What’s the True Cost of Cheap Clothing?

Younger generations say they care about the environment. So why are they spending money on something as destructive as fast fashion?


Fast fashion, a phenomenon characterized by swiftly providing fashion trends to consumers at minimal cost, has revolutionized the retail industry. Brands like Zara, H&M, Old Navy, and Shein have perfected the art of offering trendy clothing at a low financial commitment. However, beneath the allure of affordable fashion lies a darker side that significantly impacts the environment.

For example, the textile dyeing industry, a crucial component of this rapid production, stands as the world’s second-largest polluter of water sources. Furthermore, the proliferation of textile factories, often in developing countries like Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Vietnam, contributes to increased pollution as well as exploits cheap labour.

The aftermath of fast fashion production is equally distressing. Tonnes and tonnes of waste generated from the textile and garment industries find their way to landfills. Additionally, because fast fashion businesses produce a surplus of clothing items, their greenhouse gas emissions have been demonstrated to be equivalent to that of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom combined. So why are people still consuming fast fashion?

A recent study led by Dr. Yunzhijun Yu from the Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Surrey, British Columbia delved into understanding the consumption patterns of fast fashion among young consumers in Canada. The investigation aimed to understand young people’s behaviours around fast fashion, as well as explore alternative environmentally-friendly options.

The young consumers were undergraduate students at a Canadian university who participated in surveys focusing on their attitudes towards fashion, their fast fashion knowledge, and their behaviours around fashion consumption. Additionally, a separate group of undergraduate students participated in an education intervention.

They underwent a similar survey process, but completed the surveys both before and after viewing a documentary that highlighted the adverse effects of fast fashion on the environment. This was done to examine whether there were any changes in the students attitudes, knowledge, and behaviours regarding fast fashion following their exposure to the documentary.

The research study can be found in the Journal of Sustainable Marketing.

The results demonstrated that many young consumers underestimated the environmental consequences of fast fashion and persisted in unsustainable consumption habits due to limited budgets and a desire for trendy clothing. Although the study revealed that the educational intervention was able to raise awareness of fast fashion’s environmental impact, the intervention failed to reduce fast fashion consumption.

This research underscores the urgent need to bridge the gap between attitudes and behaviours in young consumers regarding fast fashion. While there’s a growing concern among Millennials and Gen Zs about sustainability, their purchasing habits contradict these values, possibly due to pricing constraints and inadequate awareness around the negative environmental impacts of the fast fashion industry.

To make this change, educational initiatives targeting consumers are required. These initiatives should put emphasis on the negative environmental impact of fast fashion and advocate for sustainable alternatives, such as shopping at second-hand stores or recycling used clothing. In turn, this will steer the industry toward a more eco-conscious future.

‹ Previous post
Next post ›

Alexandria (Alex) Samson is a PhD student in the Department of Psychology at the University of Toronto. She completed her BSc in Neuroscience from Dalhousie University. Alex is a strong believer in open science and is passionate about making scientific research accessible to all audiences.