Many of us know that fast fashion is harming the planet – we have previously written about the environmental impact of clothing manufacturing and the amount of plastics in clothing. But fast fashion also has a huge social cost, impacting the garment workers who manufacture our clothing and the communities that get left to clean up our discarded items.

However, dealing with these injustices in the lifecycle of our clothing would be one of the easiest ways to ensure fashion also has a lighter environmental footprint. We discuss here some of the ways fast fashion is harming people, as well as the planet, and highlight some of the amazing campaigners that are fighting for fairer fashion.

Who made your clothes?

One of the biggest issues at the start of the clothing supply chain is the poverty wages paid to the people who are creating your clothes; an estimated 98% of garment workers worldwide are not paid a living wage. Most of these garment workers are women of colour in the Global South (although there are also sweatshops in the UK and Bulgaria, to name just two examples) making exploitation in the clothing industry a feminist and anti-racist issue, as well as an environmental one.

These poverty wages go hand in hand with long hours and unsafe working conditions, in overcrowded factories. Conditions like these often lead to tragedy – in 2013 the Rana Plaza clothing factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing over 1,100 people. Garment workers inside the building had seen cracks appearing before the collapse but were forced to keep working to meet the demand of the fast fashion industry.

“While the bank and some of the other shops [located within the same building] closed immediately when the crack was noticed, the management of the clothing factories continued production and remained open until the time of the collapse.”

International Journal of environmental research and public health

While the Rana Plaza disaster was an extreme and well publicised example, smaller scale accidents happen regularly. The Bangladesh Accord – a legally binding agreement set up after the Rana Plaza disaster to ensure brands are held accountable for their factory conditions – dramatically improved safety in garment factories but 99 brands (including Levis, Walmart and Amazon) have not yet signed it.

The reason wages are so low, and conditions so poor, is that fast fashion brands are making bulk orders of items, and they want to pay as little as they can for them with the fastest possible turnaround. Because there is an imbalance of power, with big brands having the upper hand over the suppliers, fast fashion companies dictate the prices they want to pay. This leaves factory owners with little choice but to accept, and even less money to pay living wages or improve working conditions.

Pay Up

Fashion brands also don’t pay for the garments up front, often leaving factories out of pocket. This problem was made worse by Covid-19, with brands refusing to pay for completed orders due to reduced demand for new clothing during global lockdowns.This leaves factory owners either having to cut wages even more in order to make up the shortfall, or leaves garment workers entirely unpaid. 

“Millions of garment workers in Asia saw their livelihoods devastated as global clothing companies cancelled orders in droves … many say they are still waiting in vain for unpaid wages”

Financial Times

This penny pinching from big brands is completely unnecessary – these brands can easily afford to pay their workers fairly, with CEOs of top fashion brands earning in 4 days what an average garment worker earns in their entire life.

Even if fast fashion CEOs were operating on the same tight margins that garment factories are, it’s still completely unnecessary; there are billions of garments being created and then sold for pennies (literally). If fewer items were created in the first place, and each of those items cost more, there could be better working conditions and more money at the start of the supply chain. One researcher estimates clothing would only have to cost between 1% and 4% more to ensure a living wage to the person who made it.

Fewer garments being created in the first place would have the obvious knock-on effect of less environmental damage and less strain on natural resources like water. It’s a win-win, but fast fashion brands haven’t got the memo.

A person with light brown skin and dark hair walks on a fashion catwalk. They are wearing tasselled earrings and a dark blue dress and they are holding a sign reading "WE ARE FASHION REVOLUTION. WE ARE YOU"
Fashion Revolution campaign for a clean, safe, fair, transparent and accountable fashion industry.

If we throw things away, where is ‘away’?

Fast fashion business models operate on thousands of new styles being added to stores and websites every week. This keeps us addicted to shopping and makes us think we need to have new outfits the second we see them on Instagram. It also means we don’t mind if our clothing is poor quality polyester that falls apart after one or two wears, as we have already moved onto the next single use look.

This leads to issues at the end of our clothing’s life: when we are done with our clothing, where does it go?

We send a huge amount of clothing to landfill – approximately one garbage truck of clothing is sent to landfill or burned every second. We therefore might think we are doing a good deed by donating our unwanted clothes instead. However, the rise of ultra-fast fashion is inundating second hand shops with poor quality clothing, and charity shops are having to either send clothing to landfill or ship it overseas.

The final destination for a huge proportion of our donated clothing is second hand markets in the Global South. This disrupts the local clothing and textile industries which are unable to compete with the low prices of second hand imports.

Because the quality of what is being donated is so poor, it often ends up as trash – an example of waste colonialism. Around 40% of the ‘donated’ items at Kantamanto market in Ghana are immediately sent to landfill. In Chile, where clothing is banned from landfills, it is dumped in the Atacama desert. Clothing discarded from second hand markets causes direct pollution of land, rivers and beaches, but it also causes further harm to the communities where it ends up, as they have to foot the bill for cleaning it up.

What can we do about it?

The easiest way to prevent exploitation at both ends of the fashion supply chain is just to stop buying new clothes. Keep the clothes you already own for as long as possible (even if they came from fast fashion brands to start with), and treat them well so they last a long time.

When buying new pieces, avoid fast fashion like the plague. Second hand clothing is always the most sustainable option when buying a garment. If you are buying something brand new try to avoid being taken in by greenwashing. Author and sustainable fashion consultant, Aja Barber, recommends looking out for payment of living wages as the best indicator of whether a brand is ethical and sustainable.

“I don’t even look for the environmental stuff because the truth of the matter is, the corporations that are paying everyone within the supply chain fairly don’t have the same amount of money left over to overproduce clothing ”

Aja Barber

You can also support protests against unethical brands. Campaigners have recently disrupted a Boohoo panel event, and the Clean Clothes Campaign recently released a hoax press release from Adidas, saying the brand had agreed to sign the Pay Your Workers Agreement. The campaign was so successful that major global news outlets picked it up, and Adidas were forced to deny that they had signed the agreement. Even very small protests can have a big impact. Students at Newcastle University recently staged a successful protest against Shein advertising in the student union, resulting in the University agreeing that the fast fashion brand will not be invited back.

Can we afford fast fashion?

Some argue that we need fast fashion to ensure clothing is affordable and accessible for people on low incomes. However, the owner of Boohoo didn’t become a billionaire because poor folks were buying essential clothing, and fashion’s waste crisis isn’t being driven by people just buying the clothing they truly need. While of course high quality clothing should be accessible for everybody, us being able to afford new outfits every week shouldn’t come at the cost of garment workers’ lives and the health of the planet. After all, the problem is not that clothes are too expensive, it’s that working people don’t have enough money. Nobody can explain the problem better than Terry Pratchett:

“A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in ten years’ time, while the poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.”

Terry Pratchett

Be curious!

  • Read Aja Barber’s book Consumed for a much deeper dive into ethical fashion, and the fashion industry’s links to colonialism and systemic racism.
  • Listen to the Remember Who Made Them podcast
  • Support campaigns that fight for garment workers’ rights such as the Clean Clothes campaign and Pay Up Fashion
  • Donate to the Or Foundation, who work with communities in Ghana and at Kantamanto market
  • Watch the documentary The True Cost 
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