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The $2.5 Trillion Industry Costing Us a Whole Lot More

Every year we consume eighty billion new pieces of clothing, which is about 400% more than what was being consumed only two decades ago. According to fashion and culture journalist Dana Thomas, the average 1980s American bought only 12 new pieces of clothing a year. Fashion has been in a state of flux for the past 60 years, and the dominant fast fashion business model is geared towards making profits as quickly and efficiently as possible. Today, shopping is becoming increasingly accessible, driven by the democratisation of retail apps and social media. Its influence has created a culture of buying clothes at a relentless rate. Fast fashion retailers tempt consumers to pursue wasteful lifestyles with carefully curated social media pages and limited time offers. From individuals and small businesses to Mother Nature herself, the industry has many victims.


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The whole premise behind new fast fashion is affordability with a sustainability label. If retailers approached production ethically, it would be impossible to keep up with the rapid pace of fashion trends. Keeping up is only made possible through companies using cheap labour and inferior materials to keep production costs as low as possible to meet increasing demand.

"There are reasons why factories used by retailers are so secluded and lack respect for workers' rights."

But modern science and technologies have increased consumer awareness and eradicated some of the cluelessness suppliers exploit. In response, retailers have employed misinformation and false advertising. Clothes on online stores like Pretty Little Thing are deliberately labelled "recycled" or "sustainable" to convince shoppers that it is safe and ethical to make a purchase.

This is misleading. There are reasons why factories used by retailers are so secluded and lack respect for workers' rights.  In July of 2020, news outlets reported that Boohoo's factory in Leicester pays its workers miles below Britain's minimum wage at £2.50 an hour. Many businesses keep their production costs as low as possible by outsourcing labour from countries like China, where labour laws are not as strict. In 2012, unsafe working conditions caused a fire outbreak in the Tazreen Fashion Factory in Bangladesh, which produces clothing for major US retailers like Sears and Walmart, killing at least 112 workers. How do these retailers intend to keep consumers ignorant when their obsession with maximising profit has literally seen futures go up in flames?

Valued at 2.5 trillion dollars, the global fashion industry is a lucrative business which employs more than 300 million people worldwide. (The owner of Zara, Amancio Ortega, is ranked 6th on Forbes’ list of the richest people in the world in 2020). There is a huge concentration of wealth in fast fashion - wealth which has come at great expense. The industry encourages a disposable fashion culture where the mass rollout of cheap poor-quality clothes is prioritised over the production of durable ones. A study by the British charity Barnardo's discovered that 37% of its 16–24-year-old participants would not wear an article of clothing again once they had posted it on social media. There is a trend amongst consumers, particularly young people, to keep spending - because fast fashion retailers have made it economically possible to do so.


"Retailers are now burdened with meeting two demands: demand from internal stakeholders to sell more and demand from consumers who want to stay on-trend."

Wanting efficient supply chains and quicker production times is not the problem. The problem is that this justification is used and abused by both retailers and consumers, which results in significant human and environmental trade-offs. Zara is one of the most popular fast fashion retailers today. In 1989, a New York Times article reported that the brand's garments took only 15 days to journey from a designer's brain to sale on racks. Today, brands come out (on average) with a new line every week. Retailers are now burdened with meeting two demands: demand from internal stakeholders to sell more and demand from consumers who want to stay on-trend. 

The environmental consequences of disposable fashion are also dire. Last year, The Guardian reported that textile production emitted more greenhouse gases than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) has also found that textile processing, which feeds the fashion industry, is the second-largest contributor to water pollution on the planet. And water pollution will lead to water scarcity, an issue with significant links to global conflicts today. All for affordable jeans.

Small businesses also suffer at the hands of fast fashion. Large retailers frequently exploit smaller brands, riding the thin line between knockoffs, which are technically legal, and illegal counterfeits. A recent example is Kai Collective, a luxury womenswear brand that was established in 2016 but only garnered fame this year. Kai Collective’s newfound popularity did not go unnoticed by Pretty Little Thing, who copied one of its most popular and profitable designs, the Gaia dress. When questioned about this in an interview with OkayAfrica, Kai Collective's founder Fisayo Longe described pursuing legal action as "expensive and complicated." Other brands like Do Not Subverge (DNS) and Pharaoh have also spoken up about similar interactions with PLT. These niche smaller brands face losing their goodwill, profitability, and legitimacy as consumers flock towards the more affordable option produced by fast fashion retailers.

Fast fashion is a system that has, over the past 60 years, fostered a compulsive shopping culture amongst consumers and created a fashionable, destructive lifestyle. Opposing it requires discipline: less spending, more caring. Fashion no longer serves as a mode of creating unique identities; rather, it is overshadowed by consumerist addiction. The world has become comfortable with promoting democratised designer brands at the expense of so many lives, and fast fashion retailers have seized the opportunity to capitalise on this trend, no matter the cost.



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