Exposing Fashion’s Dirty Secrets

In 2014 Andrew Morgan released the ground-breaking documentary The True Cost, produced by Livia Firth and Lucy Siegle, which exposed the horrifying hidden costs of the world’s addiction to fast fashion. Fast-forward four years, and nothing has really changed… 

Four years after The True Cost first unveiled the impact that the clothes we wear are having on people and planet around the world, a new ‘documentary for our times’ led by investigative journalist Stacey Dooley has brought the shocking environmental and human costs of fast fashion to a new generation.

In Fashion’s Dirty Secrets, Stacey travelled around the globe to investigate the impact that the fashion industry is having on our planet.  What she found highlighted how fast fashion continues to devastate wildlife and communities around the world.

In Kazakhstan, Stacey visited the former Aral Sea – once an area of water almost the size of Ireland, now completely dried up after cotton production started in the region in the 1960s. “There used to be fish – tens of thousands of tonnes of fish – and now there’s a camel,” Stacey observed after driving for three and a half hours across the former seabed.  The once thriving local fishing industry has been wiped out, costing tens of thousands of jobs. “It’s hard to believe that an area as big as this can be so dramatically altered to grow cotton for our clothes.”

The consumer demand for fast fashion – cheap, disposable, trend-led clothing produced quickly by mass-market retailers – has seen clothing production double in the past 15 years and British consumers today purchasing twice as many items as they were 10 years ago.   “Fast fashion is making us poorer and poorer, the owners of the brands richer and richer and our global landfills larger and larger – contributing to greenhouse gas emissions on an enormous scale,” said Livia Firth.

“It’s my firm belief that nothing will ever change while fast fashion and its current business model stays as it is. That is, producing huge volumes of clothes, in incredibly fast cycles, very cheaply. That is, continuing to addict us to an even crazier cycle of consumption, which is totally unsustainable in itself.

“It’s time for us to be active citizens and active consumers. We can’t continue to demand change until we challenge the pace of thoughtless consumption which the fast fashion brands have dictated to us.”


Last week it was announced that MPs have written to bosses of the biggest UK fashion retailers – including Primark, Arcadia Group and Next – to find out what steps they are taking to reduce the environmental and social impact of the clothes and shoes they sell. This evidence will form part of an inquiry by the Environmental Audit Committee, which has already revealed that the UK’s consumption of new clothing is higher than that of any other European country.

“The way we design, produce and discard our clothes has a huge impact on our planet,” said Environmental Audit Committee chair Mary Creagh MP.  “Fashion and footwear retailers have a responsibility to minimise their environmental footprint and make sure the workers in their supply chains are paid a living wage. We want to hear what they are doing to make their industry more sustainable.”

Our Eco-Age colleague, environmental journalist, reporter and author of Turning the Tide on Plastic, Lucy Siegle, welcomed the intervention, which she hopes will evolve in the way we have seen other environmental issues like plastic: “We are still missing data for fashion so it’s really hard for us to know what’s going on and the fashion companies want it that way. So I’m really, really hopeful that the intervention by the Environmental Audit Committee led by Mary Creagh will give us some of the evidence that we need so that we can really unravel exactly how they operate and what volumes they’re putting into the system in order to bring change.” 


Stacey, who is currently wowing audiences as a contestant on Strictly Come Dancing, reached out to a number of fast fashion retailers to participate in the documentary, but her invitations were declined. “The really shocking thing for me was how Stacey went with a very open mind to Copenhagen Fashion Summit and none of the brands that we know from the British High Street would speak to her – they cancelled interviews, they gave her the run around, and I think people will think that’s quite shocking behaviour,” said Lucy.

Also shocking to audiences was the amount of water used in clothing production – a single pair of jeans uses around 3,781 litres of water in its life cycle according to the Institute of Mechanical Engineers – from growing cotton through to consumer care and end-of-life disposal. In the UK alone, charity TRAID has said that the water footprint of clothing in use is around eight billion cubic metres of water (with each cubic metre equalling 1,000 litres). 

Fashion’s Dirty Secrets showed us in real terms the devastating environmental, social, and economic impacts caused by the intensive cultivation of cotton to feed an ever-growing global appetite for fashion,” commented our textiles expert Charlotte Turner.  “Understandably, it might seem overwhelming for people who want to know if their clothes have been responsibly produced, particularly when brands seem reluctant to talk. But we can demand more information and responsibility from brands, and try to make more conscious choices in what we buy – there are so many inspiring and exciting lower-impact materials available that we have now the option to reduce our impacts.”   

Read our simple tips on how to adopt a new, more sustainable way to dress and see our full list of recommended brands.

Find out more about the UK government inquiry into the Sustainability of the Fashion Industry

The True Cost is available to watch on Netflix. Stacey Dooley Investigates: Fashion’s Dirty Secrets was aired on BBC One on Monday 8th October at 9pm.