Fast Fashion: The Hidden Costs

Fast Fashion: The Hidden Costs

by Gina Morris

It’s time to take the hidden costs of the fast-fashion industry out of the closet.

The injustices in our wardrobes are being increasingly exposed in a movement that seeks to transform the fashion industry. As a newcomer to the landscape of ethical fashion, I reflect on the impacts of an exploitative, global model of production within the fashion industry, and explore what we can do as consumers and students to make a difference.

“This cost, at what cost?” was the question I was confronted with, on a cold February evening, watching Andrew Morgan’s ‘ground-breaking’ documentary, The True Cost. Morgan lays bare the shocking ‘true costs’ of the fashion industry with cinematic poignancy, and, one by one, they began to radically transform the way in which I relate to the industry. Since then, I have started to explore more of the world of ethical fashion, a journey which never ceases to convict and challenge my naivety as a consumer. It turns out that there is a ‘fashion revolution’ growing in many Western countries and cities, and Oxford is playing its part.

The problem starts with the systematic flaws in the industry’s supply chain. According to The True Cost, 95% of clothes bought in the United States in 1960 were made in the country. Today, this figure stands at 3%, meanwhile the sale of garments has increased by over 400% in the last two decades. Since the 1960s, incredible advances in transport and communications technology worldwide have permitted clothing companies to make radical changes to their supply chains in order to lower production costs. With much cheaper labour available in less developed countries, coupled with a demand for lower price tags and larger profit margins, production has been pushed into the ‘global peripheries’, where retailers commission independent factories to produce their clothing at low costs. The independence of the factories is important. It gives companies the flexibility to switch from one factory to another in response to changing production costs with no legal accountability, while factory wages are consequently forced down in order to remain competitive. Many garment factory workers are consequently paid just $3 a day, working in dangerous and unkept conditions, while global retailers reap the profits of a $3trn annual industry. As such, the global, capitalist market appears to be burgeoning thanks to the propagation of global development inequalities, systematically exploiting workers in the Global South in order to sustain the consumerist lifestyles of those in the Global North.

So, the human costs are profound. But, as I discovered, they are also increasingly feminine. Over 80% of garment workers are women (Fashion Revolution), most of whom are stuck in low-paid, unskilled work, with limited ability and support to negotiate better conditions. It represents a growing feminisation trend within what some call the global ‘precariat’: a rising, global class pressured to accept low-paid, unstable labour, often with no contract and no security. Global outsourcing trends along with the gendered nature of work such as garment production and care-giving jobs results in a disproportionate ratio of women from the Third World fulfilling these roles. This is quite tragically juxtaposed with a general trajectory of improving equality and female empowerment (with some significant exceptions) in the Global North. Meanwhile the supply chain of powerful, global retailers maintains a physical and mental disconnect between the female empowerment among their customers, and the female exploitation among their workers.

What about the environmental cost? Unfortunately, the situation is equally desperate. The fast fashion industry might be “costing the earth” (Fashion Revolution) and is said to be the second most polluting industry in the world (True Cost documentary), with clothes production currently taking up enormous amounts of water, land and energy. The demand for cotton has resulted in a dramatic rise in genetic modification, as well as the proliferation of pesticide and insecticide use, all of which have untested and potentially dangerous impacts for the environment and for human health. Meanwhile, capitalism ensures that only that which is traded counts as a commodity, with inputs such as water, earth and chemicals being completely disregarded. The industry generates enormous amounts of waste too. In the last 15 years, clothes production has almost doubled, while at the same time, around 300,000 tonnes of used clothes go to landfill in the UK every year (Fashion Revolution). The model of consumption promoted by the fast fashion industry encourages meaningless, cheap purchases which are discarded after several uses. As far as sustainability goes, the fashion industry is catastrophically off the mark.

The question I found myself asking after all of this was: what can we do to change things? And, as I was pleasantly surprised to find, that the answer is actually quite a lot. Producers and consumers are increasingly mobilising and responding to these injustices. As my research continued and deepened, I was actually quite amazed that I hadn’t come across this movement earlier. It turns out that lots of companies are just as passionate as I had become about changing the industry. Clothing companies such as PeopleTree, Know the Origin, Kowtow, Patagonia and Amour Vert use ethically sourced materials, fair trade and fair labour to produce their clothes. And it’s not just high-end, expensive, ethical labels either. There are solutions that are just as friendly to your student budget as they are to the environment, and many are facilitated by a growing ‘sharing economy’. Second-hand options such as Depop, charity shops, vintage fairs and clothes hire companies (such as Renttherunway) are often easier on the pocket, while still reducing waste and being kinder on the environment.

On the activism front, many organisations are working to put pressure on policy makers and retailers to change the damaging practices of the industry.  Fashion Revolution, TearFund, International Justice Mission and Good On You are among the many bodies demanding change. And the movement is active within Oxford. Just Love Oxford are organising an event called Stand For Freedom on the 24th-25th May in Bonn Square (outside Westgate), to raise awareness for issues relating to modern slavery, including slavery in the Fashion Industry. The same group are also behind the Ethical Stash campaign, which is aiming to encourage JCRs to commit to buying stash from ethical suppliers. More information on these projects can be found on the group’s Instagram page @ethicaloxford. If you haven’t already heard of the ethical fashion movement, now is the time to get involved.  Let’s take the injustices of the fast fashion industry out of the closet.


Gina is a first-year Geography student at Mansfield College.

Opinions expressed are those of the author, not of Just Love Oxford. Just Love Oxford is not responsible for the content of external links or any content provided by external organisations.

[image description (cover): Gina is standing on a bridge in central Paris, France. The river is visible behind with trees to the side and landmark buildings in the background.] [image description (inline): Gina is standing outside in front of a tree, smiling and holding a reusable mug.]