Why Does Fast Fashion Suck?
I could write volumes about all the ways fast fashion sucks environmentally, ethically, even morally but, as someone who actively avoids consuming fast fashion, I obviously don’t have the same sort of complaints a fast fashion consumer would. So, I decided to pose the question to my Twitter followers:
Now, I can understand why those with few options in the way of accessibility or affordability would continue to (reluctantly) support brands like Pretty Little Thing or Shein, even with such a lengthy and reasonable list of complaints. But, to those with the means to shop elsewhere: Why not? Is it hope that keeps you coming back? Is it the serotonin boost of a new package on your doorstep? Or maybe, is it just because everything is so cheap that you’re willing to take the risk? Either way, I’m here to ruin your day with why your complaints will never be fixed, regardless of how many one-star reviews you leave; and why, in fact, the very things you consistently have issues with are actually quite profitable for fashion giants.
Let's address the most common complaints, one by one.
You’re a size 4 in one brand, but a size 12 in another, but a size 14 in jeans from the second brand but only if they’re dark wash, and a size medium in jackets but sometimes a medium fits like a small and it just doesn’t make any sense, does it?
There are a few reasons for this.
In some cases--particularly with brands that push a "boutique" feel such as Revolve or Akira--sitewide sizing charts are generic and borderline useless because they source their clothes from so many different factories (via private labeling) that consistency is impossible. However, there are plenty of fashion giants that manufacture in-house, yet, still, have wildly inconsistent sizing.
The photo above depicts the cutting process for mass-produced jeans. A quick guess would say that stack has about 50 pairs of jeans in it, but, in bigger factories, those stacks can be 100 to 200 pieces at a time, with much larger cutting machines doing the job. Still, no process is perfect, and while the stack can be held with guides or barriers, oftentimes, it's up to the person operating the machine to keep them aligned, and, thanks to regular old human error, the stack can shift, leaving some pieces to be cut off-center, off-grain, or, you know, just off.
When it comes to clothes, the difference between sizes is typically 3-4 inches, meaning, if you take a pair of jeans, for example, and divide that difference between four pieces (the fronts of each leg, and the backs of each leg), that means every piece is only about 1 inch larger than the next size down. If the cutting process has shifted each piece even half an inch over, suddenly, your jeans are almost a full size smaller than they should be. But the razor-thin profits of fast fashion don't account for such things (and quality control certainly isn't taking the time to measure every individual piece to make sure it's correct), so those pants--along with the other 50-200 pairs in that same stack--get sewn up the same as any other and sent to the stores where you grab them off the rack, only to try them on and not even be able to pull them past your thigh.
Of course, while inconsistency can start in the cutting process, there's plenty of other points in the manufacturing of a garment where mistakes can be made that throw off the sizing of said garment: a tired seamstress can shave off an extra quarter-inch of every piece and now 100 sizes 6 blouses will barely fit a 4. These things could easily be fixed by smaller cutting batches, better quality control, and proper seam allowances to make room for error but all of those things cost money.
POOR FIT AND PLUS SIZES
In fashion--fast, or otherwise--there is the concept of a fit model. Setting aside the 21% of fashion companies that don't fit their garments on an actual person, this is one of the most important parts of producing a garment to be sold (and those companies usually suffer for skipping it.)
Typically, the fit model is an "average" sized person (a size 6), that brands use to put sample garments on to make sure they'll actually fit correctly on their ideal customer. Once the garment fits her, the brand will then take that pattern (the paper model used to cut fabric for a garment) and use it to size up and down for its entire size range. Herein lies a problem.
A fit model may not be "runway ready" but, she is still a model, and models are chosen because they have the "perfect" bodies and proportions, so to speak. So, while she may be a "size 6", her legs and arms are most likely still very long, her torso is proportional, etc., etc. Even for plus sizes, while the fit model (if any) may be a "size 16", she most likely has an hourglass figure, perkier breasts, and, again, rather long limbs. For those of us--most of us--who aren't models, and who aren't built the exact same way as that brand's ideal, then, a garment that fits the fit model probably won't fit us the same way, if at all. Of course, some brands don't have plus-size fit models at all and simply take that size 6 and size it up to 14, 16, 18 without bothering to account for the many proportional differences and needs between petite and curvier frames.
The easy solution here would be more diverse fit models with more "average" body types. The cheaper solution--the one fast fashion has chosen--is adding spandex to everything above a size XL to make it "fit"; pushing trends where clothing can be made adjustable (ruching, lace-up/corset-styles, shirring, oversized pieces meant to be tied or worn with belts); and, of course, doing nothing, and putting the burden on you as the consumer to simply return what doesn't fit, which, 9 times out of 10: you won't.
POOR QUALITY FABRIC AND CONSTRUCTION
One of the biggest requirements of fast fashion is that it is, obviously, fast. It's right there in the name. Zara alone produces around 450 million items per year: an average of just over a million per day. This means garments have to be sewn and ready to ship quickly, and one of the easiest ways to make sewing go by faster is to simply make bigger stitches. Unfortunately, the trade-off is those stitches are looser, with more space in between threads and more opportunities for them to unravel, especially on tighter fitting clothing. In fact, one of the easiest ways to tell if you're looking at a well-made garment is to simply count the stitches: the highest quality pieces will have 10-12 stitches per inch, while cheaper brands will only have about 5-7.
But tight, durable stitching isn't the only thing that often gets tossed out when attempting to save time (and money) to get as much clothing out the door as possible. Look at how few fast-fashion pieces that should be lined actually have linings: think blazers, lightweight dresses, and even some pants. Look at how easily buttons simply fall off and disappear, with no replacement to be found. Lately, fashion behemoths have even taken to starting new trends to make clothes cheaper and sell them in higher quantities: remember when sheer skirts (that required an underlayer of shorts or a bodysuit) were everywhere? Now sheer dresses and tops are ubiquitous, simply because the thin, see-through fabric is far cheaper than medium and heavyweight fabrics that don't unravel if you look at them the wrong way.
If there's one thing I cannot stress enough, it's that designing clothes costs money. Before you even get to the sewing process, there's sketches, patternmaking, fitting, fabric sourcing, tech packs, samples, and all the people required to make those things happen who--unlike the seamstresses--typically have to be paid more than pennies a day.
These days, the fashion calender has ballooned from 2-4 seasons a year to fifty-two microseasons during which companies like Fashion Nova and Zara can drop up to 600 new pieces. Per week. As you can imagine, that's a lot of new ideas that even the most robust and creative design team couldn't possibly come up with on their own. While outright copying of smaller and larger designer brands can yield plenty of "new" pieces to keep up, sometimes the fashion cycle doesn't even allow time for that. That's when you get repeats.
Cheap clothes are meant to be disposable, but cheap trends move even faster than you can get to the second, often fatal wash for that $12.80 dress. It doesn't matter if you wanted to wear those new wide legged jeans again: the pendulum has already swung back to skinny ones. And now you hate the wide legged jeans, so you toss them, but, oops, now they're back in, and now you have to buy new ones. Rehashing the old while simultaneously pushing the new out within a matter of weeks or months has shortened the fashion cycle from 10-20 years to maybe a year or two, if that, all to get you to keep buying new clothes while saving time and money by not coming up with any new ideas.
WHAT YOU SEE VS. WHAT YOU GET
I won’t act like I browse sites like Revolve and Boohoo completely unamused: Some of the stuff looks really good. But, in my work as a stylist on photoshoots, I’ve learned exactly how much of it is just smoke and mirrors. See, when brands are photographing their garments for sale, all of the fit, quality, and construction issues don’t just go away. However, the beauty of controlling the image means you, the consumer, never see those flaws. Until, of course, you get the clothes home.
It can be disheartening to try something on you were sure was going to be your new fave only for it to look nothing like it did on the model. But it’s not your fault: It probably didn’t look like that on the model either: Studio lighting can hide cheap or inadvertently-sheer fabrics; brands have been known to clip ill-fitting pieces to make them perfectly skim the body of the model in a way it never would if it were hanging naturally; and, of course, Photoshop can hide or even create whatever details you want. Poses, editing, even on-set tailoring are all meant to make the clothing look as good as possible so that you’ll be tricked into buying it. And you will buy it, and, again, you probably won't return it, even if it doesn’t look the same as it did online. Some of the most insidious offenders will use higher quality samples that they send to their highest-paid influencers to get you to buy, only to send you the cheap, poor-quality version.
Fast fashion is, above all, a business. One that makes billions a year in capitalizing off cheap labor, cheap materials, and cheap trends. Unlike most businesses, however, they are not beholden to us, the customer. By creating one of the few accessible markets for affordable clothes, it doesn't matter how much we complain when so many of us will continue to depend on them for our wares, therefore continuing to line their pockets while they work tirelessly to figure out more and more corners to cut to increase profit margins.