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The true cost of fast fashion

Dr Patsy Perry

Dr Patsy Perry

Fashion has an important role in helping us construct our self-identity and build self-esteem but it's harming the environment. Dr Patsy Perry examines the waste and pollution costs of this growing industry.

Fast fashion has revolutionised the industry and democratised style at prices within everyone’s reach. Through effective supply chain management, retailers focus on reducing cost and lead time in order to rapidly deliver frequent new collections inspired by catwalk or celebrity trends. Manchester, once the centre of Britain’s cotton industry, is now the UK capital of online fast fashion. Brands’ success in delivering irresistible trends at affordable prices is evidenced by their phenomenal growth, far outpacing established high-street retailers.

However, the growth of the fast fashion business model, with its rapid production of low-cost clothes, has encouraged hyper-consumption and overproduction. The cheap prices and the high frequency of new products mean that clothes are seen as disposable. In environmental terms, fast fashion has become synonymous with single-use plastic.

The cost and speed implications of this fashion business model result in worse environmental impacts, as corners are more likely to be cut. These environmental impacts include: water pollution from pesticide run-off; microfibres and hazardous chemicals used for textile dyeing and finishing; the carbon footprint of extensive global supply chains; and textile waste (much of which is non-biodegradable). With the rise of online shopping and the concomitant rise of returned goods, these issues are exacerbated with reports of brands burning unsold stock or sending returned stock to landfill rather than redistributing it.

Fast fashion also has social implications, with sweatshop conditions discovered in a microeconomy of ‘dark factories’ in the UK, where workers earn less than the minimum wage in exploitative conditions. Fast fashion brands’ use of social media marketing and celebrity endorsement to boost demand affects consumers. Evidence has emerged that spending extensive time on social media following celebrities and influencers who parade in an ever-changing selection of the latest styles with digitally-enhanced looks, and the inevitable social comparison that comes with it, can have a negative impact on self-esteem and body image. This can result in psychological disorders, especially for young females.

Public opinion is shifting and calls to clean up fast fashion come from a number of perspectives – from the Environmental Audit Committee’s inquiry to grassroots movement Extinction Rebellion’s calls for a fashion boycott, as well as from consumers themselves. Solutions to the fast fashion problem will be interdisciplinary as there is a need to understand the science behind alternative production methods, the viability of alternative business models and the potential for scaling such solutions.

All of this must be considered alongside an understanding of the consumer psychology of our addiction to constant newness. Although some fast fashion brands are engaging with the sustainability agenda by producing capsule collections made from recycled content, the elephant in the room is the sheer volume that is produced. We often hear the consumer blamed for their irresponsible behaviour, but the consumer only buys what is presented to them. There is a need for brands to offer us fewer, better things which are not seen as disposable.

Dr Patsy Perry

Senior Lecturer in Fashion Marketing and Retail, School of Natural Sciences

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