Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Ut elit tellus, luctus nec ullamcorper mattis, pulvinar dapibus leo.

Neat to know ~ Feature of the month

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Ut elit tellus, luctus nec ullamcorper mattis, pulvinar dapibus leo.

Fast Fashion

The true cost of an ever-changing wardrobe

People taking a stand against the fashion industry’s wasteful ways in 2021

Photo: Stefan Mueller, CC BY 2.0


Have you ever found the perfect pair of jeans for an amazingly low price? Of course you were happy about your discovery, but did you stop to wonder how all those mountains of clothing that we see in stores come about and how it is possible for clothing to be sold so cheaply?

In wealthy parts of the world, fashion is an obsession.  But our habit of staying on top of the latest trends — and not being caught dead in last season’s styles — is actually much darker and more destructive than people realize.

Fast Fashion

There are lots of moving parts when it comes to the manufacturing of clothing.  It’s a complicated supply chain.  But not only is production multi-faceted, also the transportation and disposal of clothing need to be considered when we think about fashion’s impact on the environment and on the people who work in the industry.  Because styles change so fast, and consumers in rich countries are eager to respond to brand marketing, products are generated with a speed and at a volume not seen in many other industries.  Companies like Zara, H&M, Forever 21, and others sell copies of high fashion items seen on the catwalks of Paris and New York.  These copies are produced cheaply and speedily and sold for low prices, which allows people to easily purchase the latest styles, wear them a few times, and then, as soon as the next season hits, dispose of them and start the cycle all over again.

The statistics are staggering: some 80 billion new clothing items are produced each year.  This is a 400% increase from just 20 years ago.  All stages of the lifecycle of clothing are problematic for the environment, as you will read.  But the cost for workers in the apparel industry is also high.  People are often forced to work long hours in unsafe and unhealthy conditions.  A lot of the brand-name apparel bought by consumers in wealthy nations is produced in countries where workers are not paid a fair wage.  According to one study, 80% of workers in the factories that produce clothing are young women between the ages of 18 and 24.  And, a report by the U.S. Department of Labor in 2018 showed that child labor in the fashion industry is probably much more prevalent than we thought, particularly in Indonesia, India, China, Turkey, Vietnam, Bangladesh, and several other countries with developing economies.  

Fashion’s impact on the environment

Just as companies choose to have their products made in countries that have lax labor laws, they also seek out places with lenient environmental regulations, where factories face no penalties for decimating the land around them. 

Waterways also face grave threats from clothing manufacturers.  From running production plants to cleaning apparel, a staggering amount of water is used in the fashion industry.  Some 3,000 liters (792 gallons) are needed to produce just one cotton shirt!  About 20% of the world’s contaminated waters result from the toxic process of dyeing the textiles used for apparel.  Factories often dump polluted water used in dyeing, into streams and ditches.   The contaminated water then flows into rivers and, along the way, harms plants and animals, as well as humans, who depend on those rivers.  This is particularly problematic because in many cases, water that has been poisoned by the chemicals used in the clothing industry cannot be cleaned without employing complex and expensive procedures; therefore, many water sources never become safe again.  Washing our clothing also contributes to water pollution.  Each year, some 500,000 tons of microfibers enter our oceans due to the laundering of clothes.  That’s about the same as throwing 50 billion plastic bottles into the sea.

But the waste does not stop with production, transport, and washing.  85% of all items made of textiles end up in landfills.

Almost 10% of all global emissions come from the manufacture, distribution, and disposal of clothing.  Just one pair of Levis jeans produces 33.4 kg of CO2.  That’s equal to a car driving almost 70 miles.  Some of those emissions are generated during the production of denim fabric.  But finishing the jeans in the factories, packaging, transporting, and selling them also add to the problem.  Additionally, 40% of the emissions come from the consumer end – when we wash those jeans and then eventually throw them out, adding them to the ever-growing landfills around the world.


Let’s consider denim, a kind of fabric you see just about everywhere.  Did you know that, according to an estimate from the UN, a single pair of jeans uses a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of cotton?  Given how light it is, that’s a lot of cotton.  You might think that cotton is better for the environment than other materials since it’s natural, but because it is often grown in areas that have little rainfall, farmers have to give lots of water to their cotton crops.  Producing a kilogram of cotton (enough for one pair of jeans) can use up to 10,000 liters (2641 gallons) of water, which equals the amount of water a person drinks in 10 years!

Many clothes are not made out of cotton, though.  In fact, polyester is the most common material found in clothing.  It is strong, long-lasting, and doesn’t require complicated cleaning processes.  Because it’s lightweight, it is comfortable and versatile.  It is also cheap to produce.  You could say that it’s the perfect material, but is it environmentally friendly?  Far from it.  An astounding 70 million barrels of oil are used each year to make the polyester fibers found in most of what we wear.  And clothing made from polyester has a far greater carbon footprint than cotton apparel does.   Furthermore, synthetic materials used in clothing are a huge contributor to microplastics in our oceans.  35% of the microfibers from plastics in the ocean come from textile production.

Our Wasteful Ways

Nowadays, many people choose to order clothing online.  A common practice is to have multiple items delivered and then to keep the ones that fit and return the ones that don’t.  Unfortunately, returning clothing can add greatly to the environmental harm that comes from transporting goods, since they are now being moved in two directions, rather than just one.  Moreover, clothing that is returned is often simply dumped – even if it is still in perfect condition.  This can be cheaper for retailers than returning those items to the market.  According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, at least 10.2 million metric tons (more than 11 million US tons) of clothes ended up in landfills in 2017.

A lot of clothing that is purchased is not worn very much before it is discarded.  One reason for this is that people want to stay up-to-date with the latest styles, which are changing season to season, even micro-season to micro-season.  Another reason is that clothing production has increased dramatically in the last 20 years.  One study found that the manufacture of clothing has doubled since 2000, and along with this increase, companies have prioritized quantity over quality.  So, clothing just doesn’t last as long (and few of us use our sewing skills anymore), resulting in more clothes in the trash and eventually in the landfills, more production of new clothing, more wasting of natural resources and pollution of water and land, and more exploitation of people.  The cycle is great for business, but terrible on almost every other level.

What can be done?

People in the clothing industry, as well as consumers, are becoming increasingly aware of the problem with fast fashion.  Here are some of the things that both manufacturers and wearers of fashion are doing to address the issues.

1) Jeans makers realize that the less denim is treated, the less harmful its manufacture will be to the environment.  For example, if the toxic chemicals involved in bleaching and pre-washing are left out of the process, jeans can be more environmentally-friendly.  Furthermore, some companies are working on ways to recycle denim and are developing jeans materials that can be composted so that they naturally degrade in the environment and even enhance the soil into which they become incorporated.

2) There is a growing trend toward embracing sustainable materials in the manufacture of clothes.  Linen, hemp, organic cotton, and wild silk are all easier on the environment and are being used increasingly, even by high fashion labels. Then there is “biocouture,” an innovative way to make fabric, which uses bacteria and yeast to produce a kind of “vegetable leather.”  Some companies are using more environmentally friendly ways of dyeing textiles.  Still others are developing designs that incorporate biodegradable materials that won’t fill up landfills or spread toxins into waterways.

3) Consumers are getting informed about the hugely damaging effects that the fast fashion industry is having on the environment and on society.  Many are turning away from the concept entirely, buying clothes that will last for years.  They might find alternative ways of changing up their wardrobes, by trading clothes with friends or buying secondhand from thrift shops and vintage clothing collections.  Websites like ThredUp and Poshmark offer consumers secondhand clothing online.

4) People can also help the environment by not laundering their clothing as often.  Washing machines are huge water wasters, and lots of microfibers are released into the environment due to the washing process.

5) Most importantly, people are beginning to put higher value on each piece of clothing that they buy.  They can prioritize quality over quantity, demanding long-lasting apparel from manufacturers, and taking a stand against fast fashion.

Sources: Ro, Christine, bbc.com, “Can fashion ever be sustainable?” https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200310-sustainable-fashion-how-to-buy-clothes-good-for-the-climate, March 11, 2020; Le Ngan, Princeton Student Climate Initiative (PSCI), “The Impact of Fast Fashion on the Environment,” https://psci.princeton.edu/tips/2020/7/20/the-impact-of-fast-fashion-on-the-environment, July 20, 2020; Maiti, Rashmila, earth.org, “Fast Fashion: Its Detrimental Effect on the Environment,” https://earth.org/fast-fashions-detrimental-effect-on-the-environment/, January 29, 2020.