What's the Environmental Impact of Fast Fashion?

What's the Environmental Impact of Fast Fashion?

When talking about environmental impact, most of us think about international flights, daily commutes, and big factories. But we don’t hear much about the environmental impact of fast fashion. The UN Environment Programme states that the fashion industry is the second-biggest polluter after the oil industry, responsible for 8-10 percent of the global carbon emissions. These emissions surpass those of all international flights and maritime shipping combined. Obviously, we all want to look our best when going to work or social events – but at what cost?


What Is Fast Fashion?

Fast fashion refers to the designing, making, and marketing of cheap, trendy clothing sampled on the catwalk to reach consumers quickly. Designers sample ideas from the catwalk or celebrity culture and mass produce cheap garments that are quickly availed to the consumer to meet the latest fashion trend.

This business model is based on the current trends and their popularity among customers. To meet the high demands, fast fashion brands like Zara and Forever 21 must have enough resources not only to speed up the manufacture of these popular designs but to also dispose them of equally fast to create room for incoming trends.

It might seem harmful, but a closer look tells a different story. As consumers globally purchase more clothes, the ever-growing market for cheap clothes leaves a trail of damages in its wake.

Research shows that, on average, consumers bought 60 percent more garments in 2014 than they did in 2000. Worldwide, around 56 million tons of clothing are bought yearly, and this amount is expected to rise to 93 million by 2030.

The worst part is that clothes are hard to recycle, meaning many millions more end up in landfills. In fact, by 2030 the global wastage from clothing alone is expected to be more than 130 million tons a year.

Environmental Impact of Fast Fashion on the Planet

That’s not all. Here are some of the significant environmental impacts of fast fashion on our planet.


The process of making clothes starts from producing polyester from plastic, which is an energy-intensive process. To produce such vast amounts of energy to process the plastic requires large amounts of petroleum, which release volatile particulate matter and acids like hydrogen chloride.

On top of that, this process releases two to three times more carbon emissions than cotton. Speaking of cotton, it requires lots of pesticides to produce, which not only harms the soil but also poses health risks to farmers.


Most brands use polyester to make clothes. Check the label on your cloth right now, and chances are, a certain percentage is polyester. Not only do these man-made fabrics use millions of barrels of oil every year, but they also don’t break down in the ocean.

In fact, microplastics- tiny pieces of non-biodegradable plastic- make up the biggest percentage (31 percent) of plastics in the oceans. A 2017 report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimated that 35 percent of all microplastics in the ocean came from the laundering of synthetic textiles like polyester.


Water Usage

Another leading environmental impact of fast fashion is the millions of gallons of water that’s used up to produce clothing. Reports show that the fashion industry is the second-largest consumer of industry water, using 700 gallons of water to produce one shirt and 2,000 gallons to produce a pair of jeans.

To put it into perspective, 700 gallons of water is enough for one person to drink at least eight cups daily for three and a half years, and 2,000 gallons can last 10 years.

A good example is what remains of the Aral Sea, which was once one of the world’s four largest lakes. Cotton farming used up so much that it dried up in just 50 years. If action isn’t taken, the industry will consume around 50 percent of water by 2030. 

Water Pollution

Fashion industries use textile dyes to make colorful clothing. The problem is that brands use toxic textile dyes that are harmful to the environment since the water left behind after the dyeing process is often dumped into streams, rivers, and ditches.

These chemicals negatively impact the health of the water itself and all the organisms that depend on the water body, including humans.

Poor Working Environment

These negative effects go beyond polluting the environment. The countries producing the majority of textiles for fast fashion are in Asia due to less stringent restrictions regarding environmental regulations and labor laws. This allows them to mass-produce clothing without legal consequences.

Child labor is rampant, and the working conditions are terrible, yet manufacturers can easily get away with it. Workers work 60-140 hours a week and aren’t given breaks or paid overtime. Pregnant women aren’t given maternity leave or are fired.

What Can Be Done?

The change starts with us, the consumers. For starters, we can buy secondhand clothes from sellers like Poshmark and ThredUp Inc. who are based in California, USA. These sellers take unwanted clothes from shoppers and people can buy them at a lower price.

Alternatively, we could rent clothes from US-based companies like Gwynnie Bee and Rent the Runway, UK-based stores like Girl Meets Dress, and Dutch firm Mud Jeans, which leases organic jeans, which you can keep, swap, or return.

Clothing brands are also doing their part:

  • Adidas is experimenting with personalized gear to reduce returns and increase customer satisfaction.

  • Ralph Lauren announced that the company plans to use 100 percent sustainably-sourced key materials by 2025.

The Global Fashion Agenda and the Fashion Pact are just some of the global coalitions taking the initiative to switch to more environmentally friendly ways of production.

We are still a long way from reducing the environmental impact of fast fashion on our planet. But, every small step in the right direction leaves a positive impact. If we come together to address this issue, then the world will be a better place to live in.

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