Q3 Stories

The High Cost of Cheap Fashion

by Katie May Huxtable


The fashion and textiles industry is one of the worlds biggest industrial sectors and we are now producing and purchasing our fashion at a rate like never before. A constant need for fast fashion is fuelled by a society rooted in throwaway culture and, across all sectors, we have developed a constant need to consume. However, as the second biggest industry polluter, it is clear that the actual cost of fast fashion is much higher than purely the dent it makes in our bank accounts.


Black Friday is the prime example of the fruitful love affair seen between consumers and the idea of value for money. We are now investing in throwaway culture like never before, and the scarlet red sale signs that line our high street windows are only adding fuel to the fire. At a time where sustainability is fresh on everyone’s lips, fashion companies are still failing to rise to the occasion and respond to the reality of production environmental impacts in favour of short-term sales and a strive for profit. Most consumers understand that we have reached a time in which we need to be making more sustainable choices. However, the rate at which we fall victim to the luring prices of sales like Black Friday demonstrates a line between advocacy and action that still needs to be crossed. 


Black Friday is one of the most profitable retail days of the year, originating in America and falling on the first Friday following Thanksgiving. There are many different rumours as to why the day was assigned its name – some suggesting that it was coined in response to the violence and traffic accidents caused by the large volume of shoppers seen on the day, with others suggest that its name stems from the fact that it is often the day that shops move into the black. This means that, with the large amount of shoppers present, they have enough money to cover costs at the same time as reducing their prices. This phenomenon has spread across the pond and is now a massive event yearly in the UK. However, this annual spending spree has us buying products we never knew we needed.


Traditionally, fashion brands used to release two main collections per year: spring/summer and autumn/winter. But, with clothing production rapidly increasing to meet consumer demand, brands like Boohoo, ASOS and Missguided have full reign over the marketplace with a continuous flow of stock complemented by the appeal of low pricing. According to a report by the Environmental Audit committee, in the UK we buy more clothes per person than any other country in Europe. Yet, it is important to understand that this cycle of production and consumption comes at a huge environmental cost, particularly in terms of water pollution, water consumption, and emission of gases that are inevitable during production, manufacturing and transportation of goods. 


In countries where garments are produced, toxic wastewaters from textile factories are frequently dumped directly into rivers. These substances, often including but not restricted to lead, arsenic and mercury, not only harm the river’s wildlife inhabitants but also affect the health of those living by the riverbanks. Cotton is one particular example of production with the potential to contaminate, with the fertilisers used often polluting runoff waters.


The fashion production line is also reliant on the use of a substantial amount of water. It is a required resource in the dyeing and finishing process for our clothes, but also in the growth of cotton. Up to 20,000 litres of water are needed to produce just 1kg of cotton making it one of the most unsustainable crops on our planet. As well as the potential long term effects that this production will have, short term consequences have already arisen – including the drying out of the Aral Sea which was an area of water that was once equal to the size of Ireland.


There are numerous stages along the fashion production line where environmental impact can be lessened, these include: fibre production across the finishing, dyeing and printing process, global logistics during manufacturing and sales, the use and maintenance of products and the disposal of products. However, in terms of lessening the environmental impact as consumers, these targets may feel a little out of reach to the average shopper. All hope is not lost though, as according to a report by Wrap in 2017, extending the life of your clothing by just a further nine months would reduce carbon, waste and water footprints by around 20%-30% each. Rather than investing in the new and getting caught up in the appeal of Black Friday, we can all make a greater effort to see if something in our wardrobe would be suitable and stretch out the lifespan of the clothes we already own.


We’re all guilty of falling blind to the promise of a low price, myself included, but when the flurry of mass sales next take over both our brick and mortar stores and online shopping platforms it is important for us to remember that everything that hangs in our wardrobes has an environmental cost that stretches far beyond the price tag.