There was a time when sewing your own garments was as normal as shopping is today. A time when you went to a dressmaker for an evening gown and every suit was tailor-made. In the nineteenth century, this all changed when mass production of clothes began and hidden within the need to provide accessibility lay a dangerous hidden problem. A hidden problem that would not only keep thousands of people captive but, also the entire fashion industry. Today we have come to call this problem “fast fashion”. 


In this post, we will look at what fast fashion is, the impact it has on developing countries and the environment as well as what we as sewing lovers can do to make a difference.

What Is Fast Fashion?

In the 1990s Zara’s wanted to produce clothing lines at a rapid pace. They didn’t only want to mass-produce their lines but also wanted to be able to deliver their lines to their consumers much faster than anyone else. Unlike its competitors who worked on seasonal clothing lines, Zara focused on “limited production” which means shoppers could get the latest trends for a limited time. This ensured a sense of uniqueness where seasonal retailers’ lines were still mainstream. This set off what is known as fast fashion; “inexpensive clothing produced rapidly by mass-market retailers in response to the latest trends”

The impact of fast fashion?

To be able to make clothes at such a rapid pace comes at a cost. In order to achieve such manufacturing strains lead Zara (and soon after their competitors) to turn to “subcontracted factories” where they could get cheap labour. The only place where you can find labour this cheap is in the world’s poorest countries. According to Dana Thomas in her book Fasionopolis, this has been the key secret to growing the fashion industry from a “$500 billion local trade” to the “ $2.4 trillion a year global behemoth” it is today.

Here are just a few of the consequences of fast fashion:

  1. Impact on labour in developing countries: from 1991 to 2012  American’s labour shifted from local factories to abroad (to developing countries where labour is cheaper). This has caused a move of 95% of that work from the U.S. to developing countries. The economic impact of this is that millions of American people who once worked in factories, now need to search for work elsewhere.  
  2. Human rights in developing countries: poor working environments and even child labour still plague apparel factories in 3rd world countries. As recently as 4 (2016) years ago there were still brands exploiting refugee children in their workshops.
  3. Cheap labour: according to Microfinance Organization factory workers earn $0.49 an hour, which is R7,68. If you think that is shocking, according to The Cut this is a higher wage in comparison with other fast fashion brands.
  4. Environmental impact: the fashion industry is responsible for ¼ of the world’s chemicals. 
  5. Water scarcity: according to the World Wildlife Fund, it can take up to 2,700 Liters to grow enough cotton to make one shirt. 
  6. Water pollution: when clothes are washed the synthetic fibres go into the water. Now you might be thinking but the water goes into the drain? And yes you are right but the drains go to rivers and oceans and are then eaten by marine life. 

Fast Fashion brands in South Africa

Now we have mentioned brands like Zara, but what fast fashion clothing brands are in South Africa? These brands are not on this list just because they turn trends around fast but also because they have been linked to controversies in their factories. 

  1. H&M: in 2016 they were exploited for using Syrian refugees in their sweatshops.
  2. Cotton On Group: although the company has done a lot to give its workers good working conditions many feel that they are still not doing enough to be environmentally friendly. 
  3. Nike and Adidas: have had numerous reports of low wages and long hours for factory workers.
  4. Ripcurl: has been linked to poor working conditions and mislabeling their clothes as made in China when it’s been made in Korea 
  5. Guess and Calvin Klein: have some of the worst-paid workers in the world. Reportedly earning R407.50 a month
  6. Mango: in 2017 left workers without pay after suddenly closing the factory without warning. After the Turkish employees turned to their local government to help Mango and Zara were forced to compensate them properly. 
  7. Victoria’s Secret: Huffington post reported slave labour after contracting workers to work over 13 hours a day. 


What you can do:


  1. Listen: the world is full of noise today, but if you listen to the activist who goes into the factories and reports on fast fashion brands you will notice how these voices have been able to bend big brands into making a change. 
  2. By knowing who is involved in fast fashion and who of them is making your clothes you can make a decision if you want to support these brands or not.
  3. Make your own clothes: many of our readers love to sew, but perhaps it’s time to take it to the next level. Sewing bloggers like Lydia Higginson have done so successfully so why not you? 
  4. Adopt a minimalist lifestyle: fashion is built on the mindset that you are what you wear. By actively breaking out of this mentality and placing less value in material things you can save money and have a clearer conscience. 
  5. Take the 30-wear pledge: where you ask yourself if you will wear something 30 times before you throw it away. 

When you look at the massive impact fast fashion has on billions of lives and the environment, then learning to sew becomes more than just something that we do for the love thereof. It becomes a proactive action we can take to release the shackles from exploited individuals. Start by making smaller items and build out your closet from there. “What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.” Jake Goodall