Fast Fashion Industry

Have you ever noticed that the price of clothing has gone down as if there was deflation over the years? This is not because there have been technological advancements that increased efficiency reducing costs that are explaining the price drop; it is slightly more complicated than that (Morgan). According to Conca James, an environmental scientist, around 10% of the world’s carbon emissions were produced by the fashion industry. So, how can our clothes pollute so much and why are companies not being held accountable for their harmful decisions? 

What is Fast Fashion?

The fast-fashion model that we know today appeared during the early 2000s when companies saw outsourcing as an opportunity to reduce costs in production (Vita). They thus started installing their manufacturing companies overseas, mostly in Asian countries such as China, Bangladesh, and India.  This model consists of producing the latest trends, making it accessible to a broad audience in very little time which includes specific procedures in the production, distribution, and marketing sector (Niinimäki et al.). For example, the latest trend is pastel crewnecks, so companies such as Forever 21, H&M and Zara will hurry up to produce a lot of them— and I mean A LOT! In order to make a profit, they focus on the volume before anything else. They adjust everything else accordingly. They try to reduce costs elsewhere to maximize profits such as getting cheaper materials and a cheaper workforce. This explains how big fast fashion brands can afford to keep their prices low and accessible.

The Fashion Paradox

The fashion industry has to adapt to the customers’ evolving needs, which is lower garment prices to keep up with constantly changing trends. The only way to achieve this is through unsustainable and often unethical practices (Brewer). Behavioural economist Dan Ariely explains how the prices we associate to items are projected long-term as a baseline of the item’s worth (Vemulakonda). In other words, we have gotten used to clothes being cheap and we now consider them as low of worth which is why we will not buy a sweater for $200 because we have associated sweaters being around $45. It is hard to change this perspective because customers grew accustomed to ridiculously cheap garments that can only be produced by unethical and unsustainable practices. Consequently, customers want the latest trends at cheaper prices. Brands have to compete against each other and adapt in order to satisfy the growing demands of their customers. To do so, they need to look into the production cycle:

  • They have contracts with a third party overseas where they agree to make big orders in exchange for the delivery of their goods in a very tight amount of time.  Most often, these third parties fail to meet the very unrealistic deadlines so they must lower their fees or risk losing their business. The brand can simply outsource to another third party that provides better prices (Vemulakonda).
  • Since the brand is working with a third party, they are not in absolute control. These companies might not be—or pretend not to be—aware of their employee’s working conditions. Less communication means things get lost in translation reducing the brand’s transparency (Pant). Using third parties is a considerable advantage for big companies, because when accidents happen, brands are not held accountable for their actions. In these situations, third parties are scapegoats, they are forced to increase labor hours, decrease maintenance budgets and delay and decrease salaries to satisfy the irrational expectations of brands.

How come are they not held accountable?

There are actually many laws that regulate labor conditions: national laws, international laws, and best industry practices. Internationally, the G7 has created standards for the fashion industry, highlighting the worker’s rights to improve their conditions and the overall supply chain. The International Labor Organization also provides forums to promote the garment worker’s protection. However, some laws also protect brands from having any major juridical consequences. If (hypothetically) H&M was called out for working with a factory that violated security guidelines, offered terrible work conditions, and had many cases of sexual harassment, H&M will still get away with it. Their reputation might be hurt a bit in the process, but they can easily outsource to fix things. 

“There is one, and only one, social responsibility of business—to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engage in open and free competition, without deception or fraud.” (Friedman, 124-33) This implies that brands must listen to shareholders and take into consideration what they want when making decisions. As you might have guessed, short-term profits are the biggest priority. Companies will try to maximize long-term profits by taking risks, such as the company’s long-term stability and the detriment of the environment and human life. However, scholars such as Ian B. Lee, a law professor at University of Toronto, believe that those claims are false since companies are not serving the community by prioritizing profits, ignoring other crucial factors. Furthermore, shareholders only meet periodically, and are thus unable to make many decisions. Therefore, their “speaker” are people on the corporate level that will make decisions for their sake. 

Companies, as legal persons, have legal advantages and privileges. Evidently, society expects them to consider shareholders and stakeholders in their decisions. However, if they took a big risk and made a bad decision, there is little liability, meaning that the decision-makers at the corporate level will not be held accountable for their mistake since the risk they took was for the shareholders and these decision makers thought it was the best path. Protected by the business judgment rule law, they can afford to take bigger risks. 

How to stop the cycle?

Consumer behavior impacts greatly in decision-making. As a consumer, you can encourage sustainable brands, encouraging a transition towards slow fashion. It encourages slowing down the manufacturing process and decreasing the clothing purchases by increasing the quality of the garment which prolongs its lifetime. This process would minimize the industry’s negative impact on the environment and improve long-term sustainability (Niinimäki et al.). This implies that, as consumers, we have to realize that clothes have a bigger value than we credit them for, and that sustainable fashion will be more expensive because they reflect an ethical and sustainable supply chain. You do get what you pay for. Organizations such as MOCHI and Remake make repertoires where you can find sustainable brands for any fashion need you have. Remake also made a list of many brands, including fast-fashion brands, where they give them a score out of 100 based on many factors thoroughly explained in their transparency report. Inform yourself about the company’s values, goals, etc. Higher transparency means that the information is abundant and easy to find. Companies like Patagonia take the time to thoroughly explain their impact in the community, write articles about upcycling and provide relevant data about their products (it can be how much they pay their workers, give a tour of the factory, explain where their fabric comes from, etc.).

Beware of greenwashing

You have to be skeptical when a brand tries to sell you “conscious” collections where they are supposedly eco friendly. During the previous years, climate issues have been more discussed, gaining an important place in society.  Unfortunately, some brands try to make a profit out of it instead of trying to improve. For example, H&M launched a recycling program whose main purpose was supposedly to encourage people to recycle their clothes at their stores in exchange of sale coupons. This makes the customer feel like they are helping somehow by recycling and, well…, everyone loves sales. H&M just persuaded customers to buy more of their clothes which are not very eco-friendly. Furthermore, what does company A do with so many clothes that they received for free? They sell it to a third party that ships it overseas to third world countries that will buy our clothing waste. Ultimately, most clothes finish in landfills (Matteis et al.).

Keep in mind that the best way to be sustainable is to use what you already have instead of buying more items. You could swap clothes with your friends, go thrifting or upcycle your own clothes.

To sign the #PAYUP petition:

To learn more about sustainable/ ethical fashion:

Repertoires to guide you towards a more sustainable wardrobe


Good on you:

Transparency reports:


Fashion Revolution:


Brewer, Mark K. “Slow Fashion in a Fast Fashion World: Promoting Sustainability and Responsibility.” Laws, vol. 8, no. 4, 4, Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute, Dec. 2019, p. 24.,  doi:10.3390/laws8040024.

Friedman, Milton. 1962.Capitalism and Freedom. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 124–33.

Matteis, Stephanie, et al. “What Really Happens to Old Clothes Dropped in Those In-Store Recycling Bins | CBC News.” CBC, 19 Jan. 2018,

Morgan, Andrew. The True Cost. 2015.

Niinimäki, Kirsi, et al. “The Environmental Price of Fast Fashion.” Nature Reviews Earth & Environment, vol. 1, no. 4, 4, Nature Publishing Group, Apr. 2020, pp. 189–200., doi:10.1038/s43017-020-0039-9.

Pant, Hanna-Amanda. “What Are The Benefits Of Local Production?” Transparent Eco Brand Directory, Shopping Guides, Learning Guides | MOCHNI, 22 Apr. 2018,

Vemulakonda, Sumedha. “Why Do Brands Continue to Exploit Black and Brown Women?” Remake, 18 Feb. 2021,

Vita, Ana Muñoz. “El origen del ‘fast fashion.’” Cinco Días, 28 Mar. 2018,

By Maria Camila Velasco Boada

Graphic designer, journalist

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