Fast fashion is like fast food. After the sugar rush it just leaves a bad taste in your mouth.
Despite an underlying uneasiness that Primark prices seemed too good to be true, I’d never stopped to consider the impact of my clothing purchases. So after much digging, I’m going to share with you my findings about an out-of-control industry. This is your definitive guide to why you should stop buying fast fashion, now!
Disclaimer: I have worked in retail for high-street fashion brands, so I know first-hand how lucrative, sales-driven and fast-paced this industry is. Whilst I’m ashamed to admit that I played my part in driving this industry forward, I also acknowledge that… I didn’t really know any better.
I was unconscious, uneducated and blissfully unaware of the problem.
We would most likely all agree that everyone deserves to earn a living wage, work in safe conditions and have their basic human rights respected. We would all agree that looking after the planet is important. And we would all agree that animal cruelty is always inexcusable.
But when an industry is out of sight, it is also out of mind. This comes down to a lack of knowledge, a normalised disposable culture, and ways in which we’re taught to feel good or spend our free time.
Is this industry aligned with your own personal values? If not, then you need to reassess your relationship with clothes moving forwards.
What is Fast Fashion?
Up until as recently as my parent’s generation, clothing was bought seasonally or as it was outgrown, and it was generally looked after, mended and worn out. It wasn’t uncommon for people to have one pair of ‘best’ shoes or one ‘good’ winter coat.
But about 20 years ago – pretty much exactly as I hit my teenage years – everything changed. I vividly remember looking forward to a trip into town with my best friend each weekend so that we could go to New Look. We were obsessed with the latest fashion trends.
Shopping grew into a hobby. Not only was it affordable enough that we could treat ourselves to a new boob tube or mini skirt every Saturday, but there were always new styles constantly appearing that we just had to have.
In other words, with the advent of the new millennium, clothing became cheaper (a downward trend which has only continued), styles turned over ever more rapidly, and clothing essentially became a commodity as mindlessly purchased as fast food.
What used to be a seasonal approach has transitioned into new garments dropping fortnightly, weekly, or in some cases even daily. From initial concept to receipt of delivery, manufacturing times have been slashed to keep up with the latest celebrity media trends and unrelenting consumer demand.
Examples of Fast Fashion Brands in the UK
Fast fashion giants Zara and H&M hold the majority of the market share. In the UK, fast fashion retailers like Primark, New Look and River Island can also be found on most high streets. In the past decade, we have further witnessed the rise to prominence of a new wave of ultra-fast fashion brands.
These are usually e-commerce stores that don’t have traditional overheads and offer clothes at bargain-basement prices. For example, Misguided, Boohoo, SHEIN, Nasty Gal and Miss Pap (just to name a few).
From manufacturing in some of the world’s poorest countries with little transparency as to how it impacts those most vulnerable at the bottom of the supply chain, a disregard for the long-term environmental consequences during the manufacturing process, and treating animals like things, fast fashion values profit above all other considerations.
When the industry’s wealth lies in the hands of a few ultra-rich individuals, it’s clear that we need to demand radical change in this largely unregulated industry.
Is It Sustainable Fashion Or Just Green Washing?
More recently, the fast fashion industry has faced pressure to change.
From the Rana Plaza disaster of 2013 to climate change now at the forefront of the world’s agenda, consumers are beginning to wake up and question the true cost of cheap clothes.
This has undoubtedly contributed towards a mindset shift in the fashion world, with brands like H&M proudly showcasing a whole section under ‘Sustainability’ on their website.
But fast fashion companies also understand that going ‘green’ is now a marketing strategy. In the example of H&M, by creating ‘conscious’ ranges, developing in-store recycling schemes and branding themselves as a sustainable option, they make consumers feel good and lessen any guilt about their purchasing habits (yep, I’ve been this customer!).
H&M has recently been taken to court for greenwashing, with arguments levelled against them that:
Their ‘conscious’ ranges often use synthetic materials (which require fossil fuels for production and shed plastic microfibers). On top of this, they have completely misinterpreted sustainability scorecards.
In-store recycling schemes actually encourage customers to consume at a more rapid pace. In reality, recycled clothing often gets shipped around the world, ending up in poor third-world countries where the majority gets dumped in landfill and as little as 0.1% is actually recycled into new textile fibre.
Arguably, this is an industry that needs to be reworked from the ground up. There is no attempt to reduce the speed at which clothing is being manufactured, which puts a huge amount of pressure on people and the environment.
My reliable, go-to source is the Good On You app (which you can download for free!). They rate fashion brands transparently on People, Planet and Animals so that you can make more informed shopping decisions.
4 Reasons Why You Should Stop Buying Fast Fashion
As with any behaviour change, one of the most powerful things you can do is to understand your ‘why’.
If you want to quit fast fashion for good, then read on to understand in more depth how the textile industry has direct effects on the world’s most underprivileged workers (largely women), destructive environmental impacts that tear apart natural ecosystems and threaten human health, as well as contributing to the slaughter of billions of animals every year.
Fast fashion is not free. Someone, somewhere is paying the price.
Like factory farming – where there is demand for a product, exploitation likely follows. And because the finished product is wrapped up in a nice marketing story, no one really stops to think about how it got there.
Systems of production are sped up, corners are cut, and people end up being treated as a means to an end rather than human beings with basic needs and individual personalities. Everything revolves around achieving the lowest price possible and meeting consumer demand.
According to the documentary film The True Cost, 97% of the world’s garment industry is now outsourced to developing countries around the world. ‘Made in China’ is the norm on labels, but its market share is steadily decreasing, with even poorer countries like Bangladesh, Vietnam and India joining the list of the world’s top clothing exporters.
We can all blame big brands for negotiating the cheapest possible deals, which leads to the issues in the following list, but we should also take accountability as individuals for our love of a bargain. We’ve all been primed to believe that a t-shirt costs £5 when in reality this only exploits underpaid garment workers in an unfair system.
In The Machinists (2010), we follow the lives of female workers in Bangladesh, who are paid $23 a month when the cost of living is $63. Sometimes they will simply not receive pay for a couple of days, for no apparent reason. They will also have their full wages docked if they are just one or two minutes late for work. Union activity or protesting about fair wages can often result in immediate dismissal, so it’s risky to do so when these women already live on the breadline and are desperately trying to support their families.
To add insult to injury, factory owners often become rich through the hard labour of underpaid garment workers. They will buy more land for factories as well as big houses, all the while saying that they can’t afford to pay higher wages. Because Western companies don’t directly employ the workers, it is impossible to properly audit and ensure fair management.
Unsafe working conditions
In 2012, a fire at the Tazreen factory in Dhaka killed 117 workers and left 200 injured. With a big order that needed urgent shipping for Walmart, garment workers were too busy to realise that a fire had broken out in the building. The manager had gone as far as to lock the workers in so that the Walmart order could be completed, and the fire alarm didn’t work so had to be manually set off.
The worst part? There were no consequences for the factory manager and nothing was learnt from the disaster.
Fast forward a year to the Rana Plaza factory collapse where 1,134 workers died. The real tragedy of the situation is that workers at the factory had pointed out cracks in the building to management, with concerns over its structural safety.
Many in the textile industry work in hazardous, unhygienic and unsafe working conditions, with a real risk to life when brands would prefer to sweep issues under the carpet.
Many garment workers toil anywhere up to 15 hours a day (8 am – 11 pm aren’t uncommon working hours), 6 to 7 days a week. Whilst this is much higher than the legal working limit, in reality, the law is rarely enforced. With no regular time off, workers can expect maybe one day a month by means of a break.
This makes it incredibly difficult to raise a family in the city, with many women having to leave their children with grandparents in rural villages. This means that it’s a tragically common practice for them to only see their loved ones once or twice a year.
It is not unusual for girls as young as 9 to begin work in garment factories. Although it is legal for anyone aged 14 or over to enter employment in Bangladesh, there are laws surrounding how many hours they can work which are regularly unenforced.
This also means that children are not going to school, which affects their education and possibilities for the future.
When those working in factories have grievances and approach management, they are routinely subject to physical abuse. Union activity can result in a real risk to workers’ safety, with threats from hired thugs and even punishment through beatings.
Last but by no means least, hazardous materials in the production process (e.g. chromium, lead and mercury) mean that workers in developing countries are more prone to chronic illnesses. Even those who don’t work directly with toxic chemicals can be affected by water pollution and contaminated soil.
Some local communities are known for particular conditions, for example, jaundice, liver cancer, or mental defects in children at birth.
Textile production contributes more to climate change than international aviation and shipping combined.
In our quest to keep up with the latest trends, we buy new clothes in enormous quantities at ever-lower prices. And alongside the exploited people in this process, we also fail to take into consideration the hidden environmental cost.
Fast fashion is a highly polluting industry. Cheap, low-quality clothing leads to a throwaway culture and increased waste. Whilst high street stores are slowly starting to move towards more sustainable materials, the environmental impact and damage done may already be too late.
Taking into account the full supply chain of clothing production – from the raw materials and production to transportation and disposal – there are many areas that need desperate attention and reform.
When Stacey Dooley asks shoppers on a UK high street to rank the world’s highest polluters, fashion regularly comes out at the bottom of people’s lists.
But fast fashion accounts for 10% of the world’s carbon emissions, and according to recent studies, it’s the world’s second-largest polluter. Yes, you read that correctly!
The carbon footprint of manufacturing and shipping garments halfway across the world in huge quantities means that fast fashion clothing is anything but sustainable. Initiatives to offset carbon emissions or support environmental initiatives are regularly neglected due to maximising profits.
Water consumption and pollution
There will be wars fought over water, with mass migration and people fleeing water shortages.
Cotton in particular uses more water than any other fibre and has become one of the most unsustainable crops due to demand. For example, it takes a huge 1,800 gallons to create just one pair of jeans!
And that’s just the water it takes for the cotton to grow. The manufacturing process itself is incredibly water-intensive, with an estimated 20% of the world’s wastewater coming from the dying and treating of fabrics.
Harmful toxic chemicals
The manufacturing process uses lots of different chemicals to treat materials. For example, we think of leather as a ‘natural’ product, but tanneries use harsh processes and dyes in order to prepare and finish it for sale.
Whilst the wastewater should be treated in water management systems, many factories try to cut corners and have secret waste pipes flowing into nearby rivers. This toxic, chemical-heavy water kills local aquatic life and poses a serious threat to people’s health.
With food exported all over the world from Asian countries, this not only affects the local population. Harmful chemicals from the textile industry have worryingly now been found in fresh produce across the Western world.
Additionally, this sector also uses huge amounts of pesticides (estimated between 10-20% of all worldwide use), of which we don’t yet fully know the long-term health consequences.
Loss of natural resources and ecosystems
A visually arresting testament to this is Stacey Dooley’s visit to the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan, during her documentary Fashion’s Dirty Secrets. This once-abundant ecosystem is now largely desert due to intensive cotton farming. Even the climate has changed, with toxic dust storms whipping up pesticides which have affected the health of the local people. On top of this, poverty-related illnesses are now rife as the local fishing economy has died away.
It is also a myth that leather is a natural by-product of the meat industry (i.e. cow hides would just go to waste otherwise). Surprisingly, the demand for real leather is as bad as the meat industry when it comes to deforestation of the Amazon rainforest, due to cattle ranching and livestock production.
Around 300,000 tonnes of textile waste ends up in household black bins every year, sent to landfill or incinerators.
Fast fashion contributes to an unsustainable global waste problem, with a huge amount of clothing being dumped in landfill.
Poor quality clothing means that not only do items get discarded quickly, but they also don’t biodegrade and can stick around in landfill for hundreds of years. A recent study by British Wool found that the average number of binned clothes per Brit added up to 72 a year (that’s 6 a month!).
Many cheap, synthetic materials used in the production of fast fashion garments are made from oil through energy-intensive chemical reactions. Fabrics like polyester and nylon are therefore unsustainable and heavily polluting.
Half a million tons of plastic microfibers are dumped into the ocean every year, the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles.
When you wash synthetic materials (like polyester), they shed tiny pieces of plastic. These plastics then enter our rivers and oceans and are incredibly difficult to filter out. They will take hundreds of years to decompose.
Before we purchase more clothes, we should think about the materials we’re buying and opt for more sustainable brands.
Animals – the forgotten victims of the fast fashion industry. It took me a while to find anything directly-related and meaningful when it came to the treatment of animals. Unsurprisingly, when animals are already treated like a commodity in the meat and dairy industries, there is much more information readily available when it comes to people and the planet.
In fact, animals are often completely absent from this narrative altogether.
‘Carnism’ means that animals quite literally ‘disappear’ or ‘transform’ into fashion products, which teaches us not to feel.
Animal products like leather, fur and wool are also routinely touted as all-natural and biodegradable, which can make it difficult for someone who cares about animals to make informed decisions about polluting synthetics vs animal cruelty.
Thankfully, the documentary film SLAY was released in 2022, which sheds light on many of the myths and secret realities behind these hidden industries. I’d definitely recommend a watch, but trigger warning: it’s a tear-jerker.
Have you always assumed that leather is a natural by-product of the meat industry? That’s what I thought too!
But you should be aware that the leather industry is a profit-driven industry worth tens of billions of dollars. Not only does it cause major deforestation of the Amazon rainforest – the tanning process itself is anything but ‘natural’ when it uses so many chemicals and toxic dyes.
One cowhide alone has a water footprint of over 100 litres, meaning that leather as a raw material has one of the worst effects on the environment (arguably even more so than synthetics).
The most controversial of all animal products used in the fashion industry, the fur industry has tried to use sustainability as an argument in its favour.
However, compared to faux, animal fur creates seven and a half times more emissions. It also has to be processed with chemicals like formaldehyde and heavy metals to stop it from rotting.
Because the fur needs to be kept intact for garments, electrocution is a common method for killing animals, or they are sometimes even skinned alive.
A staggering 100M animals are killed in fur farms every year, with animals living out their days from birth to death in tiny cages where they can’t engage in natural behaviours.
With one of the best reputations for being natural and planet-positive, the wool industry is far from an eco-friendly material.
From being treated with chemical detergents, to the amount of waste wool from facilities, to the carbon footprint of shipping it between different countries to be finished – wool isn’t as sustainable as we’ve been led to believe.
There are also many cruel practices in the wool trade. Mulseing is a painful procedure which removes skin from around the lamb’s hindquarters. Castration and tail docking are also common practices.
When sheep can’t produce wool anymore, they are considered useless. Many are killed at 6 years old (when their natural lifespan is up to 12 years). Some are killed as early as 6 months old for sheepskin.
Finally, from an entirely personal point of view, it’s worth considering whether continually adding fast fashion clothes to your wardrobe is actually making you any happier.
When you’re bombarded with a hundred adverts a day telling you that you need to look a certain way and fit an unattainable ‘beauty standard’, it can feel like new clothing is the answer to all your problems.
Arguably, in the long run, more stuff has the opposite effect. You become weighed down by it, both physically and mentally. You have decision fatigue whenever you open your wardrobe. New pieces lose their shine very quickly and no matter what, it always feels like you don’t have anything to wear.
So perhaps with this in mind, the counter-intuitive option may be worth a try. Embrace slow fashion, look into ethical clothing options, and radically review your toxic relationship with compulsive shopping.
The Fashion Industry Needs to Change… But Change Starts With You!
As consumers we have so much power to change the world by just being careful in what we buy.
It’s easy to wait for systematic change. To assume that this starts with big brands, governments and official legislation.
When problems feel too big or overwhelming, I understand why your first instinct may be to bury your head in the sand or ask ‘What can I do? I’m just one person!’
But as consumers, we have more power than we realise. If you want to see a change in the world, then you need to start by being that change in the world. If what you’ve learnt in this article has been troubling for you and doesn’t sit well with your core values, then vote with your wallet.
What next? To see the issues for yourself, why not watch an educational and eye-opening documentary that questions the industry? Or, for a complete guide on how to embrace slow fashion and become an ethical shopper, read my follow-on article here.
You can also find out more about the 12 best ethical (plus affordable!) fashion brands in the UK. And be sure to check out my definitive list of 100 things to do instead of shopping!