In the past few decades, fast fashion has dominated every aspect of the fashion industry and changed our view of the clothing we wear. The industry is based on a quick stock overturn, mainly achieved thanks to disregard for environmental, social or sustainable impact and outsourcing of labour to countries where labour laws are virtually non-existent.
The fast-fashion industry's ultimate goal is to make us buy a lot of garments and discard them soon so that we buy new ones again. As you can likely imagine, this system is an environmental disaster in many aspects, not just waste production. Without concern for social and ecological impact, these profit-oriented practices have made the business of selling £5 t-shirts into a multi-billion industry, making fast fashion CEOs and owners some of the world's wealthiest people.
We've created this overview of fast fashion's environmental impacts to help you understand how it massively contributes to climate change by turning garments into fashion waste.
A wasteful business concept
Firstly, the fast fashion business concept is based on the production of a lot of fashion waste. A fast fashion brand rotates its stock rapidly – sometimes as often as a new micro-season every week! This results in environmental issues within their supply chain, and their impact is enhanced since more and more clothing is produced.
Sadly, this has drastically influenced the way we view and buy clothing. Just between the years 2000 and 2014, our consumption of clothing has grown by 60% while we only keep the pieces in our closet for half as long. And if we look at the past 20 years, it has nearly doubled.
Fashion waste is the new standard
Fast fashion brands don't design their garments to be enjoyed for a long time; they design them to end up in landfill as quickly as possible. Garments are designed based on current trends, which you'll likely get sick of after a few wears, made with low-quality materials and rotated in the store quickly enough to give you FOMO if you decide not to buy the latest garment.
As a result, clothing has become a disposable resource - in 2018, around 350,000 tonnes of clothing were thrown away, ultimately reaching landfills. Fast fashion encourages us to overconsume, a habit which we then carry into our other shopping decisions.
Plastic pollution from synthetic fabrics
While clothing made from natural fibres such as cotton or linen biodegrades, the same cannot be said for synthetic fabrics (made from plastic or toxic fossil fuels), such as polyester. These synthetic fabrics have become fast fashion's favourite because they are inexpensive to produce. Currently, they account for 72% of the clothes we buy.
Synthetic fabrics never biodegrade. Instead, they fall apart into smaller and smaller plastic particles – microplastics – which will continue contaminating the planet for hundreds and thousands of years. Moreover, these microplastics are also released into greywater whenever they are washed. Recent research shows that laundering synthetic clothing is the primary source of microplastics, polluting the ocean and contributing to around one-third of the global microplastic release.
Water pollution and wastage
It's not just microplastics that fast fashion releases into our rivers and oceans. The countries where fast fashion garments are produced, such as Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and China, have minimal environmental regulations, making it entirely legal for factories to release the toxic wastewaters from production facilities directly into rivers. These dyes and other chemicals flushed from factories include mercury, arsenic, lead and other harmful substances which affects both the environment and human health.
Harsh pesticides, herbicides, and fertilisers from cotton farms, which are used to maximise the yield at minimum cost, are often flushed into rivers by rain and watering, polluting water sources.
Fast fashion isn't just a polluter of our water; it also wastes many precious resources. The manufacturing process of fast fashion garments is very water-intensive, including the farming of crops, dyeing of fabric and the finishing of garments. For example, it takes around 2,700 litres of water to produce a single non-organic cotton t-shirt.
Climate change is arguably among the most dangerous environmental threats humanity has ever faced. The garment industry is one of the largest contributors to climate change in the world today, with 10% of all our greenhouse gas emissions being produced by this industry.
Most of the fast fashion you can find in stores today is made in China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and other Southeast Asia countries. In most of this region, electricity production relies mainly on coal, which drastically increases the carbon footprint.
As you can probably imagine, another factor contributing to the increasing carbon footprint is transportation. When garments are shipped across half the world to get to the end consumer, climate change's contribution increases significantly. Fast fashion's encouragement of overconsumption, in addition, makes this an even more pressing issue.
Lastly, we need to come back to the impact of synthetic fabrics – something that is at the root of many of the issues of the fast fashion concept. One of the many problems connected to extracting the crude oil required to produce these fabrics is a large amount of methane released, which negatively affects the climate.
Fast fashion can see that the awareness about the environmental impact of apparel has increased and more and more of us now care about sustainable clothing. To compete with sustainable fashion brands and latest trends, fast fashion companies employ greenwashing - a shady marketing tactic that hides a company's real environmental impact behind vague promises, imagery evoking sustainability, and plain lies. This deceitful practise contributes to even more confusion about products' sustainability, making it unsustainable and unethical.