Fast fashion is a business model where companies produce as much clothing as possible, for as cheap as possible. Despite decades of discussion about the human rights and environmental implications of the model, recent online trends where people show off their haul of bulk-bought clothing suggest it isn’t going away. Let’s break down what it is and its impact.

While a $10 t-shirt may seem like a good deal, it’s worth considering what it costs to make it.

It is likely a piece of fast fashion, where companies sell as many clothes as possible for the cheapest price by having them made in countries with more relaxed employment laws.

This can have human rights and environmental impacts at every stage, starting with the farm where the cotton for that shirt was grown.

China produces the largest amount of the world's cotton. Twenty per cent of that comes from the Xinjiang region where the Uyghur community are forced to work on farms.

The true extent of this, and other human rights and environmental issues, are not known because there is very little transparency within the industry.

Tearfund's 2021 Ethical Fashion Report found 87% of companies didn’t know where their fabrics came from, and only 71% knew where they were even manufactured.

What we do know is that garment workers frequently work 10 to 16 hour days, six days a week, for nearly three times less than their country’s living wage.

In Asia and the Pacific there are 65 million garment workers, and most of them are women.

In 2019, 40% of clothes imported into New Zealand were estimated to be made using forced and child labour.

Tearfund advocacy specialist Morgan Theakston has travelled to Bangladesh to interview people working in factories for popular brands.

Workers told her verbal abuse and child labour were common in these factories.

“[They told us] whenever a buyer or compliance officer visited the factory, they would keep all of the children out of sight and that the supervisors would shout at the children if they made any mistakes.”

Landfills bursting with $10 t-shirts

As fast fashion has become more common, the amount of clothing has increased dramatically.  It is estimated that 80 billion garments are now produced worldwide every year.

Fast fashion has created a culture of flippancy and waste around clothes, Theakston said. 

People keep clothes only half as long as they did two decades ago, and an estimated two thirds of clothes produced each year end up in the landfill.

Nearly 35 million kg of clothes are dumped each year in New Zealand, accounting for 9% of Auckland’s landfill and this is expected to rise to 14% by 2040.

As well as waste, slowly decomposing clothing also creates a lot of emissions.

New Zealand’s collective textile waste emits the equivalent of 144,770 flights between Auckland and London.

Theakston said: “Clothing is expensive to make, so if it's cheap for you, someone, somewhere is paying the true cost.” 

So, when you’re considering whether or not to buy that t-shirt, think about how much you’ll truly value it.

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