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The True Cost of Fast Fashion

Photo by Fernand De Canne from Unsplash

The fast fashion model involves the rapid design, production, distribution, and marketing of clothing, which means that retailers are able to pull large quantities of greater product variety and allow consumers to get more fashion and product differentiation at a low price.

Today, fashion brands produce almost twice the amount of clothing produced in 2000, with most of it being made in China and other middle-income countries such as Turkey, Vietnam and Bangladesh.

Photo by Rio Lecatompessy from Unsplash

The Fast Fashion Culture

Fast fashion brands make low-quality, cheap trendy clothes that imitate high-end brands’ designs. These business models are spearheaded by industry giants like H&M, Zara, Primark, and Topshop. However, newer brands like Shein and Fashion Nova are toppling the most prominent players.

These brands get new styles on the market as fast as possible while using aggressive advertising and social media marketing through influencers to get shoppers to buy as many items as possible while it is still available. A popular term, ‘Shein Haul,’ has been coined on social media to show influencers unboxing their package of many clothes bought at a low price.

The implication of this is that throwaway culture is now rampant, and clothes are being treated as disposable. From 1996-2012 there has been a 40% increase in the number of clothes bought per person, of which 11kg ends up in landfills or incinerators. This comes at a cost to our environment. In Europe, 5.8 million tonnes of textiles are discarded each year.

To De-clutter or buy less?

Many people often donate their unwanted clothes to charity and collection banks; however, charity shops cannot sell the sheer volume of what is received in donations. Usually, so many donations cannot be resold because of poor quality and such donations are sold to commercial recyclers who bale the rejected clothes for sale.

Some countries in sub-Saharan Africa, like Kenya, Ghana, and Senegal are left to deal with this influx of unwanted clothes. Not only has this negatively impacted the textile industry of these countries, but over the years merchants who receive these imports have complained about the declining quality of clothes leading to a loss of their capital. These countries also do not have the right infrastructure to deal with the exported fashion waste so most textile wastes usually end up in mountains of landfills or in waterways posing great environmental dangers.

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The Environmental cost

According to an analysis by Business Insider, fast fashion production makes up 10% of total global carbon emissions. It also dries up water sources and pollutes rivers and streams, while 85% of all textiles go to dumps each year. Even washing clothes releases 500,000 tons of microfibres into the ocean each year, the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles.

Fast fashion clothes are often made with toxic dyes and use an excessive amount of water. These clothes become one of the main sources of microplastics in our ocean as they are often made from synthetic materials like polyester or nylon. These chemicals and microplastics can be very damaging to ecosystems on land and in the sea.

Natural fabrics can also be a problem at the scale they are produced in the fast fashion industry. For example, cotton uses a huge amount of water and pesticides, which can actually be damaging to the environment and local communities.

The Humanitarian cost

Apart from the environmental impacts of fast fashion, the industry also poses societal and human rights issues, especially in developing countries. Factories are often based in countries where the minimum wage is between half to a fifth of the living wage. Many garment factory workers often receive below that minimum wage and work for long hours, in dangerous conditions.

For instance, in 2013, an eight-floor factory building that housed several garment factories collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh, killing 1,134 workers and injuring more than 2,500. It is believed that developing nations are viable for garment industries due to ‘cheap labour, vast tax breaks, and lenient laws and regulations’.

What is the way forward ?

Fast fashion brands often Green wash their products using terms such as “organic cotton, recycled polyester” to market their brands to consumers but these are often vague terms that do not translate into action.

While it is almost impossible to avoid fast fashion as consumers, we must redefine our relationship with clothes. The evident dangers of fashion overconsumption stress the urgent need to transition back to ‘slow’ fashion in order to mitigate the industry’s catastrophic environmental and social impacts.

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