Why is Fast Fashion Bad?


Why is fast fashion bad for the workers, the consumers, and the environment? How does fast fashion affect the animals? What are the biggest players? Is there a way to minimize the dangers of fast fashion? Here’s everything you need to know about the 106 billion U.S. dollar industry.

Why Is Fast Fashion Bad For The Environment, Workes & Consumers?

You’ve probably found yourself scrolling through your favorite social media platforms, only to be bombarded with endless influencer hauls and the hottest “must-have” outfits of the moment countless times. In a world where trends seem to change faster than you can say “wardrobe update,” the fast-paced fashion frenzy seems like the perfect opportunity to reinforce your sartorial experiments with only a few dollars. Fashion-savy folks rarely emphasize the ethical or environmental implications of their fashion choices online.

They try their best to not highlight the adverse impacts of fast fashion, such as exploitative labor practices, poor working conditions, and the immense carbon footprint associated with the rapid turnover of clothing. This further fuels the fast fashion industry’s unsustainable model of producing cheap, disposable garments. The lack of accountability perpetuates the illusion that fast fashion is harmless and fashionable.

However, there’s a hidden cost behind the alluring price tag of your trendy, $5 t-shirt.

What Is Fast Fashion?

Before we answer the question “Why is fast fashion bad”, we first need to understand what it is, exactly. Fast fashion is a business model and approach to clothing manufacturing and retail that prioritizes quick and frequent production of new clothing styles. It’s known for its rapid turnover of designs, which are often inspired by the latest runway trends or celebrity looks. The goal of fast fashion is to provide affordable and fashionable clothing to consumers in a short span of time, allowing them to keep up with the latest styles without breaking the bank. This overconsumption-based mindset is what has made fashion one of the world’s largest polluters.

This rapid production cycle often involves lower-quality materials and less attention to craftsmanship, leading to garments that might not withstand long-term wear. Additionally, the fast fashion industry has raised concerns about its environmental impact due to the high volume of clothing production, as well as its labor practices in some cases.

How Did Fast Fashion Start?

Let’s take a journey back in time to uncover the roots of fast fashion to really understand why is fast fashion bad. Prior to the 1800s, the world of fashion operated at a leisurely pace. Crafting your own attire meant gathering materials like wool or leather, meticulously preparing and weaving them, and finally creating your garments by hand.

Then came the game-changer: the Industrial Revolution. This era ushered in technological marvels such as the sewing machine, revolutionizing the way clothes were made. The once time-consuming process became faster, more efficient, and cost-effective. This shift gave rise to dressmaking shops tailored to the burgeoning middle class, changing the fashion landscape.

During this period, dressmaking establishments often relied on teams of skilled garment workers or even home-based artisans. Yet, with progress came a dark side—sweatshops and the troubling safety problems that often accompanied them. Tragically, the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911 claimed the lives of 146 garment workers, primarily young female immigrants, exposing the dire working conditions.

Fast-forward to the late 1990s and 2000s, and the zenith of affordable fashion emerged. “The term “fast fashion” was first introduced in the 1990s by The New York Times. Leading the charge, Zara stormed onto the scene in New York, wielding an audacious mission: to take only 15 days for a garment to go from the design stage to being sold in stores.” Translation? Fast fashion with one mission in mind—to inject our closets with an avalanche of single-season stunners. After all, who wants to be caught outfit repairing, right?

The digital realm embraced online shopping, while fast fashion giants like H&M and Topshop dominated main streets across the globe. Unaware of the dangers of fast fashion, these brands ingeniously replicated looks and design elements from prestigious fashion houses, swiftly and inexpensively. As a result, the world found itself equipped to nab cutting-edge ensembles whenever the mood struck. 

So, what is the environmental impact of fast fashion? why is fast fashion bad for consumers and workers alike? Let’s get into it!

Why Is Fast Fashion Bad For The Environment?

It’s time to pull back the glitzy curtain and take a sobering look at why fast fashion’s impact on our environment isn’t just a concern—it’s a crisis.

Textile waste in the fashion industry

Fast fashion’s breakneck production speed results in an unprecedented volume of clothing churned out each year. If the trend continues, the number of fast fashion waste is expected to soar up to 134 million tonnes a year by the end of the decade. That includes the 2.6 million tonnes of returned clothes that ended up in landfills in 2020 in the US alone. Mind you, these returns created 16 million tonnes of CO2 emissions in just one year.

Shockingly, a garbage truck’s worth of textiles is wasted every second. Unwanted garments, often made from synthetic materials that take hundreds of years to decompose, clog landfills, releasing harmful pollutants into the air, soil, and water.

Water overconsumption 

Behind that dazzling dress or versatile pair of jeans lies a staggering amount of water. In fact, the fashion industry is responsible for 20% of clobal waste water.  From growing cotton to dyeing and finishing textiles, fast fashion gobbles up roughly 79 billion cubic meters of water annually—equivalent to the water consumed by 32 million people in a year.

If wrapping your head around these numbers, so let’s put it in perspective: A whopping 2,700 liters of water is being poured into the creation of a single humble t-shirt. That’s the equivalent of satisfying one person’s thirst for a staggering 900 days! Of course, 92% of that water and 85% of those raw materials are actually extracted from other regions of the world that are traditionally pillaged countries. The fashion industry’s unquenchable thirst depletes water resources, endangering ecosystems and communities.

Chemicals in textiles & production

Toxic chemicals used in dyeing and finishing processes end up polluting rivers and harming aquatic life, while factory workers, often in developing countries, face hazardous working conditions with minimal protection. Dangerous chemicals such as formaldehyde, perfluorinated, azo dyes, NPEs get in contact with the skin, but also more than able to find their way into every body of water. 

Fast fashion’s Carbon footprint  

The industry’s global emissions will likely double by the end of the decade – even though they already are more than international aviation and shipping combined. Transporting clothing across the globe eats up fossil fuels and heaps carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. A single fast fashion garment might rack up more carbon emissions during its journey than you’d think, contributing to climate change’s relentless advance.

To put this into perspective: buying just one white cotton shirt produces the same amount of emissions as driving 35 miles in a car. The environmental impact of fast fashion is far greater than we think!

Fast fashion’s devastating deforestation 

Cotton, one of fashion’s cornerstones, demands extensive land use. The cultivation of conventional cotton results in deforestation and pesticide use that exacts a heavy toll on our planet’s delicate ecosystems. Research shows that 48% of fashion’s supply chain is linked to deforestation. So much so that, according to Kleiderly, fabrics from rainforests account for 5% of the total 1.2 trillion dollars in the textile industry globally, with this number growing at a 9% rate annually. 

These environmental realities aren’t mere statistics; they are the cries of a planet pushed to its limits. The devastation doesn’t stop at the numbers; it impacts real lives. Communities around the world, from farmers to factory workers, bear the brunt of fast fashion’s reckless pursuits.

With materials like nylon and polyester reigning supreme for their affordability and durability, these fabrics bear a hidden cost. With every spin cycle and tumble dry, tiny microfilaments are cast adrift, sneaking through sewage systems like elusive phantoms, only to settle in our waterways.

Approximately half a million tons of microplastics find their way to the ocean each year. To give this issue some tangible weight, that’s akin to the plastic pollution unleashed by over 50 billion discarded bottles. It’s a hidden price tag we can no longer afford to ignore.

Why Is Fast Fashion Bad For The Workers?

So, how does fast fashion affect people who work in it? Behind those bargain racks and trendy window displays lies a narrative that often goes untold – the plight of the workers who bring these garments to life.

Sweatshop labor practices in fast fashion

In the race to produce low-cost clothing, many fast fashion brands turn a blind eye to fair labor practices. Workers in fast fashion factories endure long hours, unsafe conditions, and meager wages, all in the name of keeping prices down. This exploitation reverberates across the globe, hitting hardest in countries where labor regulations are lax.  

In 202, over 80% of the world’s textile workers were women and young children, thrust into the heart of an industry that often fails to safeguard their rights. A stark statistic emerges when we focus on age alone—60% of the labor force within the global fashion realm is comprised of workers under the age of 18. A chilling spotlight on the grueling reality reveals that in countries like China, Bangladesh, and Vietnam, skilled sewers dedicate up to a staggering 20 hours each day to their craft, all while earning a mere 1€. It’s a heart-wrenching tale of exploitation that’s woven into the very fabric of our clothes, compelling us to ask ourselves if this is the price we’re willing to pay for our fashion choice.

Back in 2013, the world was jolted awake by a harrowing incident that brought the dark underbelly of fast fashion into stark relief. The Rana Plaza clothing manufacturing complex in Bangladesh tragically crumbled, claiming the lives of over 1,000 workers. Heart-wrenching images flooded the internet, serving as an unflinching reminder that behind those seemingly irresistible $5 price tags lie stories of human tragedy and sacrifice. The collapse of Rana Plaza was a chilling wake-up call, forcing us to confront the high cost of our fashion choices—costs that go far beyond what we see on the price tag.

Fast fashion workers are exposed to harmful substances while working without enough ventilation

Those toxic chemicals we delved into earlier? They’re not just a distant concern; they’re a dangerous reality that countless workers face every day. The absence of robust regulations lays bare millions of laborers in hazardous environments that can trigger allergic reactions, cause debilitating injuries, and, tragically, even result in loss of life. That’s yet another reason why is fast fashion bad.

“Between 70 to 80 kids in every village, such as Punjab, they found severe mental retardation and physical handicaps. And mothers and families are patiently waiting for their children to die, as they cannot afford a treatment either,” said Barbara Briggs, director of the Institute for Labor Rights, during her interview in The True Cost documentary.

Tracing the path back, we find farmers entangled in a web of toxic chemicals and grueling practices, each choice reverberating through the supply chain. This chilling reality was spotlighted in the powerful documentary “The True Cost,” which brought to light the agonizing toll on their physical and mental well-being. From factory floors to sprawling cotton fields, the price paid for our cheap fashion fix spans oceans and continents, leaving a trail of injustices that are impossible to ignore.

Why Is Fast Fashion Bad For Animals?

Fast fashion’s impact isn’t limited to humans and the environment—it also extends to animals. Many fast fashion brands use leather, fur, and animal skins in their products. The demand for these materials leads to animal suffering through factory farming, where animals are often kept in overcrowded and inhumane conditions. These practices contribute to animal cruelty and ethical concerns. The use of animal-derived materials has environmental repercussions. Leather production, for example, requires vast amounts of water, land, and resources, contributing to deforestation and habitat destruction.

Additionally, the demand for materials like fur can contribute to the trapping and hunting of wild animals, impacting delicate ecosystems and endangering species. The use of certain dyes and chemicals in clothing production can have negative effects on animals and ecosystems when they are released into waterways as pollutants.

Last, but not least, synthetic materials used in fast fashion, such as polyester and nylon, shed microfibers when washed. These microfibers enter water bodies and can be ingested by aquatic animals, potentially affecting their health and the food chain.

Now that you have a pretty good idea of why is fast fashion bad for the environment, the workers, and the animals, let’s have a look at how the industry affects the consumers.

Why Is Fast Fashion Bad For Consumers

The psychology of fast fashion

The fast fashion pollution does not only affect our planet but our minds as well. That instant surge of joy when you snag that cute dress at an unbeatable deal. It’s not just a piece of clothing; it’s a hit of dopamine, the “feel-good” neurotransmitter. Fast fashion cleverly taps into this pleasure center, making us addicted to that momentary high.

As Dr. Kit Yarrow, an expert on consumer behavior and professor emeritus at Golden Gate University in San Francisco, puts it “People get more excited about the bargain than they do about what it is they’re actually buying,” this can also be seen in many other aspects of our day to day lives.”

In a world where everything’s at our fingertips, patience has become an endangered virtue. Fast fashion caters to our desire for instant gratification—you want it now, and they make sure you can have it now. But the thrill of the immediate often fades as quickly as it arrives.

Those overflowing racks give the illusion of endless options, triggering a sense of excitement. However, the constant churn of styles and limited shelf life means that what you buy today might not even be available next week. This perceived scarcity can push us to buy more than we need.

Scrolling through Instagram, you’re bombarded with influencers flaunting new outfits every day. It’s hard not to feel like you’re missing out (hello, FOMO). Fast fashion capitalizes on this fear, offering a quick fix to keep up with the seemingly ever-changing trends.

The mental health affect of overconsumption

So, why is fast fashion bad for our mental health? In the United States alone, a staggering 11.3 million tons of textile waste—a hefty 85% of all textiles—find their dismal resting place in landfills each year. Wrap your mind around this: that’s a weighty load of roughly 81.5 pounds (about 37 kilograms) per person, per annum, or an eye-popping surge of approximately 2,150 discarded pieces every single second, spanning the expanse of the entire country. 

In a world where trends change faster than you can refresh your social media feed, the pressure to belong to the “in” crowd can be overwhelming. But what happens when you don’t quite blend into the trendy group adorned in the latest fast fashion gems? The mental toll can be more significant than you might think. The mindset shifts from investing in quality pieces to hoarding cheap items, leading to a cluttered closet with little satisfaction.

Fast fashion dictates trends at lightning speed, but it often leaves personal style in the dust. In the race to stay ahead of trends, we lose sight of the value of our possessions. The quick turnover of fast fashion fosters an emotional disconnect with our clothes, leaving us with an unfulfilling shopping experience and a closet full of pieces we hardly wear.

The race to keep up with fast fashion trends can strain your wallet. Spending beyond your means to stay in step with fleeting styles can lead to financial stress and a sense of guilt, adding another layer to the mental burden.

Now that you know why is fast fashion bad for consumers and their mental health, let’s move on to something equally as disturbing – the industry’s hidden health dangers.

How Toxic Is Fast Fashion For Your Health?

Fast fashion relies heavily on synthetic materials such as polyester, nylon, and other synthetic blends. These materials often contain toxic chemicals like formaldehyde, phthalates, and azo dyes. These chemicals can cause skin irritation, allergies, and even long-term health issues when they come into contact with our skin.

For Diamond’s study, commissioned by Marketplace, researchers tested 38 samples of children’s and adult clothes and accessories. One in five had concerning levels of chemicals, like lead, PFAS, and phthalates. Unsurprisingly, one of the worst offenders was SHEIN.

Shockingly, they were peddling a seemingly harmless toddler’s jacket that contained a staggering 20 times the permissible amount of lead set by Canada’s health department. This unsettling discovery serves as a stark reminder that the race for low-cost, quick-turnaround clothing can come at the dire expense of safety.

But the tale doesn’t end there. The likes of Zaful and AliExpress, players in the fast fashion arena, were also implicated in the disturbing narrative. These brands were found to be offering garments laden with high levels of toxic chemicals, including the notorious phthalates. The consequences of such dangerous chemicals can span from skin irritations to grave long-term health risks.

As the calendar turned to November of this year, Greenpeace unleashed a sobering report shedding light on SHEIN’s chemical practices and business ethos. Despite SHEIN’s assurances of investigating the matter, Greenpeace’s findings were troublingly consistent. They delved into the issue by purchasing a total of 47 items, and their discoveries reverberated with alarming consequences. The brand’s choice to deploy hazardous chemicals in excessive quantities was glaring, tainting a disconcerting 15% of the garments they investigated.

So, while most of us try to shed light on the environmental impact of fast fashion, the industry also affects our health in more ways than one. This is certainly something we should all keep in mind.

Why Is Fast Fashion Bad For Climate Change?

Fast fashion and climate change are intrinsically linked, with the fast fashion industry contributing significantly to the global climate crisis.  

Fast fashion relies on a rapid turnover of clothing styles, leading to excessive production, transportation, and disposal of garments. The entire lifecycle of a garment, from raw material extraction to manufacturing, transportation, and eventual disposal, involves high levels of greenhouse gas emissions, primarily carbon dioxide.

Also, the fast fashion industry is energy-intensive, requiring vast amounts of energy for processes like fabric production, dyeing, and manufacturing. The majority of this energy comes from non-renewable sources, further contributing to carbon emissions.

The production of raw materials like cotton contributes to deforestation and land use changes, which release stored carbon into the atmosphere. Plus, many fast fashion garments are made from synthetic materials like polyester, which are derived from fossil fuels. During the manifacturing process, synthetic fibers releases greenhouse gases, and when these materials shed microplastics during washing, they contribute to plastic pollution and marine ecosystem degradation.

On top of that, the excessive water consumption of the fast fashion industry contributes to environmental degradation, affects local communities, and contributes to carbon emissions due to energy-intensive water treatment. That “throwaway culture” leads to an overconsumption of resources and increased carbon emissions due to the constant need for production and transportation.

Addressing the impact of fast fashion on climate change requires a shift toward sustainable and ethical practices. Supporting brands that prioritize sustainability, choosing higher-quality, longer-lasting garments, reducing consumption, and advocating for stricter regulations and transparency within the fashion industry are all steps that can collectively help mitigate the negative effects of fast fashion on our planet’s climate.

How To Avoid Fast Fashion: The Sustainable Alternatives

Educate yourself

Learn about the negative impact of fast fashion and stay informed about ethical and sustainable practices. Knowledge empowers you to make better choices. We’ve already published many deep-dives, shedding light on 2023’s most popular fast fashion brands and their practices, including J Crew, Romwe, Banana Republic, Uniqlo, Urban Outfitters, and Assos.

Choose quality over quantity

Invest in well-made, durable clothing that stands the test of time. High-quality pieces may have a higher upfront cost, but they save you money in the long run and reduce the need for constant replacements.

Buy secondhand

Thrifting, vintage shopping, and buying secondhand clothing are fantastic alternatives. Not only do you give pre-loved garments a new lease on life, but you also divert clothing from landfills.

Support sustainable brands

Look for sustainable clothing brands that prioritize sustainability, ethical labor practices, and transparency. All ethical fashion brands focus on using sustainable materials, ethical production methods, and fair wages for workers. We’ve put together lists of Sustainable Alternatives to J Crew, Sustainable Alternatives to Lululemon, and Ethical Alternatives to Shein, for you to check out.

Practice mindful consumption

Before making a purchase, ask yourself if you truly need the item and how often you’ll wear it. This mindful approach prevents impulse buying and helps you curate a more intentional wardrobe.

Take care of your clothing

Proper care, washing, and storage can extend the life of your clothes. This way, you’ll reduce the need for replacements and minimizes your environmental footprint.

Advocate for change

Use your voice to raise awareness about the negative impact of fast fashion. Engage in conversations, share information on social media, and encourage others to make conscious choices.

Conclusion: Why is Fast Fashion Bad?

In conclusion, the allure of fast fashion often masks a complex web of negative consequences that ripple far beyond our closets. From its detrimental impact on the environment, fueled by excessive waste, pollution, and resource depletion, to its exploitation of workers and promotion of unethical labor practices, fast fashion embodies a system built on profit at the expense of human well-being and planetary health. Its cycle of overconsumption and rapid turnover reinforces a culture that values quantity over quality, perpetuating a throwaway mentality that strains both our wallets and the planet.

Now that you know what is the environmental impact of fast fashion and why is fast fashion bad for the workers, consumers, and animals, you can help steer the fashion industry toward a brighter, more responsible future. Ultimately, the decision to redefine fashion’s future rests in our hands, and each choice we make is a step toward a world where style and substance coexist harmoniously.

About Author

Konstantina Antoniadou

Freelance sustainability and fashion writer with an ongoing curiosity to explore new innovative technologies, and report on trends in “green” industries.