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  • Kimia Ipakchi

The Environmental Impact of Fast Fashion

Updated: Mar 1, 2022

As Black Friday came around last year, bargains and highly discounted clothes were expected. However, fast fashion brand Pretty Little Thing shocked consumers with a 99% sale, selling items of clothing for as little as 4p.

This is just the most recent development of fast fashion, a branch of the fashion industry which is causing a severe impact on the environment. Whilst consumers may save money, the planet is paying the price.

The environmental impact of fast fashion - landfill

What is fast fashion?

In the documentary Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things sustainable-apparel consultant Shannon Whitehead describes how in the past, the fashion industry was based on two/four seasons: Spring/Summer and Autumn/Winter. Flash forward to a more mass consumption-based consumer culture, this has now changed to 52 “micro seasons”.

According to author Elizabeth Cline, popular high-street brand Zara began this trend back in the early 2000s with their bi-weekly deliveries of new products. Many other clothing companies began to follow this business model. This exponential and unsustainable rate of production has a significant impact on our climate.

Short life cycle & increased waste

Why do big industry brands operate in such a way? Clothing production has roughly doubled since 2000, revealing just how unsustainable the industry growth and rate of production has become. But are we wearing more clothes?

While people bought 60% more garments in 2014 than they did in 2000, they only kept the clothes for half as long.

Such a means of both production and consumption is not sustainable.

There has also been a shift in how we consume as a consumer culture. Our conspicuous consumption behaviours can be rooted in what social media and advertisement propose as the template for the “perfect” and luxurious lifestyle. This influences our decisions in purchasing as it ensures our clothes have a short life cycle in our wardrobes, using the narrative of not being ‘trendy’ anymore to encourage us to buy more clothes.

The environmental impact of fast fashion

Destination: Landfill

The nature of fast fashion means it cannot operate without outputting mass amounts of waste. As clothes become more mass produced, the amount of waste the industry produces also increases. In the U.S. alone, around 11 million tonnes of clothing is thrown out.

Furthermore, the equivalent of one garbage bag of textiles is either landfilled or burned every second.

This makes fast fashion inherently unsustainable and a threat to the climate.

Clothing production and natural resources

High carbon dioxide emissions as well as exploitation of natural resources in the production of clothing has degrading effects on climate change, but also more specifically the environments of producer countries.

The fast fashion industry produces more carbon than international flights and maritime combined.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme, if the globe continues this trajectory, the fashion industry will have used up a quarter of the world’s carbon budget.

It is not just fossil fuels that are mass consumed by the industry. Water is another natural resource that is exploited to maintain the unsustainable lines of production. It takes around 2,000 gallons of water to make a typical pair of jeans, making textile dyeing the second largest polluter of water.

The environmental and ethical impact of fast fashion, and the global injustice

Not a global burden

Discussions about fast fashion often include its ethical issues. As big corporate brands take manufacturing offshore, the obligation for proper regulation and protection of workers’ rights fades. Indeed, the Pretty Little Thing’s 99% sale sparked some serious concern for garment factory workers.

As our previous article on the global injustice of the climate crisis outlines, outsourcing manufacturing results in both the exploitation of developing countries, as well as environmental degradation. As journalist and environmental issues writer Lucy Siegle rightfully said in the documentary The True Cost: “Fast fashion isn’t free. Someone, somewhere is paying.”

What can I do as a consumer?

As a consumer, one can feel small and powerless in the face of big industry brands and their disregard for the environment. However, there are micro-level efforts one can still make to live and consume in a more sustainable way.

Blogs like Labour Behind the Label cover the latest updates on commitments and exploitation in production factories of big brands. Platforms like Good On You rank clothing brands in areas of ethicality and sustainability, looking at their effects on the environment, animals and labour ratings. But, many brands that pass the sustainability and ethical check are too expensive and may not be accessible to everyone.

Instead, consumers can incorporate more climate-friendly consumer habits into their routine, by buying clothes from charity shops and platforms like Depop and/or trying not to buy excessive amounts of clothing. There is also the option of activism, where boycotting and campaigning against big industry brands can be effective, such as the Clean Clothes Campaign and their campaign to pioneer the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety.

The Clean Clothes Campaign, fighting against fast fashion and exploitation of garment workers

Final thoughts

While certain aspects of the modern life such as aeroplane travel and using disposable plastic are obvious in their environmental harm, the fast fashion industry may seem to have less of an impact. Nevertheless, it is clear that such an industry relies heavily on the exploitation of workers, the environment and the world’s natural resources.

Fast fashion makes buying clothes more affordable, but it comes at an environmental cost, and as consumers it seems there is little we can do. However, just being knowledgeable of the nature of the production of most of our clothes, as well as adopting more environment-friendly behaviours, is a highly significant step in striving for a more sustainable lifestyle.

For more resources on sustainability, head to our dedicated Climate Crisis section.

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