The true cost of fast fashion

The true cost of fast fashion

Yesterday I watched a documentary called The True Cost. It is not a feel good-movie. It would probably be better described as a feel-bad movie. But it’s a think-good movie. I mean it forces us to think in better ways about things we usually do without thinking at all.


The documentary is about fast fashion and the true cost of our cheap, disposable clothing habits on our land, water and air. We have long assumed that our planet will offer us unlimited supplies of land, water and air, and therefore most economic models do not really account for the cost of depleting or polluting these resources. This documentary helps to make visible the true cost of that $4 t-shirt.

It also sheds light on the lives of people who work in the fashion industry, from cotton farmers to leather and textile workers and beyond. It is estimated that one in every six people on the planet work in the fashion industry. And many of these people work in unpleasant and dangerous conditions that are harmful to their health. Sweatshop workers in developing countries are frequently paid extraordinarily little and may be physically punished if they try to improve their pay or conditions, for example by forming a union. Most fashion brands avoid taking responsibility for the conditions of the workers who make their clothes by not actually owning any factories or employing any textile workers. Instead they outsource production to subcontractors that they only loosely supervise. Many brands have guidelines and codes of conduct in place to convince us that their workers have basic right and earn a living wage but heavily resist any efforts to turn those codes into laws, which might actually protect those same workers. 

Some people would have us believe that textile workers are glad to have the jobs they have. They argue that economies based on low paid human capital jobs will develop into more advanced economies with higher pay in time; that all this is natural. But, when workers are successful in getting better conditions or pay, the fashion brands typically move on to a new country where the demands are not so high, or where governments are prepared to subdue workers’ demands. We are keeping people (people just like us with the same hopes, dreams, and loves) in economic slavery because we want cheap, disposable clothes. The system is rigged against them so that we can wear a new dress to every party we go to.


What is fast fashion anyway?

Fashion itself is a strange concept. Instead of being content with clothes that fit us and keep us warm, dry, cool, or whatever they need to do, we have somehow been convinced that we need to regularly buy new clothes in order to be in fashion. Most of us feel the need to wear similar colours and shapes of clothes to those worn by other people in order to fit in. This is odd when you think about it. But, until 20 or so years ago, it wasn’t totally unsustainable. Fashion brands had a couple of “seasons” a year when they showed us what new things we needed to buy in order to look like everyone else.

Fast fashion is fashion on steroids! Instead of two seasons a year, we now have new trends appearing weekly. Fast fashion clothing is cheap and often of dubious quality. It is not designed to be durable because we will need to throw it out when the new trends arrive next week. According to Greenpeace, fast fashion items are worn an average of five or six times before we get rid of them. This means that fast fashion is not only problematic for natural resources and people but is also a huge source of waste. 

If all of the problems that fast fashion creates were for some kind of good cause—if we could eat clothes or they were saving our lives—this would be a little more understandable. But fashion really does very little for us, apart from giving us a short-lived, retail-therapy buzz. And it may actually be making us less happy. Studies have shown that, after basic needs are met, more things do not make us happier. And we are focusing on material things at the expense of social relations and leisure, which actually do make us more content.

So, in summary, we are destroying our natural resources, enslaving our fellow humans, and creating monstrous amounts of trash in order to buy things that we don’t need, that don’t make us happier, and might even make us sadder! What on earth are we doing? 

I can’t hope to do justice to The True Cost here so I recommend you watch it for yourselves. It’s available on Netflix or you can buy it. I would say, “enjoy the show” but you probably won’t. Enjoy thinking though!


All the images on this page are courtesy of


Great places to learn more about fast fashion and it’s impacts:

  • Timeout for fast fashion is an informative report published by Greenpeace.

  • Fashion revolution is an organisation that campaigns for workers rights and transparency in the fashion industry.

  • A recent news report by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation on how fast fashion waste is impacting charities.

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