The true cost of fast fashion

The true cost of fast fashion

The rise of fast fashion has come at an expensive price to our environment and human rights. This model depends on exploiting resources and labour to create trendy clothing quickly supplied to customers.

How does fast fashion affect the environment? What are the environmental issues with fast fashion? How does fast fashion pollute our planet?  

We believe it's essential to learn about the devastating environmental impact of fast fashion to act and make sustainable choices.

Here are the 8 facts to keep in mind when you shop.


1. Water consumption:

Water scarcity is a serious problem worldwide, worsened by the fashion industry. Clothing production and disposal require water across their entire lifecycle.
One kilogram of cotton - equivalent to the weight of a shirt and pair of jeans - can take as much as 10,000–20,000 litres of water to produce[i]. Globally, the fashion industry consumes an estimated 79 billion cubic metres of fresh water annually[ii].
The actual processing of textiles negatively impacts water through the high usage of chemicals added to physical pollution. Let’s see how:
    • Chemicals: Approximately 8000 synthetic chemicals are used during textile manufacturing, requiring large amounts of water. Fresh water needs to be sourced while polluted water is discharged back into the ecosystem, making it toxic.
    • Wastewater: Most textile manufacturing occurs along the waterways of developing countries, where chemicals are released into rivers and waterways, leading to environmental pollution and irreversible long-term damage.

          2. Microplastics pollution:

          Fast fashion uses synthetic materials like polyester, nylon, and acrylic, which are non-biodegradable plastics and are responsible for 35% of microplastics in the ocean. The laundering of synthetic textiles, like polyester, releases tiny microfibres that harm marine life.

          The fashion industry releases over half a million tons of microfibres into the ocean annually, which is equal to over 50 billion plastic bottles. If this continues, plastic in the sea could outnumber fish by 2050.

          3. Deforestation and biodiversity loss:

          Did you know that some clothes are made from wood? Viscose and rayon are two fabrics that come from trees, and to produce them, the industry cuts down trees, turns them into pulp, and then uses them to make the fibres. Over 70 million trees are cut down every year to produce textile fibres.

          Old-growth forests are often cut down to make space for monoculture tree plantations or livestock grazing to produce leather. Producing leather requires many natural resources such as land, water, feed, and fossil fuels.

          4. Energy consumption:

          Fast fashion is highly energy-intensive due to fabric production and global transportation. Fibres, fabrics, and clothing production require high energy levels from fuels and electricity. Fuel is used in machinery for ploughing and harvesting, while electricity is the most common power source for factory machinery, cooling and temperature control systems, lighting, and office equipment.

          The fashion industry contributes significantly to environmental damage and pollution, responsible for over 2% of global energy consumption. It would be the world's sixth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases if it were a country after China, the USA, the EU, India, and Russia.

          5. Carbon footprints:

          The fast fashion industry is one of the leading contributors to climate change, consuming high amounts of energy and emitting greenhouse gases.

          Did you know the industry accounts for approximately 10% of the world's annual carbon emissions? More than the combined emissions of international flights and maritime shipping. This means the fashion industry is the second-largest emitter of CO2 after the oil industry. What's more concerning is that the industry's emissions of harmful greenhouse gases are expected to increase by over 50% by the year 2030.

          6. Loss of soil fertility:

          The adverse effects on soil fertility are due to the chemicals used during production, which can seep into the soil and pollute water supplies, causing damage to plant life. Soil pollution also has the potential to lead to biodiversity loss, thereby endangering the survival of plants and animals that rely on healthy soil.

          Cotton uses 6% of the world's pesticides and 16% of insecticides despite occupying only 2.5% of agricultural land. These chemicals can quickly spread through air, soil, or water and cause health issues such as cancer, nervous system diseases, reproductive problems, neurological disorders, and asthma.

          7. Waste:

          The fast fashion industry keeps adding new garments to collections weekly and doesn’t worry about what happens after they’re discarded. The waste is caused by:

            • Overproduction: around 100 billion new garments are made yearly.
              • Overconsumption: consumers are encouraged to buy new clothes to keep up with recent trends.
                • Planned obsolescence: clothes are often made from low-quality materials and not designed to last.

                  What happens to the waste then?

                    • Landfill: Clothes can persist for centuries, emitting CO2 and methane and polluting the soil with toxic chemicals and dyes as they decompose.
                      • Incineration: Garments made of non-biodegradable fabrics and synthetic fibres release harmful gases when burned, posing health risks to nearby communities.
                        • Clothing dump: Items are getting dumped everywhere, from deserts to oceans.

                            8. Human rights violations and poor working conditions:

                            The fast fashion industry employs about one in six people worldwide, mostly in developing countries with insufficient protections for workers’ rights and the environment. Let's take a quick look at some of the social consequences of fast fashion:

                              • Fashion brands don’t pay a living wage, forcing workers to live in poverty and struggle to meet basic needs.
                                • The pressure to meet production deadlines leads to excessive overtime, leaving workers physically and mentally exhausted.
                                  • Health and safety regulations are often ignored in garment factories, resulting in accidents and injuries. In 2013, Rana Plaza, an eight-story commercial building in Bangladesh, collapsed due to a catastrophic structural failure. It is considered the deadliest garment factory and industrial disaster in the history of Bangladesh.
                                    • Workers are exposed to hazardous materials such as dyes and chemicals without proper protection, which risks their long-term health.


                                      Fast fashion is not sustainable and needs to change. It's never too late to start adopting new and better habits. Let's take proactive steps towards becoming environmentally conscious consumers and help create a greener future together.


                                      I WRAP, Valuing Our Clothes: The Cost of UK Fashion (July 2017)

                                      [ii] Parliament UK, Fashion’s environmental price tag, publications, 2019

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