Essay | The Triple Bottom Line of Fast fashion

  • Angus Bamford

Implications of Capital conversion and Potential solutions for Fast fashion. Written in January 2019 ©Angus Bamford 2020


The triple bottom line (TBL) emerged in 1994 by John Elkington founder of consultancy firm SustainAbility. It became a framework for business practice, beyond the traditional acquisition of Financial Capital, referring to the ‘bottom-line’ of profit and losses. By contrast, TBL includes, the People’s Account bottom-line (human capital; embodied knowledge and labour) and the Planet bottom line, (physical Capital; the raw resources available) as well as the financial bottom line. It was first linked to Sustainable development. By contrast, the Fast Fashion industry has been criticised for being an inherently exploitative industry. Fast Fashion takes human and physical capital and converts this into financial capital with ill-regard to long-term concerns to maintain competitiveness and is unsustainable. This essay focuses on this conversion and its impacts, as Bourdieu states “profits in one area are necessarily paid for by costs in another” (1986, p20).

'Critique of exploitation has emerged in recent decades alongside globalisation. Key contributing factors include the outsourcing of labour, increased environmentally detrimental sourcing and manufacturing techniques, and mass transportation of goods due to just-in-time sourcing. This has left the fast fashion industry at a point in which innovation is the only option. TBL as an analytical framework deconstructs the issues, the actors, capital conversions and looks to obtain better organisational practices through a more holistic approach towards Supply and Value Chains.'

Profit and People

Fast Fashion aims to maintain Financial Capital, often through exploitation of human capital. “Increased time pressures on the order cycles of the fast fashion industry result in employee abuse and other unethical working practices at manufacturing sites” (Barnes et al, 2006. p22). This hit a critical point, gripping the world press, on 23rd April 2013 the Rana Plaza Garment Factory in Dhaka (Bangladesh) collapsed, causing the death of 1,134 people and a 2,500 people injured. The devastating part of this collapse was that, although the bank and shops within the complex were closed due to notified structural issues, the Garment Factory’s workers were ordered to go to work. This illustrated the disregard of the labour force to maintain productivity and meet the targets demanded by ‘the time pressures on the order cycle’. The subsequent press coverage, initially led to Bangladeshi authorities responding with increased health and safety testing with ‘75% of the garment factories in Bangladesh going through building fire and safety assessments’ (Westervelt, A. Guardian 24th April 2015). The Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety was formed of over 200 apparel companies to counteract the negative press. This illustrated the media’s power to instigate social and political pressures upon actors to act on sustaining human and physical capital, as ethical prefixes. However, in 2018 the Bangladesh High Court ordered the initiative to leave the country. Over time companies with vested financial interests, utilised political capital to revert to practices in which disregarded human capital and prioritised financial short-term profits.

This need for speed is still prevalent according to Mckinsey (2019, p,. 37) “The metabolism of fast fashion has gotten even faster in the age of social media and big data.”
This, along with the growth up the value chain of individuals within large emerging markets such as India and China, has led to increased global consumer demand for low-cost apparel. Thus, it not merely the apparel companies driving this supply chain and exploitation of capital, but the consumer as “Power in the fast fashion industry has shifted towards consumers from retailers.” (Barnes et al. 2006. p,.18) and with “the average person today buying 60 percent more items of clothing than they did 15 years ago” (Mckinsey. 2019. p,. 39). This inherently finances the ongoing exploitations, created by both the desire for profit and the desires of the consumer.

Profit and Planet

The desires for financial capital also leads to exploitation of physical capital. The statistics are staggering and unknown to the public. For example, the fashion industry is the second most polluting industry after oil and “by 2030, it is predicted that the industry’s water consumption will grow by 50 percent to 118 billion cubic meters (or 31.17 trillion gallons), its carbon footprint will increase to 2,791 million tons and the amount of waste it creates will hit 148 million tons. (Sumner, M. 2019, Accessed 22/3/19). Sadly, it is this exploitation that enables more than 1.5 billion garments in 250,000 factories and sweatshops each year (Qutab, 2017. Accessed 27/3/19), enabling the estimated value of the Fashion industry to be $3 trillion, illustrating the conflict between financial capital gains and environmental implications. The high environmental cost of fashion is exemplified in cotton farming in the basin around the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan. Since the 1950s, the basin has been used to facilitate irrigated farming. The Soviet Union (and the following dictator Islam Karimov) instigated and developed an irrigation project to take water from the sea and re-channel that through the cotton farms of the surrounding area. Although this created jobs and bought wealth to the region with cotton exports accounting for 17% of Uzbekistan’s National GDP and over one million employed in 2006, the human and environmental impacts of the cotton-farming have been catastrophic. The human impact included forced labour of adults and minors, which in turn violated:
“ Uzbek labour laws and fundamental international labour and human rights conventions ratified by the Uzbek government, including the International Labour Organization Abolition of Forced Labour Convention (No. 105), International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (Article 8), the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons (supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime and also known as the “Palermo Protocol”), and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 23)”. ( Accessed 27/3/19).

Environmentally, with 1.47m hectares of cotton farmed in Uzbekistan, one shirt can use up to 2,700 litres of water. This has not only disrupted the local climate and wildlife, but the lives of those who live in the area as, “The exposure of the bottom of the lake has released salts and pesticides into the atmosphere poisoning both farm land and people alike. Carcinogenic dust is blown into villages causing throat cancers and respiratory diseases.” (Hoskins, T. 2014. Accessed 27/3/19). This illustrates the human implications of a lack of holistic due diligence. The lack of environmental protection has led to implications on the Human Capital of a region, limiting the capacity of the population to develop and thus gain capital which is inherent to financial capital.

There is hope of change however, as “Nine in ten Generation Z consumers believe companies have a responsibility to address environmental and social issues” (Mckinsey, 2019. p45).
This illustrates a shift in the scrutiny of apparel companies and political institutions to uphold the international conventions of human and environmental protection. Companies are listening as “Gen Z alone will account for 40 percent of global consumers by 2020” (p45) and “Consumers want to support brands that are doing good in the world, with 66 percent willing to pay more for sustainable goods.”(p61) (Mckinsey, 2019). This has led to calls from the fashion industry for “greening the supply process’’ and ‘‘product-based green supply’’. The industry is finding ethical supply solutions which still maintain the same monetisation.

The extent to which these aspirations are being backed by real action is still unclear. In survey results, the questions often “illicit a response that presents the participant in a positive light”. “Research shows we are not as knowledgeable as we think we are about the drivers for our behaviour” (Sumner, 2019). The reality is that there is continued growth in fast-fashion and so this presents contradictory evidence to the supposed changes in attitude towards holding the fashion industry to account. However, some companies are paying attention, and with a growing youthful workforce, are keen to innovate.

Holistic Solutions

A possible solution to achieve TBL may lie within technological innovation which enables production to remain closer to the consumer. “In the survey of US and EU purchasing managers, 54 percent said that proximity to customers is becoming more important, and another 22 percent said it may be more important in the coming years.”(Mckinsey. 2019. p37). Automated production located close to consumer, enables a decrease in the impact on human capital as well as reducing the need of long-distance transportation. However, this will hinder the economic capabilities for the developing countries where producing clothing generates income and boosts personal and national capital.
'Ironically, improved practices in terms of the environment and the production chain may inadvertently lead to a further divide in capital between the developed and developing world.'

Another solution is one based on re-cycling. The inherent materials of use and supply chain operations would be cyclical rather than single use. The consumer is encouraged to recycle the clothing through the use of disposable materials used in the initial design and investment into recycling manufacturing processes and minimisation of the environmental impacts of production whilst maintain the jobs for textile workers who would remain part of the process, limiting the financial impact on the developing countries whilst improving environmental practice dramatically.
“With the challenges we face, such as water shortages, there will come a point when a collection made with sustainability in mind will be cheaper than one that is produced unsustainably.” (Claire Hamer -Ei8ht).

My concluding statement comes from Sumner who argues that, no matter the solution: “The desire for new clothes is something that may be impossible to change. So instead of trying to appeal to the consumer’s supposed ethical streak, perhaps brands should aim instead to use new technology and business models to design products that can be recycled or re-engineered into new styles with minimal use of virgin materials, water, energy and chemicals.”(, Accessed 27/3/19).


Barnes, L. Lea‐Greenwood, G. (2006) "Fast fashioning the supply chain: shaping the research agenda", Journal of Fashion Marketing and Management: An International Journal, Vol. 10 Issue: 3, pp.259-271

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1986. “The Forms of Capital.” Pp. 241-258 in Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education, edited by J. G. Richardson. New York: Greenwood Press.

Elkington, J., “Cannibals with Forks: The Triple Bottom Line of 21st Century Business”, Capstone, 1997.
Figueroa, H (1996) In the Name of Fashion Exploitation in the Garment Industry, NACLA Report on the Americas, 29:4, 34-41

Turker, D. Altuntas, C. (2014) “Sustainable supply chain management in the fast fashion industry: An analysis of corporate reports”, European Management Journal Volume 32, Issue 5, Pages 837-849

Articles and Reports

Mckinsey and Business of Fashion. The State of Fashion 2019. (Accessed 22/3/19) 26/3/19)

Sumner, M. (2019) “Can the fashion Industry Ever Really Be Sustainable?” 26/3/19)

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