Fast fashion is becoming a hot topic in sustainability discussions and concerns relating to climate change. This is with good reason, due to the significant harm the fast fashion industry is causing both the environment and the garment workers that it employs. In this article, we will provide a brief history of fast fashion, cover the environmental impact of fast fashion, describe the inhumane working conditions for garment workers, and provide a guide to how to shop sustainably – referred to as the concept of conscious consumption.
History of Fast Fashion
Amanda Lee McCarty, host of the Clotheshorse podcast summarizes the history of fast fashion as: “After the 2008 recession, customers wanted discounts, and if regular retailers wouldn’t provide them, Forever 21 would. The workaround, says McCarty, was to price items high with a plan to sell the majority of units later on at a discount – meaning lower and lower manufacturing costs.” This caused a dramatic increase in the demand for fabric and to compensate, everything became lower quality.
Environmental Impact of Fast Fashion
It can be tempting to succumb to the ridiculous markdowns from fast fashion companies where sales seem too good to be true. However, the money you are saving is costing someone else and/or the environment. More often than not, the money you are saving is being made up for by underpaid garment workers in developing countries who are not given fair wages or working conditions. Additionally, fast fashion is a very polluting industry due to the use of cheap and dirty fabrics and the excessive amounts of fabric waste that is produced.
Fast fashion facts retrieved from a Greenpeace post:
- It takes 2700L of fresh water to produce one t-shirt – equivalent to the amount of water a person drinks in 2.5 years.
- Globally, a truckload of textiles lands on a dumpsite every second or is burnt
- The fast fashion industry produces 10% of the global CO2 emissions
- Up to 30% of fast fashion products will never get sold
- Up to 3500 chemicals are used in production processes, with 750 harmful to human health, and 440 that are harmful to the environment
- Only 1% of textiles are made out of old fabrics
- 35% of new microplastic in the ocean comes from textile production
Inhumane Working Conditions For Garment Workers
In order to compensate for the incredibly low-cost products produced by the fast fashion industry, the industry employs garment workers at extremely low wages, with inadequate working conditions. Often, these employees are located in “countries in which workers’ rights are limited or non-existent. In fact, production sites are regularly moving location, on the lookout for ever cheaper labour costs.”
Although brands may advertise that they pay their workers “at least the minimum legal wage”, studies have shown that “the minimum wage [in most of the manufacturing countries (China, Bangladesh, India, etc.)] represents between half to a fifth of the living wage.” A living wage refers to the minimum wage a family requires to fulfill its basic needs including food, housing, healthcare, education, etc.
Child labour is another one of the many problems with the workforce in the fast fashion industry, with “160 million children in the world [that] are forced to work.” Furthermore, garment workers are often “forced to work 14-16 hours a day, 7 days a week” due to the inability to refuse overtime over fear of being fired or not being able to provide for their families. If all of this wasn’t enough, health and safety guarantees for garment workers are almost non-existent, with “employees usually work[ing] with no ventilation, breathing in toxic substances, inhaling fiber dust, or blasted sand in unsafe buildings.”
The next time you support the fast fashion industry by purchasing one of its products, perhaps you might take a second to rethink your decision now that you know the story behind how that garment was produced.
The term conscious consumption can be loosely defined as “making thoughtful decisions to purchase high-quality clothing that will last.” A useful way of implementing conscious consumption while shopping is using clothing labels to determine the quality and sustainability of different clothing pieces. It is likely that one will go their entire lives without giving the small fabric labels on the inside of their clothes more than a second of their attention. Interesting enough, these labels can actually hold very useful information.
Different fibers and fabrics have different impacts on the environment, and produce products of different qualities. In terms of long-lasting fabric, silk wins gold with wool in second place. In terms of sustainable fashion, hemp and jute fabrics are produced from regenerative crops. It is also advised to shop local, including the resources that are being used. For example, if you live in a region that produces primarily wool and cotton, purchasing 100% wool or 100% cotton products that can be traced back to local farms is recommended. There are also initiatives that are supporting eco-friendly fabrics that focus on low-impact production processes and biodegradable products. An example of this is Eco Vero, a variant of a fiber named viscose that is traditionally quite environmentally harmful.
Another aspect of conscious consumption is to shop local. Shopping locally is undoubtedly beneficial for local businesses, but it is significantly more environmentally friendly as well. Often, one can identify the core values of a brand when they make the effort to trace exactly where its clothes are coming from and are transparent about their practices.
A final thing to be aware of is the concept of recycled clothing. Recycled clothing can be deceptive, especially to the general public with minimal knowledge on the topic. “Recycled is one of the most common buzzwords used to greenwash fast fashion; recycled polyester, in particular, can be problematic.” When it comes to clothing, some reliable ways of recycling are using “vintage garments, deadstock fabrics, and other already-circulating materials.” For example, upcycling old garments into napkins for your home.
We hope this article has taught you at least one valuable fact about fast fashion that you will keep in mind going forward, and thank you for tuning in! We look forward to seeing you back here for our next article.
Charpail, M. (2017). What’s wrong with the fast fashion industry? SustainYourStyle. Retrieved from https://www.sustainyourstyle.org/en/whats-wrong-with-the-fashion-industry
Greenpeace [@greenpeace]. (2022, April 13). 7 Facts the Fast-Fashion Industry Doesn’t Want To Let You Know [Instagram Video]. Retrieved from https://www.instagram.com/reel/CcPr00FOq3T/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link
Vujic, K. (2022, April 1). An Exhaustive Guide to Sustainable Shopping. The Cut. Retrieved from