Fast Fashion – Can It Be Ethical?

The fast fashion business model is to churn out new styles quickly and cheaply. It is a business model of disposable clothing. This is extremely profitable for big brands and attractively affordable to consumers, but it is also unsustainable and costly to people and the planet.

We decided to see whether five big fast fashion brands – H&M, Zara, Uniqlo, Topshop and Forever 21 – are doing anything to change their unflattering reputation for unsustainable fashion.

The problem

The fundamental problem with fast fashion is its low quality/high turnover business model. Clothing quickly goes out of fashion or simply falls apart, and must regularly be binned and replaced. There are serious problems associated with fast fashion that are caused by the pressure for cheap and speedy production on supplier factories.

Unsafe workplaces

In April 2013, 1138 workers died in Bangladesh when the Rana Plaza factory collapsed. Between 2005 and 2013 factory fires killed an estimated 600 workers.

gbp-fast-fashion-rana-plaza

Violation of human rights

There are several reports of forced and child labour used on cotton fields in China, India, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Burkina Faso, Benin, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. Many supplier factories don’t pay workers with a living wage.  The Free2Work 2012 report found that of companies investigated only 2% were able to pay a wage considered by NGOs to cover basic living requirements.

fast fashion uzbek cotton forced labour


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Chemical pollution

A series of investigations by Greenpeace found hazardous chemicals (including NPEs, and cancer-causing azo dyes) in the wastewater from textile manufacturers in China.  These chemicals continue to pollute waterways because they readily wash out when laundered.

Carbon footprint and water use

The fashion industry overall has a large carbon footprint, emitting around 850 Mt (million metric tonnes) of carbon dioxide every year. This figure is enormous when compared to the whole of Australia, which emits only around 290 Mt each year. Large amounts of water are also used on cotton fields and producing polyester, as well as in inefficient dyeing processes. Shockingly, it takes 2,700 litres of water to make a single T-shirt.

fast fashion water pollution


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Conclusion

It all seems so indisputably unsustainable, which begs the question: can fast fashion brands truly become environmentally friendly while keeping their fast fashion ethos?

Some solutions?

In recent years there have been various attempts to address these problems, including:

  • The Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety – a legally binding agreement which requires brands to ensure safe working conditions in supplier factories;
  • The Ethical Trading Initiative, which provides a baseline code for suppliers aimed at eliminating forced child and unfair labour; and
  • The Greenpeace Detox Campaign, which assesses brands’ commitment to removing all hazardous chemicals from products and the manufacturing process.
  • The Uzbek Cotton Pledge – companies are committing to not purchase cotton from Uzbekistan, until the Uzbek government stops forcing adults and children into labour during the cotton harvest.

But just how well have our these five big brands adopted these solutions?

Bangladesh Accord Signatory   Ethical Trading Initiative Detox Campaign Uzbek Cotton Pledge Good On You Ranking
H&M Yes

Yes Leader of Detox campaign Yes It’s a start
Zara Yes Yes Leader of Detox campaign Yes It’s a start
good on you good rating
Uniqlo Yes No Leader of Detox campaign Yes It’s a start
good on you good rating
Topshop Yes No No No It’s a start
Forever 21 No No No No Not Good Enough

fast fashion shoppersUniqlo, H&M, Zara and Topshop are making an attempt to improve their impact on people and the planet. But Forever 21 is left trailing behind. When you buy fashion remember that some big brands are clearly a better choice than others. You can search the free Good On You app to see how your favourite fashion brands rate. We take a closer look at different fast fashion brands’ policies on people, animals and the planet in our blog post here.


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Editor’s note: This article was updated on 2 June 2017.

Featured image via Mozo. Additional images via New York Times, Ecouterre (Forced Labour), Ecouterre (Water Pollution) and Bloomberg/Getty Images

Ann Emmanuel

Author Ann Emmanuel

Ann is a freelance writer passionate about social justice and creative ways of achieving it. She is currently studying International Studies and Law at UNSW (or is at least attempting to).

More posts by Ann Emmanuel

Join the discussion 3 Comments

  • Good On You Good On You says:

    The point of this article is that some fast fashion brands are doing better than others – and if that’s the kind of stuff you or your friends/children need to buy, then do the world a favour and choose the better ones.

    But some say that fast fashion is basically an incurable problem. Livia Firth – the inventor of the Green Carpet Challaneg was asked thw following questions

    “Do you believe the fashion supply chain is something we can change? What is the responsibility of business in catalyzing this change?”

    She says” Businesses have a huge role to play – and they need to take ownership of their supply chains without using excuses like local government legislation (or the very lack of them). It can be a huge challenge for brands to start these journeys and the path is very complex. Francois-Henri Pinault, CEO of Kering, said recently that “Transforming our industry so that it addresses our social and environmental challenges is a formidable task, but it is an achievable one.” Fortunately others – see Chopard, Kering or Marks & Spencer – have started this journey and are now leading the way.

    It is impossible to change for fast fashion brands unless they change their business model as it will always be impossible to produce those huge volumes ethically.”

    Do you believe the fashion supply chain is something we can change? What is the responsibility of business in catalyzing this change?

    Businesses have a huge role to play – and they need to take ownership of their supply chains without using excuses like local government legislation (or the very lack of them). It can be a huge challenge for brands to start these journeys and the path is very complex. Francois-Henri Pinault, CEO of Kering, said recently that “Transforming our industry so that it addresses our social and environmental challenges is a formidable task, but it is an achievable one.” Fortunately others – see Chopard, Kering or Marks & Spencer – have started this journey and are now leading the way.

    It is impossible to change for fast fashion brands unless they change their business model as it will always be impossible to produce those huge volumes ethically.

    http://truecostmovie.com/interview-livia-firth/

  • DOTF says:

    Great points, Ann. Brands are responsible for their choices and so are people. The fact of the matter is that most people don’t really care to take the time to think about everything that happened in the process of manufacturing the clothes we wear. Sometimes this is due to a lack of interest, sometimes its laziness and sometimes its just plain ignorance. Most people are stuck in a world where they see only what directly impacts their own day-to-day life. How many people sit down and think about how the things they use in their life came to be (and I mean from the time they were raw material)?

    The answer: very few.

    But those few can make a difference.

    • Good On You Good On You says:

      Hi DOTF
      Thanks for your comment!

      Actually the various research we see suggests that most people DO care and DO want to do the right thing. The problem is that it’s often too hard to conveniently get the information you need to make a better choice that is both ethical AND meets you practical and style needs. That’s why we are creating a comprehensive system for rating fashion and beauty brands – see goodonyou.org.au to find out how a brand rates.

      There’s info about how we rate brands here: https://goodonyou.eco/about/how-we-rate-products/. And we’ve just announced a smartphone app here http://app.goodonyou.org.au

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