Sustainable fashion and the impact of fast fashion on the environment is one of the most exciting conversations happening in the fashion industry right now.
As brands begin to shift under consumer pressure to become more environmentally friendly, ethical fashion is growing in popularity as we all consider our carbon footprint.
To help you understand the importance of sustainable fashion, we’ve rounded up everything you need to know about the impact of the fast fashion industry on the world around us.
What is Fast Fashion?
The fashion industry is one of the leading causes of pollution in the environment, doing more harm than both international flights and maritime shipping combined.
Our ability to purchase cheap clothing has resulted in an enormous cost for the environment, from the production process through to the vast amount of clothing that ends up in landfills around the world.
A recent report in the journal ‘Nature Reviews Earth and Environment’ has said that the fashion industry has to undergo a fundamental change to mitigate and attempt to reverse the environmental damage that is being caused by the fast fashion market.
The report described the damage caused by fast fashion as being a “global problem”.
Thanks to the internet, it’s never been easier to buy inexpensive clothing, which has only increased the industry’s environmental footprint.
We are increasingly buying more clothing than ever before, with people purchasing 60% more clothing in 2014 than they were buying in 2000 with garments remaining in our closets for half the length of time that would have previously.
Due to this increase in demand and high turnover, clothing production has doubled since 2000 with most of these garments falling into the ‘fast fashion’ category.
How About Sustainable Fashion?
You might wonder what the sustainable fashion movement is.
It is truly a joint venture between both fashion brands and consumers to create a more environmentally friendly industry.
While the conversation around sustainable fashion primarily focuses on the materials and methods used to produce ‘fast fashion’ garments, it also has to do with how we as consumer treat our clothing and our shopping habits.
‘Fast fashion’ is a 21st-century invention that has grown astronomically thanks to the rise of social media and the age of the internet, which has led to our wardrobes becoming cheaper and overrun with more clothing than we will ever have time to wear more than once.
The Consequence Of Fast Fashion On The Environment
A shocking 10% of the world’s carbon emission comes from just the fashion industry.
If we allow the fast fashion industry to continue to grow at its current rate, within the next 30 years this number will jump to 26%. If we doubled the lifespan of our clothing and wore something for two years instead of the typical year, then we could reduce carbon emissions by 24% every year.
The industry creates 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions every year and accounts for over 8% of greenhouse gas emissions.
The vast majority of the CO2 emissions that occur from producing garments like jeans and t-shirts come from the garment production process, which accounts for 57% and 50% of their overall respective environmental costs.
The fashion industry is the second-largest consumer of the world’s water supply and causes 20% of the industrial water pollution in the world.
As a reference point, for each ton of dyed fabric that is manufactured, 200 tons of fresh water are used.
The fashion industry uses 1.5 trillion litres of water every year, while 750 million people in the world do not have access to safe drinking water.
T-shirts are one of the most popular fashion garments, and they can be found in anyone’s wardrobe.
To produce just one cotton shirt, it takes 700 gallons of water, which is roughly the recommended amount of water for an adult to drink over the court of three and a half years.
For jeans, this number is even higher, as it takes 2,000 gallons of water to produce just one pair.
When you consider the fact that an estimated 2 billion pairs of jeans are manufactured every year, you can quickly see the impact of clothes production. Just think, to create a t-shirt and a pair of jeans, it takes the amount of water you would drink in 13 years.
Cotton farming has also seriously damaged our ecosystems, as the vast majority of cotton is produced through a genetically modified process where the cotton is sprayed with chemicals that are dangerous to insects and ecosystems who are killed in the process.
The fertilisers that are used during cotton production also cause a high level of pollution and enter into the nearby water ecosystems.
Cotton production requires a considerable amount of water, with as much as 20,000 litres needed to produce a kilo of cotton.
As cotton requires a warm climate to be cultivated, this water supply is usually a sparse entity in the surrounding area.
In India, 100 million people do not have access to clean drinking water, whereas 85% of the water needed for the entire population is used to cultivate cotton.
Nothing shows the impact of fast fashion on our water supply more clearly than the damage that has been done to the Aral Sea. The Aral Sea was once one of the largest lakes in the world and has now become a desert and reduced to small ponds as a result of cotton farming over the last 50 years.
Another major problem that fast fashion causes for the environment is the water pollution that results from textile dyeing, which is the second-largest polluter cause for water.
After the garment is dyed, the leftover water that is conditioned with the dye is usually discarded back into the water system. 200,000 tons of dye is lost to effluents every year. As well as the dyeing process textiles, in general, are harmful to the environment.
Roughly 2,000 different chemicals are used to treat textiles during the garment making process. Only 16 of these chemicals are approved by the Environmental Protection Agency.
These chemicals are a particular concern in developing countries, where almost all fast fashion garments are produced, as they are poorly regulated and it is often difficult to determine what substances and chemicals have been used in the production process.
The wastewater from textiles factories contain everything from lead to arsenic and are often dumped straight into ecosystems such as rivers, lakes and bushes.
These harmful chemicals make their way into the ocean and cause damage on a global scale. 90% of wastewater produced during the garment making process in developing countries is discharged into rivers without any treatment.
The environmental impact of these dyes and chemicals is most prominent in China, where 80% of groundwater from the major river basins are considered to be “unsuitable” for human contact.
Micro-Plastics and Micro-Fibers
Micro-plastics cause chaos in the environment by polluting our oceans and account for 31% of the plastic pollution that is currently in our oceans.
Fast fashion is responsible for a large portion of the microplastic that is damaging our marine life.
When we are washing our clothes, the microfibres in the garments make their way into the water system and end up in the ocean.
Each time we wash our fast fashion garments, we are causing more damage to our oceans.
During each wash cycle, a garment made of polyester or nylon will usually release as many as 1,900 individual microfibres into the water which will then make its way into our oceans.
Every year an estimated 500,000 tons of microfibres make their way into the world’s oceans, which causes the same damage as 50 billion plastic bottles.
Out of all the human-made debris that is found on the shorelines of oceans and lakes throughout the world, 85% of the debris is the micro-plastics from clothing.
We have all taken conscious steps to lower our plastic usage, and now it is time that we have the same conversation around microfibres.
35% of the microplastics in the oceans comes from synthetic textiles such as polyester, which are popular amongst fast fashion brands.
One of the most damaging clothing materials is polyester, which is a microfibre created through plastic and are not biodegradable.
It takes more than 200 years for a piece of polyester to decompose properly.
Not only does it cause damage to our oceans, producing polyester results up to three times more carbon emissions than the production of cotton.
The equivalent of the water of 2 million Olympic-sized swimming pools is used each year to dye garments throughout the world.
It’s not just the microfibres in polyester that is an issue. There are almost 70 million barrels of oil used every year to produce polyester as it is created from plastic fibres which requires petroleum to create.
The Issue of Landfills
Every year, an estimated 85% of textiles end up in landfills around the world, with one garbage truck of clothing being brought to the landfill every second.
That’s 2,625 kilograms of clothing being either burnt or brought to a landfill every second.
You would be able to fill the Empire State building one and a half times each day, and the whole of Sydney harbour each year.
In the United States alone, an estimated 10.5 million tons of clothing is sent to a landfill every year. Every year there is a loss of $500 billion in clothing that is either under-utilised or not recycled in any way.
Our clothes are staying in our wardrobes for less time than ever before.
Three-fifths of all clothing garments end up in a landfill or incinerator within a year of being purchased.
Fashion brands are now producing an average of five collections per year, and the constant fluctuation in trends, which has led to not only an increase in the amount of clothing we all purchase every year but also the frequency with which we throw out our garments.
In fast fashion, the number of collections per year is significantly higher, with Zara producing roughly 24 ranges each year.
The environmental group Greenpeace has estimated that 20% of clothing that we purchase isn’t even worn once, with the average wear of each product being as few as four times.
They found that the most popular reasons why people throw away clothing are because they don’t like it anymore or that it is no longer considered to be in fashion.
Herein lies the environmental danger of following trends over your style.
Fashion items are notoriously difficult to recycle, with less than 1% of the material used being recycled after use.
To deal with the increase in clothing ending up in landfills and incinerators, the fashion industry has been encouraged to look into the possibility of using recycled materials to create their garments, as well as using biodegradable material that does less harm to the environment.
It’s not just the process of producing garments that isn’t environmentally friendly, it is also how we get rid of our clothing when we’re finished with them.
As few as 15% of people recycle their clothing once they’re finished with it. Clothing garments can be reused either through a recycling centre or by giving them to charity.
Now the fashion industry has been forced to come face to face with its environmental impact and is under consumer pressure to become a more sustainable and ethical industry.
In 2019, the United Nations launched the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion which seeks to coordinate organisations to achieve a more sustainable fashion industry from the early stages of production through to the disposal of garments.
Their scope for sustainability includes social and ethical issues as much as environmental ones.
How The Fashion Industry Is Changing
The fashion industry is one of the largest employers in the world and is a multi-trillion dollar industry that shows no sign of slowing down.
Over 86 million people are employed in the fashion industry, from designers to textile workers to shop assistants – most of whom are women.
The industry is also the third-largest in the manufacturing sector, coming in just behind the automobile and technology industries.
The majority of the change that is occurring within the industry is coming from the largest companies that are under the highest level of public scrutiny.
The Boston Consulting Group found in 2017 that half of the industry is still to make any substantial changes towards becoming more sustainable.
The desire amongst the modern consumer, who is more aware than ever of the impact of climate change, has revolutionised the industry in recent years.
Consumers are becoming more mindful of how much they purchase and how often they turn over their wardrobes.
Thrift shopping and rental services have become increasingly popular, particularly amongst Millenials sand Generation Z.
60% of millennials have said that they are trying to shop more sustainably.
Between January 2017 and December 2018, there was a 250% increase in the number of google searches for sustainable fashion, showing that there is increasing demand amongst consumers for more ethical and environmentally friendly fashion options.
Brands within the fashion industry are becoming more transparent than ever with the materials that they use, and many of them are committed to carbon-neutral productions and delivery.
In 2018, 12.5% of the fashion market had pledged to become more sustainable.
These changes to become more sustainable are usually carried out by changing materials out for more environmentally friendly ones, particularly with recycle materials to prevent plastic from entering our oceans.
Everything from plastic bottles to cork is now being reimagined as a recycled material to use in fashion garments and accessories.
It Is About ‘Ethical’ Fashion As Well
Although we’ve focused heavily so far on the environmental aspect of sustainable fashion, there is also a massive ethnical discussion happening in the fashion industry.
While most of the design and marketing of fashion garments and accessories occur in the United States or Europe, their production mainly occurs in an entirely different world.
Too frequently, fast fashion depends on slave labour in developing countries to be able to produce their garments at the cheapest possible rate to allow consumers to buy their products at such an affordable rate.
The majority of garment workers are women, making up an estimated 80% of the workforce.
These numbers are rising every year with a dramatic increase from 20 million workers in 2000 to between 60 and 85 million in 2014.
Along with discussions around environmental protection, the fashion industry is having to have an open conversation about modern slavery. Of the 40 million people in the world considered to be in ‘modern slavery’, 50% of them work in slave labour with a large number of them producing fast fashion garments.
Manufacturing is the second largest industry for modern slavery, coming behind only the agriculture industry.
Shockingly, 1 in 3 of these individuals that are victims of modern slavery are children.
Not only do these workers have poor working conditions, but they are also paid significantly less than a living wage.
Out of 219 fashion brands that were surveyed, only 12% could show that they had taken action to pay garment workers above the legal minimum of the country they work in, which is often an amount that is considerably less than minimum wage in developed countries.
How Can We Shop Sustainable?
One conscious way that you can start shopping more sustainable is to be more mindful of what exactly you buy.
Critically think about that clothing that you’re buying, and whether you are likely to wear it more than once.
With a more minimalistic wardrobe, you can then chose quality over quantity when shopping around for new clothes.
Ditch fast fashion trends, and look for clothing that will stay in your wardrobe for years to come.
Quality garments will last for years without becoming easily damaged. Ignoring the trends that come and go allows you to find your style and to curate a wardrobe that will work for you all year round.
Fast fashion is an always growing industry, due to consumer behaviour and how we are now buying more than ever before.
Over 80 billion fashion garments are purchased every year, working out at an average of 68 items per person every year. Consumers in the United States are purchasing five times the quantity of garments than they did in 1980, while consumers in the United Kingdom buy more clothing than anywhere else in Europe.
When you’re shopping around for fashion garments, consider the price.
If it’s an extremely inexpensive expensive, then it’s likely to have been produced in an unsustainable way.
You can become a more mindful consumer by actively examining the brands that you regularly purchase from, and by making more meaningful purchases that you know you’re going to wear at least four times.
If you need a garment for a special occasion, consider renting a dress or a tuxedo instead of buying a new one from a fast-fashion brand.
The next time you’re a wardrobe cleaner, consider how you can recycle the garments that you’re finished with them.
You can donate them to charity so that they can find a new home, or you find friends or family to pass the clothes onto to give them a new life.
If you’re purchasing new clothes, keep on the lookout for more sustainable fashion materials such as organic or natural fibres that do not require chemicals in their production process.
We hope this article has opened your eyes to the impact of fast fashion and the need for the industry to move towards a more sustainable and ethical method of production.
If we all do our best, we can help stop the environmental damage that is occurring all over the world due to the carbon emissions, water usage and the pollution caused by our obsession with fast fashion.
To achieve a sustainable fashion industry, brands and consumers need to work together to lower their respective carbon footprints and work towards a more green environment.
Join us on our sustainable fashion journey, and help us make the world a better place for everyone living in it.