In the 1960s, a teenager from Busdongo de Arbás, Spain named Amancio Ortega worked as a delivery person in a clothing store focused on shirts. During his spare time, Ortega designed his interpretation of the clothes presented in high fashion stores and runway shows. He developed an early passion for clothes that led him to open his own store in 1975 under the name of Zara, transforming radically the way fashion operates and attends people’s desires for clothes.

Amancio Ortega is often referred to as the “father of fast fashion” because he understood the business advantages of what this model represents and how quickly it operates.


Shortage at a grocery store in Orlando, Florida in March of 2020. Image Courtesy of Mick Haupt.

In March of 2020, the stands of toilet paper of the grocery stores were empty amid what felt like the end of the world at that time. As humans, we react to a shortage in a more emotional rather than rational way. (How much toilet paper does a person need vs. the amount of toilet paper they bought when the coronavirus pandemic started.) This idea of shortage inspired Amancio Ortega in the 1970s to develop a fashion model in which clothes are designed more regularly. Still, fewer designs for each model make it to the stores. For instance, if a “regular” fashion store from that time created two collections yearly and produced 100 units of each design, Ortega ordered to create more collections yearly, but only 70 units of each design. This system would make people think they only have one chance to purchase an item they like before it’s gone. It’s also a great incentive to visit the store more frequently since new products are coming to the store more often. There are more collections, but this doesn’t mean entirely new designs every time. On many occasions changing the fabric, the length of the sleeves, or the size of the buttons and buttonholes is sufficient. Consumers see a “new” garment and feel visually attracted to it.

The Multiple Seasons of Fast Fashion

Creating more collections frequently makes fashion companies be more aware of the reasons why people buy clothes at different periods of the year. This becomes an important research task for the buying team, the design team, and the marketing team. Some of these reasons change year after year, yet there are some relatively consistent reasons why we purchase clothes season after season.

Fashion is a reaction to our social and political context. The fashion industry researches why we buy clothes so that they can design what would make the most sense for a certain period.

The hashtag #CoachellaOutfits has over 112k posts. Fashion is an important factor in music festivals and fast fashion companies are aware of this. Image Courtesy of Girls Traveling Life.

 In Spring, fashion companies targeting young audiences create “festival collections” with transparencies, neon colors, and an alternative aesthetic that is popular in this kind of event. Many people who attend music festivals love to share their experiences through social media. In a reaction to vanity, they do their best to pull off a great outfit that many times is just worn for this occasion because after the music festival ends, “people already saw it.” 

Fourth of July fast fashion attracts all kinds of consumers. Image Courtesy of Tworgis.

 Over the summer, you see hats, beachwear, long dresses, and clothes that represent the seasonal fads. Many fashion companies started to introduce a Pride collection in late May and early June in recent years. Also, many other fast fashion companies have a small Fourth of July drop with “patriotic” clothes that customers wear for this celebration. The idea is to see different clothes every time you go to the stores. The creative minds in fashion find why people celebrate and want to wear new clothes. 

  Fashion companies invest a lot of time and money figuring out what these occasions are, and what the selection of products would be like. 

This makes customers feel heard and understood by fast fashion, so they regularly visit the stores, follow them on social media, or visit their website to look for the newest products. An important factor that increases the popularity of fast fashion is the emotional relationship with our clothes. Many fast-fashion consumers love compliments and lots of likes in their Instagram feed. So they prefer to have tons of new fast fashion clothing to have different outfits every time they post. Even though every garment is an opportunity to style a completely different outfit with the accessories and clothes you already wear, consumers prefer to buy new cheap garments. Online shopping and visual merchandising in the stores facilitate the shopping experience so that you can buy quickly without having time to hesitate.

Many fast fashion styles are re-introduced season after season with different marketing campaigns and styling, but the essence of the garment is fairly similar. Image Courtesy of JS.

In the fall, there is a combination of celebrations that fast fashion is aware of. Halloween represents a week-long festivity for all of us who love spooky decorations, skulls, and pumpkins. In November, Thanksgiving and Friendsgiving dinners take place, requiring a formal attire that again, is an event where people take lots of pictures and outfits are only worn once. Then, we also have the “Instagrammable” statement clothes like fur coats, vinyl outfits, and puffy jackets that are meant to be more of a statement piece than a wearable piece of clothing for a specific occasion. 

The winter comes with more festivities and pictures to be taken. Ugly sweater parties, end of the year gatherings, Secret Santa lunches, and multi-cultural holiday celebrations. For fast fashion companies, winter is much more than cozy clothes to keep you warm. Fast fashion creates clothes for particular occasions and celebrations. Prices are affordable, so customers love to buy these seasonal clothes to be “in tune” with the event or holiday they are celebrating. 

For the most part, the category of fast fashion has been attributed to low-cost clothing stores that you can find commonly in shopping centers, like Forever 21, Zara, H&M, and Topshop. But the truth is, the fast fashion model accelerated the way the fashion industry operates as a whole, so you will see high fashion companies like Prada, Louis Vuitton, or Marc Jacobs present more collections yearly. Two decades ago, the general rule was that fashion designers presented two collections per year (Spring-Summer, and Autumn-Winter). Now, these companies offer at least four collections yearly. There’s a Pre-fall collection dropped in early August (that some companies refer to as “Cruise” or “Resort” depending on the location they are based in. Then, there’s a Holiday collection dropped at the end of the year when many consumers spend more money than the rest of the year, on average. 

Statement pieces are very common in fashion social media posts. Many of these pieces are worn only once. Image Courtesy of Dolce & Gabbana.

In the early years of fast fashion, Amancio Ortega ambitioned a system that was very quick. Clothes are sold in a timely manner with multiple collections or drops per year, without the need to have huge space for inventory with clothes waiting to be sold. The problem is that so many companies have adopted this model, and now there is an overproduction of clothes. Many of these pieces end up in the landfill without even being worn by someone. Ever.

Sustainable fashion is not a specific group of brands, it is a lifestyle

Many sustainable fashion companies make clothes for different age groups, and genders to encourage more people to join this movement. Sustainable fashion vs. fast fashion. Image Courtesy of Mate the Label.

With this accelerated way of designing, consuming, and getting rid of fashion, the sustainable fashion movement raised in the last few decades, attempting to make people aware of the massive environmental problem that this acceleration of fashion has caused.

The huge debate around sustainable fashion is that there are different opinions around what it is and how realistic it is for low and middle-class consumers who want to be more conscious of their clothing selection. As we discussed in the article How Does Sustainable Fashion Look Like? sustainable fashion considers many factors of the clothes and the process behind the making. These factors include the environmental impact of manufacturing, the shipment, the materials, water stewardship, social fairness, and the country of origin. When fashion considers all these factors (or a few of them), the price of the product increases because it is more expensive to produce things locally and ethically than to produce them overseas with poor ethical standards and cheap synthetic materials that pollute the air, soil, and water.

The price of sustainable fashion is significantly higher than the price of fast fashion. But the problem is not the price of the clothes; the problem is the way it is presented. Sustainable fashion is often seen as luxurious, exclusive, “only for the wealthy fashion,” but it doesn’t come with the customer experience of luxurious high fashion such as Dior, Gucci, or Prada. 

An area of opportunity for good marketing

Sustainable fashion is often portrayed as goofy or unwearable fashion. How can we change this perception? Image Courtesy of Luxiders.

The controversial film Don’t Look Up that premiered on Netflix at the end of 2021 illustrated in a satirical way the posture of many people towards climate change. People smiled, laughed, and ignored the disastrous tragedy that was approaching planet Earth. 

Although there is enough information narrating the devastating effects of climate change on earth, air, soil, and water, it still doesn’t seem important enough for many consumers. This is mainly because these effects occur in underdeveloped communities unseen by mass media.

Sustainable fashion needs to address the direct effects that climate change has on its consumers. The high rates of respiratory diseases directly caused by air pollution, the increasing wildfires in California, the heat waves, and snowstorms are all caused by our overconsumption of goods, and we can significantly reduce these effects shopping in a wise and aware manner. 

Can fast fashion be sustainable fashion?

A person who buys one pair of fast fashion jeans has a smaller environmental impact than a person who buys multiple organic and ethical jeans a year. Buying fewer clothes is the most important practice in a sustainable fashion. Image Courtesy of Mica Asato.

No. The main principle of fast fashion is to buy excessively. The main principle of sustainable fashion is to buy consciously. Even if fast fashion adopts ecological practices, it’s not entirely sustainable because it still generates huge amounts of waste and carbon emissions throughout the whole process. Fast fashion companies can decorate their store with recycling bins, recycling icons, and green fonts, but its culture of overconsumption is its most harmful aspect, which is the aspect that must change.

Sustainable fashion is a lifestyle, not a specific brand within a particular store. Sustainable fashion is about selecting the clothes you need and not the clothes that an influencer says you should buy. The best way to do this is by purchasing good quality products that will be long-lasting, and you can style and wear them multiple times. However, if your budget doesn’t allow you to purchase high-quality clothes, choose your garments selectively. Remember that less is more and that your creativity will allow you to style multiple and spectacular garments for the time your clothes will last.

In the end, sustainable fashion is about love and respect. Loving and respecting our earth, air, soil, and water. Loving and respecting the clothes we wear, seeing their full potential, and taking good care of them.