What is fast fashion? Meaning of term, how it works, list of worst UK brands - and why it’s a huge problem

The damaging industry dominates our clothing market while interest in UK non-fast fashion brands is slowly on the rise

The fast fashion business has sky-rocketed in recent times relying on customers endlessly buying more clothes to keep up with the latest trends.

Brands tempt customers with ultra-cheap garments with the likes of Missguided’s £1 bikini and Pretty Little Thing “selling” clothes for £0 in its sales.

Popular clothing retailers like H&M, Zara, and Forever 21 have popularised fast fashion among everyday consumers, but what actually is it, how has it come about and what problems does it cause?

Here’s everything you need to know about fast fashion and the global chains that now dominate our high streets and online shopping.

What is fast fashion?

Fast fashion is the mass production of cheap, poor quality, disposable clothing.

It is being fuelled by the prices of clothes becoming cheaper, reducing their quality, whilst fashion trends continue to accelerate.

The idea is to get the newest styles on the market as fast as possible, so shoppers can snap them up while they are still at the height of their popularity and then discard them after a few wears.

It plays into the idea that outfit repeating is not fashionable, and to stay relevant and in style you have to sport the latest looks.

It forms a key part of the toxic system of overproduction and consumption that has made fashion one of the world’s largest polluters.

The majority of items are not recycled or donated, they go to landfills or get incinerated.

How has fast fashion come about?

The rise of fast fashion is intertwined with social media and influencer culture.

A celebrity posts a photo wearing a new outfit, and their followers want it, so fast fashion brands rush to be the first to provide it.

Fast fashion brands often target young people - so called Gen Zs - who have been brought up with this new culture.

Fashion trends changing so quickly means that producers are under greater pressure to manufacture clothes more rapidly.

Factories are expected to produce new clothing lines with only a couple of month’s notice, meaning that their workload and amount of employment they can offer to workers is unpredictable and insecure.

It has led many UK fast fashion companies to re-shore clothing production to the UK, where previously almost all clothing brands were sourced from less-economically developed countries such as Bangladesh or Vietnam.

What are the problems of fast fashion?

Fast fashion has an immense impact on the planet.

Its negative impact includes its use of cheap, toxic textile dyes that make the industry the second largest polluter of clean water globally after agriculture.

It is responsible for around 20% of industrial water pollution as a result of textile treatment and dyeing.

Every year the sector requires 93 billion cubic metres of water, which is enough to meet the consumption needs of five million people.

There are also numerous problems with the materials and processes used. For example, cotton production uses 6% of the world’s pesticides and 16% of insecticides.

Our clothes can also take as long as 200 years to decompose creating huge landfills around the world.

With less than 1% of used clothing being recycled, the industry produces an estimated 92 million tonnes of textiles waste annually - much of this is burned or finds its way to landfills.

The industry also has a heavy carbon footprint, responsible for up to 10% of total global carbon emissions and this is estimated to increase by 50% by 2030.

The use of plastic in clothing means that the textile sector accounts for 15% of total plastic use - the only sectors that use more are construction and packaging.

Which are the biggest UK fast fashion brands?

Here are some of the top fast fashion brands in the UK that are widely popular and are adding to the over-consumption and overproduction in our society.


The Sunday Times recently investigated and found that workers in a Leicester factory were making as little as £3.50 per hour.

The Environmental Audit Committee published a report naming Boohoo as one of the least sustainable fashion brands in the UK.

The firm has developed a sustainability plan called Up.Front and states on its website: “To develop this plan, we’ve identified our priority issues, like better materials, textile waste and supply chain management.”


The brand launches 1,000 new styles every week, contributing to the massive amounts of textile waste we produce each year.

On its website the company says it has “a team that is dedicated to developing our supply chain, reviewing our suppliers operations to ensure they understand what supplying ethically means and we provide guidance, training and assistance where necessary to ensure the rights of the worker are promoted.”


The brand has made a public commitment and has set an intensity target to be a net zero emissions company by 2030 through its Fashion with Integrity initiative.

But there is no evidence it has set an absolute target.

Almost none of its supply chain is certified by labour standards which ensure worker health and safety, living wages, or other labour rights, and it received a score of 41-50% in the Fashion Transparency Index.

It owns the brands Topshop and Miss Selfridge which are also classed as fast fashion firms.

There is no evidence that Miss Selfridge takes any meaningful action to eliminate the use of hazardous chemicals or reduce water usage.

It’s a brand that creates large quantities of low-quality, cheap, resource-intensive and on-trend clothes.

Topshop hasn’t set any greenhouse gas emissions reduction target, nor has it implemented anything to reduce water usage and hazardous chemicals in the supply chain.

The company produces very cheaply-made, trendy clothing, so its business model itself is unsustainable and unethical.

River Island

In 2022, River Island was found to have multiple links to JBS, a Brazilian firm responsible for much of the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest through cattle rearing and leather production.

However, the company does have 12 climate targets including at least 50% of garments sustainably attributed by 2023 and zero waste to landfill from all UK operations by the same year.

New Look

There is no evidence the brand reduces carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions in its supply chain.

While it publishes some information about suppliers, there is no evidence it is on track to pay a living wage, nor did it disclose policies or safeguards to protect suppliers and workers in its supply chain from the impacts of Covid-19.

According to its website the firm is officially net zero carbon for all of its direct operations, and over 30% of its clothes are made using more sustainable fabrics.

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