How Much Is Your Fast-Fashion Habit Costing The Environment?

The full cost isn't always reflected in the price tag.

As a nation, we’re fashion obsessed. At the click of a button, or the tap of a phone screen, we can order bags of the stuff to our door. But do you know what journey your clothes have taken before they land on your mat?

Behind the scenes, a lot goes in to making that jumper and cut-price pair of boots. And while it may be cheap for you to buy, the hidden costs add up. We asked experts what you need to know about the environmental cost of fast fashion.

Some fabric is bad news for the environment.

The chances are most of your garments are made from synthetic materials such as viscose, nylon and polyester, which are actually made from a type of plastic.

The problem is that when you wash these fabrics they shed microfibres into the water system, which could end up in rivers and oceans. According to studies, these can be ingested by wildlife and even make their way into the food we eat along with other micro-plastics.


Even natural fibres can be a drain on the earth’s resources, Jason Forrest, a sustainability expert at the Fashion Retail Academy tells HuffPost UK. Take denim made from cotton, for example: “A pair of jeans takes 20,000 litres of water before it’s on the shop floor,” he says.

Some fashion may be too cheap to be ethical.

There are concerns that some cheap garments are made by people in poor conditions, paid less than the minimum wage. This is of particular concern in countries like Bangladesh and China. But even here in the UK, there have been reports of people being paid illegally low amounts to stitch garments – which have then gone on to be sold at major retailers.

The problem is that the supply chain for fashion is complicated, and demand for cheap goods means that sometimes corners get cut when suppliers outsource to other suppliers, who in turn do the same in order to meet demand.

Lara Bianchi, an academic from Manchester Business School, says fashion has created many jobs in poor areas, which is a “positive driver” in those local economies. “That said, I do think there’s also a massive impact from fast fashion on workers’ rights and women’s rights,” she adds.

The international supply chain is so complex and long, says Bianchi, that many multinational brands are not able to check and control all their goods. “They should probably reduce the length of their supply chains and need to take responsibility not just for themselves and their first-tier suppliers, but along the global supply chain.”

Carina König / EyeEm via Getty Images

If you don’t recycle your clothes and packaging, it’s probably headed for landfill or incineration.

To put into perspective the size of the fast fashion industry, Asos alone sources more than 59 million plastic mailing bags and five million cardboard mailing boxes every single year to deliver online shopping – a monumental amount. While the boxes are made from recycled material, only 25% of the material for a plastic bag is.

When you consider the packaging sourced by that one fashion brand, the scale of the problem across the industry starts to look enormous. Imagine how much plastic and cardboard the likes of Missguided, Nasty Gal and Boohoo get through collectively – and that’s before taking into account the online offering of all your favourite high street brands.

A lot of us simply bin our clothes after use. According to charity Love Not Landfill, a third of people aged 16-24 have never used a clothes recycling bank before. It recommends you recycle used fabrics or donate them to charity.

Deliveries contribute to air pollution.

How many times have you missed a delivery, for the driver to return the next day? Or ordered a giant batch of clothes only to decide they look horrible on and returned them all?

According to a recent report, almost two thirds of shoppers who bought women’s clothing online in the last six months sent at least one item back. This culture of serial ordering and returning clocks up road miles.

The chances are your order began life in the UK in a giant warehouse. Lorries then dropped these around the country to local depots before a courier dropped them to you. But all of this fuel adds to air pollution, which in turn has been linked to poor health.