Fast Fashion: Trendy, Cheap, and Dirty

Fast Fashion: Trendy, Cheap, and Dirty

By Liz Kimbrough

The environmental costs of fast fashion

We live in a world of fast fashion, a model that relies on frequent, trend-driven, impulse buying of cheaply manufactured clothing that often ends up in the trash. The fashion industry now accounts for 10% of global pollution and is second only to aviation as the world’s largest industrial polluter

A  newly published review paper in Nature Reviews Earth & Environment highlights the environmental consequences of fast fashion as well as fashion’s complex international supply chains, and proposes solutions to bring us into a cleaner fashion future

"Clothing has become so cheap. Someone has to pay that price,” Kirsi Niinimäki, professor of design at Aalto University in Finland and corresponding author of the review paper. “Often it is at the expense of the environment.”

The amount of clothing bought per capita has skyrocketed over the past few decades. Consumers bought 60% more clothing in 2014 than in 2000, but kept each garment half as long. In the U.S., people buy one item of clothing every 5.5 days, and across Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland, purchases average 16 kilograms (35 pounds) of textiles per person per year.

Shoes, towels, clothing, sheets — these textiles have become a major source of municipal solid waste worldwide. Up to 92 million tons of textile waste per year is either burned or put in a landfill — an amount that would fill the Great Pyramid of Giza more than 16 times.

Clothing companies decide how much and what kinds of clothing to make based on the predictions of fashion forecasters, previous sale volumes, and a number of other factors. Sometimes, these estimates are wrong and companies are left with a bulk of unsold clothing. Often, after a period of storage, this unsold stock is burned or destroyed rather than being offered at a discount, which might damage a brand’s image.

The British fashion brand Burberry burned or destroyed more than $110 million worth of unsold clothing, perfumes and accessories between 2013 and 2018 rather than sell those items at a discount and “devalue our brand.”

“We are tossing away our clothing like single-use plastics, like fast food,” said Sam Hartsock, director of education at Remake, a nonprofit organization that educates the public about the human rights violations and climate injustices associated with the fashion industry. “Designers and companies are designing clothing for obsolescence. Because when you produce more, you have better margins, you have more profit, you have better revenue.”

The supply chain for clothing is long and complex. Each step from fiber, yarn, and textile manufacturing to dyeing and garment sewing, to storage in a retail distribution center can happen in a different country. Dozens of people are involved in the creation of a single item of clothing, and that journey is wrought with waste: water, chemicals, CO2 and plastic.

The biggest carbon culprit in fashion is fiber production. Energy use and CO2 emissions are highest during the fiber extraction process, especially when creating synthetic fibers, which originate from petrochemicals. Synthetic materials like polyester, rayon, nylon and acrylic are essentially a type of plastic made from petroleum and can take hundreds of years to biodegrade.

Synthetic polyester, for example, is made via a chemical reaction involving petroleum, coal, air, and water. Polyester accounts for 51% of textile production.

The energy source used to fuel this production also matters. In China, textile manufacturing is largely coal-powered, giving it a 40% larger carbon footprint than textiles made in Europe.

35% of primary microplastics (particles less than 5 millimeters) in the ocean are linked to the fashion industry (190,000 tons per year). A lot of this is generated from washing synthetic materials such as acrylic and polyester (found in items like stretch jeans, leggings, and other cheap clothing).

Some of this plastic finds its way into our bodies through seafood. A WWF analysis suggests we may accidentally ingest a credit card’s worth of plastic per week in the form of microplastics via drinking water, beer, shellfish and salt.

Fashion is also thirsty. Roughly 20% of global wastewater (79 trillion liters, or nearly 20 trillion gallons) is used in the fashion supply chain every year. Cotton is a notoriously water-intensive crop. Simply growing the cotton for one pair of jeans requires more than 2,500 liters (660 gallons) of water, roughly the amount of drinking water for one person for 3.5 years. Distressed jeans are even more water-intensive.


The human costs of fast fashion

Many workers in the fashion industry endure health and safety hazards and low wages. Garment workers in Ethiopia, for instance, earn a base wage of $26 a month, where the monthly living wage is around $100 per month. The U.S. Department of Labor reported evidence of forced labor and child labor in the fashion industry in Argentina, Bangladesh, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Turkey and Vietnam. H&M, Forever 21, GAP and Zara are some of the recognizable brands that have been involved in child labor and forced labor scandals.

“How do you think you’re able to get your cheap clothing?” Hartsock asks. “The fashion industry has to cut corners. And a lot of that really is about wages. This industry itself is also built on the exploitation of makers, particularly that of women.”

The fashion industry is estimated to be a $2.5 trillion industry that employs roughly 75 million people, of which, according to Hartsock, “80% are often women or sometimes children.” “Women are routinely fired for being pregnant. They are harassed and abused on the factory floor,” Hartsock said. “Fast fashion tells this overwhelming heartbreaking story of violence not only to our planet but also violence to the women that make our clothes.”


What can consumers do?

Once a consumer knows what goes into putting a shirt on their back, what are they to do? While consumers alone cannot bear the brunt of changing an entire industry, increasing the demand for slower and more sustainable fashion may have some power to shift the market.

Niinimäki and colleagues urge consumers to move away from the idea of fashion as cheap entertainment; to engage in slower, more conscious consumption; and to extend the use time of each garment through investment and care.

Brands that promote more sustainable fashion choices are often more expensive. This is because, according to Hartsock, these prices reflect the true cost of paying fair wages and not cutting corners to avoid environmental regulations. However, these pieces are typically made of higher-quality fabrics and stitching, and will last longer.

“Invest in a piece then learn how to take care of it,” Hartsock said. “Do you need five pairs of jeans or can you buy one nicer pair and make it last?”

Washing clothing less often, using less harsh detergents, and mending or repairing clothing are all ways to ensure clothing lasts longer, and higher-quality pieces give a greater return on investment.

Shopping for used clothing (vintage, thrift, secondhand) is among the major recommendations for those hoping to fight fast fashion’s seedy underbelly while saving money. The used clothing industry is booming, and the industry is expected to continue to grow as Gen Z adopts secondhand fashion more than twice as fast as other age groups. Clothing swaps have also become more popular and contribute to a circular versus linear model for fashion.

“It will take a massive shift in consumer mentality to effect change on a global scale,” Calahan and Zachary write. “This may be a generational shift in terms of consumers’ system of values and how they see their role in the continued health of the planet.”


Back to blog