Lifestyle and climate change: Ultra-fast fashion undermines global sustainability efforts

The original article was authored by Taylor Brydges, University of Technology Sydney, and published in The Conversation. It has been edited here for length. The views and the research are the author’s own.

The ultra-fast fashion brand Shein (above) lists 1.3 million new products in a year, compared to the combined total of 37,000 new products put out by high-street giants Gap and H&M. Photo courtesy: Instagram/sheinofficial

Since the 1990s, fast fashion has enabled everyday people to buy the latest catwalk trends. But the sheer volume of garments being whipped up, sold and soon discarded is contributing to a global sustainability crisis.

Now, just when the fashion industry should be waking up and breaking free of this vicious cycle, it’s heading in the opposite direction. We’re on a downward spiral, from fast fashion to ultra-fast fashion. The amount of natural resources consumed and waste produced is snowballing.

Ultra-fast fashion is marked by even faster production cycles, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it trends, and poor labour practices.

Brands [in the ultra-fast fashion space] are liberated from the concept of seasonal collections. Instead they are producing garments at breakneck speeds and self-generating microtrends such as balletcore, Barbiecore and even mermaidcore. At the same time, there is limited transparency or accountability around clothing supply chains.

The overproduction and consumption of clothing cannot be allowed to continue. Without change, the industry will account for 26 per cent of the world’s carbon budget for limiting global warming to 2°C by 2050.

The fashion industry must take responsibility for its actions. Policymakers also have an important role to play in enabling the necessary shift towards a more responsible and circular fashion economy. And let’s not forget the power of consumers.

No fast fashion
Consumers at a No Fast Fashion rummage sale in France. Screenshot courtesy: Instagram/no_fastfashion

Cheap clothing at what cost?

It was once thought that the pandemic would trigger a transition to a more sustainable fashion industry. Unfortunately, in reality, the industry is getting worse, not better.

Most ultra-fast fashion brands emerged in the late 2010s following the most well-known, Shein, founded in 2008. These online, direct-to-consumer brands exploded in popularity during lockdowns, with Shein holding the title of the world’s most popular brand in 2020.

Established brands such as Gap introduce 12,000 new items a year and H&M 25,000. But Shein leaves them in the dust, listing 1.3 million items in the same amount of time. How is this even possible?

The ultra-fast fashion model thrives on data and addictive social media marketing to create insatiable consumer demand.

But Shein’s incredibly low prices (its website has thousands of items under AUD5) come at a human cost. The company’s own 2021 Sustainability and Social Impact Report (later removed from the site) found that only 2 per cent of its factories and warehouses met its own worker safety standards, with the rest requiring corrective action.

The brand has also forgone in-house designers. Instead it works with independent suppliers who can design and manufacture a garment in two weeks.

The result is an incredibly profitable business model. Shein filed for an initial public offering (IPO) last year to value the brand at USD136 billion, up from USD2.5 billion in 2018.

Young buyer at fashion sale
A young buyer at a rummage sale of pre-owned clothing in France. Screenshot courtesy: Instagram/no_fastfashion

Seamless transition to sustainability

The Australian Fashion Council is leading a national product stewardship scheme called Seamless that promises to transform the fashion industry by 2030.

The idea is to bring fashion into the circular economy. Ultimately, that means zero waste, but in the meantime raw materials would be kept in the supply chain for as long as possible by designing out and minimising waste.

Members will contribute a 4-cent levy for every clothing item they produce or import. These funds go into clothing collection, research, recycling projects and education campaigns.

BIG W, David Jones, Lorna Jane, Rip Curl, R.M. Williams, THE ICONIC, Sussan Group and Cotton On are Seamless Foundation Members. Each has contributed AUD100,000 to the development of the scheme.

As one of the world’s first industry-led collective product stewardship initiatives for clothing textiles, Seamless presents a unique opportunity to drive change towards a more sustainable and circular fashion industry.

Lorna Jane
The fashion brand Lorna Jane is one of the labels on board the Seamless sustainability initiative, started by the Australian Fashion Council. Photo courtesy: Instagram/lornajaneactive

But there is a risk ultra-fast fashion brands may act as freeriders in Seamless, benefiting from the investment and initiatives without making meaningful contributions. Shein and others will continue putting more and more products into the market, which will need to be dealt with at the end of their short life. But if they fail to commit to the scheme, they won’t be the ones paying for that.

The government-funded consortium must also recognise ultra-fast fashion in tackling the industry’s environmental and social sustainability challenges. At the moment, they’re only talking about fast fashion and ignoring the rise of ultra-fast fashion. Their global scan, for example, includes a discussion of fast fashion and no mention of ultra-fast fashion.

This also points to a lack of data more broadly in the industry but in the case of Seamless, it could have a big impact if this growing market segment is ignored.

Critical crackdown and systemic change

The transition to a more sustainable and responsible fashion industry requires a greater understanding of ultra-fast fashion, urgent systemic changes and collective efforts.

The Institute for Sustainable Futures, where I work, is a founding member of an international academic research network aimed at tackling the complexities of ultra-fast fashion. That includes how ultra-fast fashion is affecting the livelihoods of garment workers, how it’s fuelling textile waste and underscoring the industry’s struggle to embrace circular economy principles.

We’re also investigating how to reshape consumer behaviour, away from social media-fuelled hauls towards more sustainable consumption, particularly among Gen-Z consumers.

No fast fashion Insta post
The No Fast Fashion post lists three reasons to reject overconsumption of new clothing and to buy pre-owned clothing — 1. Second-hand clothing does not require the use of additional resources 2. Second-hand clothes are sold at a fraction of their original price 3. It is a gesture for the environment, and an original and unique piece for one’s wardrobe.

Last month, [Australian] Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek announced a potential intervention, perhaps by introducing minimum environmental standards or a clothing levy by July.

The clock is ticking. It is time to lay the foundation for a more sustainable and just fashion industry. Australia has a rich fashion history and is home to many leading local brands, many of whom have gone global. These brands show us what is possible when good design, sustainability, and innovation drive an industry.

Ultimately, our collective choices wield immense power. By understanding the consequences of our fashion habits and advocating for change, we can all be catalysts for a more sustainable and just fashion industry.