The Cruel Reality Behind Fast Fashion

5 min read
HomeBlogThe Cruel Reality Behind Fast Fashion
“Fast Fashion” is a contemporary term used by fashion retailers to describe designs that transition quickly from the catwalk into physical or online stores. The goal is to capture current trends as quickly as possible by producing items that are both cost-efficient and responsive to fast-shifting consumer demands.
But according to Professor Dilys Williams FRSA, Director of Centre for Sustainable Fashion -
“There’s no such thing as fast fashion, just increasingly accelerated consumption.”
From the perspective of retailers, fast fashion is beneficial because it encourages consumers to make frequent visits to stores. Collections are often based on designs seen at the spring and autumn fashion weeks, but they can move even faster than that. In fact, it’s not uncommon to see retailers introduce new products multiple times in a single week to stay on-trend.
The goal is no longer to replenish items when they sell out, instead retailers swap them out for entirely new items.
From an environmental perspective, fast fashion is creating a bleak scenario. Consumers expect instant access to the clothes of their choice, colour, style and price, and this encourages a “throw away” attitude. In turn, this leads to consumers never feeling satisfied and a staggering amount of environmental waste. The tide of second-hand clothing is growing, and the markets in which we reuse them are disappearing.

Environmental impact

Denim pollution in Xintang, China, Image Credit: chinadialogue
The largely unregulated churn and burn of fast fashion is putting huge pressure on the environment. Already, the textile industry accounts for more greenhouse gas emissions than all international flights and maritime shipping combined, at a staggering 1.2 billion tonnes annually. In the U.S. alone, 13 trillion tons of clothing is sent to landfills, where they sit for 200 years leaving toxic chemicals and dyes to contaminate local soil and groundwater.
In the opening scene of the 2017 documentary RiverBlue: Can Fashion Save the Planet, deep magenta wastewater spills into a river in China. Fashion designer and activist, Orsola de Castro, speaks to the spill, citing - “There’s a joke in China that you can tell the ‘it’ colour of the season by looking at the colour of the rivers.” 70% of Chinese rivers and lakes are contaminated by the 2.5 billion gallons of wastewater produced by the textile industry. You can watch the trailer below.

Environmental reality

If the fast fashion industry keeps growing as it has been, by the year 2030 CO2 emissions are estimated to be nearly 2.8 billion tons per year. That’s a 60% increase on current emissions. Water shortages, such as those already seen in mass fashion-producing countries like China and India, are expected to go up by 50%. The industry’s carbon footprint could be 2,791 million tonnes, and industry waste may hit 148 million tonnes. These predictions are in spite of significant progress being made by brands and retailers to minimise their impact.

Ethical impact

Fast fashion traps a generation of young women into poverty. 80% of the 75 million people that make today’s clothing are women aged 18-24 years old. These women work long days and yet it takes 18 months to earn what a fashion brand CEO makes on their lunch break. Ironically, most of the women who make hundreds, if not thousands, of cheap fashion items every year, can’t afford to buy even one of them.
As a guide, an NBA jersey that sells for $140 or more in stores will earn the average worker around 24 cents.
With fast fashion, it’s even worse. Fast fashion clothing requires cheap labour, often in the form of 14-year-olds working 14-hour days in sweatshops. Along with poor wages, these girls are often forced to deal with sexual harassment.

Ethical reality

To simply say “no more fast fashion” would mean the redundancy of millions of people, including those in the supply chain. H&M alone employs more than 100,000 people worldwide, and to stop making clothes would mean job losses on a huge scale.
But would you shop less and pay more? The price increase to the average consumer if sweatshop salaries were doubled is just a mere 1.8%. And studies show that consumers are willing to pay 15% more to know a product didn’t come from a sweatshop.
And do you really need an entire new wardrobe every time a new season rolls around? Do you really need four pairs of jeans when just one pair takes 10,000 litres of water to produce?
Next time you want fast fashion, consider what’s at stake. Do some research and buy from retailers that are part of the ethical movement.

Take a stand against fast fashion

Many people foolishly believe that one person can’t make a difference but disrupting the status quo really does give you the power to change things. Australians are the world’s second largest consumers of textiles, buying an average 27 kilograms of new clothing and other textiles every year. Start buying better and you could send the message to the industry that you don’t want what they are offering.
Who knows, if enough people turn their backs on fast fashion, fashion brands might take notice and begin to lower their environmental and ethical impact. Your actions can make a difference.
Check out sites like Ethical Clothing Australia and free apps like Good On You, which provide information on the environmental and ethical impacts of retailers’ and designers’ production methods.
Shop locally and reduce the air-miles and therefore your eco-footprint. Choose local designers who know exactly where their fabric comes from.
Befriend a tailor and start fixing instead of replacing. If an item is beyond repair, find your nearest company that recycles textiles into industrial rags and other by-products. Remember that fashion is not a perishable item therefore it’s not easily disposable. These are just some of the things you can do to take a stand against fast fashion.
Cruelty Free Superannuation believes that breaking away from what’s generally considered acceptable is the opportunity to live life with compassion and intention. Start by making the switch to Australia’s first vegan-friendly, ethical super fund and commit yourself to put your money where your mouth is.


We love writing about cruelty-free investing and creating a kinder world, but please be aware that the information provided is general in nature, not personal or financial advice. When we discuss companies, it's not a recommendation to buy, hold or sell shares in that company. If we mention returns, please remember that past performance isn't a reliable indicator of future performance. Before acting on any information provided, you should consider if it's appropriate to you.

About the author: Noelle Greenwood

Noelle has been a passionate advocate for human rights since she walked her first 'walk against want' as a 10 year old. Her formative years were spent under her parent's wing in rallies, marches and kazoo-bands. All of this in the fairly conservative region of North Queensland, it's needless to say that activism is in her blood. As she's transitioned into making more conscious consumer choices across different aspects of her life, she's become more and more interested in the plight of creatures who are systematically harmed, exploited and killed for no good reason. Noelle likes to write about human rights, animal rights, climate change, feminism, indigenous issues, LGBTIQ issues, and generally anything that will spark a healthy argument with some of her right-wing acquaintances (the ones that are up for a healthy argument, anyway!).
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