Cheap vs. Ethical – A Take on Fast Fashion

Stylish woman buying fast fashion
Image by Freepik

Fast fashion is almost disposable clothes, made quickly and carelessly to be worn once or twice. While very appealing, its environmental impact is huge and the workers that make it are treated badly. The opposite trend is now growing – slow fashion aims to be greener, concentrate on quality and tread more lightly on the planet.

What is Fast Fashion?

Fast fashion refers to the production of cheap trendy clothes that change rapidly in a store, so that there is something new to choose as often as every week. So what’s not to like?  The store has something you can afford, so that you can impress your friends with something new every weekend when you go out. The downside is that the process is incredibly wasteful, has a huge environmental impact and there are ethical concerns over the production process.

Image by Michal Jarmoluk from Pixabay

The Growth of Fast Fashion

Back in the ’60s shopping was an event. Clothing was saved up for and styles appeared in the shops seasonally, and were expected to last. Gradually, through to the ’90s things changed. Massive factories opened in China, the rest of Asia and Latin America offering cheap labour and materials and rapid turnaround. Companies started outsourcing their production and selling cheaper clothes that were made to lower standards.

courtesy Chronicle Live
courtesy Weavabel
courtesy Watford Observer

Major players in the fast-fashion market include Zara, H&M Group, UNIQLO, GAP, Forever 21, Topshop, Esprit, Primark, Fashion Nova, and New Look, and their returns prove that fast fashion is very profitable indeed.  Primark’s profit was £415m last year. Zara has 1,947 stores worldwide, and their profit more than doubled in 2021 to 3.2 billion Euros (£2.81 billion), and H&M Group’s 2021 profit after tax came to £880.80 million.

Fast fashion’s downsides


Clothes are made to lower standards and are not intended to last. Sometimes clothes are only worn once or twice and then thrown away.  The UK produces 206.456 tonnes of textile waste per year, of which less can be recycled than other materials, even plastics.  It is estimated that nearly three in five fashion garments go to landfill, where they decompose very slowly.

Water Use

Producing cotton requires vast amounts of water. Clothing production is the second most water-intensive practice in the world. The industry uses nearly 79 billion cubic meters of water annually. Dying cloth uses large amounts of water, along with chemicals that are toxic to humans and the surrounding environment. In the countries where manufacturing takes place, environmental standards are low, Many factories in underdeveloped countries lack proper safety equipment, ventilation, and disposal mechanisms. Often they will flush wastewater out into nearby rivers, polluting agricultural and potable water supplies for people and animals.

Image by Michal Jarmoluk from Pixabay


Clothing items can contribute to marine pollution. Clothes made out of synthetic fabrics can contain microplastics. When these items are washed or if they are sitting in a landfill and are subject to rains, the tiny shreds of plastic are flushed into wastewater systems and eventually make their way out into the ocean.

Studies have shown the plastic fibres can end up in the stomachs of marine animals, including some that wind up as seafood. A study published in Environmental Science and Technology found that more than 1,900 fibres on average can be shed by a synthetic clothing garment during just a single trip through the washing machine.

Microplastics can create neurological issues in aquatic creatures and work their way up the food chain, producing health challenges in humans. Producing synthetic fibres also requires significant quantities of energy, powering the enhanced greenhouse effect.

Image by Max Gössler from Pixabay

Fossil fuels

The production of fast fashion garments uses large amounts of fossil fuels at many points in the process. The production of synthetic fibres requires oil as a source material, the fibres and the finished products are transported thousands of miles across the globe, requiring fossil fuel and the factories that produce the garments are also fossil fuel-powered. Altogether, the fashion industry is responsible for 10% of global CO2 emissions each year, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

Working conditions

Although the clothing industry provides work and therefore income for thousands of people across Asia and Latin America, workers are often forced to work long hours in unsafe conditions for poor wages. Children can be employed, and workers can be exposed to harmful dyes, caustic chemicals and high ambient temperatures. This is made worse by the need to produce a large number of garments at low margin, so spending money on making working conditions safe is very low priority.

courtesy AP news

Although a feature of fast fashion brands, it has to be pointed out that poor treatment of workers is not confined to that end of the market. Armani, Ralph Lauren and Hugo Boss all produce clothing in Bangaldesh in factories that also supply fast-fashion retailers. Also in Cambodia, workers making Armani jeans have to endure 40°C temperatures all day, leading to frequent fainting. This is despite the owners promising to install a sprinkler system to cool the workplace.

Slow it down – the fast fashion alternative

courtesy Sew4Home

As tends to happen, the trend to throwaway, fast fashion has caused a reaction, inevitably called slow fashion.

Slow fashion is an approach that considers the processes and resources required to make clothing, investing in quality in design and construction as opposed to speed. The impact of the production process on people and ecosystems is taken into account.

Model Ellie Jolliffe became a convert when she saw the amount of waste she saw on modelling jobs. But she told the BBC that this does not mean abandoning fashion.

“I feel much better,” she says. “I still have plenty of clothes and I’m paying no more than I would if I was buying fast fashion.”

“There are lots of ways to dress that don’t compromise people or planet.”

Ellie Joliffe

Slow fashion urges us to only buy what we really need, to care of and repair the clothes we have, and buy clothes made by properly paid workers whose skills are celebrated. A dream maybe? Perhaps an aspiration worth pursuing.

One way of slowing fashion down is to repurpose or upcycle clothes when they are no longer of use. This means taking the cloth of the garment and making something different with it. If you haven’t the skill with a sewing machine to do this, there are firms out there that will do it for you.  Re_considered, for instance, could take an unwanted dress and repurpose it into a matching top and shorts set for about £30.

courtesy Peaceofpi Studio
Image by kthlp from Pixabay

One of the greenest ways of buying clothes is to get them secondhand. Buying a garment that has already been made saves it from going to landfill, and saves the resources of making a new one. Also, if you buy them from a charity shop the money you spend goes to a good cause. Charity shop shopping is it’s own form of entertainment, requiring a good deal of serendipity and imagination – and now there are many online too  (e.g. Oxfam, Thriftify, or Re-Fashion) meaning you can go green sitting on your couch.

So there are options for caring more about clothes and rejecting the buy cheap and throw it away culture – perhaps this might make some reconsider the disastrous habit that is fast fashion.

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