The Real Cost Of Fast Fashion


Fast fashion is consumerism at its worst—clothing made fast, using cheap materials, and with little consideration to employees or the environment. This results in tremendous overconsumption and waste. 

Let’s take a deep dive into what fast fashion is doing to our planets, our people, and our wallets. And be sure to read all about the Worst Offending Fast Fashion Brands

Fast Fashion Breakdown

There are many problems with fast fashion—not just the low-quality clothes. I'm discussing the fast fashion industry's negative environmental impact, exploitative labor practices, and shady marketing strategies. 

Let’s dive into the main issues surrounding what goes into our society’s demand for quick, cheap, on-trend clothing.

1. Sustainability Issues

The fast-fashion industry is unsustainable, period. Here’s why:

Water Waste

Fast fashion loves to deplete natural resources, and this can be seen in its water consumption. The typical textile processing requires around 100-150 liters of water per kilogram of fiber, and if we focus on a single garment, it takes about 2,700 liters of water to make a plain cotton t-shirt. That's enough drinking water for one person for almost three years!

There are fibers that are made in closed-loop systems, but of course, this doesn't exist in fast fashion. Rather, almost all manufacturers use an open-loop system to make garments and process fibers, which pollutes the hundreds of liters of water I mentioned above and pollutes land with toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde, alkylphenols, and heavy metals.

High Energy Use

When it comes to energy, things don't change much. It's no surprise that the fast fashion industry makes up 5% of total global greenhouse gas emissions, according to a World Economic Forum analysis from 2021.

In fact, energy use by this industry is so high that the Textile Exchange estimated in their Global Market Report On Sustainable Textiles of 2010 that around one trillion kilowatt-hours are used annually to manufacture textiles.

This is one of fast fashion's biggest flaws, and it will (most likely) never be able to fix itself. It's just a really, REALLY thirsty and energy-hungry industry that doesn't seem to care at all about the fact that water is a sacred resource and that energy waste heavily pollutes our environment. If upsetting the ecological balance was a competition, fast fashion would win by a landslide.

Sheer Volume of Garments

Who are the worst fast fashion brands on the maker today? Plus how can you avoid them?Pin

The fast fashion industry produces garments at a breakneck speed in order to give the consumers what they want right away. This creates a massive waste in textiles. As much as 87% of materials used in factories end up in landfills. 

Not only is there incredible waste on the production end, but what happens to all that unsold clothing? The quantity of unsold clothing is so large that it has even been used as fuel in a Swedish power plant! According to Green America, over three million tons of clothing are incinerated, and a staggering 10 million tons get sent to landfills.

2. Ethical Issues

This industry is not only harmful to the environment, but it’s also extremely exploitative. The rapid cycle of fast fashion relies on an unlimited supply of cheap labour in countries where workers are treated poorly and paid very little for long hours or dangerous conditions, and if brands don't care about this, we as consumers should care and condemn such atrocities.

Low Paid Workers

After all, how much can you pay a hard-working person to manufacture a garment that has a final cost of only 5 bucks? Taking into account that not only their labor needs to be paid, but also a whole production chain such as materials, shipping fees, taxes, factory rent, salespeople, marketing, etc. The answer is 3 cents per hour.

It's no secret that fast fashion brands are notorious for producing low-quality clothing at a fast pace by undercutting prices on quality materials and using cheap labor in countries with lax regulations such as China and India, but… 3 cents per hour? That's modern slavery.

Compromised Workers Hours + Conditions

I know all of this is already shocking, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. The worst part of all this is that these workers can even work up to 100+ hours a week in sweatshops with precarious conditions. How precarious? Well, as precarious as the conditions of the sweatshop in Bangladesh that collapsed in 2013 on top of its workers, leaving more than 1,134 people dead. The building didn't comply with basic safety measures, and despite thousands of workers previously reporting the poor conditions of their workstations, nobody ever did a thing about it.

Serious Health Risks

But it doesn't stop here. There’s another factor that puts the lives of millions of factory workers at risk: chemicals and toxic dyes.

Oh, fast fashion chemicals and toxic dyes… you would think that these are just rumors to scare people away from fast fashion garments, but no, they're very real.

The continuous exposure of sweatshop workers to chemicals and synthetic dyes can cause chronic, life-threatening illnesses such as lung disease, reproductive risks, and even cancer. As you can see, the ethics of fast fashion companies are virtually nonexistent.

3. Environmental Issues

Who doesn't like to get fashionable clothes at the lowest cost possible? We feel good when we get clothes that don't hurt our pocketbooks, but the reality is that by doing so, we are hurting something much more important: our Mother Earth.

Synthetic Materials

Cheap synthetic fibers are not only harmful to the environment because they perpetuate the fashion industry's dependence on fossil fuel extraction, a highly polluting process, but they also end up being discarded on a massive scale soon after they are purchased.

In the textile industry, garment recycling is minimal. In Canada, the recycling company Envirotex estimates that 85% of the clothing that could be recycled ends up in our country's landfills, constantly polluting the environment.

Polyester, the most commonly used fiber in clothing, is essentially a plastic and will never fully decompose, but will break down into microplastics for years to come, harming people and wildlife and emitting large quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere. The average Canadian throws away 37 kilograms of textiles annually that end up lying eternally in landfills, so I think it's time for a change.

Not-so-fun fact: Did you know that one in three young women, the largest segment of clothing consumers worldwide, consider once or twice-worn garments to be old? In a world where you can revamp your entire closet for less than $50, this mindset is pretty common. However, just because it's common doesn't mean it's right.

How Can I Combat Fast Fashion?

If fast fashion isn't sustainable or ethical, what can we do? My advice: Stop buying fast fashion and join the slow fashion movement. It's simple!

You don't need a new outfit for every party or event you attend—learn to love your clothes and make them last longer. 

If you want new clothes from a fast fashion brand, it's important to learn how to say no. This means not buying things impulsively because they're cheap or caught up in the fast-moving trends of fast fashion.

It takes time to become aware of fast fashion trends and how they affect the demand for cheap clothes, but once you realize what goes into fast fashion, it'll be easier to avoid fast-fashion stores like H&M and Forever 21. You'll save money in the long run AND reduce textile waste. 

Here are a few more ways that fast fashion can be combated:

  • Look out for sustainable and ethical brands, a.k.a slow fashion brands. Patagonia will always be a safe bet if you're looking for ethical sportswear, but there are other amazing brands out there such as tentree, The Good Tee, and PACT Designs.
  • Try donating or selling your clothing that no longer fits your style or needs. If you're not planning on wearing something again, consider donating it to someone who can use the clothes more than you do.
  • There are great fast fashion alternatives like thrift shopping and vintage clothing shops. These stores are fantastic ways of finding unique pieces that fast fashion brands don't offer.

More Fast Fashion Eco-Tips

  • Aim to buy timeless or minimalist clothes. Search for colour schemes that you can wear for a long time, and that can last you over the years and can become a part of your minimalist wardrobe.
  • Evaluate quality vs. price. If the price is very cheap, but the quality is questionable, think twice before buying it because you will be only making an expense and not an investment.
  • Demand transparency from fast fashion brands. Write emails asking them if their supply chain is ethical or if they have eco-friendly practices, and if they don't reply, it never hurts to send them a Tweet or a DM via Instagram.

Fast fashion can be the monster in our closet, but a more eco-conscious future is just one garment away—all we need to do is change one habit at a time. 


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