Course:CONS200/2021/Environmental Impacts of Fast Fashion

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An Overview of Fast Fashion

What is fast fashion?

Major Exporters of Textiles in 2016

Fast fashion is an industry that rapidly produces low-cost clothing lines that reflect current trends. The target consumers are young people in the industrialized world[1] Clothing lines are produced in small quantities with a large variety of styles. The industry uses efficient transportation and ships the clothes with price tags already attached. Most fast fashion companies are able to produce clothes quickly at a low cost because their designs are outsourced to other countries that have less labor laws and environmental policies[1]. According to the World Trade Organization report of 2016, the major textile exporters in the world are China, the European Union, and Bangladesh[2].

How fast is fast?

Traditionally it would take about six months for the new styles from fashion shows to be available to consumers, but now that time is condensed into a matter of weeks[1]. Now, the fashion trends change so quickly that tomorrow’s styles quickly replace the trends of today.

The rise of fast fashion

Prior to World War II, the North American clothing supply chain consisted of small domestic manufacturers and contractors that followed the seasonal winter and summer clothing lines[3]. However, during World War II a new manufacturing technique called the progressive bundle system (PBS) was introduced[4]. PBS manufacturing uses an assembly line model where one worker would receive an unfinished garment and perform a single operation and then hand it to the next worker. Shifting into the post war era, manufacturers took their business to other countries in order to cut costs and increase the efficiency of the progressive bundle system[4]. Large retailers like Walmart and clothing chains like the Gap began taking hold of the clothing market as they were able to sell low-cost products because of their outsourcing business model[4]. By the mid 1980s most clothing production in North America had moved from domestic to offshore with large retailers now controlling networks of global supply chains.  By 2002, imports accounted for 74% of the domestic apparel consumption in the U.S.[4]. Fast fashion began to grow with the clothing being produced in other countries and any domestic production of clothing in the Western world dwindled.

Main problems

The environmental impacts of the fast fashion industry include cotton manufacturing, synthetic fabrics, carbon emissions, microfiber pollution, and clothing waste. Since the clothes are often produced in countries that lack strong environmental regulations, the waste produced by the fabric creation process is disposed of in harmful ways. Additionally, the fast fashion industry exploits the labour laws of other countries and pays the workers extremely below what is considered minimum wage in the U.S[5]. With such fast-changing designs to be filled, there is constant demand for more fabrics to be produced. The fast fashion industry relies heavily on outsourcing manufacturing which has detrimental impacts to the environment.

Who is to blame?

There is no one source to blame for the problems of the fast fashion industry. Of course, it would be easy to place the blame on the large companies like Zara and Old Navy and on the structure of the industry. However, consumers have a strong influence over the market and have the power to encourage or inhibit the fast fashion industry. Together the systematic issues of the industry and the consumer appetite for cheap fashionable clothes add up to be the source and the solution to the problems of fast fashion.

It will take a lot of collaboration and power to install policies and regulations along with shifting social norms to begin to save the environment from the threats of cotton manufacturing, synthetic fabrics creation, carbon emissions, microfiber pollution, and clothing waste.

Cotton farmers working in the field (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Impacts on the Environment

Cotton manufacturing

Cotton is a popular medium for clothing production in developing countries, where about 90% of all clothing sold in America is made from cotton or polyester[6]. Cotton is considered to be one of the more ‘sustainable’ fabrics in the fashion industry because it comes from nature and takes less time to degrade compared to synthetic fibers. However, the production of cotton also creates detrimental effects to the environment, especially when considering the amount of space, time, and resources it needs to grow. Cotton requires land and space to mature, along with lots of water. It is estimated to take up to 20,000 liters of water to produce a single kilogram of cotton[7]. These effects have become extreme in places such as the community surrounding by the Aral Sea, which was drained due to cotton manufacturing and coincidentally, the demand of fast fashion[8]. This freshwater source was the financial security that many locals depended on through the fishing and agriculture industries. By extirpating this ecosystem, it caused disastrous effects by eliminating jobs, altering the weather patterns, and causing a health crisis due to increased sandstorms[8].

The growth of cotton also contributes significantly to the estimated 1.5 trillion liters of water used by the fashion industry each year[8]. In addition, cotton production can use lots of pesticides and insecticides, which can harm local biodiversity and may have negative health effects[8]. Not only is there risk of pesticide runoff from the fields which can impact local communities and natural ecosystems, the clothing industry employs over 40 million people to grow cotton from seed to shirt. While this sounds economically beneficial, there comes a great tradeoff of health risks. Hazards commonly include long term breathing concerns from inhaling cotton dust particles with poor ventilation to having bodily injuries due to the monotonous and strenuous job that it demands[6]. In addition, adding cotton has been said to be the most ecologically damaging part of the production of garments due to the harmful chemical pollutants (bleach, hydrogen peroxide, etc.) that are released during manufacturing[9].

Synthetic fabrics

The use of synthetic fibers in the fashion industry is rapidly growing and it could be the source to how fast fashion originated[9]. By introducing synthetic fabrics with natural ones, these products have become more durable, versatile and cheaper which jump started the garment advancements of fast fashion[9]. Out of all the garments produced worldwide today, synthetic fibers can be found in approximately 72% of them[7]. Polyester and nylon are some of the most common man-made fibers used, and polyester has overtaken cotton in the early 21st century as the dominant fiber used in manufacturing[10]. Polyester is made from crude oil which makes these synthetic fibers arguably environmentally worse than organic fibers such as wool or cotton. They have higher carbon emissions during production and take much longer to decompose. For example, a polyester t-shirt produces over twice the carbon emissions as a cotton t-shirt during production[10]. In addition, over 60% of synthetic fibers (such as polyester, nylon, and acrylic) are produced from petrochemicals which makes these fibers extremely difficult to recycle[5]. This means that man-made fibers can take up to hundreds of years to decompose[8].

Fibers to fabrics

Producing spun and dyed fabrics uses a lot of heat and a lot of water. Blending fabrics is very heat intensive and results in lots of warm water entering local watersheds, which can bring an imbalance to marine habitats[9]. It is also estimated to take 200 tons of fresh water to dye one ton of fabric[7]. The dyeing process typically involves preparing fabrics by bleaching and mercerizing¹ them which involves bleaching the “cotton fibers into sodium hydroxide, then neutralizing them in acid,” and then finally dyeing the fabrics[9]. This process results in toxic waste water, which often ends up entering the freshwater supplies of the typically developed nations the fabric is being produced (e.g South Asia and Europe). This is one of the most urgent problems that these countries are facing. The non-purified discharge interferes with the chemistry of the water by blocking light from entering the water which is detrimental to the water ecosystem[11].

There are 72 identified toxic elements emitted during textile manufacturing, and 30 cannot be treated by purification[9]. which can lead to health problems in these communities. About 90% of these waste waters containing toxic dyes and chemicals are untreated in these developing countries[7]. In addition, it is estimated that “20% of all industrial water pollution comes from textile treatments and dyeing”[7]. The water is not only being polluted, but these chemicals evaporate into the air as well[11]. 40% of the dyes are made of chlorine which is cancer-causing[11]. Once people breathe in chlorine or come into contact with it, it causes an allergic reaction and can cause great harm to children[11]. The chemicals can disrupt cellular functioning in marine life and could lead to defects and death. Lastly, the textile industry pollutes heavy metal waste from their industrial plants. This is found to wash away in the waters where marine life could consume and accumulate in their organs[11].

Carbon emissions

The fashion industry is guilty of producing about 10% of the total global carbon emissions[8]. This includes emissions from the production as well as the shipping of materials. It is estimated that textile production produces 1.2 billion tons of CO2e per year, which is more than international flights and maritime shipping combined[10]. Emissions differ depending on the material produced. However over 60% of the manufacturing takes place in China and India which mostly rely on coal-fueled power plants that increase the carbon footprint of each garment[10]. Materials and fabrics are moved around the world before being sold. For example, the United States is the largest cotton exporter, however once it is shipped to be made into clothing, over 80% of that will return back in the form of manufactured garments to then be sold[9]. Additionally, “every kilogram of textile produced there is an average carbon emission of 15 kg”[12]. This manufacturing process uses a lot of energy and results in lots of carbon emissions that could be significantly reduced by containing production, manufacturing, and marketing to one country. While most of the emissions are from the extraction and transportation of these products, the final phase of a single garment of clothing is another large carbon emittance: when it is burned instead of thrown in a landfill[13].

Microfiber pollution

It is often hard to accept and understand the environmental impacts of certain activities, especially when they are difficult to see in our everyday lives. Carbon emissions and microfibers are a direct result from the fashion industry that are invisible to the naked eye and are proving to be negatively affecting the environment. Microfibers are small, microscopic fibers that shed when garments are manufactured, worn, or washed. Some argue for synthetic microfibers to be considered as a microplastic because it is just as harmful a pollution due to our increase in plastic use in our products [14]. The synthetic microfiber pollution produced each year is approximately the equivalent to 50 billion plastic bottles in weight[5]. It is estimated that “up to 40% of microfibers find their way into wastewater treatment plants and ultimately into oceans and rivers”[5]. While both natural and synthetic materials can generate microfibers, ones that shed from synthetic fabrics prove to be more of a concern because they do not naturally degrade and can even poison food chains[5]. These microfibers can and are ingested by plankton who are integral to the success of populations of all the species above them in the food chain[14]. If the plankton population decreases due to a negative reaction to microfiber consumption or be ingested by other organisms, the microfiber accumulation will only increase as higher order consumers ingest organisms filled with microfiber. It is also estimated that “every time a synthetic garment is washed, roughly 1,900 individual microfibers are discharged back into the water cycle”[7], ultimately entering the food chain of organisms including humans. These fibers are found to be emitted most during the first wash cycle of clothing (i.e new/ never washed) and decline during each time the article of clothing is washed. However, these fibers will generate “throughout the lifetime of the garment”[14]. Based on their study, they estimated that Slovenia (population of 2 million) will give off 144 kg a year if they only washed a blanket and a jacket 7 times a year[14]. If this were to be projected towards the countries that  have the highest consumption rates of synthetic fabrics, this number will be exceptionally larger. Not only that, but the model of fast fashion is that people are buying too many new clothes and not wearing older clothes long enough. Consequently, the most microfiber emittance is from the first wash leading microfiber pollution to be an increasing environmental problem with fast fashion and synthetic fabrics[14].

Clothing waste

Clothing Waste in the Landfill

With the rapid acceleration of fast fashion in the past few decades, we are buying more clothes that have a much shorter lifespan[6]. We are estimated to be buying 60% more fashion items than we were 20 years ago[10] and the average lifetime of a piece of clothing is now only three years[7]. The quickly changing trends and shorter lifetime of clothes is ultimately leading to more emissions produced[10]. Trends were not the only drivers to what is now fast fashion. Lean retailing was a strategy made by retailers to scrap the usual 2-4 seasons of clothing and instead create 4-6 weeks of clothing that will last on the racks before being shipped to off-price outlets[15]. Not only was a larger variety of clothing being produced at a greater rate, but this also caused less sales for the consumer and a greater advantage for replenishing the successful stocks for the producer[15]. Their main approach and advantage to doing this was “to dramatically reduce the time from manufacture to final sale”[15]. In addition, “almost 60% of all clothing produced is disposed of within a year of production”[10], and the average western family discards about 66 pounds of clothing each year[7]. America is the leading consumer of textiles and clothing where out of the 85% of clothing bought, 3.8 billion pounds are wasted in landfills. On average, an American wastes 80 pounds of clothing per year[6]. It is also disheartening to learn that there are limited options to recycle some fibers, and that only 1% of material produced for clothing is actually recycled back into the fashion industry[10]. The clothing that was not sent to landfills go into the process of the second-hand clothing trade where around ‘500,000 tons of used clothing are exported abroad from the United States each year with the majority ending up in low and middle income countries (LMICs)”[6]. More specifically, the clothing that does not sell or make it on the racks (i.e. was donated but does not meet standards) in thrift stores in the United States are compressed 1000-pound bales and shipped back across the ocean[6]. There, low-wage workers “grade” it to decide on whether it will go to second-hand stores in these LMIC or be wasted[6].This waste has done detrimental effects as it has been found to be a source of pollution in rivers and lands surrounding their  communities[6].

Social effects

Labour for these large fashion companies are often outsourced to developing countries such as India, Ethiopia, and Bangladesh. Workers in these countries are paid well below US minimum wage and have poor and often dangerous working conditions[5]. Most workers are young women ages typically 16 to 25 years old who work 12 to 14 hours each day, seven days a week. Firms like Zara, specifically hired “11,000 gray-economy workers (mothers, grandmothers and teenage girls) who were looking to supplement their household incomes in the hardscrabble towns and villages of Galicia and northern Portugal”[16]. As an example for wage rates, workers in Bangladesh receive 13 to 18 cents an hour which is below the minimum wage of 23 cents per hour[15].  While there are child labor laws enforced, in this industry there is an estimate of 7 million who are paid to work in these unsafe environments with poor ventilation, lack of safety routes, and lack of washrooms[15]. Without these laborers and rapid manufacturing, fast fashion would not be possible. Not only are there unsafe conditions, firms, such as Walmart, Levi and Zara, switched from higher-wage workers to the low-wage workers. Due to the many phases that a single garment of clothing undergoes, this allows for the firms to exploit the cheapest laborers for each phase[6]. Additionally, while the clothing might say that it was made in one place it is most likely a false claim. For example, the label on a pair of Levi jeans might say “Made in Mexico,” when really the label was made in Mexico, and the dyed fabric was from Bangladesh and was stitched in China[17]. Levi Strauss & Co. is not the only company for being based in one place and taking advantage of low labor costs in different countries. As these companies hire the lowest wage workers with these lean retailing strategies, this puts an additional strain on the laborers who have to be fast and efficient to be on time for delivery[17]. While these are unacceptable conditions, a lot of the women workers have expressed their gratitude towards this occupation. Women in Indonesia, for example, mentioned that if they were not in the garment industry, they wouldn’t have as much control in the home life where they can provide for their family and 82% reported to prefer this than being a housewife[15].

What is the Future of Fast Fashion?

Transitioning to slow fashion

Sustainable Fabrics

Opposite to the fast fashion industry, the rising slow fashion industry is becoming the new wave in fashion, researching sustainable fabrics like organic cotton, bamboo and hemp. For example, a newer fiber for fabric is based on the strength of spider webs and the properties of cellulose. The fiber is cellulose-based and when manufacturing fabric for clothing, it is emission free and takes less water and energy to create, which makes it more sustainable and better for the environment.[5] These higher quality, longer lasting, and more sustainable clothing options are important for the growing wave of slow fashion as it allows for consumers to use and wear much longer before breaking and having to throw away

Second-hand Shopping

Buying new sustainably made clothing is one solution but it is not an option for everyone. purchasing items that already exist is the best option for the environment as it has zero waste and is accessible for everyone. Pre-loved or second hand clothing is becoming the newest trend in fashion and unlike older trends this one is here to stay. Second hand clothing is the most sustainable option for clothing because no energy or water is required to make them and no emissions are created.

Activism in the industry

What are companies doing?

There are some companies that are trying their best to have better work conditions, and longer lasting clothing. For example, Everlane started reusing or using recycled plastic instead of new plastic; Allbirds created its own carbon tax to keep itself from creating too much carbon emissions; and there are many other companies that are doing what they can to be better for the planet[18]. When shopping it is additionally important to do research on the company you want to buy from. There are other ways to determine if the clothing company is producing clothing ethically. Doing research on a company before purchase can be an easy reason to determine if all stages of manufacturing are ethical. It is important to know, if a company does not share how the products are made and the working conditions of their manufacturing sites, it usually means they are not ethical. There are some easier ways to research the ethical rating of a brand,  for example company Good On You, created a database of brands and their thoughts, ratings and a score of each brands production methods[19].

What can people do?

People want the fast fashion industry to change and people are showing this. On February 15th, 2020 people protested during London's fashion week, calling for action to change the industry and make it better for the planet, calling for reducing waste, reducing emissions and energy.[20] Things that you can do to help support the workers in the garment industry is to connect with campaigns and groups that can creates change. Many think the answer to this is to boycott the industry and companies that do not have ethical or sustainable methods will ultimately be forced to shut down and many people will starve.[21] The easiest and best place to start making a difference is to stop buying new clothes and wear the items in your closet longer, limiting the amount of waste that goes to landfills is very important to start changing the industry. We need a call to action and a plan for change that is sustainable and practical.


Fast fashion is a massively growing industry that has been around since before World War II. The main problem of the industry is that clothes are produced at such a fast rate to account for new trends that arise every 4-6 months. Many of the fabrics and fibers used by the fashion industry are very harmful to the environment, such as synthetic fabrics and cotton. The fashion industry also produces almost 10% of global carbon emissions[8] from shipping and the production stages. Microfibers produced in many types of clothing are difficult to see with the human eye but they shed and are polluting into the globe's water systems. Along with the mass pollution that comes in the production stages in the fashion industry, the aftermath is just as horrible for the environment with the exponential amount of clothing that is wasted each year. The future of the fashion industry can be a positive change or stay on the same wasteful path. Research and innovation can and has brought us sustainable fabrics to reduce waste and reduce emissions. Educating the public and consumers can also make a large impact in the fashion industry. Education and awareness can result in mass change for the better. The fashion industry has been around for a very long time, only in the past century has it been detrimental to our planet, with the help of many people, the industry can change for the better.


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