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What is the Environmental Cost of Fast Fashion?

4 mins read. Published on 22 Dec 21, Updated on 01 Jun 23.
What is the Environmental Cost of Fast Fashion?
A collective effort to protect the planet is needed.
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The fashion industry has been heavily criticised for the devastating environmental pollution caused by its global operations, with scientists urging fundamental changes to 'fast fashion' clothing items to stem a disastrous impact upon the environment.

The Fast fashion industry is the second largest polluting industry, accounting for 10% of the planet's carbon emissions. However, despite the widely publicised environmental impacts, the industry continues to grow, relying on cheap mass manufacturing, frequent consumption, and short-lived garment use.

With the relevance of the climate crisis and the increasing collective need to protect the planet, many have made conscious decisions to no longer support the industry. Despite the growing popularity of sustainable brands and shopping from second-hand shops, the fashion industry continues to grow. However, we cannot ignore the negative environmental impact of fast fashion on the environment. 

What is Fast Fashion?

Fast fashion is the term used to describe clothing designs that move quickly from the catwalk to stores to take advantage of trends with collections often based on styles presented at Fashion Week runway shows.

Fast fashion became common because of cheaper, quicker manufacturing and shipping methods, an increase in consumers' appetite for up-to-the-minute styles, and increased purchasing power to indulge consumers' instant-gratification desires. Because of all this, fast fashion is challenging the established clothing labels' tradition of introducing new collections and lines on an orderly, seasonal basis. In fact, it's not uncommon for fast-fashion retailers to introduce new products multiple times in one week to stay on-trend.

 Why is Fast Fashion Damaging to the Environment? 

1. Excessive Usage of Water

The fashion industry is a massive consumer of water globally, using an estimated 93 billion cubic metres of water per year, which is four percent of all freshwater extraction globally. To put this into perspective, 3,000 litres of water is approximately used to make a cotton shirt. 

Furthermore, textile dyeing and finishing of the raw fibre is both a water-consuming and polluting process. It's estimated that processing a kilogram of fibre (including cotton, polyester, and other materials) requires 100 to 150 litres of water.

In addition to this, textile dyeing requires toxic chemicals that subsequently end up in our oceans, with approximately 20% of wastewater worldwide being attributed to this process. This results in untreated, toxic wastewater entering our oceans, that in many cases, cannot be treated to become safe again.

Credits:  Oscar Keys on Unsplash

2. Plastic Microfibres

Synthetic materials used throughout the manufacture of fast fashion items are the leading cause of water pollution from plastic microfibers. To be exact, approximately 35% of all microplastics are from these synthetic materials.  

There are a variety of ways they can enter our ocean - most commonly from our usage of the washing machine. Once our clothes reach a washing machine, the synthetic fabrics release tiny strands called microfibers which are microscopic pieces of plastic. Every time you use your washing machine, hundreds of thousands of plastic microfibers are flushed down the drain, often reaching oceans where they can remain for hundreds of years. Furthermore, these microplastics can be swallowed by fish and other sea life, travelling up the food chain, where they end up in the human food chain, causing many negative health effects.

Credits: Nick de Partee on Unsplash

3. Excessive Consumption of Clothing

The average consumer now buys 60% more clothing than they did 15 years ago, with more than two tonnes of clothing being bought each minute in the UK. 

While most clothes with care will last many years, changing fashions mean their lifespan is artificially shortened by consumers changing tastes. Industry figures suggest modern clothing will have a lifespan of between 2-10 years, with a study by Oxfam finding that each week approximately 11 million garments will end up in landfills

In addition to polluting the land through excess wastage, the process of landfill incineration produces toxic gasses posing multiple public health and environmental dangers to the people who live in nearby communities as a result of burning landfills. 

Marek Piwnicki on Unsplash

4. Excessive Usage of Energy

The production of making plastic fibres into textiles is an energy-intensive process, requiring large amounts of petroleum and releasing volatile organic compounds (which are emitted as gases from certain solids or liquids) and acids such as hydrogen chloride. 

Furthermore, while cotton is a natural fibre that can biodegrade at the end of its life, it is also one of the most environmentally demanding crops as cotton farming uses high levels of pesticides and toxic chemicals that seep into the earth and water supplies (which is why it is important to look for clothes made from organic cotton).

Credits: Trisha Downing on Unsplash


As fast fashion is predominantly made from synthetic fabrics ( made from fossil fuels) as a system of cheap clothes designed to be discarded and thrown into landfills, the fast fashion industry is highly unsustainable, overwhelming our planet and polluting our oceans and is the second-biggest consumer of water responsible for 8-10 per cent of global carbon emissions. If the fast fashion industry continues to grow, an increase of 50% in greenhouse gas emissions is expected within a decade, which would contribute to an environmental disaster. 

However, by making an effort to shop sustainably, opting to purchase from more sustainable brands, and checking the materials used to make clothes before purchasing, this can help to reduce the environmental impact of fast fashion and help to reduce the growth of the industry. Although significant changes need to be made by governments and organisations, if we all work together, and try to avoid shopping from fast fashion brands as much as possible, this can have a positive environmental impact, helping to protect our planet and oceans. 




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