The Real Cost of Fast Fashion: An Essay Exploring the Fashion Industry’s Social and Environmental Issues

The Real Cost of Fast Fashion: An Essay Exploring the Fashion Industry’s Social and Environmental Issues

Globalisation has connected the world more than ever before and this integration has been primarily fuelled by the economy. While this process has created access to valuable opportunities, relationships and pathways, it has come at a cost to the environment, culture, human health and wellbeing 1. The fast fashion industry is booming as a result of globalisation, with garment manufacturing primarily found in developing countries, operating in factories of which some are known as sweat shops. Workers in these sweat shops are subjected to forced labour working conditions 2 which are completely unacceptable in any form. In addition, the fashion industry is known to have one of the highest, negative impacts on the environment with its level of affordability constantly increasing production demands 3.

This essay argues that Australia has a responsibility to ensure companies manufacturing their products in developing countries conduct business in a fair and sustainable way and it is the Australian Commonwealth’s role to mandate that any product sold in Australia has been produced ethically. This essay will address that fast fashion is detrimental to the health of the environment and humans, leads to the importance of regulating fairer and more sustainable working conditions and presents a case study explaining how to recognise an ethical brand. It will acknowledge the counter argument presenting the risk of unemployment for workers within developing countries and finally conclude by reinforcing the role the Government has to mandate that any product sold in Australia has been produced ethically, protecting the health of workers as well as the natural environment.

The Real Cost of Fast Fashion: An Essay Exploring the Fashion Industry's Social and Environmental Issues
Interior shot of a Zara store in Moscow. Credit: Shutterstock

Fast fashion is detrimental to the health of the environment and humans

Fast fashion is indeed that – fast and often at the expense of the environment and human health. The business model has been described as focusing on high volume, rapid lead times and low prices 4 with leading retailers such as Zara and H&M known to introduce new designs into their stores every three to five weeks 5. The low prices are designed to appeal to the mass market ensuring consumers can afford a new look as often as clothes are rotated and displayed in store windows. Statistics show an emerging disposable culture as a result of these current fashion trends, with Australians throwing 6000kg of clothing into landfill every 10 minutes 6 and many of the discarded items are still in wearable condition 7.

Garment manufacturing is one of the highest polluting industries 8 and landfill is not the only environmental aspect affected. Clothing manufacturing relies on a large amount of resources for example, producing a simple cotton t-shirt requires 2,700 litres of water 9 as does the dyeing and printing processes and furthermore, the chemical run off into water streams, as a result of dyeing and printing, are toxic and considered harmful 10. Microfibres, which are shed from the fabric polyester during washing, are also entering waterways adding to the growing amount of plastic accumulating in our oceans 11. Machinery relying on fossil fuels is used for both the farming of cotton right through to transportation to retailers and industrial manufacturing machines require energy to operate 12.

The Real Cost of Fast Fashion: An Essay Exploring the Fashion Industry's Social and Environmental Issues
H&M store front in Regents Street, Mayfair. H&M is a Swedish multinational clothing-retail company, known for its fast-fashion clothing for men, women and children. Credit: Shutterstock

Behind these negative environmental impacts are people, working extended hours and in immediate contact with these toxic substances. In order to keep up with buyers’ demand, workers in the garment industry are required to work in poor conditions while earning an income considered below the living wage 13, this is modern day slave labour. There are 40.3 million people currently estimated to be held in modern slavery conditions worldwide, including women and children and, 15,000 of those people are within Australia 14.

The importance of regulating fairer and sustainable working conditions

There are many NGOs and not-for-profit organisations fighting for policy makers to take responsibility, to ensure companies manufacturing their products in developing countries conduct business in a fair and sustainable way 15.

For example, the Walk Free Foundation is “an international human rights organisation with a mission to end modern slavery” and in November 2018, celebrated the success of a major milestone which is, seeing the Australian Modern Slavery Act passed in Federal Parliament. This Act which the Walk Free Foundation explains, is “modelled on the UK Modern Slavery Act, will apply to all businesses with an annual turnover of more than $100 million”. This means businesses operating in Australia are, by law, required to report on operations within their supply chain, both here and internationally. This is a momentous step towards equality.

Fashion Revolution is another influential not-for-profit organisation and their manifesto is “We love fashion, but we don’t want our clothes to exploit people or destroy our planet”. Fashion Revolution was established after the tragedy of the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh in 2013 when, despite safety warnings, the building collapsed killing 1,138 and injuring 2,500 garment workers.

Fashion Revolution harness ‘people power’ to raise awareness of social and environmental issues through their annual #whomademyclothes campaign. This campaign runs for one week, during the month of April (the anniversary of the Rana Plaza building collapse) and encourages consumers to photograph themselves wearing their favourite items of clothing, while asking #whomademyclothes – a hashtag which currently has 353,000 uses on Instagram.

Related Post: Fashion Revolution: 5 Years Since the Rana Plaza Building Tragedy, Has Anything Really Changed?


Case Study: Tools to recognise an ethical brand

Traceability is an important element required by a company claiming to operate with ethical practises and the Internet provides quick and easy access into policies and procedures made accessible on their websites. One efficient and reliable tool is the Good On You app, designed for the conscious consumer researching ethical and environmentally friendly brands.

The app independently rates brands referring to over 50 certification schemes like Fair Trade, OEKO-TEX, the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and Baptist World Aid’s Ethical Fashion Guide, as well as assessing the public information of each individual company. The issues the Good On You app consider are ‘People’, ‘Planet’ and ‘Animals’ and brands are rated either ‘Great’, ‘Good’, ‘It’s a Start’, ‘Not Good Enough’ or ‘We Avoid’.

Related Post: 5 Apps and Online Tools for Conscious Shopping

Credit: Good on You
Good on You app how it works

Global brands such as Patagonia, who are considered an industry leader for ethical outdoor wear, are rated a ‘Great’ for labour and ‘Good’ for environment conditions and animal welfare. Cue, an Australian women’s wear label who has developed environmental policies and traces most of its supply chain, has been rated ‘Good’ for labour and environment and animal welfare has received ‘It’s a Start’. In contrast, Good On You states the brand Nike provides no evidence of paying a living wage for its workers and has been rated overall as ‘Not Good Enough’ and lists luxury fashion house Chanel as ‘We Avoid’, with ‘Very Poor’ ratings across Labour, Environment and Animal welfare. This raises inequity issues within luxury brands as well as those considered fast fashion.

Counter argument: The risk of unemployment for workers

One can argue that boycotting fast fashion brands is not the answer as currently the garment industry is offering people in developing countries employment, however, these conditions are immoral. As previously discussed, an estimated 40.3 million people are currently held in modern slavery conditions worldwide and furthermore, according to Oxfam, “global supply chains can be designed in ways that mean workers are trapped in poverty, no matter how hard they work”. Low income is not a reflection of revenue since workers in developing countries such as Bangladesh and Vietnam are earning an annual average income of AUD$974 and AUD$1,600 respectively, which is below the living wage, while some of the highest paid CEOs in the industry are enjoying an average income of AUD$6 million.

Related Post: Economic Disadvantage: How the Green Economy Benefits the Privileged and Condemns the Poor

Ando International, a Vietnamese garment firm with 900 workers in HCM City, has improved a lot in labour standards since joining Better Work Vietnam. Credit: ILO/Aaron Santos via Flickr

It should be obvious to consumers that it is not reasonable to expect a t-shirt to cost less than a cup of coffee and use their buying power to initiate change in the way the industry operates 16, therefore acknowledging slave labour is a criminal abuse of human rights.

According to Oxfam, global regulation is the answer and in support of this the United Nations (UN) has developed a list of Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) designed as “a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity”. Associated fast fashion practises can directly link to 14 of the 17 goals including:

1. No Poverty

2. Zero Hunger

3. Good Health and Well Being

5. Gender Equality

8. Decent Work an Economic Growth

9. Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure

10. Reduce inequalities

11. Sustainable Cities and Communities

12. Responsible Consumption & Production

13. Climate Action

14. Life Below Water

15. Life on Land

16. Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions

17. Partnership For The Goals

The SDGs provide an ideal framework to support the foundation of sustainability which is built on three important principals – economic growth, social equality and respect for the environment 17. This identifies the importance of a healthy economy without detriment to people or the planet, which could be more concisely referred to as greening capitalism 18.

The SDGs provide an ideal framework to support the foundation of sustainability and improving capitalism. Credit: United Nations


Fashion should not come at the exploitation of people or the planet 19 therefore, responsibility falls on governing bodies to regulate garment factory operations. This will ensure companies conduct business in a fair and sustainable way guaranteeing the health and safety of workers, while ensuring they are paid a living wage. Global legislation also needs to provide ongoing protection against the abuse of the natural environment.

Not to be understated is the role consumers play in demanding this change. Modifying buying habits would directly reduce demand on production rates and potentially ease pressure on landfill, while sending a strong message in favour of abolishing the criminal abuse of human rights. 

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Recommending reading:

Title image via Asket.


Caniato, F., Caridi, M., Crippa, L., & Moretto, A. (2012, February). Environmental sustainability in fashion supply chains: An exploratory case based research. Science Direct, 135(2), 659-670.

Caro, F., & Martinez-de-Albeniz, V. (2015). Fast Fashion: Business Model Overview and Research Opportunities (Vol. 223). Boston, MA: Springer.

Drew, D., & Yehounme, G. (2017, July 05). The apparel industry’s environmental impact in 6 graphics. Retrieved December 2018, from

Fashion Revolution. (n.d.). Retrieved November 2018, from

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Hu, Z.-H., Li, Q., Chen, X.-J., & Wanf, Y.-F. (2014). Sustainable Rent-Based Closed-Loop Supply Chain for Fashion Products. Sustainability, 6(10), 7063-7088.

Jemec, A., Horvat, P., Kunej, U., Bele, M., & Krzan, A. (2016, December). Uptake and effects of microplastic textile fibers on freshwater crustacean Daphnia magna. Environmental Pollution, 219, 201-209.

Muthu, S. S. (2017). Textiles and clothing sustainability: Nanotextiles and sustainability . Hong Kong: Springer.

Oxfam. (2018). Growing gulf between work and wealth: Australian fact sheet. 

Reucassel, C. (2018, May 30). War On waste: fast fashion problem In australia. (ABC, Producer) Retrieved December 2018, from

Rome, A. (2018, July 1). Fashion forward? Reflections on the environmental history of style. Oxford Academic, 23(3), 545-566.

The Levin Institute. (2016). What Is globalization? Retrieved December 2018, from

Thomas, S. (2018). Fashion Ethics. London, United Kingdom: Routledge.

Turker, D., & Altuntas, C. (2014). Sustainable supply chain management in the fast fashion industry: An analysis of corporate reports. European Management Journal, 32, 837-849.

United Nations Development Program. (2016, January). Sustainable development goals. Retrieved December 2018, from

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Zamani, B., Sandin, G., & Peters, G. M. (2017, September 20). Life cycle assessment of clothing libraries: can collaborative consumption reduce the environmental impact of fast fashion? Journal of Cleaner Production, 162, 1368-1375.

Show 19 footnotes
  1. The Levin Institute, 2016
  2. Turker & Altuntas, 2014
  3. Drew & Yehounme, 2017
  4. Caro & Martinez-de-Albeniz, 2015
  5. Hu, Li, Chen, & Wanf, 2014
  6. Reucassel, 2018
  7. Zamani, Sandin, & Peters, 2017
  8. Drew & Yehounme, 2017
  9. World Wildlife Foundation, 2013
  10. Muthu, 2017
  11. Jemec, Horvat, Kunej, Bele, & Krzan, 2016
  12. Wu et al., 2015
  13. Oxfam, 2018
  14. Walk Free Foundation, 2018
  15. Thomas, 2018
  16. Turker & Altuntas, 2014
  17. Caniato, Caridi, Crippa, & Moretto, 2012
  18. Rome, 2018
  19. Fashion Revolution, n.d.

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