Fast fashion bad
FASHION & STYLE

Why is Fast Fashion Bad? Everything You Need to Know

Let’s paint a picture – you’re invited to a party last minute and need an outfit, stat. You throw open your wardrobe and rifle through, only to find that you have nothing to wear! So you hit the internet and head straight to the fast fashion sites.

It’s a completely understandable chain of events, one we’re all guilty of doing from time to time. But if you’re reading this article, then you might be ready to break the cycle. In fact, you’ve already taken the first step.

In this post, I’ll lay out what fast fashion is, how it harms the environment, why it’s unethical, and where to find alternatives. This will help you make more informed decisions when it comes to shopping.

What is fast fashion? 

First things first: what is fast fashion? Simply put, fast fashion is clothing that is made quickly and cheaply so the consumer (you) can buy super trendy items at a fraction of the cost. But while this model of design might not cost you the earth, it does cost the earth itself, as well as the people on it. 

Fast fashion has been increasing in popularity over the past few years. While these kinds of brands are often trendy, it’s important to remember that compassion for people and planet never goes out of style. 

How does fast fashion harm the environment? 

One of the biggest challenges with fast fashion is its impact on the environment. From the fabric through to the production, there can be negative consequences at every stage. 

Fabric 

Fast fashion often comprises fabrics that are unsustainably sourced. Whether it’s cotton or synthetics, you sacrifice not only sustainability of the garment, but also sustainability of the earth, when you buy cheap. 

Conventional cotton for instance, is sometimes called the ‘world’s dirtiest crop.’ Non-organic cotton uses harsh pesticides and insecticides that have serious consequences for the soil.

In order to protect the waterways around the fields where this kind of cotton is grown, farmers have to use lots of water to dilute the chemicals. In fact, the Soil Association notes that more than 20% of the water used for conventional cotton is literally flushed away like this. Considering that most countries that produce cotton are experiencing water shortages, this is clearly not a sustainable model of production.

Top tip: shop organic cotton if you love breathable, natural fibres but want to save the earth! Lots of companies are now using organic cotton. Putting your money towards these products supports the financial viability of more sustainable models. Vote with your wallet! 

Synthetic materials are also a significant challenge for the environment. One equation I find helpful to remember is this: polyester = plastic = oil. So if you think about the problems with oil (oil spills, pollution, destruction of the natural world, etc), you’ll know the problems with polyester.

And like with other plastic products, microplastic found in synthetic clothing is polluting our planet. One study found that just one cycle of washing could release more than half a million tiny synthetic particles into the environment. 

Top tip: get a Guppyfriend washing bag! These great bags trap synthetic microfibres, preventing them from going in to your washing machine wastewater. This, in turn, protects the rivers and streams where treated water returns to. It’s a simple way to do your little part to protect nature.

Dyes

You have the fabric, now you need to make it look colourful. But, as reported in The Independent, ‘Textile dyeing is the second largest polluter of clean water globally.’

And leather tanning is similarly concerning. Around the world, 90% of leather is tanned using a solution that includes chrome. Chrome is a highly toxic chemical that can have serious consequences for the health of the soil and the communities on it.

Top tip: buy vegetable-tanned leather. Vegetable tanning uses naturally derived materials, which are much gentler than traditional chemicals. This makes it better for the environment and the people working in tanneries.

Overproduction

It’s not just how fast fashion is made that puts a strain on the environment. The sheer volume of how much is made also impacts the earth. 

Wrap estimates that  £140m worth of clothes goes into landfills annually. That’s the equivalent of giving every single person in the UK £2. Every. Year. There have also been stories of fashion companies burning excess stock because they don’t sell at high enough prices. 

Between filling landfills and putting more pollution into the air through burning, it’s easy to see that fashion production quickly becomes too much of a good thing.

Why is fast fashion unethical? 

The environmental impacts of fast fashion aren’t the only thing that makes this model of production challenging. To cut costs, producers sometimes cut corners on the conditions for workers, too. 

Lack of transparency 

Fashion Revolution says it best in its Fashion Transparency Index 2020: ‘lack of transparency costs lives.’ Only by knowing the details of every stage of production can a company be confident that there is respect for human rights throughout the supply chain. This, in turn, allows consumers (like you!) to make informed decisions. Unfortunately, no brand (fast or traditional) scored over 80% on Fashion Revolution’s 2020 Index.

Encouraging transparency is important to improve accountability, and in turn building a better world for workers everywhere. 

Dangerous working conditions 

One of the problems with a lack of transparency is that workers’ conditions can’t be guaranteed. Most people interested in fashion ethics will have heard of the Rana Plaza disaster, the devastating 2013 factory collapse that killed more than 1,000 people and injured more than 2,500. The International Labour Organization reports that over 100 accidents have occurred since Rana Plaza. Dangerous working conditions – whether in terms of the risk of disaster or everyday danger – mean fast fashion could be putting workers health, or even lives, in jeopardy. 

Check this out: In August 2020, the International Labour Organisation Convention No.182 became ratified by all 187 ILO member states. This means every child, everywhere, now has legal protection from the worst forms of child labour. 

Low wages 

An easy way to keep down the cost of production is to keep down wages. Good wages mean a living wage, which – according to the Clean Clothes Campaign – is usually 2 to 5 times higher than minimum or industry standard salaries. Unfortunately, 19 out of 20 brands assessed by the Campaign showed no evidence of a living wage being paid to any worker. This can be the case for both traditional and fast fashion brands.

But without a living wage, people working in the garment industry lack fair compensation for their work. Most importantly, they might not be able to realise the full, happy, and healthy life they deserve.

An issue of gender equality 

Labour Behind the Label reports that 80% – or 4 out of 5 – garment workers are women. Poor conditions in the garment industry therefore disproportionately impact women. There have been reports of sexual harassment and violence against women in the workplace and some factory owners and managers will fire pregnant workers.

Yet, women are often consumers of the very same fashion that is driving these poor conditions. Standing meaningfully in solidarity with women around the world means supporting these women, ensuring they factor into your fashion choices. 

Myth of democratisation

You may have heard that fast fashion is part of the ‘democrastisation’ of style – that is, making trends available to everyone, regardless of their budget. However, this isn’t really a fair thing to say. Fast fashion means some communities can access more up-to-date fashion, but at what cost?

High-end designers are of course out of reach for most of us, and so the lower price tags of fast fashion do mean more people can be more en vogue. But for the people behind the product, the process of creating fast fashion can be anything but democratic. Challenging work conditions, low pay, precarious contracts, and little say in the world of work all mean that fast fashion and democracy don’t go hand in hand..  

Alternatives to fast fashion

Now that you have the important information about how fast fashion can be unsustainable and unethical, you’re better able to make informed choices. That doesn’t mean boycotting your favourite brands, as this can actually harm the workers in the supply chain.

Instead, here are a few quick ideas for how to put this newfound knowledge into action:

  • Make more informed choices. Look into the policies and supply chains of brands you love and shop accordingly. Apps like Good on You and subscription services like Ethical Consumer help make this research a breeze. (I often whip out my phone when I’m in a shop to check the ethics of a brand!)
  • Buy more sustainable fabrics. Lots of shops now offer organic cotton or recycled fabrics. These are great, small steps you can take to help reduce your carbon footprint. 
  • Ask for action. Use your voice to call for better working conditions. Support petitions, open letters, and social media campaigns, or even just write to your favourite brands yourself. Consumer pressure matters. 
  • Support brands making better choices. Even if it’s a small step the company is making, it’s important that we as consumers show that this incentivises us to buy from them. Sales = proof that sustainable and ethical practices are profitable. 
  • Treat fast fashion like plastic straws. Sometimes, you’re desperate and it’s all you can find. But ultimately, you know you should use the sustainable alternative. Importantly, it’s a bit taboo and you don’t want to tell your friends! This helps change your habit in the long-term.
  • Talk to your friends and family. As always, it’s not about being preachy or insisting that they change their ways. But if you’re asked where your new top is from and you’ve made your purchase using one or more of these tips, let them know! Sharing is caring, and we’re all in this together. 

Top tip: do your best, not the best. It’s okay to slip up and buy something here or there from a fast fashion retailer. It’s a habit that’s hard to break, and you’re making a start just by reading this post!

What next? 

Sustainable and ethical fashion can be really expensive. And, though styles have come a long way in recent years, there still isn’t always the same level of trendiness adopted by these businesses. So the appeal of fast fashion is easy to see. 

Old habits die hard, so don’t beat yourself up about falling back on buying cheap. But the more you’re thinking about your choices, the better they’ll be. 

Secondhand shops, rented clothes, and clothing swaps are all great ways to update your outfits while keeping ethical, sustainable, and stylish.