Fast Fashion: The Costly Price of Cheap


Published: Tuesday, 16 May 2023

Published: Tuesday, 16 May 2023

Fashion has long been a cultural touchstone. However, as a mass commodity, it has primarily been only accessible to wealthy consumers for much of the last 150 years. Until about 25 years ago, long-staple cotton was standard in clothing textile production. People wanted it for its durability and ability to produce high-quality, long-lasting clothes, but it came with a relatively high price tag. This meant the average consumer would only buy a few items that would last several seasons.


Fast fashion has revolutionized the fashion industry, supplying affordable clothing at an unprecedented rate. Its reliance on short-staple cotton meant that clothes could be produced much cheaper, and the average consumer could buy clothes in greater quantities every season. Combined with slick marketing, and fear of missing out, the past 25 years have led to an explosion within the fashion industry, turning from something accessible to a few into a need for the many.


However, the impact of this fast fashion boom on the environment, the people who make the clothes, and the communities that are part of the supply chain is significant and far-reaching. Understanding the specific effects has led to innovation and more clearly defined solutions that may help slow or even reverse the global impact.


Impact on Communities


The fast fashion industry has had significant social impacts on communities worldwide, particularly in developing nations. Companies often take advantage of lax labour laws or influence government policy. Meanwhile, workers throughout the supply chain often earn low wages and work in unsafe and exploitative conditions. This can include being forced to work long hours with little job security. Additionally, the use of harmful chemicals in textile production can have negative health effects on workers.


One tragic example of the negative impact of fast fashion on communities is the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh in 2013, which resulted in the deaths of over 1,100 people. This event highlighted the unsafe working conditions and low wages that are prevalent throughout the industry.


Indigenous communities are also often exploited by the fashion industry, especially in producing traditional textiles, handicrafts, or unique patterns, but do not provide fair compensation or acknowledge their cultural significance. This exploitation can lead to economic marginalization and the erosion of cultural traditions.


The fashion industry needs to recognize and address these social impacts and take steps towards more ethical and sustainable practices. This includes paying fair wages, ensuring safe working conditions, and respecting Indigenous cultures and handicrafts. By doing so, the industry can help improve the lives and well-being of workers and communities worldwide.


Impact on Local Ecologies



Fast fashion is characterized by the production of enormous quantities of low-cost clothing designed to be quickly consumed and disposed of. This business model has led to a culture of overconsumption and created a production and consumption model, where clothing is produced, consumed, and discarded.


The environmental impact is significant. Clothing production requires vast natural resources, including water, energy, and land. Cotton, one of the most used fibers, is an extremely resource-intensive crop that depends upon massive quantities of water, pesticides, and synthetic fertilizers to grow.  This leads to negative downstream impacts on soil health, water quality, and biodiversity and affects workers and local communities.


The manufacturing process for clothing also has significant environmental impacts. The use of bleaches, dyes, and softeners in the production of textiles further adds to the pollution making its way into the watershed and into soils used for agricultural production, as well as the local flora and fauna.


The ever-increasing amount of clothing being produced is also leading to post-consumer waste. The disposal of clothing has become a significant environmental problem and is shouldered primarily by developing nations in South America and Asia. Most of this clothing ends up in landfills, where it can take decades or even centuries to decompose. The decomposition of textiles also releases harmful chemicals into the environment, including greenhouse gases like methane.


Global Impact


The demands on the industry have led to a race to the bottom as brands try to maximize profits and reduce the costs of production. Brands are constantly under pressure to produce garments at the lowest possible cost. This race to the bottom is a primary contributor to worker exploitation, low wages, poor working conditions, and a lack of job security for workers in the fashion industry.


Additionally, fast fashion relies on a vast global trade network, with garments produced in developing nations and sold to Western consumers who must be made aware of the industry's impact. This disconnect between production and consumption makes it easier for consumers to overlook the negative impacts of fast fashion and lessens the pressure for brands to change.


The negative impact of this industry and its global scope should not be overlooked, underestimated, or ignored.




There are several solutions for the impact of fast fashion on communities and the environment. These include:


Recycling and Upcycling



Recycling and upcycling are important ways to address clothing waste in the fashion industry. Most clothing waste is currently disposed of in landfills, where it can take hundreds of years to decompose. Recycling involves breaking down materials like fabric and turning them into new products. This can be done through mechanical recycling, where the fabric is shredded into small pieces, and then these pieces are processed into new fibers or yarns. Chemical recycling is another method which involves breaking down the fabric using chemicals to produce new fibers or raw materials.


Meanwhile, upcycling involves taking existing clothing and transforming it into something new and useful. This can include adding embellishments or making alterations to the garment to give it a fresh style or function. Upcycling can also involve using fabric from old clothing to create entirely new pieces, such as patchwork or appliqué.


Both recycling and upcycling have the potential to significantly reduce the amount of waste generated by the fashion industry. By extending the life cycle of clothing and reducing the need for new materials, these practices can also help to reduce the environmental impact of the fashion industry. Recycling and upcycling can also promote creativity and innovation in fashion design, encouraging designers to find new and innovative ways to repurpose materials and create sustainable fashion.


Organic and Fairtrade Cotton


Conventional cotton is a highly resource-intensive crop relying heavily on pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. These chemicals not only have negative environmental impacts but can also be harmful to the health of workers who come into contact with them. Organic cotton is grown without the use of harmful chemicals, making it a more sustainable and environmentally friendly alternative to conventional cotton.


Fairtrade cotton, on the other hand, ensures that cotton farmers are paid fair wages and work in safe conditions. This is especially important in countries where labor laws and regulations are lax, and workers may be subjected to unfair treatment or dangerous working conditions. Fairtrade certification also helps to support sustainable farming practices, which benefit not only the farmers but also the local communities and the environment.


Sustainable Farming Techniques



Sustainable farming techniques, such as crop rotation and intercropping, can help reduce the negative impact of conventional farming practices on local ecologies. These techniques aim to reduce the use of harmful chemicals and synthetic fertilizers, and instead rely on natural resources and organic matter to improve soil health and crop yields.


Crop rotation is a sustainable farming technique that involves growing different crops in the same field over a period of time. This helps to prevent the depletion of soil nutrients and the build-up of pests and diseases that can affect crop yields. Intercropping is another technique that involves planting different crops in the same field at the same time. This can help to reduce soil erosion and improve soil fertility by creating a diverse ecosystem.


Sustainable farming techniques also involve using natural fertilizers, such as compost and animal manure, instead of synthetic fertilizers that can have negative environmental impacts. Cover cropping is another technique that involves planting crops that are specifically grown to improve soil health and fertility, rather than for consumption.


In addition to their effect on soil and biodiversity, sustainable farming techniques can also help to conserve water and reduce water pollution. For example, rainwater harvesting and drip irrigation systems can help to reduce water use, while buffer zones and natural vegetation can help to reduce water pollution by filtering out pollutants.


Overall, sustainable farming techniques offer a more environmentally friendly approach to farming. By reducing the use of harmful chemicals and synthetic fertilizers, these techniques can help to protect local ecologies and promote a healthier, more sustainable agriculture industry.




Often overlooked to affect change, transparency in production and the supply chain can be crucial to ensuring sustainable and ethical practices in the fashion industry. With greater transparency, consumers can make informed choices about the products they buy and the impact their purchases have on the environment and society.


One way to increase transparency is through certification and labeling schemes. Organizations like Fair Trade Certified, Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), and the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) have developed certification programs that set standards for sustainable and ethical production. Products that meet these standards are labeled accordingly, making it easier for consumers to find and support brands that commit to better practices.


Brands can also increase transparency by publishing information about their supply chains, including where their materials are sourced, the working conditions of their workers, and their environmental impact. This can be done through sustainability reports or by joining initiatives like the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, which supplies a framework for measuring and improving sustainability across the apparel and footwear industries.


Additionally, consumers can play a role in promoting transparency by demanding more information from brands and supporting those that prioritize sustainability and ethics. By asking brands about their practices and choosing products that are certified or labeled as sustainable and ethical, consumers can drive change in the industry and encourage more brands to adopt transparent and responsible practices.


Alternative Plant-based Materials



In recent years, there has been a growing interest in plant-based alternatives to cotton in the fashion industry, driven by concerns over the environmental impact of conventional cotton production. This has led to the development of a range of plant-based alternatives that are more sustainable and environmentally friendly.


One of the most promising plant-based alternatives to cotton is hemp. Hemp is a highly sustainable crop that requires less water and fewer pesticides than cotton. It is also naturally resistant to pests, meaning that it does not require the use of harmful chemicals. Additionally, hemp has a shorter growth cycle than cotton, which means it can be harvested more often and requires less land.


Another alternative is linen, which is made from flax plants. Like hemp, flax is a highly sustainable crop that requires fewer resources than cotton. Flax is also naturally resistant to pests, reducing the need for pesticides. Linen is known for being a durable fabric, which has excellent breathability, and an ability to keep the wearer cool in hot weather.


Tencel has gained popularity in recent years. Made from sustainably sourced wood pulp it has a low environmental impact. The production process involves a closed-loop system that recycles almost all the solvents used, making it highly sustainable. Tencel is also known for its softness, strength, and ability to absorb moisture.


Bamboo is another source that has been gaining popularity in the past two decades. It is highly sustainable, grows quickly, and requires fewer resources than cotton. It is also naturally resistant to pests, reducing the need for pesticides. However, there are concerns about the environmental impact of bamboo production, as some methods involve the use of chemicals in the processing of the fibers.


In addition, there is also a range of other plant-based materials that can be used in clothing production. For example, pineapple leaves can be used to make a material called Piñatex, which has a texture similar to leather, and mushrooms can be used to produce mycelium leather.


Overall, plant-based alternatives to cotton are becoming an increasingly popular choice in the fashion industry due to their sustainability and environmental benefits. While these materials may be more expensive than conventional cotton, their benefits in terms of reduced environmental impact and improved sustainability make them a valuable investment overall.


Change is Possible


The fast fashion industry has had a devastating impact on the environment, human health, and workers' rights. However, there is hope for a more sustainable, ecologically friendly, and ethical industry. Consumers can have influence by choosing to support companies that prioritize sustainability and ethical practices. By demanding transparency and accountability from fashion brands, consumers can push the industry to adopt more responsible practices.


It is essential to acknowledge that the fashion industry's problems are systemic and will not be solved overnight. However, by taking small steps such as choosing to buy clothes made from sustainable materials, supporting ethical brands, and recycling or upcycling clothing, we can all contribute to a more sustainable future.


In addition to consumer choice, it is important for policymakers, manufacturers, and retailers to act. Governments can regulate industry and create incentives for sustainable and ethical practices. Manufacturers can invest in research and development of sustainable materials and production techniques. Retailers can prioritize transparency and work to educate consumers on the importance of sustainability and ethical practices.


Overall, creating a more sustainable, ecologically friendly, and ethical fashion industry requires a collective effort from all stakeholders. It is time for us to take responsibility for our actions and demand change from the fashion industry. Together, we can create a more responsible and sustainable future for the fashion industry and the planet.

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