Discussion: what is fast fashion?

Discuss with your students what they think is meant by the term fast fashion. You could discuss:

  • Have you heard the term fast fashion?
  • What do you think it means?
  • What do you think contributes to fast fashion?
  • What do you think might be the negative impact of fast fashion on the environment and on people who work in the manufacture of clothing?

Hang on a Minute

Hang on a Minute 2005

Paul Duggan (b.1965)

Coventry University

Fast fashion explained

The term 'fast fashion' refers to the production of high volumes of cheap, trendy clothing that match runway and celebrity styles. It allows consumers to buy the latest catwalk fashions, which they then typically only wear a few times before discarding. It encourages consumers to keep buying new clothes in order to stay on trend.

'Fast fashion plays into the idea that outfit repeating is a fashion faux pas and that if you want to stay relevant, you have to sport the latest looks as they happen.' – Solene Roturier, 'What is fast fashion and why is it so bad?' Good On You

You may think that affordable, fashionable clothes are a good thing, but let's find out about the impact that they have on the environment.

What is the impact of the fashion industry on the environment?

There are four main ways that the fashion industry affects the environment.

Land use and threats to animal habitats

Increasingly forested areas are being destroyed to provide agricultural land to help feed the fashion industry's requirements for cotton, leather and other materials.

  • Land is converted from animal habitats for agricultural use for growing cotton. The cotton crop depletes soil so that more and more land is needed as well as the established cotton fields.
  • Grassland is needed for cattle farming and the supply of leather for the fashion industry.
  • Deforestation also occurs to supply the wood needed to manufacture cellulose fibres that are used to make materials such as rayon, viscose and lyocell. The US NGO, Canopy, found that over 150 million trees are logged annually for the cellulose fibres for clothing, including from endangered and primary forests.

At the current pace, by 2030 the fashion industry is projected to use 35% more land for cotton cultivation, forest for cellulosic fibres, and grassland for livestock.

Deep Forest

Deep Forest 1974

Johanna Cecilia Hansi Bohm (1907–1996)

Royal Free Hospital

Water consumption

  • Significant amounts of fresh water are used both in growing cotton as well as in the manufacturing process.
  • Did you know that it takes around 2,700 litres of water to make just one t-shirt? This would last one person nearly three years as drinking water.

Pollution – water pollution and landfill

  • Insecticides and pesticides are used to grow cotton.
  • Chemicals used to prepare and treat textiles, as well as in the drying process, pollute rivers.
  • Microplastics from the washing of clothes made using manmade fibres pollute rivers and seas, harming fish and entering our food chain.
  • The huge amount of clothing that is discarded each year ends up in landfill.

Polluted Pool at Maindee

Polluted Pool at Maindee 1974

Jack Crabtree (b.1938)

Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

Greenhouse gases

  • Produced by the manufacture of clothing, often in countries that rely on coal, the most polluting of fossil fuels contributes to climate change.
  • Greenhouse gases are also produced in the transportation of raw materials to countries where clothing is manufactured and the transportation of finished garments to the places where they are sold.

Activity: fast fashion taskforce

Divide students into small groups – or they could work in pairs. (This activity could also work well as a homework activity.)

  • Task them with investigating ONE of the environmental concerns caused by the fashion industry.
  • They could also look at possible solutions that are being explored.
  • They should present their research and ideas as a presentation including images, facts and figures.

Research links

These links might be helpful:

TED-Ed: The life-cycle of a t-shirt

Vice News: Fashion's crippling impact on the environment is only getting worse

BBC News: The fast fashion graveyard in Chile's Atacama Desert

Good on You: What is fast fashion?

Sustain your Style: The environmental impact of the fashion industry

V&A: The future of fashion

Fashion solutions: circular fashion

We have learned about the damage that fast fashion can cause to the environment. Although awareness is making things better, this isn't happening fast enough as the consumer is still demanding fast fashion and brands still want to make large profits!

How can clothing brands be sustainable and still make a profit?

If clothing brands can be persuaded to adopt a circular supply chain rather than a linear one, this would help.

Circular fashion explained

Perhaps the best way of understanding circular fashion is to compare it to a linear approach. If we imagine these two approaches as line diagrams:

  • linear fashion is a straight line from the beginning point of manufacture to its endpoint as waste when its life is over
  • circular fashion is a circular line that curls around from the point of manufacture, through various rotations and then ends up back at the beginning to be started all over again, with no waste

With the circular fashion model, the focus is on the longevity and life cycle of our clothes. It involves thinking carefully about the materials that are used and how they are produced; emphasising the value of wearing clothing for as long as possible; then repurposing clothing into something else at its endpoint.

What can fashion brands do?

By minimising waste and pollution in the design and manufacture of clothing, fashion brands could help to reduce the negative impact of clothing manufacture. They could do this by:

  • using less materials in the production of individual items to make the clothing more recyclable
  • removing non-recyclable and polluting materials from the manufacturing process
  • using or recycling waste – in every step of the process from garment offcuts to packaging
  • setting up systems so that clothing can be used and re-used for as long as possible including collection recycling schemes so that materials can be used again
  • making sure that any unavoidable waste isn't damaging to the environment

What can individuals do?

There are things the fashion industry (by implementing procedures to help fashion to be more circular); governments (through legislation to limit the destruction of animal habitats and pollution); and scientists (developing new processes and textiles that have less impact on the planet) can do to reduce the impact of fast fashion on the planet.

But we can also help through changes in the way we buy, wear and dispose of our clothes.

Two Girls

Two Girls 1990

Jennifer McRae (b.1959)

Art & Heritage Collections, Robert Gordon University

Ask students to think about and discuss how their own behaviour might contribute to fast fashion.

  • How often do they buy clothes?
  • How often do they wear clothes?
  • Why do they stop wearing their clothes?
  • What do they do with their clothes when they don’t want to wear them anymore?

Fast fashion calculator

This fast fashion calculator works out how our fashion habits impact the planet. Give it a go…!


Monday 1959

Bryan Pearce (1929–2007)

Royal Institution of Cornwall

Discussion: what can we do?

Once students have worked out their fashion footprint you could discuss:

  • were you surprised by the results?
  • what might you be able to do to lessen this impact?

Discussion thoughts

Here are some of the ways we, as individuals, can lessen our fashion imprint:

  • buy less and buy better-quality clothes that will last longer (or buy second-hand clothing where possible)
  • try and buy sustainable brands and buy fabrics such as linen and hemp that are kinder to the planet
  • mend clothes so that you can wear them for longer
  • wash clothes less and line dry them rather than using a dryer
  • swap clothes with friends when you are bored of them – or consider renting clothes for a special occasion
  • give clothes to a charity shop or put them in textile recycling bins rather than throwing them in your general waste bin (where they will end up in landfill)

Remember the five Rs of fashion: Reduce, Rewear, Recycle, Repair, Resell!

Relief: Green Shirt

Relief: Green Shirt 1978

Sally Moss (b.1949)

Carmarthenshire Museums Service Collection

Activity: design a multi-way garment (that is suitable for different occasions)

Recca Adjei, a recent graduate from Staffordshire University's BA Fashion course, designed her final student collection with longevity and versatility in mind. 

Fashion designs by Recca Adjei

Fashion designs by Recca Adjei

She designed garments that can be worn in many ways. The clothes can be worn inside out or clips and straps are used to change the length or silhouette of the garment. The clothes are also unisex, and one size fits most body shapes.

Fashion designs by Recca Adjei

Fashion designs by Recca Adjei

Look at Recca Adjei's designs as a class. Ask students to discuss their first impressions:

  • What words would you use to describe the designs?
  • What do you like about the designs?
  • Can you imagine young people wearing them?
  • Do you think it's a good idea to be able to style one garment in different ways? How does this make the clothes more sustainable?

A sustainable approach to fashion design

Recca Adjei makes her designs more sustainable by:

  • using roll ends where she can – these are short lengths that are left at the end of a roll of fabric. They are often discounted and would go to waste if they weren't utilised
  • styling garments so that they can be worn in different ways (and appear like a whole new item of clothing) – getting rid of the need to buy lots of different outfits
  • making the clothing unisex and designing them so that different body shapes can wear them means that they can easily be shared or resold and bought by a wider range of people

Task outline

Task students with designing their own multi-way garment.

  • They could sketch their design and annotate it with notes describing the type of fabric they would use and how any adjustments to the design (to change its styling) might be made.
  • It might make sense to include different sketches showing the different ways that the garment can be worn.
  • They could consider using sustainable or recycled fabrics for their designs.
  • They could also think about how they can ensure less waste in the design of their garment.

Activity idea: design a zero-waste pattern

One of the ways to ensure that the manufacture of clothing is more sustainable is to avoid wasting fabric.

Zero-waste patterns are designed so that every single bit of fabric is used when cutting out the pieces needed to construct a garment. 

Explore these zero-waste patterns with your students.

Elbe Textiles blog: zero-waste pattern making

V&A: Balenciaga one-seam coat

Have a go!

To help students understand how the design and construction of a zero-waste garment works, you could task them with creating a paper coat using V&A's pattern download inspired by Spanish fashion designer Cristóbal Balenciaga.

A paper model of a Balenciaga 'no-waste' coat

A paper model of a Balenciaga 'no-waste' coat

Here are some tips:

  • Cut out the two squares and stick the white sides together. The check pattern will be the outside of the coat and the grey square is the lining.
  • Make two horizontal cuts at either side of the paper, then fold in each side to make the front of your coat. Fold down the top to make the front of the arms.
  • Make small cuts and folds to form the neck shape of your coat. See numbers 5 and 6 on the template guide.
  • Finally, make folds in the side and shoulders of your coat to give it an elegant shape.

Design a zero-waste pattern

Once students have understood the concept of a zero-waste pattern, task them with designing their own. It could be any type of garment, but keeping it simple will help in planning the design!

Development task

Depending on the ability of your students and the equipment you have available, task them with making a zero-waste robe or simple coat using one of the patterns provided - or they could make a garment from their own zero-waste pattern design.

Activity: design and make a garment or accessory from recycled fabrics

Task students with designing and making a garment or accessory from recycled materials or objects.

SVN Stacks/Moon Marauder

SVN Stacks/Moon Marauder 2015

Zadie Xa (b.1983)

Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre

Ideas and inspiration from art!

Research and explore artists who work with textiles or recycled objects for inspiration:

Jann Haworth is an American artist who has lived and worked in Britain and America. One of only a small number of women creating Pop Art in the 1960s and 1970s, she became a leading artist in the British Pop Art movement. After graduating she moved away from painting and began to work with textiles. Calendula's Cloak is made from scraps of used fabric. Although conceived as an artwork it might provide ideas for using second-hand fabrics for clothing.

Calendula's Cloak

Calendula's Cloak 1967

Jann Haworth (b.1942)

Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre

Haworth often sees her textile artworks as storytelling. Calendula's Cloak is a tribute to her mother who taught her how to sew. Is there anyone that you are close to or admire that you could use as the inspiration for your design? 

Trained in textiles, Ruth Spaak likes to reuse fabrics and objects in unexpected ways. She hunts around car boot sales to find materials to work with and is fascinated by the stories behind things other people have owned. She takes the things she finds apart and combines them, often weaving or binding them together, to create her sculptures. 

Do her tiles made from recycled plastics give you any ideas for how you could reuse plastics to create a textile that could be used for a garment or accessory?

Recycled Plastic Tile II

Recycled Plastic Tile II

Ruth Spaak

Leicestershire County Council Artworks Collection

Solveigh Goett has a rich archive of fabrics that she chooses from to create her textile artworks. She stitches fabrics together to create small book-like artworks that she sees as intimate story spaces that tell stories which reflect memories or wider human experience. 

Pockets: Buttons

Pockets: Buttons

Solveigh Goett (b.1953)

Leicestershire County Council Artworks Collection

Tracey Emin has often used embroidery and applique techniques in her practice. Her fabric banners combine text and images that make statements or reflect her feelings about her own life or the things happening around her.

You could think about using text in your garment or accessory to reflect something that is important to you – what about creating a statement t-short or bag from recycled fabrics?

The Simple Truth

The Simple Truth 1995

Tracey Emin (b.1963)

Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre

Artist Paul R.P. Nicholls wound threads around small pieces of wood to create this box-like sculpture.

Black Box 1

Black Box 1 1974

Paul R. P. Nicholls (b.1948)

Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery

How could you use recycled thread, wool or thin strips of fabric – reclaimed from old garments – and wrapping techniques to create an accessory? Think about combining shapes and different coloured threads for unusual and spectacular jewellery.

Multi-media artist Zadie Xa draws inspiration from a range of sources from ecology to science fiction to explore how people imagine and inhabit their worlds.

Call Waiting

Call Waiting 2018

Zadie Xa (b.1983)

British Council Collection

She often references traditional Korean clothing in her work and uses techniques such as quilting. How could you use fabrics and techniques to reflect your cultural background or identity?

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