Ethical clothing vs fast fashion: the true cost of cheap clothes

So what’s the big deal about ethical fashion? Why should we be concerned about fast fashion and the impact on the environment . . . is cheap clothing really that bad? 

The short answer is yes.  In this post, I’ll take a look at some of the numbers behind the brands as I compare ethical clothing vs fast fashion.

Have you ever thought about what it takes for the fast fashion industry to bring you clothes at such low prices? How they manage to have such a quick turnaround in new product ranges? Before one trend ends a new one is already on the catwalk and heading to the shops.

The fast fashion industry pales in comparison to the more sustainable fashion brands, not only in relation to our environment but also the working conditions of those involved in manufacture.

Fast Fashion in numbers

Loads of t shirts hanging in a high street retailer

Let’s start with some facts and figures – for these, I have turned to Traid, a UK-based charity who are doing incredible work to promote education and sustainability within the clothing industry. They do this by offering free resources and delivering workshops and talks to schools as well as giving tailored presentations for universities and civil society groups. You can find out more about their work here.

One of their many resources sets out some quite mind-blowing statistics. Here’s just a few of them put together in 2017 (and things are only getting worse). You can read the full Impacts of Clothing fact sheet and the sources for these figures here

  • Textiles production uses around 93 billion cubic metres of water annually and an estimated 1.2 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions from production per year.5 This is more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined.
  • The total footprint of clothing in use in the UK was 26.2 million tonnes CO2e in 2016 – up from 24 million tonnes in 2012.
  • The 6.4 million tonnes of clothing consumed in the European Union-28 in 2015 generated 195 million tonnes CO2e and a total water footprint of around 46,400 million.(cubic metres?)
  • The clothing industry’s CO2 emissions are expected to rise to nearly 2.8 billion tonnes per year by 2030. These are the equivalent of emissions produced by nearly 230 million passenger vehicles driven for a year, assuming average driving patterns.
  • It is expected that clothing consumption will increase globally by 63% by 2030, from the current 62 million tonnes to 102 million tonnes by 2030.
  • The UK consumes around 1.1 million tonnes of clothing per year.
  • Clothing consumption in the UK is rising, with a 200,000 tonne increase in consumption between 2012 to 2016.
  • The estimated cost to the UK economy of landfilling clothing and household textiles each year is approximately GBP 82 million.
  • Around 350,000 tonnes of clothes, with an estimated value of £140 million, go to landfill every year in the UK.

Those are just a few of the frankly mind-boggling facts and figures for the fast fashion industry – *more at the end of this article.

But are some fast fashion companies sustainable?

So what about those claiming to be sustainable? Let’s have a look at a few well-known brands and see what difference they are making.

Sustainable development in any industry is important for the environment, the economy and social community. It is interesting that more of the fast fashion outlets are developing a greater awareness of their environmental impact. For example, NEXT published a document on Human Rights and Modern Slavery detailing what they are doing to reduce their impact on this, and they stock some sustainable, ethical brands in their online store.

In relation to the environment NEXT’s recent Corporate Responsibility report states:

“Climate change is widely regarded as one of the greatest global environmental challenges society faces and we take our responsibilities in this area seriously. NEXT is working to reduce the direct impact of its business operations on the natural environment. Our aim is to work to create more sustainable ways of doing business to conserve energy, save money and improve resource efficiency. NEXT remains committed to minimising our environmental impacts by reducing both the carbon intensity of our activities and the natural resources we use, through the development and operation of good business practices to manage resources more efficiently throughout their lifecycle.”

It’s great to see larger companies are now acknowledging there is a problem and looking into solutions, but they still need to make big profits and we need to be careful they aren’t just greenwashing us with clever marketing words that sound like they are doing the right thing, but in reality they could be doing so much more.

Take Primark for example – if you read their website they are doing all they can to be environmentally friendly and have happy workers but they are often named in the top 5 fast fashion companies to avoid and have had their fair share of scandals, including accusations about the use of child labour.

What we need to do is ask ourselves is just how can such companies sell their clothes so cheaply? That alone should be ringing alarm bells.  

ethical clothing vs fast fashion produces some wonderful and unique looks such as these dresses

Look beyond the price

It’s not just the price though, it’s about quality too – we need clothing to be made to last so it can be passed on instead of putting so many items in landfill. Why do so many people embrace our throw-away culture? Fast fashion deliberately encourages this culture through a never-ending supply of cheap clothes and new trends. We need companies to take a stand and stop feeding the underlying issue – people’s need for more than they need.

H&M are another brand who have frequently been wrapped up in scandals about poor working conditions. Zara have been accused of using migrant workers in Brazil to make their garments in slave-like conditions while ASOS are all about the quickest turnaround on the next style/collection. All have now apparently made some moves forward to improve things thanks to mounting pressures to do so but many of us believe they must do more.

Companies who boast about being ethical and sustainable should be implementing procedures to limit their impact on the environment and ensure their workers and manufactures have a fair wage and good working conditions.

As we know, this costs money (see our previous article about why sustainable clothing is so expensive here). It’s just not practical for fast fashion retailers to implement all this and keep costs low. It may be that some targets made by the Government are being met by some companies but it is impossible to sell high quality, low environmental impact, sustainable clothing at the prices they do now by being as ethically minded as the more sustainable companies.  That they have so many collections and such a high turnaround in itself is environmentally damaging.

Coloured textiles from a sustainable source

So what do ethical brands do differently?

Let’s look.  Frugi, one of my favourites, are reusing plastics by making their outerwear, backpacks, lunch bags and pencil cases out of plastic drinks bottles! I absolutely love their outerwear and swear by the puddlebusters and raincoats and it makes me smile knowing how they were made (it takes 35 bottles to make one).  Additionally they last well and I will inevitably get some money back when I sell them on once we’ve finished with them,  helping to fund the next puddlebusters purchase – win-win! Considering plastic bottles now make up a third of all plastic pollution in the sea I would love to see more companies following in Frugi’s footsteps and it’s great to see others like Kite are working in a similar way.

Frugi have a Code of Conduct

  • No child labour
  • Employment is freely chosen
  • There’s absolutely no discrimination
  • Our suppliers look after their employees

Because they are doing so much you will find this code all over their website. Transparency is key, it’s not a small print statement that you have to hunt a website for – it’s out there loud and clear and being shouted about.    

Boden is another company very focussed on sustainability and their items come with the Boden promise:

 “And although we provide a 365-day guarantee on all our products, we hope they’ll be giving you (or their next owner) pleasure for years to come. When it comes to our children’s coats, we’re so confident they’ll survive multiple Mini owners that we leave room on the labels for four different children to write their names (and you’ve even asked for more space). All good news for the planet.”.  

It’s great to see a company focusing on the quality and guaranteeing it with the view that these items will last and be passed on, not end up in landfill too quickly because they’ve fallen apart within 6 months.

The problem is transparency

It’s not simply the companies’ fault for what is happening. If the world in the main was not consuming their products there would be no need to make them – it’s supply and demand. What we really need to do is stop buying so much then, when we do spend the extra money we’ve saved, we can afford to spend a little more on purchases from a more ethical and sustainable business. We must continue to think about each of our purchases carefully, how we can ensure we are actually wearing what is in our wardrobes, how each of us as individuals can reuse, recycle, upcycle items to limit our own waste as much as we can.  

Transparency is key if we are to believe what companies are telling us and the Fashion Transparency Index 2020 is an excellent resource to check out. Each year they review  250 of the world’s largest fashion brands and retailers and then rank them according to how much they disclose about their social and environmental policies, practices and impacts. It’s an interesting read and H&M have been one of the highest scoring brands since 2017, so perhaps they are really trying to change. On the other hand Gap’s score has barely changed since 2017 and so they have not made any significant steps towards transparency – makes me question why…?

Ethical clothing vs fast fashion — final thoughts

Personally I am inclined to trust small local brands over the large corporations and that, alongside repairing clothes and buying second hand, is how I do my bit. However, whilst fast fashion focuses on high turnaround and lower quality, often making it cheaper to buy a new item of clothing rather than repair it, we must continue to educate and pressurise the fast fashion industry to change faster and be more transparent.

Power and change lies in how we choose to shop…. buy less, buy better.

If you’d like to delve deeper into the real issues of the fast fashion industry this Fixing Fashion: Clothing, consumption and sustainability report to the UK Government is well worth a read.  

*Additional facts from Traid

  • The fashion industry is ranked fourth in terms of its negative environmental impact – just below housing, transport, and food.
  • Clothes are a major contributor to the problem of plastic in our oceans. It has been estimated that around half a million tonnes of plastic microfibres shed during the washing of synthetic textiles such as polyester, nylon or acrylic end up in the ocean annually.
  • The World Bank estimates that 20% of industrial wastewater pollution worldwide originates from the textile industry. Some of these chemicals are classified as bio-accumulative and persistent, meaning that once in the environment, they will remain there for a long time.
  • It is estimated that more than half of the fast fashion produced is disposed of in under a year.
  • Around 30% of the clothing in the wardrobe of an average UK household has not been worn for at least a year, most commonly because it no longer fits
  • In the last 15 years, clothing production has roughly doubled.
  • During the past 10 years, the number of items of clothing purchased per consumer has more than doubled.

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