Sustainability vs Fast Fashion: Making Ethical Choices in 2024

         According to, fast retail is now the second-largest consumer of water globally and contributes to about 10% of the world’s carbon emissions. In addition, workers in these industries are frequently underpaid and/or overworked to the point they can barely get by. The overall impact these practices have on society can no longer be ignored. 

       The term “fast fashion” started being used in the 1990’s when Zara launched in New York. It was used to describe the speed at which a clothing item could be put on shelves, and has since become a general term to describe large companies getting the latest fashion trends out as quickly as possible. Sustainable clothing on the other hand, started in the 2000’s and was only popularized in recent years. More and more people are researching how their style affects the world around them. 


        If society as a whole continues to make poor ethical choices, consequences will extend beyond our climate. Large companies are able to consistently offer better prices than smaller, locally owned, businesses which in turn hurts local communities. Choosing to shop through fast fashion brands pushes people to do more online shopping, pushing us all into a more introverted society.

The Rise of Fast Fashion

        The general model these companies follow is always the same. Identify the latest fashion trend, design it as quickly as possible, get it on the shelves as quickly as possible and sell it. What a lot of customers keen on taking advantage of cheap prices miss is the consequences of these stores actions. Most use a practice called “offshoring” where they have workers in foreign countries (usually Bangladesh, Vietnam, or others within South/Southeast Asia) produce their products. According to these workers are almost always women and many factories also employ child laborers. They are criminally underpaid, and because many are forced into these jobs through desperation it has resulted in a system representative of modern slavery. “People used to import slaves to their rich countries, but right now we are being enslaved within our own communities, through the globalization of our supply chain,” said former child laborer in a Kathmandu garment factory, Nasreen Sheikh, to Fashion Revolution. When consumers purchase from fast fashion stores, they often support these practices. 


         A McKinsey and Company study found consumption of fashion materials increased 60% between 2000 and 2014, with that number only rising in recent years. As demand increases so too will supply. With demand set to increase an additional 63% by 2030, the only question is can we ethically keep up with it? If production techniques remain the same the answer will certainly be no. Hence why such a strong case can be made for alternative clothing. 

The Case for Sustainability

        The term sustainability gained traction in the early 2000’s as individuals became more conscious of the consequences of their purchasing habits. In essence, it means producing items with minimal (ideally net 0) impact to the environment and with a positive impact on society. In recent years, it has become “trendy” to be a sustainable brand as it paints a more responsible image for a company. Many organizations advertise their commitment to sustainability. 


In a hypothetical world where we are able to produce all fashion products sustainably, it would cut global carbon emissions by a whopping 10% and greatly boost the economies of the areas in which they are produced. Sustainable companies tend to emphasize safe work environments with fair wages to their employees. If this were to be more widespread, offshoring labor would greatly benefit local communities economically rather than confining them as they do now. Furthermore, it would massively reduce waste. According to, the global production of municipal solid waste is anticipated to rise to 3.4 billion metric tons by 2050. Less wasteful practices would aid significantly in reducing this number. The drive toward sustainability is one we should all be making together in unison. 


As we head into the future, more and more companies are reducing fast fashion policies in an effort to meet demand for products labeled “sustainable” or something along the lines of “50% recycled material”. This shift in the industry is a result of heightened consumer awareness as our society becomes more and more concerned about our planet and the people in it. It is starting to become more profitable for a company to produce clothes ethically than it is to take the cheap route. Ultimately however, it is the consumer who drives demand, and so it is up to us all as consumers to switch our shopping habits to more sustainable options.

Social Impact

        Socially there remains some less talked about issues when it comes to fast fashion. With the age of the internet well underway, more and more shopping takes place online. Large companies are perfectly capable of adapting to swarms of people shopping from their own homes, but smaller (and usually more sustainable) companies struggle to afford running a virtual store. This reached its height during COVID19 wherein multiple brands too small to switch to online were unable to survive the lack of in person shoppers. Overall, fast fashion having such a large presence online pushes society into a more introverted state which limits social interaction and can even lead to increased mental health problems. 


         It should be noted that small businesses don’t always practice ethical means of production, so you should always do your research. However, according to a report by the Sustainable Brands community, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are often more agile and adaptable, making them better suited to implement sustainable practices quickly. Small businesses are also far more likely to be exclusively in person, which drives people to exit their homes and experience social interaction to purchase their products. In short, smaller, usually more sustainable, brands push us socially to a more extroverted state whereas large fast fashion brands do the opposite.

Future Outlook

         As consumers, we hold significant power to drive change within the fashion industry. By making informed purchasing decisions and supporting brands that prioritize sustainability and ethics, we can contribute to positive change. From choosing quality over quantity, doing research on a company’s production methods, and embracing secondhand and eco-friendly options, there are many ways to align our fashion choices with our values. Advocating for change within this community is critical for the health of both our planet and for those who make these products. 


         In 2024 and beyond, the fashion industry is poised for a paradigm shift towards sustainability. As consumers demand greater transparency and accountability, brands are increasingly compelled to adopt more ethical and sustainable practices. While the transition may pose challenges, the future of fashion lies in embracing sustainability as a core value. By educating ourselves, making informed choices, and advocating for change, we can collectively shape a more ethical and sustainable future for the fashion industry and the planet.

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