top of page

The Implicit Cost of Fast Fashion

By: Vanessa Koh Sze Wei


The fashion industry has significantly evolved since the early 2000s. Globalisation has entered a new phase, connecting different parts of the world with ease and this integration helps the facilitation of cross-border trade in goods and services. It is undeniable that globalisation has a huge impact on the world, accelerating the speed and scope at which business could be carried out (Bhardwaj & Fairhurst, 2010). Consequently, the rapid growth of fast fashion forces retailers to give in to fast trends by producing garments at the lowest price possible, even if it means sacrificing the environment and workers. Franks (2000) argued that this is the key element to maintain an advantageous position in the highly competitive market. Despite the textile industry being one of the biggest culprits of environmental pollution, the demand for new clothes is constantly rising as consumers have easy access to the clothes at a low price. This literature review aims to examine the fast fashion business model using relevant sources, highlighting on the unsustainable production and unfair labour practices in the fast fashion industry.

Fast fashion

Fast fashion is defined as an inexpensive clothing collection that are replicas of high end fashion trends and is naturally a quick-response system that promotes impulsive fashion consumption (Fletcher, 2008). In other words, clothing designs from the runway are transitioned quickly to local stores to capture the hottest trends in the market (Brewer, 2019). By compressing cycles of output and producing up-to-date designs, consumers can refresh their wardrobes without breaking the bank. Sourcing and buying decisions are amplified by quick judgements and introduction of innovations into the store. The ever-changing styles in the fashion industry make consumers anticipate and desire for continuous change. This fast turnaround is accomplished by employing new suppliers from countries that are rich in labor buy poor in capital. What fast fashion consumers may not realise is that the low prices of their shirts and pants are the result of the low wage paid to the people making their clothing (Ro & Kim, 2011).

Human cost

With the global reach of fast fashion, sustainability concerns continue to mount (Clark, 2008), alongside ethical considerations such as labor injustice and prolonged working hours behind closed doors (Joy, Sherry, Venkatesh, Wang, & Chan, 2012). The fashion industry is volatile and this flawed system has been influenced by certain factors, such as hiring foreign labour to profit from the cheaper labour costs (Kilduff, 2005). It is hard for the industry to compete on price alone, these firms rely on countries with low labour cost. According to Zenker (2018), companies do not choose to produce their products within the company, instead they rely on outsourcing. He explains that this is so they do not have to take responsibilities of production into consideration. The fashion industry’s production centralises on labour, thus manufacturers gain competitive advantage through the minimisation of cost that typically revolves around the pursuit of cheap labour (Taplin, 2014).

Workers are trapped in bad working conditions and the safety of these workers are usually disregarded. In 2013, the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh, collapsed, killing 1134 people and injuring 2500 more (Brewer, 2019). This magnifies the horrifying working environment garment workers are situated in. The garment industry is dependent on powerless and voiceless workers to produce cheap clothing (Thomas, 2019). Workers face inequalities and injustices during the manufacturing process of garments (Brooks, 2015). They are unable to complain due to the lack of workers’ rights in their countries. Besides that, parents who work in sweatshops have to send their children away as they do not have time to take care of their children (Krause & Bressan, 2018). Niebank (2018) stated that there are also female workers who are discriminated and exposed to sexual harassments. The women are vulnerable to forced labour because they do not have employment contracts that state conditions like working hours and wages. This is not the end. On top of being underpaid and facing mistreatments, the workers are exposed to harmful chemicals and required to handle materials that require substantial processing (Remy, Speelman, & Swartz, 2016).

Environmental cost

Fast fashion has outsized environmental effects. The pressure to reduce costs and expedite production process indicate that environmental standards have to be compromised. Clothing production usually requires a large amount of water and chemicals, generating alarming level of greenhouse gasses (Remy et al., 2016). Public health and safety issues do not only hold true to the manufacturing of man-made products. Cotton, which is heavily used in textile assembly trades, is usually cultivated using a lot of water, harmful pesticides and fertilisers (Claudio, 2007). According to Claudio (2017), the cotton plantation is responsible for one quarter of the total pesticides used in the United States, due to the availability of subsidies to maintain a low cost of production. She mentioned that the vast supply of cotton is the machine that propels fashion industry to what it is today. In addition, the making of polyester and other synthetic fibers uses crude oil, resulting in the emission of toxic gases, which may lead to respiratory issues (Remy et al.). Children and families living near factories that emit pollutants are exposed to the contaminated air and water which is detrimental to their health (Seck, 2018). Brewer (2019) claimed that although fast fashion produces considerable amount of pollution, the repeated wash of clothing also affects the health of the environment. Nowadays, garments produced contain synthetic fabrics, such as polyester, nylon, and acrylic. With every wash, tiny plastic particles are released into the rivers and ecosystem, which then pollutes the water we drink and our food.


Fast fashion is a phenomenon that will continuously reform the fashion industry and shape consumers’ buying behaviour. Discouraging consumers from purchasing throwaway fashion is a major challenge. Nonetheless, it is crucial to create an awareness on the social and environmental risks of cheap, unsustainable clothing. Such threats could become more prominent over time, as the purchasing power of consumers increases. Therefore, clothing firms should balance their revenue gains with proportionate environment and social improvements. In this literature review, we have looked upon the implicit cost of fast fashion. It is clearly evident the negative impacts of fast fashion that embodies unsustainability. Identifying these issues would require companies to assess sustainability quality across the entire production chain and develop strategies to improve. Many are wondering if it is

possible to continue the fast fashion business model without jeopardising the environment and harming the people who make the clothes. It is a question worth pondering.


  • industry. The International Review of Retail, Distribution and Consumer Research, 20(1), 165–173.

  • Brooks, A. (2015). Clothing poverty: The hidden world of fast fashion and second-hand clothes. London, England: Zed Books

  • Clark, H. (2008). Slow+fashion-an oxymoron-or a promise for the future ...? Fashion Theory,

  • 12(4), 427–446. 

  • Claudio, L. (2007). Waste couture: Environmental impact of the clothing industry.

  • Environmental Health Perspectives, 115(9), 448–454.


  • Fletcher, K. (2008). Sustainable fashion and textiles: Design journeys. London: Earthscan.

  • Franks, J. (2000). Supply chain innovation. Work Study, 49(4), 152–155.


  • Joy, A., Sherry, J. F., Venkatesh, A., Wang, J., & Chan, R. (2012). Fast fashion,

  • sustainability, and the ethical appeal of luxury brands. Fashion Theory, 16(3), 273– 295. 

  • Kilduff, P. (2005). Patterns of strategic adjustment in the US textile and apparel industries

  • since 1979. Journal of Fashion Marketing and Management: An International Journal, 9(2), 180–194. 

  • Krause, E.L., & Bressan, M. (2018). Circulating children, underwriting capitalism: Chinese global households and fast fashion in Italy. Current Anthropology, 59(5), 572-595. doi:10.1086/699826 

  • Brewer, M.K. (2019). Slow fashion in a fast fashion world: Promoting sustainability and responsibility. Laws, 8(4), 1-9. doi:10.3390/laws8040024

  • Niebank, J.C. (2018). Analysis: Bringing human rights into fashion (2nd ed.). Berlin, Germany: German Institute for Human Rights

  • Remy, N., Speelman, E., & Swartz, S. (2016). Style that’s sustainable: A new fast-fashion

  • formula. Retrieved from 

  • Ro, J.H., & Kim, M.J. (2011). The characteristics and aesthetic values of slow fashion

  • from a social viewpoint. Journal of the Korean Society of Clothing and Textiles, 35(11), 1386–1398.

  • Seck, S.L. (2018). Transnational labour law and the environment: Beyond the bounded

  • autonomous worker. Canadian Journal of Law and Society, 33(2), 137–157.

  • Taplin, I. M. (2014). Who is to blame?: A re-examination of fast fashion after the 2013

  • factory disaster in Bangladesh. Critical Perspectives on International Business, 10(1), 72-83. Retrieved from 

  • Thomas, D. (2019). Fashionopolis: The price of fast fashion & the future of clothes. London, England: Apollo

  • Zenker, J. (2018). Made in misery: Mandating supply chain labor compliance. Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law, 51(1), 297-331. Retrieved from a37b0

270 views0 comments
bottom of page