Why Is Fast Fashion Bad & What Harm Does It Do?

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Fast fashion has become increasingly popular with consumers in recent years, due to one main factor: it's cheap. Who doesn't love low prices right?

However, the cost to the environment, people, and animals is catastrophic.

Today, I'm going to give you the lowdown on the true cost of the fast fashion industry, the damage it causes, and what we can do about it.

I guarantee you'll think twice about where you buy your new clothing in future.

Before I get into why fast fashion is so bad on a human and environmental level, it might be worth explaining what the term fast fashion means.

Definition Of Fast Fashion

According to Cambridge Dictionary, fast fashion is “clothes that are made and sold cheaply, so that people can buy new clothes often”. 

Fast Fashion - A Customer View

From a customers point of view, fast fashion has three key points:

  1. It’s cheap
  2. It’s trendy
  3. It’s disposable

This means impulse buying an entirely new wardrobe has never been easier or more affordable.

Consumers are now actively encouraged by fast fashion brands to constantly update and refresh their wardrobe, rather than wait for the traditional seasons, where new lines of clothes are released every three months.

Fast Fashion - A Fashion Industry View

Fast fashion is big business for the fashion industry.

Rather than aligning their launches with the traditional seasons and bringing out new lines four times a year, some fast fashion brands refresh their offerings on an almost weekly basis.

When Did Fast Fashion Become A ‘Thing’?

The industrial revolution, and the invention of the sewing machine, has seen a steep increase in the availability of readymade clothes throughout the decades.

During World War II, fabric was rationed, and styles became more basic. During this time, people became much more accepting of mass-produced clothing and lower working standards.

One of the world's first significant safety incidents for fashion industry workers occurred in 1911 when 146 workers died in a fire at New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. The deaths were put down to poor safety standards and locked doors.

The mass production of clothing exploded from the 1960s to the 1990s. Labor and textile production was outsourced to the developing world to keep manufacturing costs down.

It was the 1990s that saw the fashion industry start to develop new production models to become the fast fashion we know today.

Why is Fast Fashion so bad

The Hidden Costs Of Fast Fashion

The high street might be teeming with cut-price garments that allow you to be permanently ‘on trend’, but do you know the true cost of that $5 sweater?

The Human Cost Of Fast Fashion

The U.S. is the biggest consumer of fashion globally. Yet, approximately 90% of the world's clothes are made in low-income and middle-income countries where workers’ rights are minimal or nonexistent.

Low Wages

To drive the cost of their clothes down, the fast fashion industry tries to cut costs wherever it can. One such place is the amount they pay the garment workers who make the clothes.

The fast fashion industry is always bragging about how the workers in their factories are paid the legal minimum wage. However, the legal minimum wage can be between two and five times lower than the living wage in many garment-producing countries.

The living wage is classed as an amount of money to allow a person to afford seven fundamental human rights:

  1. Food
  2. Rent
  3. Healthcare
  4. Education
  5. Clothing
  6. Transportation
  7. Savings

In Bangladesh, for example, garment workers earn about $96 per month.

The Bangladesh government’s wage board has suggested the amount needs to be around 3.5 times higher to achieve a good standard of living.

Child Labor

Some disreputable manufacturers will employ children to make clothes and other textile products to drive costs down even further.

Children are paid even less than their adult colleagues (if they’re paid at all) and are often tasked with dangerous jobs.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that 170 million children are employed worldwide in child labor.

Forced Labor

Forced labor is when someone is forced to work against their will. Often without pay or in fear for their life.

The U.S. Department Of Labor maintains a database of products that have been produced using child labor or forced labor.

Poor Working Conditions

It’s been well over a century since the Triangle Shirtwaist tragedy claimed the lives of 146 workers, but in some countries working conditions have not really moved on.

The Rana Plaza disaster in 2013 killed at least 1,132 garment industry workers and shone a light on the shocking working conditions some people have to endure.

In the U.S, we have union representatives in almost every workplace protecting and upholding the rights and needs of the workers.

In Bangladesh, one of the clothes-making powerhouses of the world, workers are not so lucky.

Only a tiny percentage of the 4,500+ Bangladesh garment factories have a registered union.

This report from Human Rights Watch highlights the scale of the problem.

Long Working Hours

Workers in the garment industry often have to endure 96-hour workweeks, often with no extra pay, thanks to shift managers manipulating the timesheets.

The Environmental Cost Of Fast Fashion

Fast fashion is not just bad for some of the humans involved; the environmental impacts are staggering.

According to OneGreenPlanet, fashion is the second most polluting industry, behind the oil industry.

Water Consumption

The global fashion industry is a significant consumer of water.

Textile dyeing uses 25 - 40 gallons of freshwater to produce two pounds of fabric.

Cotton is one of the key materials used in the fashion industry. It’s usually grown in hot, dry countries where water is scarce...and yet, according to the Guardian, 22,500 liters of water is needed to produce just 1kg of cotton.

This passage, taken from the same Guardian article, is eye-opening, to say the least!

“The water consumed to grow India’s cotton exports in 2013 would be enough to supply 85% of the country’s 1.24 billion people with 100 litres of water every day for a year. Meanwhile, more than 100 million people in India do not have access to safe water”.

People in low-income countries are going without water, so we in the U.S., and other high-income countries, can have cheap clothes whenever we want. It’s criminal!

Water Pollution

20% of industrial water pollution comes from the textile industry.

Wastewater from factories associated with textile manufacturing is often pumped directly into waterways. This wastewater can contain highly toxic chemicals (lead, mercury, arsenic, etc.) poisonous to aquatic life.

Microfiber Pollution

Microfibres are microplastics that come away from synthetic fabrics when they’re washed.

Every time we put a load of clothes made from synthetic fibers (nylon, polyester, acrylic, etc.) into the washing machine, we could be flushing over 700,000 microscopic plastic fibers into our waterways.

I’ve already covered the damage microplastic can do to aquatic life and humans in previous articles here and here.

Chemical Use

The heavy use of pesticides for the growing standard cotton causes serious health issues amongst cotton farmers.

According to the Environmental Justice Foundation, “In India, home to over one third of the world’s cotton farmers, cotton accounts for 54% of all pesticides used annually – despite occupying just 5% of land under crops. In a single 5 month observation period, 97 cotton farmers experienced 323 separate incidents of ill health. Of these 39% were associated with mild poisoning, 38% with moderate poisoning, and 6% with severe poisoning”.

Many different chemicals are used to produce modern clothes and fabrics. The dyeing and bleaching of clothes, in particular, can use a whole range of toxic substances. These chemicals can stay on the clothes, even after multiple washes, and potentially be absorbed by our skin.

On pages 78-79, the Dirty Laundry report by Greenpeace identified 11 different chemicals in clothing that could be dangerous to human health.

Textile Waste

Thanks to the rise in fast fashion, clothing is now cheap and disposable. This is bad for landfill!

The Council for Textile Recycling reports that the average U.S. consumer disposes of 70 pounds of textiles per year, and the amount sent to landfill rose from 1.7 million tons in 1960 to 11.15 million tons in 2017.

Much of this will be synthetic fibers that will take hundreds of years to decompose, leaching toxins into the ground while they do.

Rainforest Destruction

Viscose, also known as rayon, is a popular fabric in the fast fashion industry. Did you know it starts life as a tree?

One hundred fifty million trees are cut down every year to make fabric. Some come from sustainably managed forests, but many of the trees used to make viscose supply originate from ancient and endangered forests.

Soil Degradation

The intensive, chemical-heavy growing methods for crops like cotton degrade the quality of soil and make it harder for farmers to grow crops for the food chain.

The rainforest destruction I mentioned above is also responsible for soil and land degradation.

Animals raised for their wool are overgrazed, which eventually leads to soil erosion and degradation.

The state of the earth’s soil can be a window into the overall health of the planet. Healthy soil = healthy planet.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Clothing production is speeding up global warming. The fashion industry is responsible for around 10% of global carbon emissions from human activity.

What Can We Do To Reduce The Human And Environmental Impact Of Fast Fashion?

The sheer scale of fast fashion’s human and environmental impact can be overwhelming, but there are ways we can all help.

Shop At Sustainable And Eco-Friendly Fashion Brands

The easiest way to ensure that your wardrobe is as eco-friendly and sustainable as possible is to only buy from brands that match your own existing eco-credentials.

I’ve dedicated an entire archive to finding the best eco-friendly clothing brands that you might want to take a look at.

These brands use planet-friendly manufacturing processes, an ethical supply chain, and pay their workers a fair wage in safe working conditions.

Reduce Pollution

  • Buy clothes produced in countries with factories that have stricter environmental standards. The U.S., Canada, and the European Union are good places to start.
  • Choose clothes made from organic cotton, and other natural fibers, that do not use excessive chemicals during their production.

Reduce Water Usage

  • Choose clothes made from fibers with low water consumption, such as linen.

Reduce Microplastics

  • Buy natural fibers and wash them at 30 degrees or lower.
  • Only wash clothes when needed. Some items can be worn many times before being washed.

Reduce Clothing Waste

  • Only buy new clothes when you need them and wear clothes more than once.
  • When your clothes reach the end of their usable life, donate them to worthy causes or recycle them responsibly.
  • Buy higher quality clothes. It will cost you more initially but they will last much longer than the cheap disposable clothing being churned out by fast fashion companies. As my dad always likes to say…”buy cheap, buy twice”.
  • Learn how to maintain and repair clothing to extend its usable life.
  • Sell good quality garments that you no longer need and are still in excellent condition. Apps like Vinted are a great place to give your old items an eco-friendly new lease of life and put a few bucks in your pocket at the same time.
  • Consider renting clothes that you will only wear once—a tuxedo for a special work party, for example.

Reduce Chemicals

  • Always wash your new clothes before wearing them to remove as much residual chemical content as possible.
  • Buy clothes that are certified by eco-labels such as OEKO-TEX, GOTS, and BLUESIGN. I covered close to 200 eco-labels in-depth in a previous article here.

Reduce Rainforest Destruction

  • Choose Lyocell (Tencel®) ahead of ‘tree hungry’ fibers such as viscose, rayon, and modal.

Frequently Asked Questions

How Can I Be Sure A Garment Is Well Made?

There are six easy ways to spot garments that have been well made:

  1. Fabric Pattern: Patterns should always match up at the seams. If they don’t, it’s a clear sign that care has not been when putting the garment together.
  2. Buttons: Quality garments usually have spare buttons and thread, if applicable.
  3. Zippers: Garments with metal zippers are often better quality than ones with plastic zips. YKK zippers are the best around.
  4. Thickness: Hold the garment up to the light. If it’s thin, then it could well be of poor quality.
  5. Pull Test: Carefully pull the fabric and then release it. If it retains its shape, it’s probably good quality. If it stays stretched, it might be cheaply made.
  6. Stitches: Gently pull the seams to assess how well made the garment is. If a thick, strong thread has been used to stitch the garment together, that’s usually a good sign.

What Are The Worst Fast Fashion Brands?

According to SustainablyChic, the ten worst fast fashion brands are:

  1. Shein
  2. Mango
  3. H&M
  4. Boohoo
  5. Forever 21
  6. Urban Outfitters
  7. Primark
  8. Missguided
  9. Zara
  10. Victoria's Secret

Find out more about these and other companies in our definitive list of fast fashion brands to avoid.

Why Is H&M Bad?

H&M is one of many brands that use the fast fashion business model of constantly bringing out new ranges and throwing away tons of old ranges.

Does H And M Use Child Labor?

According to the Guardian, back in 2016, “Swedish fashion chain H&M worked with clothing factories in Myanmar where children as young as 14 toiled for more than 12 hours a day”.

The Final Word

Having two daughters, I know first hand how often some people are tempted to buy new clothes to keep up with the latest fashion trends.

However, it wasn’t until I started researching for this article that it hit home how extremely harmful it can be for the planet and human health to chase the latest trends constantly.

It’s horrifying to think that a cheap shirt from a U.S. high street store could be causing so much human misery and negative environmental impact in developing nations.

As a family, we’ll be more mindful of our clothing purchases in the future and only buy clothes from brands committed to high levels of sustainability and ethics.

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it now, and I’ll no doubt say it again in many articles in the future. As consumers, we have the power to affect change by voting with our wallets.

If we stop buying fast fashion it will affect the profit margin of the fast fashion companies and, eventually, hit them where it really hurts; on the stock market.

Once shareholders see that fast fashion is no longer profitable, things will change very quickly.

Want to do some further reading on how to reverse the adverse effects of fast fashion? Google the following:

  • The True Cost Movie
  • Greenpeace Detox Campaign
  • Clean Clothes Campaign
  • Fair Wear Foundation
  • Fashion Revolution / Who Made My Clothes?
  • Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC)

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James is a senior editor at The Roundup and has been in journalism for over 10 years. He was born in the UK but raised in Florida, where he currently lives with his wife and two daughters. James is passionate about sustainable living and environmental issues which are reflected by his work as an editor of TheRoundup.org.
James Miller
James is a senior editor at The Roundup and has been in journalism for over 10 years. He was born in the UK but raised in Florida, where he currently lives with his wife and two daughters. James is passionate about sustainable living and environmental issues which are reflected by his work as an editor of TheRoundup.org.

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