The Ethical and Environmental Cost of Fast Fashion

Illustration by Karolina Varvarovska

Fast fashion is and does exactly what its title suggests – fashion made at a fast pace, quickly delivered to customers and just as quickly thrown away when it goes out of style. With the rising popularity of Instagram Influencers - young women promoting the latest trends online - the obsession and need for cheap clothes for every occasion is also on the rise. Whilst viewing and being inspired by these accounts may appear harmless, they encourage over consumption which in turn generates excessive waste. Despite the staggeringly low prices – many fast fashion shops selling items for as little as £1.99 – the real cost of buying these clothes is a lot higher.

It is easy to see why fast fashion is so popular. The top fast fashion brands such as Fashion Nova, Pretty Little Thing, Boohoo and Missguided all promote through Instagram by sending PR packages to popular influencers. There are 500,000 active influencers on Instagram and 70% of shopping enthusiasts turn to Instagram for product discovery, making it an effective way to reach a wide audience (1). This, paired with low prices and cheap next day delivery, means that people put little thought into what they buy as they see little financial loss if they end up not liking the item. When comparing our average clothing consumption to that only 15 years ago, we buy 60% more items of clothing every year and keep them for only half the time(2). Our consumption is now drastically different, which is largely due to fashion being based on trend pieces. Not so long ago the number of fashion releases was divided into sections based on the four seasons, now there are new lines added as often as monthly and biweekly. As of the date of this article, Pretty Little Thing has 499 items added under “New In This Week” and Missguided not far behind with 450. The problem with new styles being added so often is that they very quickly go out of fashion, leading to the average consumer throwing away 70 pounds (31.75 kilograms) of clothing per year! (3)

Humanitarian Issues

It is not just the environment that suffers from fast fashion. In order to keep items cheap, fashion workers must be grossly underpaid, leading to only 2% around the world earning a living wage. the fast fashion industry relies on systematic discrimination, as those who make the garments do not have the same rights as those buying. Garment workers are erased from the picture as not to make byers ‘uncomfortable’ by the REAL cost of their latest purchase. The factories that create these clothes aren’t based in the UK or Europe due to humanitarian laws. Instead companies move to poorer areas for cheap labour and little regulation. Most highstreet retailers have factories in Bangladesh, India, China, Vietnam, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka or the Philippines.

Fast fashion brands purposely underpay workers in poorer countries and rely on their workers' lack of rights to exploit them for profit, meaning our ‘affordable’ and ‘easy’ fashion can only exist through racial oppression. I know how easy it is to think of that cute skirt or our ‘low’ budget, but by dissociating the item from its creation, we risk forgetting the oppression and exploitation of those forced into creating for us.

Environmental impacts

The issue with these clothes ending up in landfill (and this is not only from consumers, but also leftover textiles in factories that didn’t sell) is that they can take up to 200 years to decompose as they are made from chemically processed materials that emit methane into the atmosphere. This is why fashion and clothes production is one of the biggest polluters in the world. It is also the second largest consumer of the world's water supply (4) – easy to imagine, when you realise it takes 2,700 litres of water to make just one t-shirt. Basic items of clothing are often made of cotton which is a highly water intensive plant, and when not sourced responsibly cause draughts and water shortages in third world countries. Water is also often polluted from factories dumping textile dye and other wastewaters directly into nearby rivers. These contain toxic substances such as lead and arsenic which can be lethal to aquatic life and consequently harmful to its consumers. according to the World Bank, the dyeing and treatment of garments makes up roughly 17-20% of all industrial water pollution – which is enough water to fill up 2 Million Olympic sized pools every year (4).

Sadly the water pollution doesn’t stop there. Plastic in the ocean is now a well known problem, but this knowledge is usually limited to straws, plastic bottles and bags. How many of us have stopped to consider the microplastics being released from our clothing? The Synthetic fibres such as polyester, nylon and acrylic make up about 60% of the clothing worldwide (5). Every time we wash our clothes, millions of fibres are being released into the water system. As they are usually thinner than a human hair, they can easily pass through the filters unnoticed. These very same fibres are accumulated at the bottom of the food chain in different kinds of marine wildlife than is often ingested by us.

Here are outlined just a few of the environmental and ethical impacts of fast fashion and how every step of the cycle - from the sourcing of materials to where they end up discarded - has a detrimental effect on our planet. Although sustainable brands and second hand shops exist, which are the best alternatives, personally I’ve rarely found them to cater to my specific interests. It is inevitable that there will be times in your life you will want to purchase a fast fashion piece, but there are a few ways to go about doing so.

Steps we can take

Firstly don’t pick the cheapest option there. These will likely be the worst quality and if you pay £2 for a t-shirt, think how cheaply it had to be made in order for the store to make any kind of profit, and how much of that profit will go to those responsible for creating the garment. Choose an item of clothing that genuinely reflects your style and you know you will get a lot of wear out of. Ask yourself, can you imagine wearing the piece at least 30 times? If the answer is no, then you shouldn’t buy it. If the average life of clothing was extended by just three months, it would reduce carbon and water footprints - as well as waste generation - by 5 to 10 percent! (6) Resist the urge to impulse buy. Without taking the time to consider how much you really want something and whether you’ll get enough wear out of it, you are a lot more likely to regret your purchase and get rid of it. Have a piece in mind for at least a week before you decide to purchase it.

When the time finally comes to get rid of clothes you no longer wear, there are a few things you should do before turning to the bin as a last resort. If the items are in good condition the best option is to sell them on websites like Ebay, Depop etc. This ensures your clothes will be loved in a new home with an added bonus of financial gain. If you are not keen on listing your items, a simple option is to donate them to your closest charity shop or one that you’d particularly like to support. Fresh stock encourages shoppers to continue looking at second hand options and keeps thrifting alive. Lastly, don’t forget that clothes that are too worn to resell are still accepted by recycling companies. Nearly 100% of material can be downcycled into cleaning rags, insulation or mattress stuffing, so it's worth researching if your city provides clothes collection bins for these purposes.

Continue to apply pressure onto large companies about fair pay and rights for their workers. If consumers remain silent, companies will continue to exploit workers for their benefit. Change will only come if businesses lose profit, as it is evident that is all they care about. Continue to fight for change, and in the meantime research and shop at ethical and sustainable brands. It is ever so easy to turn a blind eye to maltreatment for the personal gain of a cute sweater, but we have to start holding ourselves accountable for the maltreatment of garment workers, as without our purchase these companies wouldn't have a business to run.

So while it may be hard to give up your favourite fashion brands, I encourage you to think hard before buying your next item of clothing and ask yourself, at what cost does its cheap price tag come? Fast fashion is created at the expense of our planet and our people.

Written by Alicja Pietruszka


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