The Devastating Impact of Fast Fashion on the Environment

Published on October 13th, 2023 by Brett Knighton

A mannequin draped in a multi-layered gown with different fabrics in varying colors against a smokey background symbolizing the excess of fast fashion and its environmental impact.

Fast fashion has become an increasingly popular business model in the fashion industry over the last few decades.

Brands like Shein, Zara, H&M, and Forever21 have pioneered this fast fashion model of making and selling inexpensive clothing collections based on the latest trends.

While fast fashion has made stylish clothing more accessible and affordable, its environmental impact has been significant.

What is Fast Fashion?

Fast fashion is defined as an unsustainable way to make clothes. From how these clothes are designed and produced to their distribution and the overconsumption by consumers. Every step of the process is detrimental to our environment.

The Historical Context of Fashion: A Shift from Durability to Disposability

Before the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s, clothing was considered an investment. Garments were made with high-quality materials and craftsmanship, designed to last for years, and often handed down through generations.

Tailors and seamstresses took pride in their stitchwork and durable fabrics. Families would mend and repair clothes rather than discard them, making the most of each garment.

Once the Industrial Revolution began, new technologies like sewing machines removed the need for tedious handwork, leading to more efficient ways to make clothes.

It brought the fashion industry to a new level of productivity and offered the opportunity to reach more of the general population.

Timeline showcasing fashion trends from the 1800s to 2020s, illustrating the evolution of clothing styles over the decades and its relation to fast fashion's environmental impact.

After World War II, the fashion industry went through a major change.

Advances in manufacturing technologies and the economic boom that followed the war paved the way for the emergence of "ready-to-wear" fashion. This made clothing more accessible and affordable for people who no longer had to rely on custom-made garments.

This marked the beginning of the fast fashion model we know today, significantly impacting our consumption habits and the environment.

Today's fast fashion industry is represented by brands known for making trendy clothes at scale, prioritizing fast production and low costs over quality and durability.

Group of women showcasing various trendy outfits with text overlay 'Do You Own These Essentials?' - highlighting the marketing of fast fashion.

It has become common practice for people to buy cheaper clothes they will only wear once or twice just to keep up with the latest trends delivered by social media influencers or fast fashion marketing campaigns. This has set the stage for the environmental issues we face today.

This business model has taken over the fashion world, leading to roughly 92 million tons of garment waste annually. Let's look at why these clothes are getting thrown away at such a high rate.

The Anatomy of Fast Fashion's Shortcomings

  1. Low-Quality Materials: Because brands use low-quality, cheaper materials like synthetic polyester, nylon, and dyes, they can offer consumers “deals”, prioritizing quick profits over the product's life cycle. However, these materials wear out quickly, sometimes showing signs of loose threads, fading, or bleeding colors after their first wash.
  2. Poor Workmanship: Gone are the days when quality outshined quantity. Technological advancements in manufacturing efficiency have led to more products being produced at a higher rate. This means fewer clothes are hand-stitched by human hands. This results in sub-par construction and a high probability of the garment falling apart quickly.
  3. Trend-Driven Designs: Fast Fashion brands focus on what’s trending and often offer only a limited supply of their designs. This puts pressure on consumers to buy them before the stock runs out. Once the trends end, they are then disposed of to move on to another trending design.
  4. Lack of Durability Tests: Sustainable fashion is usually thoroughly tested for durability and longevity before mass production. Conversely, fast fashion items are more likely to be sent out with limited or no testing at all, resulting in design flaws and wearability issues.
  5. Insufficient Care Guidance: Many fast fashion brands fail to provide proper care guidance, leaving customers unsure of how to maintain their garments and leading to premature wear and tear.
  6. Limited Repairability: The construction methods and materials commonly used in fast fashion—such as glued seams and synthetic fabrics—often make repairs difficult or impractical. This design approach is also frequently seen in shoes. Instead of making shoes with repairable features, brands focus on products that lead to a cycle of replacement and waste.

Understanding a company’s priorities and thoroughly examining the clothes you want to purchase is the first step to shifting away from fast fashion. But that is just the beginning.

In addition to the low-quality designs and durability factors mentioned above, fast fashion has a significant environmental impact.

Let’s take a closer look at the tactics and processes used in this industry that are wreaking havoc on our climate, water sources, and consumption.

The Impact of Fast Fashion on the Environment

Creating trendy clothing designs that are unsustainable and built on the idea of profits alone is the fast fashion mindset. But to better understand its negative environmental impact, we need to look deeper.

Key Fast Fashion Statistics:

  • Every second, the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is sent to a landfill or burned. This represents up to 85% of textiles being sent annually. (Ellen MacArthur Foundation)
  • Washing clothes releases over half a million tons of microfibers into oceans annually. (The World Economic Forum)
  • The world consumes around 80 billion pieces of new clothes annually, which is 400% more than the amount consumed 20 years ago. (The True Cost)
  • More than 50 billion garments are discarded within a year of being made. (NIST)
  • It takes around 2,600 gallons of water to make one pair of jeans. (United Nations)
  • The fast fashion industry is responsible for generating more CO2 emissions than the aviation and shipping industry combined. (Ellen MacArthur Foundation)

These statistics on fast fashion are the stark realities of this business model. From the excess water and energy used to make these clothes to the harsh chemicals and microplastics that leak into our waterways, the effect it has on our planet is much worse than you might think.

Let’s break these down individually.

Water

One of the most pressing concerns is the industry's water footprint. The fashion industry consumes over 79 trillion liters (equivalent to 208 trillion gallons) of water annually. The two main sources of this waste comes from dyeing fibers and cultivating cotton.

Although cotton is a natural fiber, it requires significant irrigation during the growing process. This depletes local water sources, and these farms are typically stationed in places already experiencing water shortages.

After the cotton is harvested, it gets dyed, spun, and finished into apparel. Water is also used in these processes, adding to its excess use.

While cotton accounts for the highest water footprint within the textile industry, it’s not the only water-intensive fabric. Materials like rayon (viscose), silk, nylon, leather, and polyester contribute significantly to this water waste.

Microplastics

Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic that are released from synthetic fabrics. These millimeter-sized plastics are appearing in our oceans and even in human blood.

It’s estimated that 35% of the microplastic in our oceans comes from wearing, washing, and drying synthetic clothes. These man-made plastics are also released from other sources, such as:

  • Shoes
  • Synthetic Household Utensils
  • Tires
  • Road Markings
  • Building Paint and Industrial Processes
  • Ship Coatings
  • Plastic Bags
  • Fishing Nets
  • Plastic Bottles

These plastics are detrimental to the ecosystems in our oceans as marine animals can mistake them for food and ingest them. Once ingested, these microplastics can affect their digestive systems and cause them to feel full. Because they feel full, they don’t look for other nutritional food sources, resulting in diet deficiencies, lower life expectancy, and less reproduction.

Chemicals

In addition to microplastics, toxic chemicals like volatile organic compounds (VOCs), polyfluorinated substances (PFAS), heavy metals, and chemicals used in dyes are also released into the environment.

These chemicals can be released when producing fibers used in clothes, from dyeing or bleaching the fibers, and from adding finishes or treating the fibers, also known as wet processing. These chemicals are prevalent throughout the entire lifespan of the garment, releasing toxic waste at every level.

Let’s explore each of these chemicals commonly used in the fashion industry:

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)

These chemicals are released into the air from producing clothes. They are known to cause cancer and other health-related issues when coming in contact with skin or by being ingested. They can also enter our environment when washed away on clothing. These chemicals come from synthetic dyes, adhesives, solvents, and metal or plastic accessories on clothes.

Polyfluorinated Substances (PFAS)

These chemicals are used when brands want to make clothing water-resistant or stain-free. They’re nicknamed “forever chemicals” because of the carbon-fluoride bond in their molecular structure. While these chemicals are effective when used, they also don’t break down quickly, leaving traces that accumulate throughout our environment.

Heavy Metals

Metals like lead, chromium, cadmium, and antimony are commonly used in fast-fashion clothing because they are cheaper to use and can speed up the production process. These metals aren’t biodegradable and can cause significant harm to living organisms, causing cancer, weakening organs, damaging DNA structures, and creating neurological issues. In addition, these heavy metals are being introduced into the food chain. They are showing up in fish tissues and accumulating in plants, severely impacting the upper levels of the food chain.

Dyes

When fashion brands want to add color to the fibers used in their clothes, they do this through a process called dyeing. Once clothes are dyed, the water used must be appropriately disposed of. However, because companies within the fashion industry are looking for any way to save money and time, this water, full of toxic chemicals, is often dumped into local rivers and lakes. At least 72 toxic chemicals have been identified and were found to be released into groundwater supplies during the textile dyeing process. This directly affects local ecosystems and harms the health of humans around these factories.

Overconsumption and Waste

The idea of needing that new pair of jeans or a shirt for every different event is precisely what fast fashion brands want you to think. And over the past two decades, they have done a good job creating this mindset in most high-income countries. The average person wears 20% of their clothes 80% of the time, and the average number of times a garment is worn has decreased by 36% in the last 17 years.

Overconsumption has led to increased waste levels, threatening the environment and depleting valuable resources. The major fast fashion brands, such as H&M, Zara, and Shein, who compete to make the most profits, continue to make huge gains while waste levels keep rising.

Overflowing shopping cart with clothes next to a trash bin, accompanied by fast fashion statistics emphasizing the overconsumption, waste, and environmental concerns.

It is projected that the fast fashion industry will reach a total market value of $185 billion by 2027, which suggests that these brands are unlikely to make significant changes to their business models in the foreseeable future. This trend is a significant concern, especially as waste levels continue to increase and resources become scarcer.

In 2021, landfills in the United States released an estimated 122.6 million metric tons of methane, equivalent to 16.9% of all human-caused methane emissions. When landfills reach capacity, additional land has to be cleared to accommodate the excess waste, adding to the environmental impact.

This leads us to our next point, emissions.

Emissions

Every year, the fashion industry produces 10% of global carbon emissions. We can see a global environmental impact focusing solely on the emissions given off during the manufacturing process.

Once we add in the fact that fast fashion brands are producing 25 times more clothes than slow fashion brands, sometimes even introducing more than one new product each week, we can see how seismic the problem is.

Dresses displayed in front of polluting factory chimneys, emphasizing the carbon footprint of the fashion industry.

Breaking the manufacturing process down, we can see where most of the emissions come from:

  • Fiber Production: The steps involved with turning fibers into fabrics account for 15% of the emissions from the textile manufacturing process. This includes cultivating and spinning raw fibers like cotton and producing synthetic materials from fossil fuels.
  • Fabric Production: This process turns the fibers into usable material. It includes knitting the fibers together, weaving them for length, and bonding synthetic fibers. These processes account for roughly 12-14% of the total emission output.
  • Wet Treatment: The wetting process, which includes dyeing, bleaching, and applying finishes to the fabrics, emits the most greenhouse gases. This includes adding colors and making the fabric waterproof or wrinkle-free. Depending on the treatment or finishings added, these processes contribute to roughly 23%-36% of the carbon emissions the fashion industry is responsible for.
  • Cutting and Sewing: Once the fabrics have been colored and treated, they are sent off to be shaped into garments with their desired style. This involves cutting and sewing the fabric together for a final product to be shipped out to fashion retailers and consumers. This assembly stage produces roughly 16% of the total carbon emissions from fashion manufacturing.

Making things worse, global apparel consumption is expected to increase from 62 million tons to 160 million tons by 2050, an increase of over 158%!

These numbers show we can expect to see much higher levels of carbon emissions in the next two to three decades unless something changes.

How to Bring Sustainability Back into the Fashion Industry

As we learn more about the fashion industry's effects on our environment, it becomes clear that something needs to change.

But how can we fight fast fashion?

Well, we can't expect the brands making record profits to make any changes, so the real adjustment needs to come from consumers.

This means becoming more ethical consumers and embracing a shift in prioritizing slow fashion.

The Power of the Consumer

Consumers have a lot of power when it comes to making historical changes. One example comes from the 1970s and 1980s when consumers demanded that leaded gasoline be eliminated. The combination of consumer demand was met with government regulations (Clean Air Act), leading to the development of the unleaded gas we use today.

More recently, consumer demand has shaped the renewable energy sector. The increased demand for solar and wind power has led to more investments in technology and infrastructure production. Today, there is more personal access to renewable energy sources, with governments and organizations using more of this infrastructure to better our environment.

These examples show that changes can still be made in this fast-paced world. Whether it’s through activism, education, or choosing representatives who support this change, there are many ways to get involved.

Ethical Consumption

While coming together as consumers and demanding change is a good first step, it doesn’t always work. Especially in the profit-driven economy we live in today. That is where being an ethical consumer and voting with your dollar comes into play.

Ethical consumption is all about making an effort to know what you’re buying. It involves researching the brands behind the product and supporting companies that partake in sustainable and ethical business practices.

In the fashion industry, this means supporting companies that prioritize using high-quality, durable, and eco-friendly materials like organic cotton, bamboo, or recycled polyester.

Person browsing 'ETHICAL FASHION BRANDS' on a tablet showcasing sustainable fashion icons; side panel lists benefits of shopping ethically, including 'Supports Fair Wages' and 'Promotes Animal Rights'; below are trusted ethical certification labels.

It means supporting a slow fashion industry where craftsmanship is valued over trending designs. It means taking your time before buying new clothes and getting the most use out of what’s already in your closet (wear 80% of your clothes 20% of the time).

And when you can’t wear that old T-shirt any longer, it means upcycling it into a new tote bag or donating it to your local thrift store.

As someone who looks for ethical fashion brands when needing new clothes, the difference in quality and durability is huge. Recently, I purchased two organic cotton tank tops from Happy Earth, and as soon as I opened the package and touched the fabric, I could sense the superior quality.

More and more brands are making their presence known in the industry, recognizing the benefits of providing sustainable fashion options to consumers. These companies are also innovating, basing their collections around recycled fashion options or upcycled fashion wear.

Once consumers establish this value, the companies and fashion retailers who sell their clothes won’t have any other option but to adjust to stay relevant and in business.

We have to come to the realization that real change only comes when these large companies start to lose money.

The Role of Policymakers in The Fight Against Fast Fashion

Like the historical changes made from leaded to unleaded gas in the 70s and more recently for the inclusion of renewable energy sources, consumers will need help. It will take a collaborative effort between consumer advocacy groups and policymakers to jumpstart this shift to sustainable fashion.

Every representative from the national level to your local community can help. This is why voting for what you stand for is so important.

Voting for politicians who turn a blind eye to the environmental impacts of fast fashion or those who receive financial support from unethical companies means we can’t expect anything to change.

A hand placing a checklist into a ballot box labeled 'SUSTAINABLE FASHION', symbolizing the commitment to supporting representatives that have the same values and beliefs.

If you genuinely want our environment to hold up for future generations, then your support should be given to those who understand these impacts. Vote for those willing to look at the data, statistics, and science behind it.

This take, make, use, and discard mindset has been ingrained in us so much that completely wiping out this billion-dollar fast fashion business model will take time.

But, we can start chipping away by putting the right leaders in positions to help advocate for environmental justice will help facilitate this transition.

Here are some ways that policymakers and consumers can work together to promote sustainable fashion.

Transparency and Traceability

The ability to know where your clothes come from and how they get to you should be standard across the industry. Not only does this help individuals make smarter, more ethical buying decisions, but it also helps in the fight against climate change.

And there are many ways for companies to incorporate this.

One of the easiest ways companies can do this is by having a transparent supply chain where every step of production can be traced. From sourcing raw materials to the final product landing on the clothing rack, a transparent and traceable supply chain holds companies accountable.

Companies can also use this information to switch to more sustainable suppliers when needed and identify areas where they can reduce waste.

Infographic titled 'BEHIND THE SEAMS: The Evolution of a Garment' displaying the garment production process from 'Raw Material Extraction' to 'Final Purchase' with icons representing each step including material processing, dyeing, design, packaging, and distribution.

Technology like blockchain networks can also help these sustainability efforts. In a blockchain network, any information that is stored is tamper-proof. This means no one would be able to change any of the supply chain information or transactions that were made in the past.

This level of transparency and immutability creates consumer trust, making tracking and verifying sustainable practices easier and ensuring all parties are accountable for their actions.

Finally, brands can willingly share information about their practices with organizations like Fashion Revolution.

Each year, Fashion Revolution releases its Fashion Transparency Index, which analyzes and ranks the top fashion brands based on their transparency and commitment to meeting Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Check out the scores given to fashion companies in 2023

Eco-friendly Materials and Manufacturing

Earlier, I mentioned two major factors that contribute to the environmental impact of fast fashion: the use of petroleum-derived materials and the manufacturing process.

From the extraction and processing of raw cotton or synthetic fibers like polyester, nylon, or elastane (spandex) to the assembly and design of clothing, each of these steps has a significant impact on environmental health.

One way to mitigate these effects is by examining what sustainable fashion brands are already doing.

Take the brand OVS as an example. OVS is an Italian clothing brand that sells high-quality clothes made from recycled polyester or cotton, sustainably sourced cotton, and upcycled materials. They were the first clothing brand in Italy to adopt the Better Cotton Standard, which prioritizes sustainable agriculture from the ground up.

With goals like using 100% recycled polyester or other biodegradable materials in their clothes by 2030 and exploring innovative ideas like Reycom—a powdered dye made from textile waste—they are leading the charge toward a more sustainable and slower fashion industry.

Along with the eco-friendly materials they use, this company ranks #1 in the Fashion Transparency Index for 2023, showcasing their openness and commitment to setting an example for the entire industry.

Another example is Patagonia. Patagonia is a well-known sustainable fashion brand that sells outdoor clothing and gear made with 98% recycled and organic materials. They only partner with factories that have been individually verified to employ and uphold ethical practices and maintain good working conditions.

They continue to validate these conditions through annual inspections, setting a production standard across their entire collection. For these reasons, Sustainability Magazine named them the #1 sustainable clothing company in 2023.

These two companies are prime examples of what our fashion industry should look like. When consumers and policymakers come together, they should examine the processes and materials these companies use to set new sustainable fashion standards.

Policymakers can leverage a company's willingness to be transparent to see proven alternatives and use that information to incentivize other companies to follow suit.

Investment in Sustainable Technologies

The best long-term approach for a more environmentally friendly fashion industry is investing in new and innovative technologies. Policymakers can help with this process by allocating funds directly to the research and development of new materials, expanding the use of efficient production processes, and offering government bonds or grants.

Research and Development for Sustainable Materials

While some brands already use eco-friendly materials to make their clothes, continuous research and development can lead to more consumer options, opening up opportunities for a larger market share. This approach has already led to new fibers being introduced into the industry.

Here are some of the most innovative fibers that have been introduced into the fashion industry:

  • Bananatex: This fabric is made from the fibers of Abaca banana plants. These plants come from a sustainable forest project in the Philippines that was started by the developer QWSTION. The plant is grown in a more natural ecosystem setting, eliminating the need for extra water or pesticides. In 2021, the material was stamped as Cradle to Cradle Certified Gold, the highest global standard for products.
  • Pinatex: Introduced by Dr. Carmen Hijosa, a PhD graduate from the Royal College of Art in London, England, this fabric is an eco-friendly alternative to traditional leather. Sourced from the leftover pineapple leaves from a standard harvest, this material is durable, naturally biodegradable, and closely resembles the texture of natural leather. Not only does it reduce the amount of animal leather circulating through the fashion industry, but it's also being used to make wallets, seat covers, watch bands, and shoes.
  • Tencel Lyocell: Since its development in the 1980s by British chemical company Courtaulds Fibres, Tencel Lyocell has played a huge role in developing sustainable and eco-friendly materials in the fashion industry. It's a man-made fiber that comes from wood pulp. Once extracted, the wood pulp is dissolved in a solvent to create a solution used to shape the fibers. Although turning these fibers into fabric still relies on production practices like spinning and weaving, the main difference between this material and others is that the solvent can be recycled and used again, creating a closed-loop system.

Open-Sourced Production Practices

One possible solution to expanding sustainable manufacturing practices across the fashion industry is to create an open-sourced platform. This would allow smaller companies that don't have a lot of funding or resources to get more involved in this environmental effort.

Larger companies with sustainable production processes can share information to help other companies make their own adjustments. This would create a well-rounded system where the brands could quickly share new technology and innovative ideas.

Policymakers can motivate brands to use this platform by offering tax breaks when they participate.

Green Bonds

Working with colleagues and corporations to issue high-quality bonds is another way policymakers can help. These green bonds would focus on funding sustainable projects within the fashion industry, allowing individuals and organizations to invest their own money and show their support.

From developing bio-fabrics and producing more efficient machinery to skill development programs and education focusing on sustainability practices, these bonds could support a wide range of projects needed to transition away from fast fashion.

Turning The Tables on Fast Fashion

As we've unpacked fast fashion's impact on our environment in this article, I hope it has at least made you think. To eliminate this unsustainable cycle, we need to focus on how we shop and the way we consume.

While sitting on the sidelines and expecting something to change on its own eventually is easy, it's important to remember that we, as consumers, hold the most power to make this change.

Instead of letting the fashion industry impact our future, let's make our own impact on fashion and let them know with our wallets that we still have some fight left in us.

The environmental injustice of fast fashion has run its course.

What can you do to help?

A good place to start helping is to share what you've learned here with your friends and family. Post any images or infographics used in this article on your social media accounts to promote and engage with others in your community.

Look to set an example for others. Only purchase new clothes when absolutely needed, and apply this same mindset to anything else you buy in the future. And when you end up buying new clothes, look to support clothing brands with a business built around a sustainable future.

Use your right to vote to support those whose ideas align with your values and morals. Even if who you voted for didn't get elected, that shouldn't discourage you. Write to your representatives. Tell them what's important to you.

These are the only ways real, sustainable changes can be made.

If you're interested in reading more, consider these books on sustainability.



About the Author

Brett Knighton, Owner of GreenLifeResource.com

Brett Knighton

I am the proud owner of GreenLifeResource.com, a platform dedicated to promoting sustainable living and environmental consciousness. My journey towards sustainability was inspired by my daughter's love for nature and being outdoors. Through her, I realized the importance of preserving the environment not just for her, but for all children. Today, I share my knowledge and experiences, hoping to inspire others to join me in making more environmentally-friendly choices. My goal is to bring families and friends closer together through shared respect and care for our planet.

Related Articles

An image of a woman filled with products surrounding a shopping cart representing the challenge of being an ethical consumer.
An image showing a deforested area with tree stumps and evidence of land degradation.
A blockchain network surrounding a tree to support sustainability efforts.