Fast Fashion is the Environmental Nightmare We Can’t Ignore

Fast Fashion is the Environmental Nightmare We Can’t Ignore

The textile and fashion industry has a long and complex supply chain, with each production step having an environmental impact due to water, material, chemical, and energy use.

Many chemicals used in textile manufacturing are harmful to the environment, factory workers, and consumers. It’s an environmental nightmare we can’t ignore.

The fashion industry produces 150 billion garments a year, and 87% (40 million tons) end up in a landfill where they smolder in an incinerator and pollute the air. But fast fashion has a significant impact on the environment beyond landfill accumulation as well. 

Fashion manufacturers have drastically increased the material throughput in the system.

Fashion brands are now producing almost twice the amount of clothing today compared to just 20 years ago, a 2020 study published by Nature Reviews Earth & Environment points out.

“The fashion industry is facing increasing global scrutiny of its environmentally polluting supply chain operations,” researchers wrote. “Despite the widely publicized environmental impacts, however, the industry continues to grow, in part due to the rise of fast fashion, which relies on cheap manufacturing, frequent consumption, and short-lived garment use.” 

The production of clothes generates a significant amount of greenhouse gas emissions, including carbon dioxide and methane, which contribute to climate change. The fashion industry is responsible for about 4% of global carbon emissions, according to the United Nations Environment Programme’s Sustainable Fashion: Communication Strategy 2021 – 2024, the same as the countries of Germany, France, and the U.K. combined. Unchecked fashion production will account for 26% of all carbon emissions by 2050.

Additionally, the highly toxic dyeing and finishing process of clothes involves a vast amount of water.

It ultimately ends up contaminating rivers and other water bodies with harmful chemicals, disrupting natural ecosystems

To produce a single cotton t-shirt, it takes over 2,700 liters of water, or 900 days’ worth of drinking water, according to The Conscious Club. A pair of jeans takes 3,781 liters of water from cotton production to delivery of the final product to stores. That equates to the emission of around 33.4 kilograms of carbon equivalent. A pair of shoes? Estimates quote over 8,000 liters of water are consumed in the production of a standard pair. 

The amount of water used to make your new outfit
Microfibers from quickly deteriorating fabrics have become a topic of concern among environmentalists.

Up to 85% of human-made pollution on shorelines is from microfibers, according to a 2019 study from the Sheffield Business School, with an additional half million tonnes of microfibers discarded into the oceans annually.

In fact, 62% of all clothing is made partially or entirely of synthetic fibers such as polyester, which is a crude oil derivative. Petroleum, a non-renewable resource, inflicts significant negative impacts on the earth. 

Garments made with blends of manmade fibers are more difficult to recycle. Statistics reflect this stark reality, as only 1% of all discarded clothing is actually recycled. For true recycling to take place, clothing must be collected, sorted, and distributed to recyclers. These systems are grossly inefficient and time and labor-intensive.

However, people are striving to find alternative methods to address this problem.

 In Sweden, researchers are taking innovative steps towards fiber recycling, a process called Blend Re:wind, to try to alleviate the amount of clothing that ends up in landfills.

“The Blend Re:wind separation process makes it possible to recycle mixed-textile clothing, for example, cotton-polyester blends,” according to the Rise Institutes of Sweden. “The reclaimed fibers can then be used as new raw materials in existing textile manufacturing processes.” 

Alternative base materials are another hopeful prospect for designers and consumers to consider. 

A Finnish firm, Infinited Fiber, has developed a cotton alternative called Infinna which is the product of recycled material through a complex process.

“It’s a premium quality textile fiber, which looks and feels natural – like cotton,” CEO Petri Alava told the BBC last September. “And it is solving a major waste problem.”

With enough global business investment to scale such systems to meet the demand, these technologies could drive 80% circularity in the fashion industry.

Fortunately, there is a lot of power in consumer decision-making that can help to reverse the fast fashion trend.

The average American throws away about 80 pounds of clothing every year. Consumers can choose to buy less and consider the concept of a capsule wardrobe, where they purchase a few high-quality essential items rather than numerous cheap ones that will deteriorate quickly. 

Secondhand options are an excellent alternative, with many retailers now offering used clothing sections where one can find gently used clothes at an affordable price. Patagonia, for example, has set up Worn Wear, a program where customers can get existing garments repaired or buy and trade in gently used items from the brand. 

All you need is less clothing
While they may cost more upfront, sustainable brands are also worth considering.

They promote ethical production methods and prioritize organic materials, fair labor, and safe working conditions. With these changes in mind, paying more for a staple item in your closet from a sustainable brand may be worth the cost upfront, as these garments can last longer than those from famous “fast fashion” brands like Shein, Zara, and H&M.

Consumers can also extend the lifespan of their clothes by repairing them instead of immediately throwing them out if there’s a hole or missing button. Donating clothes that no longer serve a purpose instead of throwing them into landfills is also a sustainable option, and some brands and stores now have recycling programs that can take back unwanted clothes and recycle them properly.

To make fundamental changes in the fashion industry, there needs to be a deceleration of manufacturing and the introduction of sustainable practices throughout the supply chain, as well as a shift in consumer behavior to decrease clothing purchases and increase garment lifetimes. 

The environmental impact of fast fashion is significant and requires urgent action to achieve sustainable and circular production practices. Small changes in consumer behavior, such as buying less, shopping secondhand options, and purchasing from sustainable brands, can make a big difference in reducing the negative impacts of fast fashion. 

Written by Carley Kimball

Written by Carley Kimball

Freelance Journalist and OPL Content Contributor

“I’ve always tried to implement planet-friendly practices in my life but didn’t quite realize just how much of an impact individuals can make until I was introduced to One Planet Life. I’m so excited to be able to utilize my professional skills to contribute valuable information and positive personal experiences to help make the world a better place.”

Break the Cycle of Fast Fashion and Change the World

Break the Cycle of Fast Fashion and Change the World

Fast Fashion makes large profits for the brand companies while exploiting people and places, driving thoughtless consumerism, and harming our planet.

How often do you find yourself shopping for the next addition to your wardrobe? Most Americans have made a textile purchase within the last few weeks. Fast fashion, the term that describes the production cycle of low-cost, low-quality clothing to meet the demand of rotating trends, has exploded with a rise in consumerism and the help of social media. 

The average American buys 68 garments per year and wears them about 7-8 times. Many garments are worn even less as we have become a culture of disposable clothing. Americans are buying five times as much clothing now as we did in 1980. In a vicious cycle, some brands churn out new collections every week. Unfortunately, your purchases of fast fashion are funding the destructive force in our world.

Who did Fast Fashion take over? 

Fast fashion began in the 1990s and precipitated massive changes in the industry. Up until the 1980s, the United States produced over 60% of the garments Americans purchased. Today, only 3% is produced in America. 

Brands quickly copy or “knock off” what is popular in ready-to-wear shows, making garments cheaper by squeezing production costs wherever they can. These companies use cheap synthetic fabrics that don’t biodegrade, which are sewn by workers in poverty-stricken countries for paltry wages, all while polluting the rivers and landfills of the countries where garments are produced.

As Dana Thomas shares in her book Fashionopolis, “Generally, if a fast-fashion shirt costs $10, the person who made it got ten cents. The factory owners get paid a bit of the remaining $9.90. But the biggest slice of the $9.90 goes to the brand as profits.” These clothes are highly marketed to entice buyers to purchase more clothing for less.  Thomas asserts that the industry has become like a Vegas casino: “You spend freely, recklessly even, and though you’ve probably been rooked, you feel like you’ve won.”  

“Fast fashion swept away a certain kind of common sense know-how and respect surrounding our clothing, from how to recognize a good buy and shop for quality to how to sew on a button and mend a hole in a favorite pair of jeans.” It is time we took back our respect for fashion and stop the vicious fast fashion cycle. 

“Between 2000 and 2014 the price of most goods – everything from bread to cell phones – increased by about 50%. If something cost $100 in 2000 it cost $150 in 2014. But, thanks to the cost-cutting all along the fashion supply chain, clothing prices actually dropped. So consumers bought more clothes. Wore them less. Grew bored with them faster. And got rid of them faster. Throwaway clothes became the norm. “

From Fashionopolis – The Secrets Behind the Clothes We Wear by Dana Thomas

What is the price of fast fashion? 

The clothing business is a big business – an approximately 2 trillion dollar business – and employs hundreds of millions of people around the world. It is the most labor-intensive industry, with 1 out of 6 people in the world working in it.  Hence, it is not surprising that its impact is huge.

A quick summary of the harm caused by the vicious cycle of fast fashion.

  • Garment jobs were moved offshore, which impacted local economies.  The US garment industry alone lost over 1 million jobs in 15 years (75% of the workforce).  The same happened in many other countries as the work moved to garment workers in poorer countries. 
  • Garment workers in poorer countries do have labor protections; they work in dangerous factories for pennies.  Fewer than 2% of these workers earn a living wage.
  • Garment factories face fierce competition to get brand orders.  One they do get the order, the factory funds upfront the costs of the fabric and all manufacturing costs.  The garments are then shipped to the brand, who may refuse to reimburse the factory if the shipment is late or not as expected, which leaves the factory in a desperate position. Essentially, the brand holds all the power and takes the majority of the profits. 
  • Consumers are increasingly marketed to to buy more and buy cheap.  Caught in the cycle, they buy larger quantities of low quality clothing. 
  • Unwanted clothing creates massive waste; while some consumers give unwanted garments to charity, only 10-20% is reused or sold.  The rest of the unwanted garments are shipped to poorer countries for resale markets, which quashes that country’s local fashion market.  Sadly, the majority of the clothes are not sold in these markets, and the country must now deal with our waste disposal.  To make matters worse, 80% of the people working in these resale markets don’t make a profit. 
  • The garment production industry has a huge environmental impact, using vast amounts of natural resources such as water, energy and chemicals which pollute surrounding waterways and contribute to climate change.  The World Bank estimates that the fashion sector is responsible for nearly 20% of all industrial water pollution annually.
  • While almost everyone else is paying the price for fast fashion, brand executives are making millions a year.  Some of them are the most wealthy people on our planet.
The Vicious Cycle of Fast Fashion
What can we do about it? How do we break the cycle of fast fashion?

Fortunately, there is a lot of power in consumer decision-making that can break the fast fashion cycle. Here are some ways to get started:

  • Assess the current state of your wardrobe. We love Elizabeth L. Cline’s practical approach, detailed in her book The Conscious Closet. (Read our summary.) Elizabeth’s approach to conscious dressing crystalized while she was promoting her book Overdressed. She recommends starting with a wardrobe impact inventory – understanding the number of items in your wardrobe, percentage worn, components, fabrics, and country of origin – and then becoming well-informed about the environmental impacts of fast fashion. She extols sustainable fashion and the art of less & more, shares tips on how to make your garments last, and encourages readers to be a part of the change. Elizabeth’s book is a practical guide about how to say goodbye to fast fashion, 
  • Kick the fast fashion habit. You can change your buying patterns while still looking fabulous!  Commit to new fashion habits by joyfully tracking them on our One Planet Life app. Here are some of the Joyful Changes you can track in our app:

Take a vacation from buying. Avoid buying new from fast fashion brands. 

  1. No buy clothes days
  2. No buy shoes days 
  3. Shop your closet days 
  4. Repair clothing instead of buying new
  5. Buy secondhand clothing

Shop from sustainable brands.

  1. Buy clothing from a sustainable brand
  2. Use clothing rental service for work garments
  3. Use clothing rental service for vacation garments
  4. Use clothing rental service for special event garments
  5. Use clothing rental services for maternity clothes

  • Find sustainable brands. More and more companies are making changes to be more sustainable. They are changing production methods to reduce the impact on the environment and using fair labor in safe working conditions. With these changes in mind, paying more for a staple item in your closet from a sustainable brand may be worth the cost upfront, as these garments can last longer and be in alignment with your values. Finding sustainable brands can be a challenge. We recommend you look at the One Planet Life marketplace, which showcases sustainable brands we recommend. In addition, we are fans of Good on You, which rates fashion brands to assist in choices to drive a sustainable future.

Join One Planet Life in breaking the vicious cycle of fast fashion. We can support more sustainable and ethical fashion practices and still look fabulous! 

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