The Ugly Business of Fast Fashion

When you think about personal actions to tackle the climate crises, several obvious points probably come to mind: fly less, drive less, take public transport, change your diet, use renewable energy, turn down the heating, etc. But what about buying fewer clothes?

Over the last several decades alone, our attitudes towards clothing have changed drastically, and for the worse. Thanks to the rise of fast fashion, we’re buying more garments, wearing them less, and discarding them quickly. As a result, hundreds of billions of clothing items are produced each year to meet our insatiable demand for fabrics.

The result is an industry that is unsustainable, exploitative, and ugly to the core.

Our Clothing Obsession

A staggering 100 billion items (around 14 items per person) of clothing are produced around the world each year, most of them headed for the West. Indeed, the UK alone brings in two million tonnes of new clothing each year while throwing out a million tonnes of old clothing.

About half of all of this clothing ends up in landfills. A lot of it will also end up in places like Chile’s Atacama desert, which has been turned into a dumping ground for fashion accessories.

Some fashion items don’t even make it to the stores. Especially when you have companies like Burberry who, in 2018, admitted to burning millions of fashion accessories and perfume to “protect its brand”.

However, perhaps the most immediately worrying new trend to develop over the last several decades is our ever-growing love for synthetic materials like polyester.

Not only are most synthetic polyesters not biodegradable, but their production uses up an estimated 342 million barrels of oil every year. Furthermore, studies have shown that the wearing, washing, and production of synthetic materials also contributes significantly to the number of plastic microfibers ending up in our waterways.

“Every time you wash a polyester garment it releases microfibres into our waterways causing immense damage to marine life and vital ecosystem” — Amy Powney, creative director of Mother of Pearl

Around half a million tons (the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles) of these plastic microfibers are dumped into the ocean every year. Add this to all the other junk we’re throwing into our rivers and oceans, and it’s predicted that by 2050, there will be more plastic in the sea than fish.

The solution then might seem quite simple. Why not just wear cotton instead?

Why cotton is not the solution to fast fashion

Cotton might seem like the perfect eco-friendly alternative to wearing synthetics. But the problem with cotton is that it is a very thirsty fiber. Currently, cotton production uses a whopping 100 billion cubic meters of water a year. And its unquenchable thirst often puts huge strains on populations already suffering from water scarcity.

To see how destructive the cotton industry can be, you only have to look at the Aral Sea. Once the fourth biggest lake in the world, the Aral Sea dried up almost completely in just 40 years thanks to unsustainable cotton cultivation. The result was the obliteration of wildlife and the local fishing and canning industries. In their wake, the people were left with high infant and maternal mortality rates and horrific respiratory and intestinal ailments. So destructive was the fallout, that the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) referred to it as “the most staggering disaster of the twentieth century.”

But while the Aral Sea disaster is an extreme case, the same problem is playing out again and again across many parts of the world. Huge amounts of water are redirected into the cotton industry, leaving the lands barren and useless for farming. The result is the destruction of the local environment and the industries that rely on that environment. And the water and soil that is left are often contaminated with pesticides and fertilizers.

That’s not to say that cotton isn’t a better choice than polyester. Indeed, a polyester shirt still has more than double the carbon footprint of a cotton shirt. But the cotton industry as it stands is unsustainable. There’s too much demand, not enough regulation, and it is just too easy for companies to exploit poverty-stricken workers with nowhere else to turn.

We can point the finger at the industries behind this, and we should. But we might want to turn that finger around too, because we’re the ones who are driving this industry.

A slow death by consumption

All over the developed world, you find wardrobes filled with slave-wage-made, low-quality, and unwanted clothes. Compared to the 1980s, a period often associated with mass consumerism, we are buying five times as many items of clothing. And since the 2000s, we’ve doubled our use of synthetics.

What are we doing with all these extra clothes? Not wearing them, that’s for sure. In fact, around 50% of our wardrobes go untouched.

We all love to talk about how terrible the aviation and transport industries are for the environment (and they are). But they have nothing on the beast we’ve created in the fashion industry, which creates more carbon than those industries combined. Indeed if the fashion industry were a country, it would produce more greenhouse gases than the entire European continent. Or, to be more precise, around 8% of all global greenhouse gas emissions (compared to 2% for air travel).

We don’t see this when we head to the shops, though. We don’t see that one white shirt is equivalent to 35 miles of driving. Or how it takes 7,500 liters of water to make a single pair of jeans. We, as consumers, are alienated from the production process.

All we see are clothes so cheap they are expendable to us.

An exploitative industry fueled by materialism

How is clothing today so cheap? How is it that these garments, which require so many resources to make, cost around the same as a single meal?

There is no magic at work here, only exploitation. Modern shopping is all about rapid production and cheap prices designed to encourage excessive consumption. And the only way you can achieve that is through slave wages and terrible working conditions.

“Companies push new trends endlessly and seasons now move faster than ever. Many of these items of clothing are simply made to become waste; to make way for the next brand-new batch of clothing.” — Helle Abelvik-Lawson of Greenpeace

Investigations have shown that garment workers are regularly subjugated to verbal and psychological abuse, unsanitary and unsafe environments, and poor pay. And in the cases where things do improve, brands just move on to the next place offering a cheap ready-to-exploit workforce.

The problem is that once you’ve spoiled people with cheaper products, it’s hard to put the genie back in the bottle. Indeed, a fairly recent survey conducted by the London Fashion Retail Academy found that around a third of young people said they wouldn’t pay more than £5 extra for sustainable garments.

And yes, in case you are wondering, young people, particularly Gen-Z, are fast fashion’s biggest buyers.

Finding ways to tackle fast fashion

Okay, so you’ve seen why our current situation is awful. And you want to do something about it. But what can we do about it?

If you are hoping that your government might step in, you might be waiting a long while. Governments in poorer countries are unlikely to do anything they think might scare off potential investors. Meanwhile, governments and businesses in richer countries are usually unwilling to take any action that might harm an already vulnerable retail sector.

That’s the problem when you have an economic system that prioritizes growth above everything. Anything that might harm that growth, even if it leads to happier, healthier people, is often taken off the table, even if the country has the resources to deal with any loss of jobs. That’s not to say that you, as a citizen, shouldn’t petition for systematic change, but such a change is likely going to have to come from consumers first.

You could buy eco-friendly lines of clothing. But as critics point out, such clothing lines are often little more than a form of greenwashing that doesn’t push brands to deal with the underlying issues.

“Until brands tackle this issue first and foremost, ‘conscious collections’ by fast fashion brands can only ever be considered greenwashing,” — Flora Beverley, co-founder of sustainable brand Leo’s Box.

Buying second-hand is a decent choice on an individual level. The problem is it still perpetuates this expendable mindset we have towards clothes by expanding access to cheaper goods. Indeed, surveys show that many people only see second-hand clothing as a means to buy even more clothes, namely ones they wouldn’t normally be able to afford, and not as an alternative to buying new clothes.

Meanwhile, recycling is, at best, a near-last ditched effort to save any garment. While some advances are being made in this area, just 1% of recycled clothes are turned back into new garments. And many garments require too much energy, resources, skilled labor, and (most importantly to brands) cost to be worth recycling at all.

The real solution? Buy less clothes

The most significant choice we can make as consumers to tackle the fashion industry is to stop buying so many clothes.

As noted by research conducted by Leeds University and ARUP, reducing the maximum number of clothes we buy a year to eight items, could reduce fashion’s emissions by 37% in the world’s major cities. Meanwhile, according to the waste charity Wrap, extending the life of clothes by just nine months could reduce carbon, water, and waste footprints by 20–30%.

When we do buy new clothes, we must opt for quality over quantity. That might mean spending more initially, but fabrics and fashion accessories made with longevity in mind can actually save consumers money in the long run. And yes, opting to repair and revamp older pieces can extend the life of our clothes even longer.

But honestly, you probably have all the clothes you’ll practically ever need right now. Indeed, if you know how to carefully curate and care your wardrobe, you’ll probably only need around 149 items of clothing across your entire adult life.

As sustainable fashion consultant, Alice Wilby notes, it is all about changing your perspective:

“Go back to your wardrobe, investigate what you already have and fall back in love with your clothes. Take time to rediscover your own personal style, away from the influence of the fashion industry’s media and marketing machine.”

And as for those special occasions when you want something new and fancy? Renting is pretty much always the way to go. Indeed, Wrap notes that if renting replaced 10% of new purchases, it would save 160,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide in the UK alone.

Of course, the mantra of ‘buy better and buy less,’ while useful, is not always possible for those of us on lower incomes. The lack of free time for product care and the disposable income for quality durable goods is how retail keeps the poor poorer and spending more. And this goes for everything from clothing to nutrition.

It is another reason why tackling the growing wealth divide is integral to fighting the climate crisis. But where we can help, we must. Because the current industry of cheap clothing only perpetuates further exploitation. And even those of us who cannot afford quality can still strive to make more sustainable choices.

The fashion industry is exploitative, unsustainable, and wasteful. And It is no exaggeration to say that it is a burden on humanity and the climate. But it is not going anywhere.

Current reports suggest that fast fashion alone will be worth over 200 billion dollars by 2030. And global apparel consumption is projected to rise by 63% and emissions by 50% in that same period.

The outlook is bleak, but it does not have to be hopeless. Awareness of this issue is growing. But the conversation needs to make its way into the public consciousness. We need to raise awareness of what the fashion industry is doing, change our cultural attitudes towards clothing and accessories, and demand transparency about where our clothes are coming from and who is making them.

And we need to stop buying clothes we don’t wear. Because, while the price inside stores is cheap, the real cost is significantly greater.

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Written by Mike Grindle

Published on 28th June, 2023

Originally published for The New Climate at

This text is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Please note that quotations and images are not included in this license.

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