The rapid rise of fast fashion has not only filled the closets of aspiring fashionistas with modern, trendy, and incredibly affordable clothing, but it has also caused incalculable damage to our natural world.
Below are the four major ways it impacts our environment, as well as the significant cost to those people who can least afford to suffer the consequences.
But before we can stop fast fashion in its tracks, we first need to define what we’re talking about.
What Is Fast Fashion?
“Fast fashion” is any clothing that moves quickly from production to retail. It lets consumers take advantage of the latest trends, typically based on celebrity fashion and pop culture.
Fueling fast fashion’s ubiquity is its affordability. The industry uses cheap fabric and production methods, employs low-wage laborers often in developing countries, and takes full advantage of the global supply chain.
Fast fashion has succeeded with consumers who appreciate its benefits:
- Quick release
- Cheap styles
- Up-to-the-minute trends
That being said, fast fashion has some considerable downsides, with its impact on the environment being the most notable.
How Fast Fashion Destroys the Environment: Four Top Areas
The average consumer may not realize how much of an impact their fashion habits have on the environment. A $10 T-shirt couldn’t do that much damage, right?
Most textiles—approximately 85% of them—end up in a dump each year. But fast fashion destroys the environment in more complex ways than waste alone.
Fast fashion brands use plastic-based synthetic fibers, such as nylon and acrylic, to make their clothes. During the manufacturing process and throughout the lifespan of a garment, including every time you wash it, these fibers produce tiny waste that leaves with wastewater and ends up in water sources.
These microplastics, small pieces of fabric typically less than five millimeters in size, aren’t biodegradable. Instead they will take hundreds of years to degrade.
An International Union for the Conservation of Nature report from 2017 highlights that over a third of microplastics in the ocean come from the production of synthetic textiles.
Given their size, it’s easy to assume that microplastics couldn’t impact the environment, but the sheer volume released every year is stunning.
Over 80 billion articles of clothing are purchased every year, generating 82 million pounds of microplastic waste each year in America alone. Europe’s fast fashion adds an estimated 2.9 billion units of clothing per year.
Many of these fibrous microplastics end up in the ocean, where they contribute to the grotesque phenomenon known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Even worse is that microplastics attract other environmental toxins, compounding the harm they represent to the ecosystem.
Microplastics aren’t only damaging seas, though. They’re everywhere, even in newborn stool.
Microplastics are bad for the environment at every stage of their existence—from the high environmental cost of crude oil extraction required to create plastic to their presence in ecosystems around the world, even the North Pole.
An alarming amount of electrical and thermal energy is required to produce an article of clothing and get it from manufacturing to retail. Processing of the fabric alone takes between 0.45 and 0.55 kwh of electrical energy per meter of cloth and 4,500-5,500 Kcal of thermal energy per meter of cloth.
To reduce the high energy use associated with synthetic fiber production, one alternative could be sustainably farmed cotton. By producing clothes with cotton sourced from sustainable farming, which uses better irrigation methods and technology to optimize power use, fast fashion brands could considerably reduce their energy consumption. It seems the cheap costs of synthetic fibers are too enticing, unfortunately.
Water use and pollution
As the second-largest consumer of water on the planet, the fast fashion industry consumes 93 billion cubic meters of water per year. It takes up to 700 gallons to make a cotton shirt. To produce a pair of jeans, it takes 2,000, according to WeForum.
In addition to wasting water, fast fashion also pollutes water with the myriad chemicals involved in production, particularly from the dyeing process.
Such chemicals include surfactants such as nonylphenols and nonylphenol ethoxylates (NP/NPEs), which, according to the EPA, are highly toxic to aquatic life.
As Business Insider notes, many of these chemicals end up in streams, lakes, and oceans. Some are even dumped into ditches. In time, these chemicals can affect nearby agriculture, and therefore human food consumption, and local wildlife, resulting in a loss in biodiversity.
These effects are hastened by fast fashion’s carbon emissions and climate change impact.
Fossil fuels and global emissions
The truth is, the “majority of fashion today is made from fossil fuels.” Synthetic fibers—led by polyester, which is present in 56% of textiles—made of “finite resources such as crude oil and natural gas account for over two-thirds (69%) of the material input for clothes worldwide.”
A UN Framework Convention on climate change shows that carbon emissions driven by fast fashion will skyrocket by 60% by the year 2030. Business Insider highlights that it’s responsible for 10% of global carbon emissions.
The impact of higher global emissions is well known:
- More frequent and worse natural disasters
- Melting of the polar ice caps
- Shifts in global weather patterns
The Human Side of Fast Fashion’s Impact
Though fast fashion is quickly becoming exposed for its impact on the environment, it also has a significant human cost, with one in six people employed in the industry in some capacity.
Though a driver of employment, this means that a large number of people are at risk of fast fashion’s impact. This impact is demonstrated in several ways.
Fast fashion aims to make clothing as quickly and cheaply as possible.
Enter low-paid and underpaid labor, typically in developing countries.
A 2018 report by the United States Department of Labor highlights the countries rife with child labor, alongside the industries they work in, including cotton, textiles, and garments, all associated with fast fashion.
These reports of labor exploitation emerged from multiple countries, including, but not limited to, the following:
- The Philippines
Many of these countries also solely employ women to carry out this work. Managers and upper-level staff, however, are typically male. That leads to gender-based violence and harassment within the industry itself, says the Solidarity Center.
That’s particularly the case across Southeast Asia, claims the Synergia Foundation.
These underpaid workers are often forced to endure dangerous conditions. Despite being extremely low paid, production targets continue to rise, forcing longer hours of harder work.
Garment factories in many developing countries have been labeled hazardous by the Clean Clothes Campaign. There have even been reports of such factories burning to the ground, often with workers still inside.
An eighth-floor garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, for example, burned to the ground in 2013. Hundreds of workers were killed in the fire, while many more were injured. Multiple American fashion brands sold clothes made in the factory.
That directly ties the clothes that many people buy to such atrocities. Similar conditions exist in countless other factors in countries around the world.
Pollution and human health
The health and safety implications of waste spillage from fast fashion shouldn’t be overlooked. Reports of toxic chemicals—including Chromium-6—have been highlighted in rivers near Primark, ASOS, and Zara clothing factories.
The impact this has on a person’s health is huge. As OSHA notes, Chromium-6 exposure is known to cause:
- Kidney Damage
- Respiratory Cancer
- Liver Damage
- Pulmonary Congestion
Continued exposure to Chromium-6, among other toxic chemicals, increases the likelihood of residents near such facilities developing such conditions.
How Fast Fashion’s Destruction of the Environment Can Be Stopped
Despite the seemingly overwhelming size of the environmental impact of fast fashion, you can make a difference.
Here are nine steps you can take right now.
Wear the clothes you own more frequently
The average American buys one article of clothing per week and wears it only seven times before throwing it away. These may be spread out across several months, which could make buyers feel as though they get more use out of it than they do.
Explore secondhand stores
Thrift stores are the most obvious way to cut down on your use of fast fashion. Though this may have been looked down upon before, “thrifting” has exploded in popularity in recent years.
For those who have never been thrift shopping before, it’s worth keeping a few things in mind:
- Know what you’re looking for
- No returns
- Cash only is common
Thrift shopping will let you dramatically decrease your use of fast fashion brands.
Donate your clothes to charity
Some charities, especially those that work with people experiencing homelessness, accept clothing donations.
If you’re about to get rid of your old clothing, choose the sustainable option and donate. Not only does this free up space in your wardrobe, but the clothing will get a new lease on life instead of sitting in a landfill.
Some stores may have restrictions on what they can accept, however, so it’s worth asking them ahead of time.
Focus on eco-friendly brands
There’ll come a point where everyone will need to buy new clothes. Few people can wear the same outfits for years on end without the clothing starting to fall apart.
When it’s time for you to pick out some new clothes, focus on eco-friendly brands.
These brands go out of their way to minimize their environmental impact in several ways:
- Sourcing sustainable materials
- Reducing waste
- Using recycled packaging
- Using ethical manufacturing processes
Research brands before buying. While many claim to be eco-friendly and sustainable, some are more environmentally friendly than others. Choose the most eco-conscious and sustainable brand. Notable among these are Patagonia, Pact, and Kotn.
Buying sustainable clothing can be as simple as checking the tag to see what materials the clothing is made from. Though this often means paying more, it also means protecting the planet and vulnerable laborers.
Avoid these least sustainable and most harmful materials:
- Conventional Cotton
Instead, try more sustainable fabrics, which I list below.
Reduce the amount you buy
The average consumer fuels the fast fashion industry by buying more and more clothing and wearing the same yoga pants and concert T-shirt over and over again anyway. You don’t really need 10 poorly made cardigans, each a different color.
The currently raging demand for fast fashion produces more and more emissions and pollution. Should the demand drop, the supply, and hence the damage, will naturally follow.
Rent your wardrobe
Depending on the occasion, renting clothes may make much more sense than buying them. For anyone going to a wedding or another celebration, there’s no point in buying something new. You’ll never wear that taffeta bridesmaid’s dress again.
Ride-sharing, office-sharing, and other forms of the emerging “sharing economy” are becoming more and more popular. Clothes-sharing could be on the horizon. In fact, it already is, with multiple apps focusing solely on this.
Families have been upcycling for decades, if not centuries. None of us was safe from hand-me-downs. But now even some stores, such as American Eagle, will let customers rent clothes from them with a monthly subscription.
Peer-to-peer platforms have also become popular. These let consumers connect with people near them that are either renting out clothes or looking to rent some. Using these has multiple benefits.
Not only is this a more sustainable way of getting a unique look for a special occasion, but it’ll also be more affordable. Your wallet will be as thankful as the environment will be.
Host a clothes swap
People want to swap out old clothes for new fashions at some point. While donating them to a secondhand store is convenient, there are other options.
Hosting a clothes swap with friends and family is an attractive choice for people who have more than a few articles of clothing they’ve grown sick of. Not only can attendees pass their unwanted clothes to a new person, but they’ll also get “new” clothes in return.
Hosting one of these is easier than you’d expect:
- Give guests enough notice.
- Ensure everyone knows what clothes to bring (i.e. they’re in good shape).
- Once they’re there, lay out the clothes in a way that everyone can have a look.
- Be sure to have a space for people to try on clothes.
All told, it can be a fun and sustainable way to get some new clothes while getting rid of old ones.
Choose alternative fibers
Instead of choosing cotton and synthetic fabrics, try sustainable ones:
- Wild Silk
Each of these needs much fewer resources to grow in large amounts. They also don’t need the pesticides and other chemicals typically used in the fast fashion industry.
That being said, they’re more of a niche area than a mainstream one. As awareness grows about the risks of fast fashion, hopefully the use of these materials will as well.
Buy classic designs that never go out of fashion
Trendy consumers often replace their clothing once it’s gone out of style. As fashionable as that seems, it perpetuates fast fashion’s impact on the environment.
Doing so helps feed the fast fashion machine. It isn’t the only option, however. There are multiple classic designs that shouldn’t go out of style:
- Leather Jackets
- Trench Coats
- Wrap Dresses
While some of these may be seasonal, keeping them in storage in your home means they can be brought back out at an appropriate time.
How Fast Fashion Destroys the Environment: Wrapping Up
Any eco-conscious person will want to have as minimal impact on the planet as possible. That goes beyond taking a bike to work and having a reusable water bottle.
You need to carefully evaluate your impact. Are you a connoisseur of fast fashion? Fast fashion is an area that few people consider when focusing on climate change and similar issues.
It hasn’t been recognized as the driver of climate change that it is. Until now.
What’s more important, that new top that you can get for $8, or protecting the planet?
Take care of the planet and ensure that it’s here for generations to come. Stop fueling fast fashion and its destruction of the environment.
Learn more about sustainable fashion and see how you can help fight fast fashion.