Fast fashion: at what cost?

Fast fashion: at what cost?

February 17, 2020

Until last year I was a self-diagnosed shopaholic, obsessed with buying into the ever-changing trends, yet constantly feeling like I had nothing to wear whilst staring at a wardrobe that was ready to burst! After watching Fashion’s Dirty Secrets, a documentary which explores the real effect that the fashion industry is having on the planet, I was appalled and eager to learn more about how my lifestyle is impacting the planet. This led me to enroll on the Birmingham UpRising Environmental Leadership Programme 2019/2020. Joining the UpRising Environmental Leadership Programme has broadened my knowledge and provided me with a community of likeminded individuals who are passionate about environmental issues. For my groups Social Action Campaign, we are focusing on local businesses water usage and aim to educate them by provide a toolkit on how to lower their water consumption. My understanding of water scarcity began with my initial interest in the fast fashion industry but since joining UpRising I have become more aware of how the issue relates to every aspect of our lives; from direct use in households, to the indirect use in food and clothing production.

Below I’ve highlighted some of the shocking environmental and social issues attached to the fashion industry and top tips on how we can all make positive changes to our shopping habits.

Fast fashion is a leading cause of environmental destruction, due to its resource intensive nature. The mass production of cotton is drying up water supplies such as rivers and lakes, impacting environments and communities downstream. 2720 litres of water are used to create one t-shirt, which is equivalent to one person’s drinking consumption over a three-year period.

Later in the manufacturing process, factories often pollute water resources with dyes to cut corners regarding waste disposal, with the industry responsible for 20% of freshwater pollution.

Fashion’s carbon footprint outweighs that of the aviation industry, with the emissions from the UKs monthly clothing sales equating to flying around the earth more than 900 times*jaw drop*



The single use and disposable Western mindset has led to a disregard for our existing wardrobes, stemming from the pressure to not be seen wearing the same outfit more than once and the short-lived dopamine hit we receive from shopping.

As a result, the UK alone sends 300,000 tonnes of clothes to landfill each year - with only 1% of clothing being recycled.

We are a generation of shopaholics! Globally, we buy 80 billion new clothing items every year. Though it is not just citizens that are guilty of the disposable mindset, many online retailers send customer returns straight to landfill, as it is easier than restocking items and can be marked as a loss for tax purposes – justifiable right?!



As well as driving climate change, fast fashion fuels social injustice. It is no coincidence that Western retailers choose suppliers in developing countries, as cheap labour results in high profits and low consumer prices. The textile industry employs 75 million people, and 80% of this workforce are women. Unsafe working conditions in textile factories have dominated media coverage, highlighting overcrowded work spaces, lack of ventilation and poor sanitation facilities. Cambodia is considered an ‘ethical producer’ in comparison to its Asian competitors due to minimum wage laws, although it is far below a suitable living wage. Despite its ethical reputation, Cambodia echoes the rest of Asia’s garment factories where sexual violence and harassment is the norm. Victim blaming for sexual harassment and violence is common as managerial and supervisory roles are dominated by men.

Garment workers are forced to work overtime and are commonly employed on temporary contracts, often lasting less than a year causing job insecurity. Employment contracts are renewed at management discretion, often leaving gaps in worker’s employment history. This enables bosses to deny basic labour rights such as sick pay and maternity pay which are conditional to continuous employment. Trade union membership is slowly increasing but is actively discouraged by employers. It has even been reported that men are not hired as garment workers due to their higher likelihood than women to take industrial action for labour rights. Unsurprisingly, retailers have a larger impact than trade unions when it comes to upholding the ILO’s labour standards, clarifying that manufacturers are purely driven by profit.



In 2013, the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh killed 1,138 people. Issues remain despite recent progress within the textile industry, illustrated by the recent garment factory fire in Delhi, November 2019, which killed 43 people. The majority of the victims from both disasters were young female garment workers. Workers throughout the supply chain and the environment are left to bare the ultimate expense for retailer’s profits and low prices for Western customers. But it doesn’t need to be this way…

Despite the problems stated above, fashion is a form of expression making up a big part of our identity, it should be celebrated, valued and well loved! The desire to shop isn’t going anywhere, so try prioritising pre-existing clothes. This year I am challenging myself to resist fast fashion, by banning ‘new’ clothes for the first 4 months of 2020, but allowing myself to buy pre-owned items if I will know they will be re-worn time and time again. It’s inevitable that I will need ‘new’ clothes at some point but I’m aiming to limit this to just 5 purchases in 2020.

Top tips on slowing down shopaholics:

  • Resist temptation by unsubscribing from retailer’s emails, unfollow shops and fashion influences on social media – this is a game changer!!!

  • Borrow items from family, friends, partners where possible

  • Sites like Depop, eBay, Vinted, ThredUp and Vestiaire Collective are fab to find exact items that you have spotted in store (often brand new or in perfect condition and for a fraction of the original price)

  • The 30-wear rule – will you wear the item at least 30 times? If not don’t buy it!

  • For one-off occasion wear try rental companies Hurr, Frontrow and By Rotation

  • Reduce the amount you consume, reuse what you already have, and recycle by donating to charities or rag schemes


A few of my favourite resources on fast fashion:


Written by Sophie O'Connell 

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