Fast Fashion isn’t free. Someone, somewhere is paying

~Lucy Siegle

Sustainability has become the buzzword in the fashion industry. With brands like Zara – world’s biggest fast fashion brand- setting sustainability targets, it is clearly felt that fashion’s current model of buying, wearing and quickly discarding the clothes needs a complete evolution. And why should not this be the case? After all, the fashion industry causes 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions, producing more emissions than all international flights and shipping combined. 

The Environmental Impact 

A dramatic rise in apparel sales and an ever-increasing demand for clothing- these two phenomena suggest that most of the shoppers either tend to overlook or tolerate the harmful environmental effects of fashion’s current model of conspicuous consumption. This, however, does not undermine the enormous environmental costs that the fast fashion comes with.

Fashion generates environmental hazards in production, use and disposal. In its pursuit of providing cheap clothes to the consumers quickly, the fashion industry is alone responsible for cutting down about 120 million trees in a year (Rainforest Action Network). 

According to National Geographic, it takes 2,700 litres of water to make one cotton shirt! This amount is equivalent to what one person drinks in 2.5 years.

No wonder, our clothing choices stress the resources which are already in limited supply, hence making them scarcely available. Talking about cotton farming a bit further, it is estimated that up to 16% of the world’s pesticides are used in cotton production every year. 

The chemicals degrade soil, pollute rivers and lead to poisoning of cotton pickers (Ellen McArthur Foundation). As far as synthetic garments are concerned, they release about 2,000 plastic microfibers per wash which enter the ocean and the food chain, thus disrupting marine life and negatively affecting the balance in the environment (Browne M.A. et al, 2011). 

More significantly, the trend of discarding garments after wearing them only for a few times has led to one garbage truck full of textiles being burned or sent to landfills every second! Selling more clothes requires more production and therefore, more pressure on the Earth’s limited natural resources.


Rising household incomes, greater consumer spending, falling costs and streamlined operations are bound to expand the demand for clothing. Keeping the facts in mind, it becomes imperative to address the issue of environmental damage caused by fast fashion, or else the results will be catastrophic.

The Social Costs

There is a significant lack of transparency and favourable working conditions in the fashion and textile industry. After the Triangle shirtwaist factory fire in 1911 and 2013 Savar building collapse at Rana Plaza, which claimed the lives of 1138 people, focus has been placed on the labour rights violations globally. 

Apart from the unhealthy and deadly working conditions, workers are often exploited by being paid lower wages. Not only this, fast fashion also affects the communities which live nearby the production sites. Water scarcity, land degradation, marine pollution, etc., are some of the ways in which lives of the common men and women are disrupted. 

Another important aspect of social costs incurred by the fashion industry is the fact that out of 75 million people who are making our clothes today, 80 percent of apparel is made by young women between the ages of 18 and 24 (Source: Remake, a non-profit organisation). This hampers the progress of these women in terms of better access to quality health and education.

80 percent of apparel is made by young women between the ages of 18 and 24

It is noteworthy to mention a major finding – A 2018 U.S. Department of Labor report found evidence of forced and child labor in the fashion industry in Argentina, Bangladesh, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Philippines, Turkey, Vietnam and other countries. Because the cost of human life cannot be measured in monetary terms, it is always put behind the goal of profit maximisation. 

Way Forward, How YOU Can Help

Some companies have achieved tremendous growth in the apparel industry thanks to low cost of operations. Nonetheless, the social and environmental impact of resource-hungry production techniques coupled with excessive consumerism cannot be overlooked. 

Sustainable fashion refers to the movement and process of producing clothes in a more environment-friendly, ethical manner. It also means considering fashion from the perspective of many stakeholders – users, producers, workers, citizens and environment. As suggested by McKinsey & Company, mitigating the sustainability impact of the fast-fashion business will likely require action across the industry. 

While some initiatives have been taken in this direction such as introduction of digital clothes or virtual styling, zero waste fashion and creation of coalitions called Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals and The Better Cotton Initiative in order to make a “greener planet and brighter future”, they are insufficient to combat the climate and social challenges. Steps need to be taken in order to conduct research on improving the sustainability and efficiency of cloth manufacturing. 

Investment should be made in designing garments that can be reused or recycled and developing fibers that can potentially lower the effects of garment making. Governments all across the globe need to establish higher labour and environmental standards for suppliers and set up mechanisms to make supply chains more transparent.

Accountability should be set and those who do not conform, should be punished. For most of the businesses, there exists a fundamental tradeoff between operating a successful business and lowering its carbon footprint. Sustainable solutions may raise the cost but it can serve as a catalyst to improve existing technology and build reputation, ensuring greater profitability. 

Fast fashion has allowed shoppers to not only expand their wardrobe but only ‘update’ it quickly with changing trends. It goes without saying that shoppers have a major role in making the culture of fast fashion strive and thrive. Each one of us can help in reducing the impact by buying fewer clothes, choosing natural fibers and recycling what we discard. 

Time is running out faster than ever. Any further delay on the part of society and its citizens to act can do irreversible damage to our Mother Earth. In the words of Robert Swan – “The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it.”