The true cost of fast fashion, and how to fight back

Do you know the true cost of your clothes? The dominant fast fashion business model is designed to exploit people and the planet, so behind those affordable prices and trend-led designs lies a murky world of waste, pollution and human rights violations. 

Since the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013, where a Bangladesh garment factory collapsed and killed 1,138 workers, people have been waking up to the colossal social and environmental impacts of our addiction to fast fashion. Tragically, factory accidents still happen on a regular basis due to a lack of health and safety regulations.  Workers are still paid less than a living wage, face harassment and violence, and their unions are consistently denied the right to fight for better conditions. So unlike the supersonic speed of seasonal collections, this awakening is not happening fast enough. 

The fashion industry contributes 8-10% of all global carbon emissions and continues to pollute vital water sources with zero consequences. Ancient forests are demolished and animals are abused to create textiles, and landfills are buckling with unwanted clothes, all because of our endless pursuit of growth through overproduction and overconsumption. The world is facing a climate and biodiversity crisis, and fashion has a lot to answer for. It’s time for action.

Let’s get back to basics, exploring the key areas impacted by the fashion industry and some simple steps you can take today to help swing the pendulum.


Who made your clothes?

This year, we’ve seen fashion’s complex and covert supply chains burst open. The pandemic has exposed the cracks in the fashion system, revealing the true vulnerability of millions of workers whose lives hang in the balance.

At the beginning of 2020, when stores shuttered and consumers stopped shopping, dozens of fast fashion brands refused to pay for orders previously placed at garment factories, who had already paid for materials and labour to complete them. This $16billion debt has led to garment workers being fired en masse, with many struggling to meet basic needs like food and water for their children. Meanwhile, brands in the Global North are refusing to take responsibility for these cancelled orders, claiming the people who make their clothes are not their problem. 

What’s more, labour scandals have been breaking right here on UK shores too. In July, it was revealed that e-commerce brand Boohoo, who like many fast fashion brands outsource manufacturing to Leicester, failed to pay its workers a minimum wage and operates much of its supply chain under modern slavery conditions. The brand itself was well aware of these problems before they were published and despite an initial drop in share value and ongoing money-laundering accusations, has actually stood to gain from a rise in lockdown online shopping. But Boohoo is not alone - the systematic exploitation of low-wage workers to produce truckloads of cheap, poor-quality, trend-led products at lightning speed is stitched into every inch of the fashion industry.

Fortunately, you have the power as a consumer and as a global citizen to take action. Here are three ways to stand up for workers:

1. Sign the #PayUpFashion petition at 

#PayUp is a hugely successful campaign that has been running throughout 2020. The premise is simple: demand brands like Urban Outfitters, Topshop, Walmart and more immediately compensate garment factories in full for cancelled orders. This new petition takes it a step further, demanding 7 key actions that brands need to take in addition to paying up, like publishing details on their supply chain with full transparency and signing enforceable contracts to protect its workers. 

2. Donate to grassroots campaigns

You can donate, either a one-off fee or regular monthly contribution, to ethical fashion movements like Fashion Revolution, Clean Clothes Campaign, Remake and Labour Behind the Label. These non-profit organisations work tirelessly to fight for justice for garment workers, and pressure brands to be held accountable for the people who make their clothes

3. Ask brands for supply chain transparency

Without customers, brands wouldn’t exist, so it’s important to vote with your wallet and your voice to demand better. Take to social media or send an email to a brand and ask them #WhoMadeMyClothes - this simple question reveals so much about how much (or how little) a brand knows and cares about their operations. You can even take it a step further and tell them you want full supply chain transparency all the way from field to fabric - read this report to find out more about why this is so important

Waste not, want not

According to the IPCC, in order to avoid a 1.5ºC increase in global temperatures, business and government must take immediate action to prevent further devastating effects on the biosphere and human livelihoods, by drastically reducing carbon emissions. 

The fashion industry is responsible for more carbon emissions than all international flights and maritime shipping combined, due to its intense industrial processes that extract and exploit natural resources, including 70 million barrels of oil each year to fuel the vast 65% of our clothing that is made from synthetic materials. Without divesting from fossil fuels and investing in renewable energy and regenerative materials, current efforts like carbon offsetting simply fall short, like “rearranging deckchairs on the titanic”.

In addition to carbon, fashion is infamous for its use of carcinogenic chemicals that not only threaten the health of factory workers and customers who wear the clothes, but also the people and animals that rely on rivers polluted by chemical waste from dyeing and finishing processes. 20% of all water pollution originates from these toxic textile treatments, and 35% of all ocean microplastic pollution comes from clothing too, with over 700,000 plastic microfibres released every time we do the laundry.

Textile waste is another significant issue in the fashion industry, not least due to inefficient design and construction that wastes 10-25% of fabric from each garment, but largely due to overproduction that piles shop floors with clothing that will never sell. It’s not just fast fashion either - luxury brands like Burberry regularly burn or incinerate millions of pounds worth of unsold stock to ‘protect brand value’. As consumers, we also play a huge part in reducing fashion waste. According to WRAP, unworn clothing makes up at least 30% of the average British wardrobe, estimated to be valued at around £30 billion. 350,000 tonnes worth of these unwanted garments ends up in landfill every year, unable to be recycled.

The fashion industry’s carbon, chemical and waste footprint is a mammoth problem, but there are some small steps you can take to make a difference to your personal fashion footprint too:

1. Cut out plastic from your wardrobe

A great place to start is by learning about the fibre content of your clothes. Plastic-based materials, such as polyester, nylon and acrylic can be switched out for natural fibres like linen and lambswool. Make sure to opt for organic and Fairtrade fabrics like organic cotton where possible too, which reduces water and pesticide use, and ensures farmers are paid fairly and treated with respect. Next time you put a wash on, take a look at how many synthetics are in your dirty laundry and consider using a Guppy Friend bag or Cora Ball to capture microplastics before they impact the water cycle. 
Unfortunately, it can be difficult to get an accurate picture of detailed fibre, dye and chemical content on clothing labels, which makes it even more important to demand transparency from fashion brands by asking #WhatsInMyClothes.

2. Repair and care for your clothes

Did you know that extending the life of a garment by just nine months has the potential to shrink carbon, water and waste footprints by around 20-30% each? 

To make your clothes last longer, make sure to follow the washing, drying and ironing instructions on your clothing labels to avoid damage. You can also learn simple repairs so you don’t need to throw out items with holes, missing buttons or unravelling hems - here is a great resource for easy mending instructions.

3. Think before you buy

Last but certainly not least, one of the best things you can do to reduce your fashion footprint is to take it slow. Reduce the quantity of clothes you buy, and invest in quality - that means paying a little more for clothes from independent, sustainable fashion brands that are made ethically with people and the planet in mind. Even better, choose to shop second-hand to keep pre-loved clothes in circulation.

Either way, remember to ask yourself these 3 important questions each time you find yourself clicking ‘add to cart’:

  • Will I wear this at least 30 times?
  • Does it work with my existing wardrobe?
  • Most importantly, do I love it?  
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