The Cost Of Cheap Fashion

Do you recall the last time you purchased clothing for more than 20 bucks? Exactly, who nowadays spends more than 100 dollars on non-designer items? However, do you know the true cost of our desire to solely purchasing cheap fast fashion (Zara, H&M, Forever21, etc) clothing?

The other day when I was scrolling down my Instagram feed, I came across something that really caught my eyes-- the shocking data revealed by United Nations:

We heard millions of times about the importance of being more environmentally conscious and taking actions to save our planet. However, it was still extremely shocking to see that we only have 12 years left before the climate begins to change in devastating ways... You think the recent climate fluctuation is bad? Think again. If we continue to depreciate the earth at this rate, in just a bit over a decade— when we are in our early thirties— the environment will be much worse.

One major contributing factor to the destruction of our climate. Here are just some of the ways that the fast fashion industry is polluting the earth (see footnote 1):

  1. The fashion industry generates 1.26 billion tons of greenhouse emissions every year, which is more than the amount created by international flights and shipping combined.

  2. More than half of “fast fashion” is thrown away within a year.

  3. Less than 1 percent of material every used is recycled.

  4. Every second, a truckload of clothes are wasted.

  5. Half a million tons of plastic microfibers are shed during washing and end up in the ocean — and therefore in the food chain.

  6. The average number of times a piece of clothing is worn has dropped 36 percent.

Now after a better grasp of how the fashion industry has caused a negative environmental impact, next time, before adding clothing to your ASOS cart, think again. Do you already own something very similar? Are you going to wear this outfit for a long time?

Shockingly, a lot of college students proudly confess that they never wear the same outfit twice.

While the fashion consumer behavior has shifted to accepting only the super high-end brands—since “higher price means higher quality” — or extremely discounted clothing, brands with mid-range price points adjusted their average selling price to emerge to the higher-end category since they could not afford to compete with the bottom end suppliers. Consumers like us, college students, are only left with one option— continuing buying $7 dollar shoes, $10 dress, etc.

Why is that a bad thing for us, when candid outfits become more affordable? It is because local economies become worse off. Boutiques and fashion companies have to outsource and put more pressure on manufacturers overseas to acquire cheaper quotes to survive.  This only enables sweatshops and their terrible working conditions. (For more, watch the documentary The True Cost, available on Netflix.)

I totally understand the urge to update wardrobes once in a while to keep up with the Insta game. However, there are many alternatives to dressing cute while not sacrificing the environment... Shop second-hand at a thrift store or invest in high quality, durable clothing. Another way to make the most of your wardrobe is to accessorize your outfits with jewelry. Be creative with clothes that are already in your wardrobe!

Second thoughts here? Some of you might argue donating clothing that you no longer want makes you feel less guilty and therefore justifies your impulse to shop twice a week. (why not? They’re offering free shipping!), let me open your eyes a little bit more. However, clothing that you donate to Goodwill or other services, in fact, only proportionately becomes distributed to people in need (see footnote 2). Most of the clothing is categorized, packed, and exported for a low price abroad, with most of them ending up in East Africa (see footnote 3). In addition, the clothes that you have donates are most likely fast fashion clothing, meaning that they will likely not even be wearable by the time they arrive at their destination. This is because fast fashion clothes are not made to be durable, but last just enough to survive until the second trend to kick in.

The donation of clothing may also have a more severe impact on their local economy than we knew. Local textile factories are all out of business because they are not able to compete with these  cheaply imported second-hand clothes. We, as entrepreneurial business students, all know the importance of startups and businesses to the local economy. Therefore, it is crucially important to build an empowering sustainable economy when local businesses can hire locals and provide job opportunities.

We all are citizens of the earth, regardless of our socio-economic class, our nationality, and so forth. Let’s start from shopping smarter to expand the healthy lifespan of this big community that we all belong to. 

To learn more about the true cost of cheap fashion, I’d totally recommend reading the book “Overdressed” and watching documentaries such as “The True Cost.”


  1. NY Post 
  2. CBC
  3. Racked