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.
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.
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.
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.
It all seems so indisputably unsustainable, which begs the question: can fast fashion brands truly become environmentally friendly while keeping their fast fashion ethos?
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
|Uniqlo||Yes||No||Leader of Detox campaign||Yes||It’s a start
|Topshop||Yes||No||No||No||It’s a start
|Forever 21||No||No||No||No||Not Good Enough
Uniqlo, 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.
Editor’s note: This article was updated on 2 June 2017.