The fast-fashion environmental impact derives from the overconsumption of clothing, as well as a disregard for production and materials. What is more, fast fashion is in the top 5 of the most polluting industries in the world, an issue that poses a serious threat to the environment. Thankfully, it’s also an issue that could be solved by decreasing individual consumption.
This article will break down the aspect of fast fashion and clothing production which are harmful and dangerous to our environment. Furthermore, it will provide tips on how to make sure that your clothes have a smaller impact.
The Ecological Impact of the Fashion Industry
Interestingly, the production of fibers and materials for garments is responsible for about 4% of the global CO2 emissions. Such a statistic doesn’t sound too bad for the fashion industry. But hold on, it gets worse.
The fast fashion industry uses huge amounts of water compared to other industries. The reason why their CO2 emission is significantly lower is a direct result of their close relationships with other notable water polluters.
Fast fashion utilizes oil to produce synthetic materials, it transports the garments all around the globe, it wraps its products in protective plastic, and it uses animal byproducts bought from animal agriculture. If you thought plastic pollution resulted from the use of bottled water was bad for the environment, stop for a second and imagine what all those plastic wrappers can do in landfills and in oceans!
So, if you think about it, fashion is one of the most polluting industries in the world. It should be right there in the top 51.
Fast Fashion Environmental Impact: Frightening Numbers
The fast-fashion environmental impact can be traced back to its production and manufacturing processes, as well as the production of materials and transportation.
The industry is responsible for the emission of 1,715 million tons of CO2 annually as well as 79 billion cubic meters of water2.
- Furthermore, it also generates around 92 million tons of solid waste each year, which is more than e-waste and twice as much as the supermarkets’ food waste.
However, we shouldn’t forget the extra treatments consumers apply to their garments aka detergents, fabric softeners, and other chemicals that can and will end up in the water supply. When it comes to water conservation, fashion and a piece of clothing’s lifecycle are the least fair players on the field.
The Environmental Impact of Staying Trendy
Firstly let us take a look at what fast fashion means. The fast-fashion definition describes a very significant aspect of the consumerist society, mainly cheap and trendy clothing which goes in and out of style rather quickly3. Many fast fashion brands introduce new items in their collections several times a month, or even a week, in order to stay relevant and on-trend. So what is the problem with staying trendy?
“The fast fashion industry feeds an increased, and unnecessary, demand for new styles and trends.”
The major issue with the fast fashion business strategy is that they create campaigns and advertisements which communicate a necessity to the consumers which would otherwise have been nonexistent.
They tell consumers that their clothes are no longer in style and push them to buy new ones. The fast fashion industry feeds an increased, and unnecessary, demand for new styles and trends which forces the rapid production of new clothes.
Furthermore, the clothes produced by these brands are both cheap and of bad quality, meaning that it would be necessary to replace them quite often due to poor wear.
- The garments are often made out of unrecyclable materials, meaning that the clothes will end up in landfills, or at waste incineration plants.
- Sadly, that is exactly what happens, as 33% of landfills consist of textile waste, and nearly 15% of fabrics never even leave the factories before being tossed4.
Unethical Treatment of Factory Workers
The problem with fast fashion is not exclusive to its role as a waste product, but silently, its production and manufacturing. As the demand for trendy clothes is so extremely rapid, and some brands have introduced 57 seasons into a year5, the clothes are produced for the absolutely lowest costs possible.
As a result, fast fashion clothing is manufactured in sweatshops, which are factories where employees work for extremely low wages and in extremely poor, and often dangerous, conditions.
“Since 1990, over 500 people have died due to factory malfunctions in sweatshops and thousands have been injured in more than 50 factory fires. “
Moreover, sweatshop workers in Bangladesh are forced to work 14-16 hours, 7 days a week for a monthly payment of $33, which is almost half as little as the estimated wage for living: $60. As you probably know, Bangladesh, together with Nepal, Pakistan, Uganda, Eritrea, and other countries are already facing severe water crises. And, as we all should know, one of the most severe water pollution effects is cascading economic losses, poverty, and loss of human life.
One of the most vicious circles one can think of, the fast fashion industry, water pollution, and poverty are making a negative impact on millions.
Factory management often take steps to prevent the formation of trade unions, which makes it impossible for factory workers to fight for their rights and thereby improve these working conditions. Thus, fast fashion results in an extremely unethical treatment of people and pays little, if not at all, attention to their working conditions and rights. Have we mentioned that the fashion industry also endangers human water rights as we understand them today?
Water Pollution and the Fashion Industry
But fast fashion is not only harming factory workers. Poor attention to the quality of manufacturing often results in an environmental cost, as well. As the team behind the documentary River Blue (2017) reported, the toxic and harsh chemicals utilized in the production of fast fashion are often flushed directly into rivers and oceans. Especially tough are the chemicals from denim production as well as the tanneries that produce leather products.
In Bangladesh, the waterways are so polluted that many people who come in contact with contaminated water die before the age of 50. And yet it people, and children!!!, are working in these conditions unprotected from this chemicals7.
And I’m not done yet. The harsh chemicals which are flushed into rivers and oceans have an increased impact on the plant and animal life in the contaminated areas to such a degree that rivers and lakes have experienced a vast drop in biodiversity as well as a complete lack of oxygen.
The populated areas around the factories in question are completely dependent upon a living water system. Without clean water sources, we’re looking at an increased amount of illnesses, starvation, infections and E Coli contaminations8.
We know about all these waterborne pathogens – as we experience them today in the United States – but out there, in a world, we know little about, these treatable waterborne diseases are taking lives by the hour.
Animal Livestock in Fashion
Tanneries pose a large scale environmental threat in terms of global water pollution, as well as water consumption. The process of tanning leather materials and preparing them for manufacturing requires vast amounts of water and chemicals and there are close to no regulation when it comes to disposing of the waste products. However that is not the worst part of leather production9.
The livestock industry, especially the industry managing cows, has a bigger impact on our planet than all transportation, including planes, combined10. Animal agriculture is one of the main reasons for deforestation and wastewater from animal agriculture has a massive impact on its local environment, affecting both biodiversity and the people living nearby.
Reports regarding the environmental impact of fast fashion therefore often highlight that one of the most effective steps to secure a greener wardrobe is boycotting new leather products. Leather production is a chemical-heavy process. It’s also related to a lot of extra transportation across the world, including the areas of land dedicated to animal livestock. Therefore, it’s impossible to leave out when speaking about the environmental impact of fast fashion.
The Issue of Cotton Production
The fast-fashion environmental impact is in many ways deeply connected to its water consumption, and not exclusively its water pollution. The two most common materials in textile production are cotton, which accounts for 27% of the global fiber consumption, and polyester which accounts for 55% of the global fiber consumption.
These two materials pose several issues in terms of water consumption and manufacturing. Firstly, cotton production is the world’s biggest pesticide user. Apart from being harmful to the health of the farmers, pesticides also pose a threat of contamination to local flora and fauna.
Moreover, it takes about 2700 liters of water to produce one cotton t-shirt, which is the estimated drinking water amount of 1 person for 900 days11. Therefore, cotton, although it is a natural fiber, requires an exceedingly large amount of resources during its production.
Combined with the aforementioned notions of the overconsumption of the fast fashion industry, we can safely say that these materials pose a threat to the planet and water systems as a result of the rapid and unnecessary production and demand. However, cotton is also a doable material, meaning that it can be fixed when broken and thus, will be wearable for a longer time than synthetics.
There is, therefore, no need to dispose of cotton clothing due to its environmental impact, but it is necessary to rethink potential new purchases and decrease the number of new cotton clothes.
Synthetic Materials and their Impact
The effects of fast fashion on the environment may largely be assigned to the consumption of synthetic fibers. Amongst them, polyester – a type of plastic – is the world’s most frequently used material in textile production. The popularity of this plastic blend is directly related to fast fashion, as its demand is born directly out of the need to speed up the rapid manufacturing of products that are cheap to make.
While polyester constitutes a convenient solution for fast fashion brands, we can’t say the same thing about the environment. Polyester is closely related to the oil industry and it is a byproduct of petroleum production, in other words, plastic, as we said above, so it never truly breaks down.
Instead, polyester, as well as other synthetic materials, degrades in quality and releases microplastics into our waterways12. This process is terribly devastating for biodiversity and wildlife. In 2018, research showed that 86% of drinking water worldwide contained microplastics, a large amount of which can be assigned the large production of synthetic materials in fast fashion. And to make matters worse, polyester clothing is usually thrown away with ease because it’s cheap and it rapidly goes out of fashion.
Things are looking so great when it comes to mending polyester clothing. The low cost of polyester production furthers this dynamic as many consumers could possibly feel it would be a waste of time fixing a $3 t-shirt when you can just buy a new one. Sadly, this marketing tactic is what is costing us our rivers, oceans, and forests.
“Saying no to fast fashion is the equivalent of accepting the true cost of a piece of clothing. “
So What Is the Best Option to Counter Fast Fashion’s Environmental Impact?
- Ask questions about production and cut out brands that put profit over the planet.
- Don’t buy into trend items and choose timeless and good quality pieces that will last a long time, and that can be mended.
- Make a clear distinction between NEED and WANT. Only buying what you need and not giving in to impulse craving and spontaneous purchases will make your wardrobe significantly greener.
- When you are in need of new clothing, seek out garments in second-hand stores and thrift shops rather than going to big fashion brands right away. You can also look at apps that let you trade or buy clothing with and from others.
- Choose your materials based on information and intention.
- Think about how you wash and dry your clothes. By skipping ironing and machine drying your clothes you will save 1/3 of the garment’s overall footprint.
- If clothes do break beyond fixing, seek to reuse or upcycle rather than throwing them in landfills.
- Remember that natural fibers are compostable.
- Keep in mind that fast fashion has spent tons on marketing affecting our consumer habits to the point where consumers expect the clothing to be cheap. Demand transparency of brands and choose brands that openly share information about every point in the manufacturing process.
Fast Facts about Fashion’s Environmental Impact: How Much Water do You Wear on a Casual Night Out?
We do not think about how much water or air or chemicals we wear every time we put on a pair of jeans, a t-shirt, and some shoes for a night out with friends. Maybe it is time we should. Have you ever wondered how much water you wear on a daily basis? Let’s see some facts and figures!
- According to a 2017 report issued by the Global Fashion Agenda, the fashion industry consumed nearly 79 billion cubic meters of water – the equivalent of 32 million Olympic-size swimming pools. Experts expect consumption to increase by 50% by 2030.
- Cotton takes the first place as the fashion industry’s most used fiber for clothing production, followed by polyester and viscose.
- The sad irony of it all is that some of the world’s major cotton producers (China, India, the U.S., Pakistan, etc.) are already suffering from medium or severe water stress.
- We discussed the water crisis in the United States – namely the lowering of the quality of the drinking water that reaches your city tap or well water. After the Flint water crisis, we cannot be too careful about the toxins, pesticides, agricultural run-off, heavy metals, and other harmful chemicals reaching our waters as a side-effect of numerous industries not keeping up with green and sustainable practices. Unfortunately, the agency meant to protect us from everything major industries are spilling in our water also is a few steps behind.
The EPA does not regulate or limit PFAS discharges into the air and water. It tried, but it did not do a great job. PFAS – dubbed “forever chemicals” represents a wide range of human-made chemicals (almost 5,000) that industries use to manufacture everyday life items.
- Cotton farming comes with a dramatic environmental impact. One of the most heartbreaking and catastrophic examples of this is the disappearance of Asia’s Aral Sea, one of the four largest lakes on the planet. While the world knew for decades and decades that the Aral Sea was shrinking, the speed of its demise is staggering. It all began with the Soviets, but today, the sea keeps fading away from the face of the Earth because we still withdraw water to sustain farming – with cotton crops taking center stage.
Other Facts Regarding Fast Fashion that Should Make You Think
- Besides the fact that we irrigate cotton, we also use a lot of pesticides.
- Farming cotton is just the tip of the iceberg, however. An apparel retailer’s water footprint relates to manufacturing (in a proportion of around15%).
- The textile treatment and dyeing process produce an average of 20% of all industrial water pollution.
- Throughout the world, the fashion industry uses around 8,000 synthetic chemicals to transform raw textiles into wearable items. Many of these chemicals reach freshwater sources. Many are impossible to clean/remove. Many of these chemicals pollute nearby water resources through runoff, endangering multiple ecosystems.
- The global average of water we consume to make cotton is 10,000 liters of water / 1 kg of cotton. In other words, cotton’s water footprint is 10,000L/Kg (1198 gallons/pound).
- The amount of water to make cotton varies, however, across countries. The cotton coming from China has a water footprint of 6000 liters/kg. In the U.S.A., the ratio is 8100 liters/kg. In India, 22500 liters/kg.
- When we wash our clothes we think about the household water and bills, of course, but did you know that about 40% of domestic water footprints come from laundry?
- One thing we rarely discuss when we talk about water pollution is the detergents we use. But did you know that the situation with the Danube is so dire, that the European Commission is working on legislation to limit phosphorous compounds in laundry detergents to lower the pollution of the Danube River and beyond the Black Sea?
The water we use to make clothes, dye them, print them, treat them, wash them, etc. is “hidden”. From the cottonseed we plant to the clothing item we throw away for not being “trendy” anymore, we consume billions of gallons of water. Are you interested in learning how much water you wear on a daily basis? Let’s see some numbers!
Fast Fashion Environmental Impact: A Pair of Jeans
- The amount of water to make one pair of denim jeans ranges from 500 to 1,800 gallons.
- Levi’s recently published an overview of their famous blues’ – the 501 – lifecycle and the jeans’ cradle to grave ecological impact (water consumption, pollution, land occupation, climate change, and consumers’ behavior). It is one of the first and the few transparent approaches to the environmental impact of fashion coming from one of the biggest players in the industry.
The Environmental Impact of Your T-Shirt
- According to the World Wildlife, the simplest cotton t-shirt you wear “costs” around 700 gallons of water. Also, see the National Geographic video we shared.
- The U.S. government says it takes about 650 gallons of water to make a simple 250 grams cotton shirt.
How ’bout Them Shoes?
- The bovine leather’s average water footprint is around 17,000 liters/kilogram (2037 gallons/pound). Of course, the numbers vary from country to country and production system to the production system.
- Would you be surprised to learn that your average leather shoes also take a lot of water to make? According to the Water Footprint Calculator, your leather shoes cost 3,626 gallons of water.
If you want to learn more about your water footprint, check out our guide on the water footprint of the food we eat every day. While we don’t say we should go starve or walk naked in the streets, becoming more mindful of our clothes’ environmental impact might help the planet resist a little longer and millions of people all over the world live a little better.
Fast Fashion Environmental Impact: FAQs
Before we leave to think about the things we just discussed, let’s answer a couple of questions that people ask today and we can answer!
1. Is the fashion industry responsible for climate change, and if it is, how much does fast fashion contribute to climate change?
According to the World Bank, fast fashion is responsible for at least 10% of the global annual carbon emissions. To quote the experts, fast fashion contributes to climate change
more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. At this pace, the fashion industry’s greenhouse gas emissions will surge more than 50 % by 2030.
Are fast-fashion companies going green?
Yes, and they have been making sustained efforts for a while now. For instance, H&M, which is the bread and butter of fast fashion, is trying its best to use organic cotton across all their collections, implement more sustainable production methods, and use more eco-friendly or recycled fabrics in their clothing.
What other fashion companies are going green?
One of the legendary fashion brands – Levi’s – is making sustainable efforts to use as little water as possible while making denim jeans, as denim is one of the thirstiest fabrics in the world. Levi’s was among the first big brands going the sustainable route and they are worth a mention. You can check out here a fresh list of clothing companies getting on board with the environmental agenda, although, if we were you, we would check up on them from time to time, to hold them to their words.
The Bottom Line
Saying no to fast fashion is the equivalent of accepting the true cost of a piece of clothing, which, granted, sometimes are more expensive than what fast fashion brands are offering. However, the price of consciously made clothes pay the farmers and factory workers fair wages, thereby supporting real economic growth in areas otherwise affected by poverty. The fast-fashion environmental impact is something to take seriously. Luckily, some players in the industry are already taking the right steps towards a better, safer world for humankind.
-  The Guardian, Which Industries and Activities Emit the Most Carbon? 2011.
-  Scientific American, How Much Water Do Nations Consume? 2012.
-  Gould, Skye. “The World’s Top 13 Fashion Brands Are Worth $175 Billion Combined“. Nordic.Businessinsider.Com, 2019
- “Fashion Industry Waste Statistics“, Edge Fashion Intelligence 2013
-  Hunter, Isabel “Inside The Horrific Unregulated Sweatshops of Bangladesh“. Mail Online, 2019
-  “Sweatshops in Bangladesh” War On Want, 2019
-  Boseley, Sarah “Child Labourers Exposed To Toxic Chemicals Dying Before 50, WHO Says“. The Guardian, 2019
-  River Blue, 2017
-  Hunter, Isabel “Inside the Horrific Unregulated Sweatshops of Bangladesh”. Mail Online, 2019
-  Cameron, James. Cameron, Suzy Amis “Animal Agriculture is choking the Earth and Making Us Sick: We Must Act Now, The Guardian. 2017
-  “How Your T-Shirt Can Make a Difference” National Geographic. 2013.
-  Assessment of polyester and viscose, Waterfootprint.Org, 2019
This was really informational, however there is a mistake. 2700 liters of water to make a cotton shirt is NOT what 1 person drinks in 900 years. The recommended amount of water to drink per day is around 3 liters. 2700 divided by 3 is 900 DAYS not years. a year has around 365 days. 900 divided by 365 is roughly 2.5. So the water cost of a cotton t shirt is not equivalent to 900 years of drinking water, but it is 2.5 years.
Thank you, Zaya, for pointing out the mistake. We will correct it!