Updated: Sep 22
Fast fashion is a term describing a system of clothing production and consumption characterised by high rates of turnover, relying on cheap, often unethical labour and low-quality materials to create cheap garments which are worn only a few times before being discarded.
While the purchase cost is seemingly low, the environmental and ethical cost of these types of garments are huge.
Let's break the issue of ‘fast fashion’ down into its two main problems:
Ethical and environmental.
First off, ethical issues. To sell an item very cheaply and turn a profit, a corner must be cut somewhere. Producing vast numbers of an item will provide economies of scale (and waste) reducing the cost of production. This can be further reduced again by using sub-par materials, and further again by producing all of these goods in a factory with low safety, poor quality control, and minuscule pay to workers. Reports have shown again and again that factory workers for many of the world's biggest clothing companies are exploited, regularly working in dangerous conditions and paid almost nothing for their efforts. Worse than this, in some cases, like Uyghur Muslim cotton labourers (which account for 20% of global cotton), is actual slavery (enduyghurforcedlabour.org, 2022).
The recent COVID-19 pandemic has markedly worsened the situation in a number of these factories. The Clean Clothes Campaign found that H&M, Nike and Primark have driven factory workers in Bangladesh, Cambodia and Indonesia into desperation during the COVID-19 pandemic through wage theft, threats of violence and increased workloads, receiving less than half their previous years wages (cleanclothescampaign.org, 2021).
The second half of this issue is environmental. How does this system of production harm the planet? As mentioned above, increasing production scale is a traditional way of increasing profit margins through economies of scale. All businesses account for a certain amount of wastage, some much more than others. With this style of production there is a much higher level of wastage, the reasons for this are twofold. 1) High volume, low quality production results in clothing that will degrade faster, and become damaged irreparably quicker. The lower unit cost will also incentivise throwing away the damaged garments rather than seeking to fix them on the part of the customer. Secondly, since new lines of clothing and styles come out at a high pace in a fast fashion operation, there will be a higher percentage of stock that will end up as wastage. In fact, up to 59,000 tons of clothes that couldn’t be sold in the US and Europe end up dumped in the Atacama desert each year (Ecowatch, 2021).
Another environmental issue resulting from fast fashion is vastly increased carbon footprints for each garment, this is because the majority of the factories used in the fast fashion industry are located in Asia, while the majority of the customers are located in Europe and the US. Resulting in greater distances travelled before garments reach customers, thereby increasing the carbon footprint of each item, and ultimately, directly contributing to climate change.
To cut costs, fast fashion brands often use damaging chemicals and dyes in their production lines, these are then often not disposed of properly. These chemicals can end up polluting rivers and oceans, causing untold damage to aquatic ecosystems.
What can be done to stop all this from happening?
In short, shopping in an ethical and environmentally friendly way can be achieved by repairing and re-wearing items we already own, and when we do have to buy new items, ensuring that they are high quality items that are made as locally as possible, by workers who are treated and paid fairly. If possible, these items should be made using materials that are sustainable, and have been recycled, and/or have a minimal carbon footprint.