If you're like pretty much anyone in this world, then you've probably considered buying clothes from fast fashion brands at least once… And I don't blame you!
Maybe it's because they're cheaper or maybe it's because it seems easier than searching for an ethical boutique and trying things on, but we've all been there, feeling tempted to buy that trendy t-shirt that keeps popping up over and over again on our Instagram feed.
However, in this post, I want to talk about the worst fast fashion brands, and why you should avoid them. If you're thinking about giving in to that temptation of buying from a cheap brand this season —maybe even after reading the title of this post alone— then I really hope this will change your mind! Open your closet and get ready to check tags: it's time to dive into the worst of the WORST fast fashion brands out there.
What is Fast Fashion?
Before putting the worst fast fashion brands in the spotlight, let's go back to basics: what is fast fashion anyway?
Fast fashion is clothing that is made fast, cheap, and with little consideration. This type of fashion has been around for decades but its popularity has grown exponentially in the last decade due to improved technologies like mass production printing machines which allow companies to produce more garments at a lower cost than ever before. If this means creating disposable pieces made from synthetic materials which do not last as long as natural fabrics like organic cotton, so be it.
In a nutshell, fast fashion is a reflection of today's modern life — pure and simple consumerism. This side of fashion produces dozens of clothing collections per year, in contrast to the traditional spring/summer and autumn/winter collection model. Could this have something to do with the fact that globally, about 92 million tons of textiles are discarded annually? Absolutely.
Speaking of textile waste, let's dig a little deeper into what exactly is wrong with fast fashion (spoiler alert: lots of things!).
What's Wrong With Fast Fashion?
There are lots of problems with fast fashion — not just the low-quality clothes. I'm talking about the fast fashion industry's negative environmental impact, exploitative labour practices, and shady marketing strategies. So without further ado, let's unveil the dark side of fashion:
The fast-fashion industry is unsustainable, period.
Fast fashion loves to deplete natural resources, and this can be seen in its water consumption. The typical textile processing requires around 100-150 litres of water per kilogram of fiber, and if we focus on a single garment, it takes about 2,700 litres of water to make a plain cotton t-shirt. That's enough drinking water for one person for almost 3 years!
I also discussed in one of my most recent posts fibers that are made in closed-loop systems, but of course, this doesn't exist in fast fashion. Rather, almost all manufacturers use an open-loop system to make garments and process fibers, which pollutes the hundreds of litres of water I mentioned above and pollutes land with toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde, alkylphenols, and heavy metals.
When it comes to energy, things don't change much. It's no surprise that the fast fashion industry makes 5% of total global greenhouse gas emissions, according to a World Economic Forum analysis from 2021.
In fact, energy use by this industry is so high that the Textile Exchange estimated in their Global Market Report On Sustainable Textiles of 2010 that around one trillion kilowatt-hours are used annually to manufacture textiles.
This is one of fast fashion's biggest flaws, and it will (most likely) never be able to fix itself. It's just a really, REALLY thirsty and energy-hungry industry that doesn't seem to care at all about the fact that water is a sacred resource and that energy waste heavily pollutes our environment. If upsetting the ecological balance was a competition, fast fashion would win by a landslide.
The most worrisome thing about fast fashion is that its issues aren't limited to the lack of sustainability. The mass production of garments that causes the lack of sustainability also generates a high demand for labour and often leads to the exploitation of minors and vulnerable populations in developing countries that suffer from unfair treatment and almost non-existent remuneration.
After all, how much can you pay a hard-working person to manufacture a garment that has a final cost of only 5 bucks? Taking into account that not only their labour needs to be paid, but also a whole production chain such as materials, shipping fees, taxes, factory rent, salespeople, marketing, etc. The answer is 3 cents per hour.
It's no secret that fast fashion brands are notorious for producing low-quality clothing at a fast pace by undercutting prices on quality materials and using cheap labour in countries with lax regulations such as China and India, but… 3 cents per hour? Man, that's modern slavery right there.
I know all of this is already shocking, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. The worst part of all this is that these workers can even work up to 100+ hours a week in sweatshops with precarious conditions. How precarious? Well, as precarious as the conditions of the sweatshop in Bangladesh that collapsed in 2013 on top of its workers, leaving more than 1,134 people dead. The building didn't comply with basic safety measures, and despite thousands of workers previously reporting the poor conditions of their workstations, nobody ever did a thing about it.
But it doesn't stop here. There’s another factor that puts the lives of millions of factory workers at risk: chemicals and toxic dyes.
Oh, fast fashion chemicals and toxic dyes… you would think that these are just rumours to scare people away from fast fashion garments, but no, they're very real.
The continuous exposure of sweatshop workers to chemicals and synthetic dyes can cause chronic life-threatening illnesses such as lung disease, reproductive risks, and even cancer. As you can see, the ethics of fast fashion companies are virtually nonexistent.
Who doesn't like to get fashionable clothes at the lowest cost possible? We feel good when we get clothes that don't hurt our pocket, but the reality is that by doing so, we are hurting something much more important: our Mother Earth.
Big fast fashion brands are absolutely hooked on the use of synthetic textiles derived from petroleum, so much so that synthetic fibers account for more than two-thirds (69%) of all materials used in textiles. Cheap synthetic fibers are not only harmful to the environment because they perpetuate the fashion industry's dependence on fossil fuel extraction, a highly polluting process, but they also end up being discarded on a massive scale soon after they are purchased.
In the textile industry, garment recycling is minimal, So much so that in Canada, the recycling company Envirotex estimates that 85% of the clothing that could be recycled ends up in our country's landfills, constantly polluting the environment.
Polyester, which is the most commonly used fiber in clothing, is essentially a plastic and will never, ever fully decompose, but will break down into microplastics for years to come, harming people and wildlife and emitting large quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere. I mean, the average Canadian throws away 37 kilograms of textiles annually that end up laying eternally in landfills, so I think it's time for a change.
Not-so-fun fact: Did you know that one in three young women, the largest segment of clothing consumers worldwide, consider once or twice-worn garments to be old? In a world where you can revamp your entire closet for less than $50, this mindset is pretty common. However, just because it's common doesn't mean it's right.
What fast fashion brands Should I avoid?
When you think of fast fashion, do you think about brands like Zara or Forever 21? If so, then you’re completely right. These are two of the most terrible fast fashion brands, but don’t be mistaken. There are many more fast fashion brands out there that wreak havoc in our environment that you should avoid if you want your closet —and conscience— to be clean:
Let's start with a brand that simply deserves to be booed: Boohoo.
This British brand has been in the middle of an international scandal since last year after a Sunday Times investigation uncovered serious labour exploitation in one of its factories in Leicester. What they saw was shocking, to say the least: workers were paid way below the minimum wage, around £3.50 (C$5.97) per hour, and were not provided with any protective equipment despite the fact that at the time, the city was in the midst of a new outbreak of COVID-19.
Plus, Boohoo has been ranked as one of the most polluting fast fashion companies in Europe due to its extremely poor record on environmental protections, releasing over 500 new products a week that don't last from one summer to the next.
Oh, SheIn… Where should I begin with this one? This is one of the fastest-growing Chinese online fast-fashion retailers, and its popularity isn’t just growing in Canada or the U.S., but in the entire world. In fact, one of its biggest customers is Latin America, where millions of people buy clothes on its website and then resell them at a higher price. But why is this a bad thing? You may ask. Well, because their garments are virtually disposable. The materials they are made from are extremely cheap, and many times buyers don't even receive the same thing they ordered. This implies that many of the garments they produce will end up contributing to the giant mass of textile waste found in landfills today.
However, this is not even the worst thing about this brand. The fact that their garments are made of cheap and polluting materials is nothing compared to their ethics, or rather, their lack of ethics.
We all know that China isn't well known for caring about its workers in the textile industry so yeah, it kinda goes without saying that SheIn exploits its workers. They do have a severe lack of transparency, so it's safe to assume that not only their workers are paid pittances, but that they also may use child labour.
Furthermore, SheIn has had a problematic track record of plagiarism accusations and manufacturing offensive items such as swastika-shaped necklaces, so it's best to let SheIn find its way out of your closet.
Last but certainly not least, we have Forever 21 — fast fashion's little sister with an even bigger impact. With over 800 stores all over the world, Forever 21 has its own unethical practices regarding labour conditions.
This brand is part of the limited fast fashion family, meaning that it doesn't produce as many collections per year like its other fast-fashion siblings. Nevertheless, Forever 21 still has a massive environmental footprint due to the sheer volume of clothes they sell every day, they're the authority on fashion & the go-to retailer for the latest trends, must-have styles & the hottest deals. By the way, I'm not the one saying this, this is literally what their website says.
Even though they filed for bankruptcy, Forever 21 still manufactures millions of near-disposable garments a year, purely to meet the demand for "the latest trends and must-have styles" at the lowest price possible. Does that mean they don't pay their workers a living wage either? Indeed.
This brand has been linked to sweatshop-like working conditions and illegal labour as well through its supplier factories located in China and Bangladesh. In fact, it's one of the few fast fashion companies that have yet to sign the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, a legal independent agreement that requires brands to ensure safe working conditions in their supplier factories in Bangladesh. Shame on you, Forever 21!
Long story short, there are many fast fashion brands on the market, but none of them are worth your money or time. Not a single one of the brands I mentioned above cares about the damage they’re doing to the environment and to their workers because they know that most buyers don't care about where their clothes come from or how they were made so long as they're affordable. But if we want to have an affordable sustainable wardrobe, we all should!
Biggest Fast Fashion Brands
You didn't think I was going to skip the fast fashion dream team, did you? Zara and H&M- the world's biggest fast fashion brands with the world's biggest environmental footprint and unethical practices.
Zara is fast fashion at its worst because it's the pioneer of this industry. This brand doesn't work alone, but hand in hand with many others in the same category. The founder of this Spanish clothing brand created INDITEX, a multinational textile manufacturing and distribution group that integrates 8 different brands: Zara, Zara Home, Bershka, Stradivarius, Pull&Bear, Oysho, Massimo Dutti, and Uterqüe, and guess what? They're all fast fashion brands. They have around 6,800 stores all over the world and 144,000 employees who, as expected, are mistreated and underpaid in most cases.
Just to give you an idea of how poor the working conditions are, allow me to tell you what was discovered in a sweatshop in Brazil dedicated to making garments for Zara: as it turns out, workers there were found to be working 16 to 19 hours a day with almost zero time off and in debt to their traffickers. Yes, you read that right, traffickers. Many sweatshops in Latin America hire migrants from Bolivia, Peru and surrounding countries to exploit them, regardless of whether they are underage or not.
Its infamous production cycle cannot go unnoticed either, it is rumoured that Zara can recreate a runway trend in just one week, getting over 20 collections a year to their stores. This pattern can be defined in just three words: massive textile waste.
If Zara is fast fashion's king, H&M is fast fashion's queen. This brand has been linked to multiple factory disasters and other sweatshop-like conditions in several supplier factories, particularly those that produce for H&M's cheap chic sister brand COS. Remember the garment factory that collapsed in 2013 due to shoddy building materials and poor safety standards that I mentioned earlier? Well, H&M clothing was manufactured behind its doors.
Also, H&M is one of the most polluting brands in the middle of a polluting industry: the brand produces 3 billion garments every year, generating US$22 billion in revenue, including US$4.1 billion in unsold clothing as recently as 2019. The quantity of unsold clothing is so large that it has even been used as fuel in a Swedish power plant! This fast fashion brand has been very successful and it keeps growing, but at what cost?
When it comes to fast fashion there are many other brands you should avoid, such as Victoria’s Secret, Mango, Urban Outfitters, Primark, Missguided, Fashion Nova, American Eagle, Uniqlo, Romwe, ZAFUL and even Hot Topic.
How Can I Combat Fast Fashion?
If fast fashion isn't sustainable nor ethical, what can we do about it? Stop buying fast fashion and join the slow fashion movement. It's simple!
You don't need a new outfit for every party or event you attend — learn to love your clothes and make them last longer. If you feel yourself wanting new clothes from a fast fashion brand, it's important to learn how to say no. This means not buying things on impulse because they're cheap or caught up in the fast-moving trends of fast fashion.
It takes time to become aware of fast fashion trends and how they affect the demand for cheap clothes, but once you realize what goes into fast fashion (ahem, sweatshops in Bangladesh), it'll be easier to avoid fast-fashion stores like H&M and Forever 21. Believe, you'll save money in the long run AND reduce textile waste. However, there are a few other ways that fast fashion can be combated:
The first way is that if you really want to buy new clothes, look out for sustainable and ethical brands, a.k.a slow fashion brands. Patagonia will always be a safe bet if you're looking for ethical sportswear, but there are other amazing brands out there such as tentree, The Good Tee, and TAMGA Designs.
The next way is through donation or selling your clothing that no longer fits your style or needs. If you're not planning on wearing something again, consider donating it to someone who can use the clothes more than you do.
The last way is through fast fashion alternatives like thrift shopping and vintage clothing shops. These stores are fantastic ways of finding unique pieces that fast fashion brands don't offer.
And finally, if you want to combat the fast fashion movement with some heavy artillery, here are some bonus eco-tips:
Evaluate quality vs. price. If the price is very cheap, but the quality is questionable, think twice before buying it because you will be only making an expense and not an investment.
Demand transparency from fast fashion brands. Write emails asking them if their supply chain is ethical or if they have eco-friendly practices, and if they don't reply, it never hurts to send them a Tweet or a DM via Instagram.
Fast Fashion Is Not Eco-Friendly & Is Extremely Harmful To Our Environment
Fast fashion is fast in terms of how quickly it goes from the runway to stores, but once you’re holding that cheap top or dress with a “cute little sequin detail” at H&M, the only thing you should do at a fast pace is leave that garment hanging on the rack.
This industry is not only harmful to the environment, but it’s also extremely exploitative. The rapid cycle of fast fashion relies on an unlimited supply of cheap labour in countries where workers are treated poorly and paid very little for long hours or dangerous conditions, and if brands don't care about this, we as consumers should care and condemn such atrocities.
Fast fashion and its consequences are increasingly known around the world, but there is still a long way to go before there is a real change in the way we produce and consume. Cultural shifts are slow, they start with a few people and small changes. However, the simple act of thinking twice when we are tempted to buy cheap clothes from nasty fast fashion retailers is already a huge step.
Now tell me, which of the unethical clothing brands I mentioned above do you think is the worst of them all? Do you have any more you'd like to add? If so, feel free to leave them in the comment box below!
And remember: fast fashion can be the monster in our closet, but a more eco-conscious future is just one garment away if we change our shopping habits.
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