separable elements can be protected”. This means that if Zara tries to sell a dress covered in Gucci logos, Gucci could sue them because the dress and pattern can exist separately and the dress has a utilitarian function without the logos.
The record of fast fashion brands stealing from luxury designers is long and varied. For example, Zara was notably accused of ripping off a pair of Yeezy 750 boosts in 2016 and Balenciaga’s Triple S sneaker in 2017. H&M drew attention in 2017 for selling shirts, hoodies, and socks stamped with a gothic font signature to Russian designer, Gosha Rubchinskiy.  Forever 21 has also had its fair share of scandals. Both Gucci and Adidas have sued the popular mall-staple multiple times and once they sued simultaneously over supposedly plagiarising their respective iconic stripe designs.
While long and expensive legal battles may be within the realm of possibility for large, established brands who want to protect their intellectual property, smaller, more independent designers typically lack the resources necessary to reach a satisfying conclusion with a design thief. When Tuesday Bassen, an artist based in Los Angeles, contacted Zara about selling merch with a design identical to her heart-shaped lollipop pin she later received a dismissive response from the company and a refusal to comply despite her having already accrued $2,000 in legal fees. For many independent designers, social media is actually the best way to hold fast fashion companies accountable and raise awareness for their own work. Public outrage has proven to pressure these companies into pulling stolen designs. It isn’t as preferable as monetary reparations from lost sales but until U.S. copyright law catches up with the state of the fashion industry getting a fast fashion brand to pull a stolen design from their catalog is the best result that many independent designers can hope for.
Solutions and Alternatives to Fast Fashion
Effects of the Pandemic
The pandemic has negatively affected the fashion industry, since many clothing stores were forced to close temporarily. Many younger people are already looking for ways to consume more responsibly rather than engaging in mass consumption, and the pandemic has helped to magnify this desire. Those who are in Gen Z tend to place greater emphasis on sustainability since they have grown up with much more access to information than other generations. Kati Chitrakorn, an editor at Vogue Business, says that fashion for Gen Z is more about expressing their identities through clothing than fitting in with fast fashion trends. A research study done by the Royal Society found that during the pandemic, 28% of people are recycling clothes more than usual and 35% of women plan to purchase fewer items in the future. One popular peer-to-peer shopping app that is commonly used for selling secondhand or recycled clothes is Depop, and the app has seen a 90% increase in traffic since April 1, 2020. Although fast fashion can be very concerning, especially ethically and environmentally, young adults and teenagers are becoming more aware of these issues and are taking steps to contribute less to the fast fashion industry.
Platforms for Selling and Buying Clothes
There is an increasing number of popular apps and websites used for selling and buying secondhand clothes. As mentioned in the previous section, one example is Depop, a popular UK-based shopping app that allows anyone to create a profile and sell their clothes. Depop is appealing to many people, as it allows buyers to discover anything that suits their preferences and styles and also shop more sustainably. The app's format and interface is also similar to Instagram's, which is geared towards younger generations. Depop seller @Alm0ndmilf describes the site as "a safe space for originality and a way to directly support self-made businesses that don’t contribute to climate change". On the other hand, people have also pointed out that many sellers on Depop are unethical, as they will follow the current most popular trends, hunt down and purchase cheap products that fit these trends, and sell these items for higher price points on Depop in order to make a profit. As such, sites like Depop may be helpful in tackling consumerism and encouraging sustainability, but the fast fashion industry still persists.
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