Is all fast fashion created equally?

At this point in time, we probably all know that fast fashion is not a sustainable business model. Cheap fashion is produced at incredibly high rates, by underpaid workers in unsafe circumstances, from unsustainable materials with dangerous chemicals that pollute the environment. Clearly, this is a business model that we should steer away from, from both a sustainable and an ethical point of view.

The text "Is all fast fashion created equally?" in turquoise with grey shadow on a photo background of a folded pile of colorful clothes on a white surface.

However, I find this often results in very black and white thinking surrounding actual brands and where we buy our clothes. On the one side there are people who judge everyone for buying any fast fashion at all, without taking into consideration barriers to completely quitting fast fashion, like money, size and accessibility to thrift shops. On the other side, there are people who hold the opinion that if you can’t completely quit fast fashion anyway, it doesn’t matter where you buy, as long as you don’t treat your clothes as disposable.

But I think the actual situation is much more nuanced. I don’t think there is a strict divide that neatly puts every clothing brand out there in either the “very bad fast fashion” category or the “super great ethical brand” category. I think all brands exist on a continuum between these two categories. On one side of the spectrum, there are definitely brands who are doing exactly nothing for the environment or for worker’s rights and protections. On the other side of the spectrum there are brands who were founded on sustainable and ethical principles and are, from the very beginning, doing everything they can. But the vast majority of brands are somewhere in between: they are working on taking steps forward – some are just taking bigger steps than others.

And here’s the thing: no brand out there is perfectly sustainable and ethical. The supply chain is often very untransparent, making it hard for brands to check the entire chain and make sure that everyone involved is paid a living wage and that the entire process is sustainable. Of course, it helps if a brand only has a small handful of trusted suppliers rather than lots of big factories in different countries with countless sub-subtractors. But being perfectly sustainable and ethical is impossible in the current system. And many brands that are very popular in the slow fashion world, such as Everlane, are really not that ethical and sustainable to begin with.

Additionally, I believe that if we claim that all fast fashion is equally bad because it is still fast fashion, we leave no room to make better decisions for people who rely on the occasional fast fashion purchase. We can tell people to just wear their clothes longer, but most people living in poverty already do that. At some point, your clothes will wear out or your size will change, and you are going to need new clothes. And when that moment comes, it really does make a difference whether you buy ultra-fast fashion like Shein, or from a fast fashion brand that has smaller new collections, more sustainable fabrics and is actually taking steps to improve workers’ conditions – for example brands that are a member of the Fair Wear Foundation or that score “It’s a Start” on Good On You.

Of course, if you are asking the question which fast fashion brands you can purchase from guilt-free, you are asking the wrong question. We need to buy less, we need to wear our clothes longer, we need to look secondhand first if and when we can. And when we do buy new, we need to make the best sustainable and ethical decision that we can – but the same options are just not available for everyone and doing your best looks different for everyone.

So I truly believe it helps to have a more nuanced approach to fast fashion and differentiate between worse and better brands, instead of calling them all equally bad. Not to give people an excuse to do big fashion hauls from slightly better brands, but to give more people the knowledge to make the best decision they can within the fashion system that we have.


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