Fast Fashion’s Detrimental Effect on the Environment

‘Fast fashion’ clothing retailers like Zara, Forever 21 and H&M make cheap and fashionable clothing, but the cost comes at a high price. 

The term ‘fast fashion’ has become more prominent in conversations surrounding fashion, sustainability and environmental consciousness. The term refers to ‘cheaply produced and priced garments that copy the latest catwalk styles and get pumped quickly through stores in order to maximise on current trends’.



The fast fashion model is a streamlined system involving rapid design, production, distribution and marketing, which means that retailers are able to pull smaller quantities of greater product variety and allow consumers to get more fashion and product differentiation at a low price.

According to Business Insider, fashion production comprises 10% of total global carbon emissions, as much as the European Union. It dries up water sources and pollutes rivers and streams, while 85% of all textiles go to dumps each year. Even washing clothes releases 500 000 tons of microfibers into the ocean each year, the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles.

The Quantis International 2018 report found that the three main drivers of the industry’s global pollution impacts are dyeing and finishing (36%), yarn preparation (28%) and fiber production (15%). The report also established that fiber production has the largest impact on freshwater withdrawal (water diverted or withdrawn from a surface water or groundwater source) and ecosystem quality due to cotton cultivation, while the dyeing and finishing, yarn preparation and fiber production stages have the highest impacts on resource depletion, due to the energy-intensive processes based on fossil fuel energy.

According to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, emissions from textile manufacturing alone are projected to skyrocket by 60% by 2030.

The time it takes for a product to go through the supply chain, from design to purchase, is called a ‘lead time’. In 2012, Zara was able to design, produce and deliver a new garment in two weeks; Forever 21 in six weeks and H&M in eight weeks.

Among the environmental impacts of fast fashion include the depletion of non-renewable sources, emission of greenhouse gases and the use of massive amounts of water and energy. The fashion industry is the second largest consumer industry of water, requiring about 700 gallons to produce one cotton shirt and 2,000 gallons of water to produce a pair of jeans. Business Insider also cautions that textile dyeing is the world’s second-largest polluter of water, since the water leftover from the dyeing process is often dumped into ditches, streams or rivers.

Photo Credit: Waldemar Brandt, Unsplash.

Furthermore, brands use synthetic fibers like polyester, nylon and acrylic which take hundreds of years to biodegrade. 2017 report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimated that 35% of all microplastics- tiny pieces of non-biodegradable plastic- in the ocean come from the laundering of synthetic textiles like polyester. According to the documentary released in 2015, The True Cost, the world consumes around 80 billion new pieces of clothing every year, 400% more than the consumption twenty years ago. The average American now generates 82 pounds of textile waste each year. The production of leather requires large amounts of feed, land, water and fossil fuels to raise livestock, while the tanning process is among the most toxic in all of the fashion supply chain because the chemicals used to tan leather- including mineral salts, formaldehyde, coal-tar derivatives and various oils and dyes- are not biodegradable and contaminate water sources.

The production of making plastic fibers into textiles is an energy-intensive process that requires large amounts of petroleum and releases volatile particulate matter and acids like hydrogen chloride. Additionally, cotton, which is in a large amount of fast fashion products, is also not environmentally friendly to manufacture. Pesticides deemed necessary for the growth of cotton presents health risks to farmers.

Fast fashion also poses societal problems, especially in developing economies. According to non-profit Remake, 80% of apparel is made by young women between the ages of 18 and 24. A 2018 US Department of Labor report found evidence of forced and child labour in the fashion industry in Argentina, Bangladesh, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Philippines, Turkey, Vietnam and others. Rapid production means that sales and profits supersede human welfare.

In 2013, an eight-floor factory building that housed several garment factories collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh, killing 1,134 workers and injuring more than 2 500. In her project, An Analysis of the Fast Fashion Industry, Annie Radner Linden suggests that ‘the garment industry has always been a low-capital and labour intensive industry’. In her book, No Logo, Naomi Klein argues that developing nations are viable for garment industries due to ‘cheap labour, vast tax breaks, and lenient laws and regulations’. According to The True Cost, one in six people work in some part of the global fashion industry, making it the most labour-dependent industry. These developing nations also rarely follow environmental regulations; China, for example, is a major producer of fast fashion but is notorious for land degradation and air and water pollution.

The World Resources Institute suggests that companies need to design, test and invest in business models that reuse clothes and maximise their useful life. The UN has launched the Alliance for Sustainable Fashion to address the damages caused by fast fashion. It is seeking to ‘halt the environmentally and socially destructive practices of fashion’. One way that shoppers are reducing their consumption of fast fashion is by buying from secondhand sellers like ThredUp Inc. and Poshmark, both based in California, USA; shoppers send their unwanted clothes to these websites and people buy those clothes at a lower price than the original. Another solution is renting clothes, like the US-based Rent the Runway and Gwynnie Bee, the UK based Girl Meets Dress, and the Dutch firm Mud Jeans that leases organic jeans which can be kept, swapped or returned.

Other retailers like Adidas are experimenting with personalised gear to cut down on returns, increase customer satisfaction and reduce inventory. Ralph Lauren has announced that it will use 100% sustainably-sourced key materials by 2025.

Governments need to be more actively involved in the fashion industry’s damaging effects. UK ministers rejected a report by members of parliament to address the environmental effects of fast fashion. On the other hand, French president, Emmanuel Macron has made a pact with 150 brands to make the fashion industry more sustainable.

The best advice on reducing fast fashion comes from Patsy Perry, senior lecturer in fashion marketing at the University of Manchester, who says, “Less is always more.”


Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by Impakter.com columnists are their own, not those of Impakter.com. Photo Credit: Earth.Org.
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Earth.Org is a global non-profit environmental organisation with headquarters in Hong Kong, raising awareness about biodiversity loss and the deteriorating conditions of natural ecosystems worldwide. Our purpose is to inform, educate and advocate for a more sustainable world. Our mission is to make the true impacts of human activity on our planet, better and more widely understood by policy makers. To encourage policies that eliminate destructive emissions by imposing a market price to correct the gargantuan market failure of excess pollution being produced by modern economic activities. To highlight the true economic and social costs of current over exploitation by humans of natural capital and bio-services for current and future generations. To demonstrate that palatable economic policies exist – that can most rapidly and effectively curb most if not all of the most destructive of current economic and social activities and that will encourage sustainable development. We advocate for better governance of natural resources and campaigns for countries to adopt principles of natural capital accountancy into their economic policy making decisions. To this aim, we bring the latest environmental news to a wider population, always in the context of where in the timeline we are now, and where our current pathway will likely take us. We use data science to extract insights from static and satellite data to form the basis of powerful arguments with data visualisations that better communicate just how far along the destructive pathway we have found ourselves. Earth.Org aims to stir action. Urgent affirmative action. The time is 2020. We, as humans, must change our ways and fast.

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