The Impact of Fast Fashion

Sustainable + Ethical Fashion – A definition

The multifaceted nature of fashion ensures that diverse approaches are needed for it to attain a measure of sustainability which is defined as below:

“Sustainable and ethical fashion endorses an approach to design, sourcing and manufacturing – that considers the social economic and environmental impacts of its actions, going beyond doing less harm and actively seeking to create value for all stakeholders.”

For long term changes to take place, both the consumer and producer have roles to play. In today’s society, status, excitement and a sense of belonging are achieved through the appropriation of goods – especially clothing. Consumption continues to grow as we seek to fulfil an inexhaustible level of desires (Campbell, 2006). Yet, as Kate Fletcher states, fashion has a unique place in the world and can help to create a message beyond anti-consumption trading on the idea that fashion is important to human culture and can react positively to the sustainability agenda (Fletcher, 2009).

The Impact of Fast Fashion

Deeply embedded CSR is needed if fashion companies are to continue to thrive in the long term, as global shocks place increasing pressure on resources. The rise of the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) from producer and supplier countries to consuming nations is already having an impact on the price of natural resources in materials as diverse as copper and cotton (BBC, 2011) (Smith & Craze, 2010) (Mirdha, 2011) (Mason, 2011). Combined with instability in oil producing countries, the fashion industry is facing uncertainty across the entire supply chain. The rise in oil prices increased transport costs as well as the price of oil based materials on which the industry relies. Today many items are made from polyester and nylon which are oil based.[1] The popular viscose, found in many women’s items, is a plant based material made from wood pulp. The high water use combined with the emissions from the chemical processes needed to dissolve the cellulose and create the filaments make it an equally damaging material (Fletcher, 2009) .

Combining these issues with problems regarding water scarcity and soil integrity one starts to comprehend the situation facing fashion. The textile industry is the third most water intensive industry in the world (Allwood, Laursen, Laursen, & Bocken, 2006). The cotton industry evaporates 210 billion cubic meters of water while at the same time polluting 50billion cubic litres (Chapagain, Hoekstra, Savenije, & Gautam, 2006). This figure represents 3.5% of global water usage for crop production.  On an annual basis, approximately 70million tons of water is wasted (Allwood, Laursen, Laursen, & Bocken, 2006). 60kg of water is used to create a cotton t-shirt, from cultivation of cotton through to production. An additional 45kg is discharged as waste per kg of output. This figure, however, only includes the virtual or embedded water, and does not take into account the use of water once owned by the consumer. Meanwhile the overuse of pesticides has a detrimental impact on the longevity of soil quality. Yet the positive feedback loop that has been created here means that farmers still continue to use increasing levels of these chemicals to maintain their yields just as pesticide prices increase and regulations become stricter due to the health implications of using them (Forum for the Future, 2011) (Crewe, 2008) (Allwood, Laursen, Laursen, & Bocken, 2006).

Aral Sea

(N.A.S.A., 2011)

One of the most devastating effects has been the shrinking of the Aral sea (pictured above) to just 15% of its original size. The implications of the loss of water affects not just the cotton and textiles industry but the livelihoods of all those using the sea, which was at one time home to 24 native species of fish providing 40,000 tonnes of fish a year – a valuable source of income and nutrition (Small, Meer, & Upshur, 2001) (Kumar, 2002) (Environmental Justice Foundation). The desiccation of this sea has been linked to the irrigation systems used for cotton farming. Beyond the direct effect on the sea, the surrounding biodiversity has also been severely damaged with only an estimated 15-20% of the Tugai Forests remaining – home 29 plants species endemic to central Asia (Environmental Justice Foundation).

In the current age of austerity, triggered by the largest financial crisis since the Great Depression, consumers are starting to rethink the way they shop. Trusted brands, such as Ted Baker and French Connection are getting a boost in sales, while lower end retailers Primark and H&M are experiencing difficulties as people search for quality products (White, 2011). A recent article in Eco-textiles stated that one in four UK shoppers now expect “retailers and brands to be more transparent about the origins of the fabric making up their clothes” (Ecotextile News, 2011) (Madeby, 2011).

At the same time firms are slowly coming to terms with factors that have begun to place limits on their growth. These are systemic issues with which the industry will have to contend and tie in closely to the nature of the firm and its relationship with the ecosystem that supports it. Globalisation when combined with modern technology effectively erases boarders. At the start of the outsourcing process, customers were uninterested in the provenance of their goods. For them, the only thing that mattered was that items that they could not afford previously were now accessible – the advent of affordable exclusivity. As environmental discourses emerged and the true impact of global industries started to come to light, stories of maltreatment of underpaid workers[2] and environmental degradation surfaced and supply chain issues no longer a distant problem.

This chapter highlighted the various problems facing the fashion industry; the following chapter will contextualise the economic paradigm in which the industry operates, to show how fashion is part of the neo-liberal economic system which places profit above all else. Yet concurrently CSR is playing an increasing role in redefining the relationship between business and the ecosystem.


[1] Women’s tights, zips, flip flops, fake fur and sneakers. The list is extensive (PBS, 2008)

[2] Wages in Bangladesh, the cheapest clothing manufacturing country, halved between 1996 and 2006 (Crewe, 2008)

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

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