Explainer: What is fast fashion and how can we combat its human rights and environmental impacts?

Gian Bonanni, Professor Justine Nolan and Samuel Pryde.

What is fast fashion?

The term 'fast fashion' refers to the reproduction of clothing that is rapidly produced by mass-market retailers at low cost. Globally, the fast fashion market is estimated to be worth $1.7 trillion with more than 300 million people employed in the industry. In Australia, the fast fashion market is valued at $2.3 billion, with the average Australian buying 56 items of clothing per year. While fast fashion offers consumers low prices and rapidly changing clothing options, it is unsustainable, with severe impacts on human rights and the environment.

What are the impacts of fast fashion on human rights and the environment?

Corporations operating in the fast fashion industry are often working according to tight profit margins. The resulting squeeze on costs is most acutely felt by workers at the bottom of the supply chain. Following a barrage of justified criticism in the 1990s, the then-CEO of Nike— Phillip Knight—acknowledged that "[t]he Nike product has become synonymous with slave wages, forced overtime, and arbitrary abuse".1 Since the 1990s, numerous reports of workplace abuse against textile workers has come to light. In labour markets throughout Asia where large corporations manufacture their products—like Bangladesh and China— exploitative working conditions, including discrimination, harassment, child labour, forced labour and unsafe workplaces are not uncommon.2

From the raw material stage to the stocked item, goods such as apparel and shoes pass through numerous different suppliers. For example, the newest fast fashion behemoth, Sheinhas more than 5,000 contractors who contribute to the production of their inventory. Yet, the corporation provides limited information on their supply chain. Inditexthe parent company of Zaracontracts with 1,790 suppliers ‘who in turn used 8,756 factories’, and H&M uses more than 1,000 factories to produce their clothing. China and Bangladesh are the largest apparel production countries, and the ILO estimates that just in Asia alone, the textile exports industry ‘employs some 60 million workers’.  

Most major brands do not directly employ the workers or own the factories crucial to production, opting instead to outsource.3 Consequentially, the risk of human rights abuse is higher, and such risk has consistently materialised in recent history. In 2013, more than 30 years after Nike faced its early sweatshop allegations, the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh killed more than 1,100 textile workers. More than 10 years later, many of the underlying conditions that led to the Rana Plaza disaster remain entrenched in textile supply chains, not only in Bangladesh but around the world.

Alongside human rights risks, there is a corresponding cost to the environment. As fashion demand rises, so too do the environmental impacts, including increasing carbon emissions and water scarcity. Notably, fast fashion is estimated to be responsible for 8-10% of global carbon emissions which is more ‘than all international flights and maritime shipping combined’. Annually, the industry uses around 93 billion cubic metres of water which is enough to meet the needs of five million people. In the EU alone, fast fashion generates 12.6 million tonnes of textile waste. As Earthy Route highlight, this waste is particularly problematic as it is dumped at common landfill sites like those in Accra (Ghana) or the Atacama Desert (Chile) where textiles can take up to 200 years to decompose.

How can the problems caused by fast fashion be addressed?

To mitigate these problems, some have argued for the development of a circular economic model that—in theory—facilitates a self-sustaining system where clothes are reused, re-manufactured, and refurbished. In the EU alone, it is estimated that a circular economic model for apparel production could enable 580,000 new jobs, improve the security and supply of raw materials, and reduce EU CO2 emissions by 450 million tonnes per year.

However, despite the potential benefits of a circular model, some have questioned its capacity to tame the rapid growth of a fast fashion industry projected to increase by 4-5% annually and reach a value of $3.3 trillion by 2030. Instead, it is argued that corporations should focus on better forecasting consumer demand and limit supply to reduce the extent of human and environmental impacts. Still, there are few incentives for corporations to voluntarily reduce supply and there is growing interest in the role of government in regulating fast fashion and incentivising businesses to harness circular practices.

What are some of the global initiatives addressing fast fashion?

The French, Australian and US governments are adopting varying approaches to regulating the impact of fast fashion, with some demonstrating a commitment to circularity.


France has developed regulations aimed at supporting more transparent, sustainable and circular business practices. In 2017, France introduced its Duty of Vigilance Law, which combines corporate reporting requirements on human rights risks with an obligation to conduct due diligence, in addition to an enforcement mechanism. In 2020, France established a law which requires any unsold garment or item of footwear to be reused or recycled by the business. A failure to comply with this regulation results in a €15,000 penalty (Article 35 of the law). There is limited information on whether this penalty is yet to be enforced, as it only came into force in 2023. However a recent assessment of the impact of the law suggested that it ‘is failing to achieve its initial objectives’ and despite its aspirational goals ‘the reality on the ground seems disappointing’.

More recently, the French Government proposed a new bill which ‘aims to prohibit advertising for fast fashion companies and products’. This bill still requires approval from the French Senate to become law. The amendments will bolster the existing French Extended Producer Responsibility regime, a ‘producer-pays’ system in which corporations have in the past paid a progressive ‘financial contribution’ for the management of operational waste. The amendment provides a stronger focus on clothing and textiles, particularly the fast fashion industry. The law proposes to impose a penalty on fast fashion products operating on a ‘progressive trajectory’, up to a maximum €10 (AU$16) for every product sold by 2030.

The monies collected from this scheme will be used to fund recycling plants for clothing. 


Australia lags behind France in legislating against the impacts of fast fashion. However, some progress is being made. In 2023, the Australian Government launched Seamless - a National Clothing Stewardship Scheme aimed at creating clothing circularity by 2030. Seamless is designed to cover all new clothing imported into or manufactured in Australia. It excludes single-use protective wear, footwear, and accessories. Seamless aims to pursue this objective through four core approaches:

  1. By advancing design principles that promote durable, repairable, sustainable, and recyclable clothing.
  2. By cultivating business models focused on reuse, repair, re-manufacturing, and rental.
  3. By enhancing clothing collection and sorting methods to facilitate efficient reuse, while ensuring that non-wearable garments (including underwear and hosiery) are transformed into new high-value products and materials.
  4. By advocating for changes in consumer behaviour concerning clothing acquisition, usage, maintenance, and disposal.

While participation in Seamless is voluntary, the Federal Minister for Environment and Water, Tanya Plibersek, has committed to taking action if substantial progress is not made by the fashion industry within the next 12 months. This includes the potential implementation of mandatory levies that would fund research into sustainability for the industry and support the infrastructure for textile recycling. Currently, six prominent Australian brands have aligned with Seamless: Big W, David Jones, Lorna Jane, Rip Curl, R.M. Williams, and THE ICONIC. Some critics—including K-Mart—have not joined, arguing for lower levies and that Australia does not have recycling infrastructure to support such an approach.

The United States

In the United States, Washington state has joined California and New York with a ‘fast fashion regulation bill’ set to come into force in 2027. This requires companies to map a minimum of 50% of their supply chain, disclose where in their supply chain is the most environmental damage (including, chemical management, greenhouse gas emissions), and seek to address the issue of low wages in their supply chains.5 The main impetus of the proposed legislation is to improve supply chain transparency and increase consumer awareness. The bill includes a provision to penalise corporations up to $5,000 for each violation relating to a failure to meet a disclosure, performance target or reporting requirement.6  Like the proposed French bill, the goal is to use the funds raised from penalties for a ‘community benefit account’ focused on environmental projects.

The ‘Americas Act’ is a recently proposed US trade bill aimed at embracing ‘nearshoring’ to reduce reliance on Chinese manufacturing. The proposed bill contains a 15% tax reduction for businesses embracing circular practices, US$10 billion in loans, US$3 billion in grants to supporting manufacturing and reuse industries and US$1 billion for research and development. Such funding can serve to incentivise circularity.

What are companies doing?

While top-down regulation can be useful in addressing fast fashion impacts, some companies are already addressing this issue independently.

Veja is a French sneaker company that designs its shoes in France but produces them in Brazil. The company is purpose-driven and promotes circular business practices. Veja assumes a regulatory role that should be the domain of the government; establishing self-reinforcing ethical and sustainable practices. Veja has embraced a circularity model and offers consumers repair services for its sneakers. During the 1950s, France had 45,000 shoe repair shops while today there are only 3,200 shoe repair shops. Veja says repair pricing ranges from 6 euros for a quick repair to 80 euros for a complete refurbishment of a single item. Not only is such pricing more attractive than a new pair of sneakers which retail, on average, for more than AU$150, but it directly incorporates circular practices into their business model.

Nudie Jeans is another example of a company that has embraced circularity. It was established in Sweden in 2001 with the purpose of becoming 'the most sustainable denim company'. Since, the company has committed to a range of initiatives to strengthen their environmental and social impact. Nudie’s 'Sustainable Lifestyle' program incorporates three key principles: repair, re-use, recycle. Nudie Jeans commits to providing free repairs for their jeans for life, providing repair shops and partners to facilitate this process.

What are the next steps in addressing the problems caused by fast fashion?

The fast fashion industry has grown dramatically due to its ability to expediently produce cheap and on-trend items. Yet, the industry is becoming an equally expedient producer of human rights abuses and adverse environmental impacts.

Initiatives to mitigate such impacts must involve a plurality of stakeholders including governments, business, consumers and workers. Regulatory efforts to increase transparency and incentivise circularity are emerging, but more is needed. Monitoring the impacts of emerging regulation in other countries can provide useful guidance for the Australian government as to how its proposed levy could drive sustainability.

While a regulatory shift is needed, unpacking the business model of companies like Veja and Nudie Jeans is at least illustrative that sustainability and circularity can be realised.

Gian Bonanni was an intern with the Australian Human Rights Institute in Term 2, 2024. Professor Justine Nolan is the director and Samuel Pryde is a research associate at the Australian Human Rights Institute. 


1. Justine Nolan, ‘Regulating human rights in the textile sector: smoke and mirrors’ in Axel Marx and others (eds), Research Handbook on Global Governance, Business and Human Rights (Edward Elgar Publishing 2022) citing M. Nisen, ‘Business Insider Australia’ Why the Bangladesh Factory Collapse Would Never Have Happened to Nike (Web Page, 9 May 2013)  www.businessinsider.com/how-nike-solved-its-sweatshop-problem-2013.

2. Justine Nolan, ‘Regulating human rights in the textile sector: smoke and mirrors’ in Axel Marx and others (eds), Research Handbook on Global Governance, Business and Human Rights (Edward Elgar Publishing 2022) 291, 292.

3. An exception to this approach is the owned and operated finishing factory of Outland Denim, a purpose driven Australian denim company.

4. In addition, French Decree 2022-748 published on April 29, 2022, relates to environmental labelling on waste-generating products. This means businesses that produce furniture, and electronic devices must provide information on the environmental qualities of the product. This includes but is not limited to the products repairability, sustainability, re-use possibilities, composability, recyclability, traceability, hazardous substances, plastic microfibres and incorporation of recycled materials.

6. Ibid section 5, 6 [20].