The True Cost of Fast Fashion

“Fast fashion” has become a buzz phrase in recent years. But what exactly is fast fashion, and why is it a problem? Let’s break it down.

We should start with some historical context. For most of human history, fashion was slow. Materials had to be sourced, prepared, woven, and sewn into garments, all of which takes time. Even after the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s, when new technology allowed for creating clothes faster and cheaper, clothes shopping remained an occasional event that occurred only a couple of times a year when the seasons changed. Over the last century, the fashion industry has only quickened its pace and lowered its cost, reaching a point of no return in the new millennium when high street brands and online shopping allowed for people to buy on-trend clothes whenever they wanted. There are now 52 fashion “micro-seasons,” one for every week of the year. Shopping has become more than an occasional necessity, it has become a daily hobby, a form of entertainment, and even a sometimes addictive activity. 

According to Merriam Webster, fast fashion is defined as:

“An approach to the design, creation, and marketing of clothing fashions that emphasizes making fashion trends quickly and cheaply available to customers.”

- Merriam Webster

Essentially, fast fashion involves sampling ideas from catwalk or celebrity fashion and turning them into cheap, trendy garments in high street stores at an incredibly fast pace so that shoppers can snap them up while they’re still at the height of popularity. It promotes the idea that outfit repeating is a fashion faux pas and that you can only stay relevant if you sport the latest looks, so you need to keep buying, buying, buying to keep up with what’s hot.

The key word here is “fast.” Everything the industry relies on — trend replication, rapid production, cheap manufacturing, and low quality materials — is designed to bring real-time styles to consumers as quickly and as cheaply as possible. For example, Zara’s entire process, from design idea to point of sale, takes only 15 days. Brands want to produce, produce, produce to generate massive amounts of clothing so that customers never get tired of their inventory. Some stores, like H&M and Forever 21, get new shipments of styles every single day.

The only way to make a profit selling clothing that cheap is to sell a lot of it. The “ocean of clothing” being churned out and sold daily means that brands are able to earn millions even with such small markups. Armancio Ortega, the founder of Zara, is the third richest person in the world — he is worth $68.3 billion. While the prices of goods have generally gone up in the US, clothing prices have actually gone down. Fashion brands are producing almost twice the amount of clothing today as they did 20 years ago, and the average American buys more than one item of clothing each week. According to the Fixing Fashion report published by the UK Parliament in 2019, the fast fashion business model is “encouraging over-consumption and generating excessive waste.”

Such increased production inevitably involves cutting corners to keep costs low, which results in harmful impacts to the environment, human health, and even — counterintuitively — our wallets. The textile industry is actually one of the darkest corners of the global economy, for a number of reasons we’ll look at now. Let’s dig into the true cost of those $10 shirts. 

“Fast fashion isn’t free. Someone, somewhere, is paying.”

- Lucy Siegle

Human Rights

Fast fashion garments are usually manufactured offshore in low-wage countries like China and Bangladesh, where labour is cheapest and there are few laws guaranteeing adequate rights or even safety for workers. The garment workers are paid well below minimum wage and toil in inhumane working conditions in often dangerous environments. The long list of everyday health threats includes everything from dust and smoke inhalation, lack of ventilation, and exposure to harmful chemicals. Workers often have to make a trade-off between (barely) earning a living and prioritizing their own health. Not to mention the frequency of factory accidents, such as fatal fires, due to poor safety standards and inadequate building inspections, upgrades, and closures. Fast fashion brands often have obscure supply chains, making it difficult, if not impossible, to even trace where materials came from and what those working conditions may look like. 

Water Use

Environmental corners are also cut, and fast fashion has become one of the largest polluters in the world. Each production step in the textile industry has an environmental impact due to water, energy, chemical, and material use. The industry is an enormous waste of resources, consuming 79 trillion liters of water per year. It takes 2,000 gallons just to make a typical pair of jeans! So much water consumption leads to life-altering drought and water scarcity in environments where garments are made. In addition to being one of the main consumers of water, the fashion industry is also the second largest polluter of clean water globally, after agriculture, producing 20% of global wastewater. The toxic chemicals and synthetic materials used during manufacturing seep into local groundwater supplies, degrading entire ecosystems and poisoning local communities. Though these local manufacturing communities feel the effects more than others, everyone is impacted by water pollution, as these clothes can continue to release harmful chemicals when they are washed at home. 

Carbon Footprint

Per unit of material, textiles generate some of the most greenhouse gases and account for 8-10% of global carbon emissions — more than all international flights and maritime shipping. These emissions come both from high energy use and also from sources of energy used, as the industry largely relies on coal and fossil fuels. Energy use is highest during the initial fiber extraction, especially for synthetic fibers that are derived from fossil fuels, but significant emissions are also produced during other manufacturing steps, from shipping all the way to laundering. A 2020 research report is filled with statistics on energy use, water consumption, chemicals, and textile waste, if you want to delve deeper.

Chemical and Material Use

Environmental damage also occurs due to toxic chemicals and synthetic materials. The industry uses about 15,000 different chemicals, mostly associated with spinning and weaving (lubricants, accelerators, and solvents) and wet processing (bleaches, surfactants, softeners, dyestuffs, and so on). Many of these are harmful for the environment.

Additionally, more than 60% of fabric fibers are now synthetic. These cheap synthetics, like polyester, are derived from fossil fuels and contribute greatly to global warming. They never break down completely, and can release noxious chemicals and micro-plastic fibers into the environment for hundreds to thousands of years. Most of these so-called microfibers are shed when the garments are put through the wash, and they are currently responsible for 35% of all plastic pollution in the oceans. Even natural fabrics can become problematic when placed under such high demand; conventional cotton, for example, requires enormous quantities of water and pesticides, resulting in water scarcity and environmental pollution. 

Many of these chemicals are also directly toxic to human health, affecting both the factory workers and consumers. Skin is the largest organ of the body, and it is more porous than many people realize. It can actually be dangerous to wear items manufactured with dangerous chemicals, as they can absorb into the skin and negatively impact health. The danger is even worse in the communities where the items are being produced, and the chemicals can have terrible effects on both physical and mental health, as revealed by the documentary The True Cost

Textile Waste

Today’s trends are tomorrow’s trash, and one of the main problems with fast fashion is the waste that is generated. The trendy styles go out of fashion immediately and garments are often thrown away after no more than a few wears as part of this new “throw-away” culture. Of course, the rapidly-produced, low quality garments made of cheap materials are not designed to last, and most don’t survive even a few washings — so you probably couldn’t continue to wear them even if you wanted to. Having to always buy new clothes because they keep falling apart means that you’ll actually be spending more money, in the long run, than if you just invested in a few good-quality garments.

The average American throws out 70 pounds of textiles each year, totaling 11 million tons per year in the US alone. 85% of textile waste in the US goes to landfills or is incinerated. This results in the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles being landfilled or incinerated every second. Keep in mind that synthetic fabrics degrade into micro-plastics and continue to release noxious chemicals even in landfills. 

The rest of the textile waste gets donated to charities, consignment shops, and take-back programs. However, fast fashion is so poorly made that almost no one wants to buy it second-hand. Of the garments donated to take-back programs, only 6% is actually resold locally. About 1/3 is down-cycled into industrial rags or insulation, and the rest is exported overseas to countries that have little use for it. The flow of poor-quality clothing from the West has grown so enormous that leaders of several East African countries have called for a ban on importing second-hand clothing, as it is actively damaging their economies. 

So what can you do?

First, it’s important to recognize fast fashion brands so you can avoid them. They tend to have a few key factors in common:

  • Thousands of styles inspired by the latest trends.
  • Extremely short turnaround times, so that styles seen on the catwalk or in celebrity culture are immediately available. 
  • Cheap, low quality materials with shoddy construction. 
  • Garments that are only available for a limited amount of time.
  • Offshore manufacturing.
  • Mega-chain stores, like H&M, Zara, Forever 21, Topshop, Gap, and Uniqlo, among others.

We suggest living by the following motto:

“Buy less, choose well, make it last.”

- Vivienne Westwood

Buy less. Instead of buying, consider renting clothing from companies like Rent the Runway, which lets you wear garments and then return them. This allows you to still have copious variety without all of the harmful consumption. Alternatively, invest in a capsule wardrobe, which is a small collection of pieces that are practical, versatile, and can be combined in various ways to create many different outfits that last across seasons.

Choose well. Thrifting and shopping second-hand are the best ways to combat fast fashion, as giving garments a second life both expands their lifetimes and lowers demand. When buying new, invest in slow fashion, which we’ll dive into in a future post. For now, follow slow fashion’s priorities of eco-friendly fabrics, sturdy and well-made clothing, and timeless styles. 

Make it last. Take good care of your garments. Wash them in cold water, repair any tears or losses, and wear them until they are actually worn out. 

Sources

EcoWatch

Good On You

Greenpeace

House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee. “Fixing fashion: clothing consumption and sustainability.” Sixteenth Report of Session 2017-19. London: Parliamentary Copyright House of Commons, 2019.

Niinimäki et al. “The environmental price of fast fashion.” Nature Reviews Earth and Environment 1(2020): 189-200.

NPR

The Atlantic

The Conversation 

The Good Trade

The New York Times

UN Environment Programme

Yale Climate Connections

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