Fast fashion has notable advantages but it has been criticized for its numerous drawbacks. These include its unfavorable environmental impacts that demonstrate the ills of linear economic production and overconsumption or how it runs in direct opposite to the principles of circular economy, the cradle-to-cradle concept of production and consumption, and the principles of sustainable fashion. Hence, as a concept and as a business model, fast fashion has been considered unsustainable due to its unavoidable environmental costs.
The Impact of Fast Fashion on the Environment: Notable Studies Documenting and Explaining How Fast-Fashion Retailers and Products Contribute to Environmental Degradation
Producing clothes requires a lot of natural resources and produces a lot of waste. Even the disposal of worn and torn clothing and apparel products or items has negative impacts on the environment. It is important to note that the entire fashion and textile industry alone is one of the main consumers of water and it is also a top emitter of greenhouse gasses.
Hence, with the emergence of fast fashion beginning in the late 20th century and the further expansion of global retailers like Zara and Shein, the problems with the fashion and textile industry have become worsened. The specific environmental impacts of fast fashion revolve around excessive resource consumption and waste generation.
1. Excessive Water Consumption
Manufacturing clothes and apparel is resource-intensive. The fashion and textile industry is also one of the most water-intensive industries in the world. Various estimates have shown that the industry consumes about 79 billion cubic meters of water per year. This is equivalent to about 4 percent of all global freshwater extraction. Water is specifically used in growing cotton, fabric dyeing and finishing processes, converting raw fabric into usable fabric or wet processing, and washing and cleaning of consumer-end clothing and apparel products.
The scale of operations of contract manufacturers for fast fashion retailers means that the specific fast fashion industry is a main water consumer in the greater fashion and textile industry. This is a pressing environmental impact of fast fashion considering that fresh water is a scarce resource and that there are regions around the globe that suffers from water shortages. The further growth of the industry can contribute to regional water stress.
Researchers Sandin et al. specifically noted that cotton is grown through the irrigation of arid lands. This creates a problem as regards the distribution of water scarcity. Their specific research involving the consumption of clothes and apparel in Sweden showed that annual water use amounts to 610 scarcity-weighted cubic meters per person. Researchers G. Peters, M. Li, and M. Lenzen also mentioned that the shift from cotton to synthetic fibers also increased further water consumption because of growing production volume and market demand.
Another more specific environmental impact of fast fashion as it relates to water resources is water pollution. The 2022 paper from K. Bailey, A. Basu, and S. Sharma mentioned that the entire fashion and textile industry is the second most polluting industry in the world because it accounts for 20 percent of all global wastewater. Take note that manufacturing clothes and apparel also involves discarding chemical-imbued wastewater.
2. Greenhouse Gas Emissions
The Princeton Student Climate Initiative website of Princeton University noted that the entire fashion and textile industry has more annual carbon or carbon dioxide equivalent emissions than the combined annual emissions of all international flights and maritime shipping. Take note that the specific fast fashion industry has a significant contribution to the emissions of the greater fashion and textile industry because of its market size and product volume.
A 2018 editorial published in Nature mentioned that there are about 20 new garments manufactured per person each year due to increasing affordability. The 2021 study by G. Peters, M. Li, and M. Lenzen specifically concluded that the climate impact of clothing and footwear consumption rose from 1.0 gigatons to 1.3 gigatons in greenhouse gas emissions between 2000 and 2015. It noted further that the rise of fast fashion explains why consumers used 47 percent more clothing per capita in 2015 compared with the year 2000.
Emissions from the fashion and textile industry come from various sources. Take note that most clothing and apparel manufacturing takes place in China and India. These countries are dependent on coal-fueled power plants. The manufacturing facilities in these countries run on this inexpensive energy source. This means that each clothing or apparel item has a significant carbon footprint due to the energy used as input in its production.
Raw materials also have carbon footprints. Synthetic fibers like polyester and semi-synthetic fiber like viscose or rayon have become common in low-cost and mass-produced clothing and apparel manufacturing. Polyesters and other synthetic fibers are produced from fossil fuels such as crude oil. Viscose is specifically a cellulous fiber made from wood pulp. It has an emerging carbon footprint because it comes with land use and deforestation concerns and its processing is the main source of global carbon disulfide emissions.
There are other sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the entire fast fashion industry. The transportation of raw materials from suppliers to product facilities, and the transportation of production outputs from facilities and warehouses to various distribution channels involve fuel consumption. Furthermore, because fast-fashion products have short lifespans, their disposal can result in emissions when they end up in waste incinerators.
3. Release of Microplastics
Microplastic pollution is another detrimental environmental impact of fast fashion. The United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or NOAA defines microplastics as plastic fragments that are less than five millimeters in length. Common synthetic fibers used in low-cost clothing and apparel items like polyester, nylon, and spandex are technically plastics. These materials are made from a chemical process that converts petroleum into a long chain of molecules that are then spun into fibers that can be used to make fabric.
The improper disposal of clothes made from synthetic fibers, in addition to their wear and tear, due to repeated use contributes to the accumulation of microplastics in the environment. The most common examples of clothing items made from these fibers include sportswear and swimwear, inexpensive sweaters and winterwear, lingerie and other innerwear items marketed as microfiber underwear, and accessories like footwear and scarves.
Researchers M. A. Browne et al. studied the accumulation of microplastics on shorelines across the world. Their paper referenced and discussed several studies that sampled wastewater from domestic washing machines. Included in these reviewed studies were experiments showing that a single garment made from a synthetic fiber could produce greater than 1900 microplastics per wash because washing hastens the degradation or wear and tear of synthetic fibers. This suggests that household wastewater is one of the primary sources of microplastic.
Marine biologist Richard Thompson was one of the first scientists who raises concerns over microplastics. These materials are considered environmental pollutants and potential hazards to public health because they tend to enter the food chain. Species ranging from zooplankton and marine creatures to land animals end up ingesting them. Studies have also shown that microplastics persist in the tissues and cells of living organisms.
4. Overall Waste Generation
The production and consumption of clothing and apparel are the main contributors to overall global waste. Remember that the fashion and textile industry is a main source of global wastewater. It also has a significant carbon footprint due to greenhouse gas emissions coming from the different energy-dependent processes across its entire value chain. The industry is also one of the main sources of microplastics or causes of microplastic pollution.
Nevertheless, more than the aforementioned, take note that the growth of the clothing and apparel market, in addition to the modern consumption patterns, have resulted in the accumulation of discarded garments and other related products. The United States Environmental Protection Agency mentioned that the main source of municipal textile waste is discarded clothing. To be specific, in the U.S. alone, an estimated 11.3 million tons of garments end up in landfills each year. This is equivalent to 2150 pieces per second across the country.
Critics have argued that the growing disposable mentality of consumers can be attributed to the rise of fast fashion. Specific retailers or brands promote a culture of excessive consumption through aggressive marketing or promotional activities. Some have even noted that these companies have been intentional in designing and manufacturing short-lived clothes that are intended to be disposed of to support or reinforce repeat sales.
Researchers S. Diddi and L. S. Niehm explained that consumers do not attach emotions or values to low-cost garments and often treat them as disposable items regardless of the disposal method utilized. Furthermore, because of the rate at which design trends enter the market, R. N. Yan., S. Diddi, and B. Bloodhart assumed that the possession of the trendiest clothing item signals self-image and success. Nevertheless, with frequent purchases, consumers will need to dispose of their clothing more often to make space in their closes.
It is also worth mentioning that a report from The World Economic Forum mentioned that 87 percent of the total fiber input used for manufacturing clothes and apparel ultimately ends up in landfills or waste incinerators. The further growth of the fast fashion industry to the expansion of the market and market demand would aggravate the waste problem generated by the fashion and textile industry and the clothing and apparel market.
FURTHER READINGS AND REFERENCES
- Bailey, K., Basu, A., and Sharma, S. 2022. “The Environmental Impacts of Fast Fashion on Water Quality: A Systematic Review.” Water. 14(7): 1073. DOI: 3390/w14071073
- Browne, M. A., Crump, P., Niven, S. J., Teuten, E., Tonkin, A., Galloway, T., and Thompson, R. 2011. “Accumulation of Microplastics on Shorelines Worldwide: Sources and Sinks.” Environmental Science & Technology. 45(2): 9175-9179. DOI: 1021/es201811s
- Diddi, S. and Niehm, L. S. 2016. “Corporate Social Responsibility in the Retail Apparel Context: Exploring Consumers’ Personal and Normative Influences on Patronage Intentions.” Journal of Marketing Channels. 23(1-2): 60-76. DOI: 1080/1046669x.2016.1147892
- Environmental Protection Agency. 2022. “Textiles: Material-Specific Data.” Facts and Figures about Materials, Waste and Recycling. Environmental Protection Agency. Available online.
- Le, N. 2020. “The Impact of Fast Fashion on the Environment.” Princeton Student Climate Initiative. Princeton University. Available online
- Nature Climate Change. 2018. “The Price of Fast Fashion.” Nature Climate Change. 8(1): 1. DOI: 1038/s41558-017-0058-9
- Peters, G., Li, M., and Lenzen, M. 2021. “The Need to Decelerate Fast Fashion in a Hot Climate: A Global Sustainability Perspective on the Garment Industry.” Journal of Cleaner Production. 295: 126390. DOI: 1016/j.jclepro.2021.126390
- Sandin, G., Roos, S., Spak, B., Zamani, B., and Peters, G. 2019. Environmental Assessment of Swedish Clothing Consumption: Mistra Future Fashion Report. ISBN: 978-91-89049-05-5
- The World Economic Forum. 2019. “Fashion Has A Problem. Here’s How It Can Change.” The World Economic Forum. Available online
- Yan, R.-N., Diddi, S., and Bloodhart, B. 2021. “Predicting Clothing Disposal: The Moderating Roles of Clothing Sustainability Knowledge and Self-Enhancement Values.” Cleaner and Responsible Consumption. 3: 100029. DOI: 1016/j.clrc.2021.100029