Show caption ‘Fashion, especially the cheap kind, is addictive.’ Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images Opinion Ultra-fast fashion is taking over – and using every trick in the book to get us addicted Zainab Mahmood Fashion retail sites such as Shein constantly add new styles at incredibly cheap prices, normalising overconsumption Mon 18 Apr 2022 13.00 BST Share on Facebook
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High street brands such as H&M and Zara have been accelerating the pace of fast fashion for years, but the 4,414 new styles H&M added to its US website this year isn’t even the worst of it – enter ultra-fast fashion.
The Chinese fashion retail website Shein was recently valued at $100bn and has added almost 315,000 styles to its website this year alone. At the time of writing, Shein UK has 4,029 items in the under £5 section, with several crop tops and miniskirts priced at an alarming £1.99.
Fashion, especially the cheap kind, is addictive. That’s why ultra-fast fashion brands such as Shein keep increasing the array of styles on offer, while social media ads and customer-generated content such as “haul videos” ensure that fashion addicts never forget about their drug. Some of these videos are sponsored by the brands, but the personable, chatty style helps viewers forget that they are in fact watching ads. Wealthy YouTubers disguised as average shoppers normalise the idea of ordering bags full of clothes every single week.
My friend Toni Murphy, a 25-year-old content creator from London, was previously addicted to Shein. She started overconsuming fast fashion when her student grant and loan gave her access to more cash than ever before. Sceptical of Shein’s low prices she avoided it at first, but eventually gave in. “[My addiction] kind of just started during the pandemic. And that was because I was getting these ads about it,” says Murphy. Several times a day she would come across Shein ads on Instagram and on websites using cookies that promoted items she’d previously Googled or added to her wishlist – they were unavoidable.
Despite receiving some items that were not as described or photographed, the price and range of styles kept her hooked. “What kept me going back was the fact that it was cheap,” she says. “They were targeting me with certain things that they knew would tempt me.”
Georgia Willard, a 23-year-old student and former fast fashion addict, tells me that her social bubble as a teenager in Australia fed her addiction. “You felt like you needed to have a different outfit every time you went out to prove to people that you could dress properly and look the part. I ended up buying outfits almost every weekend.”
Willard was prompted to kick her fast fashion habit when she learned about the environmental and human impacts of the fashion industry in a textiles class at school. In addition to learning about the ugly reality of the fashion industry from the documentary the True Cost, which she watched at school, she also realised she couldn’t keep up her habit and afford a big trip she’d planned to the UK. Since then, the growth of cheaper, ultra-fast fashion brands such as Boohoo, Pretty Little Thing and Shein, whose annual revenue grew from $2bn in 2018 to $15.7bn in 2021, has made the cycle of buy, wear, throw away and repeat all the more difficult to escape.
Murphy now feeds her fashion addiction with secondhand apps such as Depop and Vinted instead, but her friend, who is a student ambassador for Shein, is £2,000 deep into her overdraft. For so many, it seems impulsion and consumerism are more powerful than a desire for a world in which female garment workers can work in a safe environment, let alone live happy, full lives – some workers at factories supplying Shein reported working more than 75 hours a week. In one of them, workers got one day off a month. (After a report into working conditions at these factories, Shein said it had a strict supplier code of conduct, and that it would be investigating.)
Ultra-fast fashion is not good news for the planet, either. At this rate, by 2050 the fashion industry may use almost a quarter of the world’s carbon budget. Around 60% of Gen Z say they have altered their personal spending habits and behaviours to reduce their environmental impact, but they also seem to be pushing the growth of ultra-fast fashion – the attitude-behaviour gap is huge.
Giving up fast fashion altogether is a tall order for young people still figuring out how to express themselves and manage their finances in the face of years of austerity, rising university fees and the ubiquity of unattainable beauty standards. It’s up to those of us with the time, energy and experience to hold the corporations to account.
Zainab Mahmood is a journalist and social media content creator