Defining Fast Fashion with Amanda Lee McCarty

Defining Fast Fashion with Amanda Lee McCarty

 

ACR is hosting our first fashion show on November 12th! Reuse on the Runway will be a night celebrating designers who are practicing sustainability in fashion, cosplay, costume and drag. In anticipation of this inaugural event, ACR Board Member, Sondra Primeaux, reached out to industry expert, Amanda Lee McCarty, to understand what slow-made fashion is by defining what it isn’t: fast fashion.

 

Sondra:  How would you define the term ‘fast fashion’?

 

Amanda: I think we tend to view fast fashion as having a particular aesthetic (trendy, youth-focused), a particular price point (low price), or even particular locations (malls, shopping centers). In reality, fast fashion is a way of doing business, not a particular product or brand.  It can’t always be identified by the actual product itself or its selling price.  And in 2021, most large brands/retailers ARE fast fashion, because the rise of the “original” fast fashion brands like Forever 21 and H+M made every other retailer adopt the fast fashion model to stay competitive.  In the beginning, it was all about the lowest prices.  When everyone reached the bottom in terms of pricing, they began to compete on selling the latest trends faster than one another.  This sped up the entire production process, which meant skipping a lot of quality control measures and fittings (so everything started to fit kinda weird), and shipping lots and lots of clothing via air (literally on airplanes) rather than via boat because it saved a month of time!

 

Fast fashion is making products as fast and cheaply as possible, and then selling them in extraordinarily high volume.  Fast fashion is all about selling as much product as possible, as often as possible.  Brands will do whatever they can to get us in the doors of the store or on to the website on a daily or weekly basis.  They will encourage us to buy multiple items on each “trip,” via an array of deals, free shipping, and constant suggestions to add this or that. 

 

Sondra: Do you have a rubric that’s useful for determining if a brand is indeed fast fashion or is it one of those things that “you know it when you see it”?

 

Amanda: You can’t always  identify fast fashion based on the price or aesthetic.  Sure, sometimes you can…like if something seems “too cheap to be true,” it’s probably fast fashion.  But many other fast fashion brands hide behind elaborate store merchandising, “brand experiences,” and the illusion of being premium.  Fortunately, you can identify fast fashion by its behavior!

 

1.  If you visit the store or website of this brand, do they have hundreds or thousands of different items for sale?  Fast fashion relies on you filling your cart with as many items as possible to drive up that sales number. So they want you to have almost an infinite number of options at your disposal. 

2. Does this brand launch 10-15-20-50-even 100 new products every week? Some retailers even launch new products EVERY day!  Fast fashion wants you to come back to the website or the store as often as possible so they can sell to you again, and again, and again.  They are going to jump on and offer you a product for every passing trend, no matter how minor.  Often a fast fashion brand will be churning out 12 or 24 collections a year…or more! Maybe they aren’t even launching products in collections, just dropping some constantly.  Constant newness=fast fashion.

3. Does stuff move to markdown pretty fast? So fast that you would feel embarrassed to buy something full price from this place?  And you know if you wait a few weeks it will go on sale?  In the beginning of my career, styles would on average be full price for 12 weeks (aka three months). Most recently?  4-6 weeks – half the time! If you don’t have to wait very long for stuff to go on sale, it’s fast fashion!

4. Does the brand have a confusing array of constant DEALZ DEALZ DEALZ? Like 50% off this brand new collection plus free shipping with this promo code plus BOGO on all shoes?  Are they doing promotions for holidays that aren’t even real holidays?  Like International Cat Day or Pizza Day? As fast fashion grew, it forced other retailers to bring their prices down so customers would stick around.  But they didn’t want to stoop to those low low prices on the price tags (it would be brand damaging), So instead, they stuck with their normal ticket prices (the price you see on a price tag), but engineered the product to sell at a discount no matter what.  They aren’t expecting to sell you stuff at full price.  While the price tag on that dress might say $60, they are actually planning that it will sell at $30….so you’re getting a much cheaper dress in the first place.  Retailers want to preserve that high profit margin while still offering you hot deals, so they just cut the cost of making the item in the first place.  That means cheaper fabrics, low quality zippers and trims, less fittings (because fitting your garments properly costs money), cutting out things like pockets and dress linings, etc!  Most importantly, they squeeze the factories for lower costing, so garment workers are paid even less.  As I like to say on Clotheshorse, “It’s cheap because someone didn’t get paid.”  Is that a good deal?  

5. Does this retailer copy a lot of other designers (large and small)? Do you see articles about them knocking off small artists and makers?  This is often a huge red flag of fast fashion because in order to  deliver that constant flow of newness, those hundreds or thousands on the website at any given moment…they have to copy other ideas.  There just aren’t enough ideas to go around!  

 

Sondra: Do labels like “Made in America” and “Sustainably Made” mean that the item is not fast fashion?

 

Amanda: The short answer is “no.” Or at best “maybe.”  

Let’s start with “sustainably made.”  Unfortunately there are no legal parameters around what is/is not sustainably made, so anyone can slap that label on anything they make.  Sure, they might get some pushback from savvy customers, but overall, they lose nothing by using that term in bad faith.  Ultimately something is “sustainably made” if it was manufactured with both the planet and its people in mind.  So even if a garment is made of organic cotton and it was dyed with little to no water and made in factory that runs on renewable energy, if they workers who made the fabric, the trims, cut the fabric, sewed the garment, inspected and packed it for shipping were NOT paid a living wage, then it was not “sustainably made.” Often fast fashion brands will speak to the sustainability of a collection/garment, citing recycled fabrics and conserved water, but they don’t mention working conditions and waging.  That’s called “greenwashing.” A truly sustainable item is made with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in mind, which include ending poverty, decent work and economic growth, and responsible consumption and production.

 

Now, let’s talk about “Made in America”/”Made in the USA.”  It’s a whole big ball of wax, but to put it as briefly as possible:  tons of fast fashion clothes are made right here in the USA.  Los Angeles is the capital of garment production in the United States.   More than 45,000 garment workers cut and sew garments there.  Most are Latinx and Chinese immigrants and the majority are women.  About 85% of these workers are not paid a living wage for their work.  Instead they are paid 2-6 cents per piece they sew.  This is called “piece work.”  They will work 60-70 hours per week and take home about $300. They work in cramped, unventilated factories and they do not have benefits like health insurance and PTO.  

 

Fast fashion brands are complicit in this exploitation of workers because they demand pricing so low that it does not allow for a living wage and good working conditions.  A U.S. Department of Labor report indicated that these brands on average are demanding pricing that is 73% less than the amount needed to pay a living wage to workers.  Activists in California are working to pass SB6:  The Garment Worker Protection Act which would eliminate “piece work” and guarantee at least a minimum wage for garment workers.

 

 

Sondra: I’m thinking about the clothing brands that I was obsessed with when I was young, like Esprit and Benetton. Were those also considered fast fashion?

 

Amanda: While it’s hard to go back and figure out if those brands were paying living wages and being environmentally conscious (it seems unlikely), at least they weren’t working at the same volume and speed that brands are now. Most of those garments would have shipped via boat which has a lower carbon footprint than air shipping.  Even in the early days of my career as a buyer (in the 2000s), we would place orders 4-6 months in advance.  In the last few years that has become more like 4-6 WEEKS.  That is the effect of fast fashion!  Furthermore, those brands would not have been overproducing in the same way brands are now. Now the industry makes 150 billion garments per year and 30% of those are never actually sold.  The cost of making clothes has gotten cheaper and cheaper (thanks to the combination of shifting most production overseas and exploiting workers), so brands can afford to overproduce and then destroy anything that remains unsold.

 

 

Sondra:  Why should the consumer care? 

 

Amanda: 60% of fast fashion clothing goes to the landfill in the same year it was made! How devastating is that? The average American buys 70 new garments each year (and no, that number doesn’t include individual socks). That equates to something near every 4-5 days. Now maybe you are reading this and saying “well, I haven’t bought a new garment in years.” That’s great! But remember, that 70 garments is an average.  So if you didn’t buy anything new this year, that means someone else bought 140 new items of clothing!  

 

Each year, 85% of our unwanted clothing goes to the landfill. That’s 12.8 million tons of clothing each year. The other 15% is donated to thrift stores and charities, but unfortunately this clothing is flowing through at such a high volume (and so much of it is poor quality), that only 1% of all of our unwanted clothing is ever worn by another person again.

 

It’s devastating to think about all of the water, energy, raw materials, and hard work that went into all of that clothing, most of which was barely worn and quickly discarded.  

 

Sondra: What are some best practices that we can do to minimize engagement with fast fashion?

 

Amanda:

  • Be very mindful of your consumption!
  • Buy less in general, focusing on items that you hope to wear for a long time. Resist the urge to impulse shop.
  • Skip out on one-off outfits and become a proud outfit repeater! 
  • Adopt a #secondhandfirst way of shopping:  look for a garment secondhand before shopping new, whether that’s using an app like Poshmark or Depop, visiting a vintage or consignment shop, or thrifting.
  • Do your homework when you are shopping. You worked hard for your money and it is powerful! Each time you shop somewhere, you are casting a vote for the way that brand runs its business.  So it’s important to cast that vote wisely by spending your money wisely.  I recommend checking out Remake and Good On You for more information about a brand’s ethics and environmental impact.

In 2021, most big brands are fast fashion. And of course, we’re going to buy some stuff from them sometimes. Maybe you can’t always find everything secondhand, maybe you need something really specific and you need it fast, maybe you don’t have the privilege to shop secondhand.  It’s progress not perfection! But remind yourself always that the best thing you can do is buy only what you need, make it last, and educate those around you about the impact fast fashion has on the planet and its people.

 

Thank you, Amanda for taking the time to share your expertise with us!

 

 

 

Amanda Lee McCarty is the host of Clotheshorse podcast. As a former career buyer and fashion industry expert, her excellent podcast decodes and demystifies the fashion industry. For more fashion industry behind-the-scenes content, please go to her website or follow her on Instagram @clotheshorsepodcast or on Twitter @clotheshorsepod.

Comments

  • Sharon Shelton | Oct 7,2021

    Thank you for this wonderful interview. We need to stop destroying our world by practices like this. Here is a haiku I wrote on the subject:

    All our belongings
    Are ripped out of Nature’s flesh
    And returned as trash

    Clear out attachments
    In respect for our planet
    And begin afresh

    • Kat Moulton | Oct 8,2021

      We appreciate you taking the time to read this post and share your poem!

  • Sharon Colangelo | Oct 8,2021

    Reading the post was my pleasure.

  • Diane Schofield | Oct 9,2021

    Sondra,
    I really enjoyed your article. I learned a few things and confirmed a few others! I have trouble because most clothing is so synthetic I can not even wear it.

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