The Fight for Fairer Fashion

By Guest Blogger, Tom Maclaren

Fast fashion has captivated consumers around the globe for many years. This buzz phrase can be described as a method of design, manufacture and marketing of clothing that seeks to deliver large amounts of ‘on-trend’ clothing as cheaply as possible. Whilst at first glance this seems beneficial to buyers and sellers, the reality is that fast fashion has detrimental effects on the environment, workers and consumers.

So how did the rise in fast fashion cause the industry to become one of the dominant polluters? Just 25 years ago, average consumer practices were to purchase clothes when needed, rather than when desired, and to last, rather than to follow trends. The rise of the internet and large fashion retail chains have allowed the rise in widespread marketing trends to captivate larger audiences. Rising demand, cheap clothing and dubious manufacturing practices have led to huge profits for some retailers.

Fast fashion has also become a major talking point in recent years because of its effects on the environment. With the fashion industry producing 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions, something needs to change. According to WRAP, clothing manufacture and sales in the UK is the fourth largest pressure on our natural resources after housing, transport and food. Shocking statistics show that around 3,000 litres of water are needed to grow enough cotton to make just one white cotton t-shirt and, as fast fashion has adapted manufacturing ways to benefit from certain countries’ lack of environmental regulations, many chemicals are returned in wastewater.

Yet, it doesn’t end here. Research in the Environmental Journal explains that 35% of microplastics in our oceans come from manmade materials, such as polyester, being used by the industry. According to Greenpeace, clothes are increasingly being produced using oil, the same raw material as single-use plastic, with the proportion of oil-based synthetic fibres in our clothes having doubled since 2000. With the nature of fast fashion – following trends and using cheap, low quality materials – clothing is disposed of at an increasing rate, filling landfills and open waste sites while being constantly replaced by the latest item. These cheap synthetic fabrics also release millions of microplastics every time they are washed, flowing out into our oceans through the wastewater system with no means to capture the tiny fibres.

Recent reports in the news have also highlighted how fast fashion that is bought online can end up going into the waste system if you return it. A report by McKinsey estimated that 10% of online returns end up in landfill.

Photo by Martin Bernetti/AFP via Getty Images

The ethics of cheap labour are also a big issue in the manufacture of fast fashion. With fashion giants constantly seeking lower production costs, there are many overseas workers being exploited for cheap labour. The factories that these workers are in are typically labelled ‘sweat shops’. In 2019, an Oxfam report discovered that only 1% of workers in Vietnamese clothes factories earned a living wage, with the average hourly pay being $0.26. To add insult to injury, these workers are working in squalid and unsafe conditions as creating a good work environment costs money. It is important to note that up to 90% of workers in sweatshops are female and 85% of workers are between the ages of 15 and 25, but often girls are started younger to support their families. A general rule of thumb is the cheaper the clothing, the worse the workers are suffering.

Fast fashion is also having a negative effect on you, the consumer. The manipulative nature of the drivers behind fast fashion lead to consumers always needing the latest trend or ‘must have’ item. Stores change designs at increasing rates and, for many, the desire to stay on top of the latest trend outweighs the need to buy good quality clothing that lasts. We are buying more clothes and throwing more clothes away – many of these items are not designed for durability so we must constantly refresh our wardrobes.

Now we know how bad fast fashion is, how can spot clothes that have been produced by fast fashion?

  • Check labels to see where the clothes are manufactured – certain countries have much lower wages for workers, notably Central America, South America, Asia, China, India and some parts of Europe
  • Is stock being updated at a very fast rate? And are there being sales being advertised to clear stock? If so, decide if you really need that fast fashion item.
  • Check the materials that clothes are made from and how they have been made. Are the materials synthetic? Natural fibres breathe, plant fibres, in particular, can be very strong.
  • Has the style been replicated from fashion shows and online marketing? This may indicate that the clothes have been brought to the shelves at a very fast rate, typical of fast fashion.

How can we improve our fashion habits?

  • Be conscious of fast fashion – do some research about it, read articles and inform yourself about the impact of the industry.
  • Don’t impulse buy. It’s particularly easy to do online! If you decide you want to buy an item, leave it in your basket for 24 hours and come back to it if you really can’t live without it.
  • Use charity shops. There are many high-quality clothes to be found in charity shops and for a fraction of the price.
  • Wear clothes for longer / repair damaged clothes.
  • Research how different brands provide their garment – a sustainable and ethical manufacturer will tell you on their website about their processes and employment habits.
  • Host a clothing swap with friends.
  • Donate your good quality, pre-loved clothes to charity shops or appeals if you no longer want them.


Oxfam report:
Sweatshop statistics:

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