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  • Writer's pictureHannah Kapff

Fast Fashion; Time to stop playing ‘fast and loose’ with people and the environment?

Fast Fashion: noun

‘An approach to the design, creation, and marketing of clothing that emphasises the making of fashion trends quickly and cheaply for consumers.’

When something looks too good to be true, it normally is.

Fast-Fashion has been dominating the retail industry and generating serious concerns for a long time now. With brands such as Fashionova, H&M and Pretty Little Thing churning out the hottest celebrity looks less than 24 hours after the designer versions go public, it does what it says on the tin. It is FAST. Fashion celebrity Kim Kardashian-West addressed the epidemic in a tongue-in-cheek fashion via Instagram earlier this year; “Fast fashion brands, can you please wait until I wear this in real life before you knock it off?”

But it’s not just egos that are hurting.

The speed at which these cheap clothes can be produced has led us to question fast fashion’s social and environmental costs. Are the dyes and other chemicals used polluting local environments or causing health issues? Are the people making said garments treated well? And are the clothes going to last more than three spins in the weekly wash, or end up as landfill a month after purchase? Stacey Dooley’s documentary ‘Fashion’s Dirty Secrets’ went viral by answering ‘yes’ to all of the above, and rightly so.

Dirty Secrets

‘Fashion’s Dirty Secrets’ was originally broadcast on BBC1 in October 2018. The documentary shows some harrowing scenes in Kazakhstan, where most of the Aral Sea – an area the size of Ireland – evaporated thanks to the garment industry; Rivers running to the sea were diverted to supply cotton fields with water, not only impacting the weather, but the health of the local community. Sand storms from the Aral desert have been seen from space and are directly linked to worsening respiratory problems such as asthma and cystic fibrosis. Long term exposure to sand storms has also been linked to cardiac arrest and other pathologies.

It is documented that we are producing over 100 billion garments from new fibres every single year, which is simply not sustainable for our planet. Dooley’s documentary brings forward the issues surrounding cotton and how it is marketed as ‘clean, fresh and natural’ when the true fact is that it’s one of the planet’s most unsustainable crops, due to its reliance on water and chemicals. Does this mean the real answer can be found in cotton alternatives? Back when this documentary was filmed, some of fast fashion’s biggest offenders, ASOS and Primark, refused to enter into conversations on their company’s contribution to our depleted environment. However, they are increasingly being forced to take action, and will be judged and ranked accordingly.

Human Rights

Yet, it is not only the environment that is being hurt by our greed for an outfit each week. So too are the estimated 75 million garment workers across the globe. Rumours about poor working conditions were confirmed when a 2014 International Labour Rights Forum, ‘Our Voices, Our Safety’ , highlighted threats against female workers in Bangladesh when they attempted to speak out about workplace abuse. Thanks to the lack of a living wage, the small amount garment workers are paid is often not enough for basic human necessities, including housing, healthcare and food.

The Guardian reported on hidden child labour back in 2016, highlighting how Syrian refugees are supplying Europe with fast fashion via Turkish garment factories. As 60% of the total workforce is unregistered, there is no job security and late pay is not uncommon. Children as young as 12 years old were found to be working up to 60 hours a week, earning just £138 to support their families. A 20-year-old refugee named Laila earned just 37 pence an hour in a garment workshop after fleeing from Aleppo with her family. Are children going to school wearing shirts made by children of the same age, just under 2000 miles away?

Causing a Stir

Fast fashion brands hit the headlines in January when online retailers, including Boohoo and Missguided, were slammed as being ‘among the worst offenders’ in fashion’s sustainability crisis. Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee examined the damage fast fashion is having on the UK’s environment. The consumer market for clothes and footwear has grown by $½trillion in a decade since 2008. At Christmas, £3.5 billion worth of clothes were purchased, leading to £8 million worth ending up in landfill after just one wear. As part of our work for client, Globechain, the online marketplace for items (including fashion stock) that are no longer wanted, we discovered that a staggering 50% of garments purchased online were incinerated or sent to landfill due to the prohibitive costs and logistics involved in returning them to the shelf. We helped to communicate this story. Yet still, thirty three percent of people told Onepoll that they wouldn’t pay more than £5 extra for a sustainable piece of clothing. As ever, it seems we cannot rely on our good intentions. Instead, arguably, we will need to make the polluter pay. If nothing is done and trends continue, the fast fashion industry could account for a quarter of the world’s carbon. This sparked journalists from The Independent, The Guardian and The Daily Mail to report on fashion’s ‘dirty little secret’, and pleading for something to be done.

Inspired? Let’s ditch the ‘instadress’

Not everyone has the budget for expensive clothing, or the time to save for THAT designer jacket. This means cheaper brands must improve their sustainability profile without raising costs too high for their target audience. New options have started appearing online such as the ASOS ‘Women’s Eco Brand’ section. H&M has released a statement regarding their goal to make their entire cotton range sustainable from 2020. It’s ‘Conscious’ collection, released yearly, is also branded as a sustainable and environmentally friendly range. During our research, we also found websites that allow consumers to hire a dress for a special occasion for a certain amount of time, and then return it to be hired out again. The circular economy approach is looking and feeling fabulous. Girl Meets Dress has a range of many different designers including Alexander Mcqueen and Herve Leger, available to hire from costs starting at just £40.

Things are starting to be done but there is still a huge attraction to the cheap brands that market their garments to consumers looking for a quick and cheap fix to their wardrobe. A £10 little black dress that is being bought purely for a best friend’s birthday party is easy to purchase when the environmental costs aren’t in front of your nose. Fast forward a few more years and we won’t be able to escape the cause and effect of fast fashion before it’s too late. If fashion brands can step up and keep costs down in an environmentally friendly way, then we have hit the jackpot.


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