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Trendy, cheap, and dirty: Fashion is a top global polluter

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

  • The fashion industry is a major global polluter and source of greenhouse gas emissions, driven in large part by the “fast fashion” business model that treats cheap clothing as a perishable good that can be disposed of after brief use.
  • Globalization has aided this trillion-dollar trend, allowing brands to outsource different links of their supply chains to countries with little to no environmental and labor protections in order to keep costs down.
  • That has led to widespread pollution and labor rights abuses, particularly against women workers, epitomized by the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh on April 24, 2013, in which more than 1,134 workers were killed. This week, to marks the seventh anniversary of the tragedy and advocates for a return to a more sustainable “slow fashion” model have launched the “Fashion Revolution Week.”
  • A newly published review paper in Nature Reviews Earth & Environment highlights the environmental consequences of fast fashion, fashion’s complex international supply chain, and proposes solutions to bring us into a cleaner fashion future.
Image by Ventus17/Pixabay.

Fast fashion and the environment

We live in a world of fast fashion, a model that relies on frequent, trend-driven, impulse buying of cheaply manufactured clothing that often ends up in the trash. The fashion industry now accounts for 10% of global pollution and is second only to aviation as the world’s largest industrial polluter.

A newly published review paper in Nature Reviews Earth & Environment highlights the environmental consequences of fast fashion as well as fashion’s complex international supply chains, and proposes solutions to bring us into a cleaner fashion future.

“Clothing has become so cheap. Someone has to pay that price,” Kirsi Niinimäki, professor of design at Aalto University in Finland and corresponding author of the review paper, told Mongabay. “Often it is at the expense of the environment.”

In the U.S., people buy one item of clothing every 5.5 days. Image by

The amount of clothing bought per capita has skyrocketed over the past few decades. Consumers bought 60% more clothing in 2014 than in 2000, but kept each garment half as long. In the U.S., people buy one item of clothing every 5.5 days, and across Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland, purchases average 16 kilograms (35 pounds) of textiles per person per year.

Shoes, towels, clothing, sheets — these textiles have become a major source of municipal solid waste worldwide. Up to 92 million tons of textile waste per year is either burned or put in a landfill — an amount that would fill the Great Pyramid of Giza more than 16 times.

Clothing companies decide how much and what kinds of clothing to make based on the predictions of fashion forecasters, previous sale volumes, and a number of other factors. Sometimes, these estimates are wrong and companies are left with a bulk of unsold clothing. Often, after a period of storage, this unsold stock is burned or destroyed rather than being offered at a discount, which might damage a brand’s image.

The British fashion brand Burberry burned or destroyed more than $110 million worth of unsold clothing, perfumes and accessories between 2013 and 2018 rather than sell those items at a discount and “devalue our brand.”

Burnt clothes on a bin in the province of Alicante, Costa Blanca, Spain. Photo by Ernest Rose/Shutterstock.

“We are tossing away our clothing like single-use plastics, like fast food,” said Sam Hartsock, director of education at Remake, a nonprofit organization that educates the public about the human rights violations and climate injustices associated with the fashion industry. “Designers and companies are designing clothing for obsolescence. Because when you produce more, you have better margins, you have more profit, you have better revenue.”

The supply chain for clothing is long and complex. Each step from fiber, yarn, and textile manufacturing to dyeing and garment sewing, to storage in a retail distribution center can happen in a different country. Dozens of people are involved in the creation of a single item of clothing, and that journey is wrought with waste: water, chemicals, CO2 and plastic.

“The key stages of the fashion supply chain with the geographic location and broad-scale environmental impacts (energy use, water use, waste production and chemical use) for each stage of the process. The garment supply chain is globally distributed, with much of the initial fibre production and garment manufacturing occurring in developing countries, while consumption typically occurs in developed countries.” Image courtesy of Niinimäki et al 2020; Nature Reviews Earth & Environment​.

Textile manufacturing generates the highest amount of greenhouse gases per unit of material, with the exception of aluminum production. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions are caused by the textile industry. Manufacturing, shipping and the subsequent machine washing of clothing all contribute to the carbon footprint of a garment.

The biggest carbon culprit in fashion is fiber production. Energy use and CO2 emissions are highest during the fiber extraction process, especially when creating synthetic fibers, which originate from petrochemicals. Synthetic materials like polyester, rayon, nylon and acrylic are essentially a type of plastic made from petroleum and can take hundreds of years to biodegrade. Synthetic polyester, for example, is made via a chemical reaction involving petroleum, coal, air and water. Polyester accounts for 51% of textile production.

The energy source used to fuel this production also matters. In China, textile manufacturing is largely coal-powered, giving it a 40% larger carbon footprint than textiles made in Europe.

We may accidentally ingest a credit card’s worth of plastic per week in the form of microplastics. Clothing are a major source of environmental microplastics. Image by Michal Jarmoluk/Pixabay.

Thirty-five percent of primary microplastics (particles less than 5 millimeters) in the ocean are linked to the fashion industry (190,000 tons per year). A lot of this is generated from washing synthetic materials such as acrylic and polyester (found in items like stretch jeans, leggings, and other cheap clothing).

Some of this plastic finds its way into our bodies through seafood. A WWF analysis suggests we may accidentally ingest a credit card’s worth of plastic per week in the form of microplastics via drinking water, beer, shellfish and salt.

Fashion is also thirsty. Roughly 20% of global wastewater (79 trillion liters, or nearly 20 trillion gallons) is used in the fashion supply chain every year. Cotton is a notoriously water-intensive crop. Simply growing the cotton for one pair of jeans requires more than 2,500 liters (660 gallons) of water, roughly the amount of drinking water for one person for 3.5 years. Distressed jeans are even more water-intensive.

The human costs of fast fashion

On April 24, 2013, a total of 1,134 garment workers, mostly young women, were killed when the Rana Plaza building collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The building housed production for 29 major brands, and the tragedy drew the world’s attention to the poor and unsafe working conditions many garment makers face.

Rescue workers rescue a trapped garment worker from the Rana Plaza building which collapsed in Bangladesh on April 24, 2013. Photo by Sk Hasan Ali/Shutterstock.

Many workers in the fashion industry endure health and safety hazards and low wages. Garment workers in Ethiopia, for instance, earn a base wage of $26 a month, where the monthly living wage is around $100 per month. The U.S. Department of Labor reported evidence of forced labor and child labor in the fashion industry in Argentina, Bangladesh, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Turkey and Vietnam. H&M, Forever 21, GAP, and Zara are some of the recognizable brands that have been involved in child labor and forced labor scandals.

“How do you think you’re able to get your cheap clothing?” Hartsock asks. “The fashion industry has to cut corners. And a lot of that really is about wages. This industry itself is also built on the exploitation of makers, particularly that of women.”

The fashion industry is estimated to be a $2.5 trillion industry that employs roughly 75 million people, of which, according to Hartsock, “80% are often women or sometimes children.”

“Women are routinely fired for being pregnant. They are harassed and abused on the factory floor,” Hartsock said. “Fast fashion tells this overwhelming heartbreaking story of violence not only to our planet but also violence to the women that make our clothes.”

A garment maker at a clothing factory in Cambodia. Image courtesy of Remake.

Recently, Remake’s #PayUp campaign collected more than 5,000 signatures on a petition to demand that global brands with decreasing sales due to COVID-19 shutdowns “step-up to pay for previously placed orders to ensure that the most vulnerable people within their own supply chains, the women who make their products, are not abandoned during this perilous time.”

Fashion companies look to cut costs by moving production to countries with little to no environmental regulations or where there is no need for pollution mitigation technology. In these cases, it is not only the local ecosystems that bear the brunt of chemical waste, but also the workers, who see increased health risk factors from chemical exposure.

How did we get here? A brief history of fast fashion

“This idea of fast fashion as we know it today, where more and more goods are churned out at lower prices, actually has a long history dating all the way back to the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century,” April Calahan and Cassidy Zachary, fashion historians and hosts of the podcast Dressed: The History of Fashion, wrote in an email to Mongabay. The difference today, they say, is that “that pace has now become ever-quickening.”

The invention of the Jacquard loom in 1801 made the speed of creating textiles much faster and cheaper, as did assembly line production and synthetic dyes, invented in the 1850s. More abundant and low-cost textiles aided the development of the department store retail model, which depended on high sales volumes, lowering the cost per item of clothing.

Around the 1950s, ready-to-wear garments entered the market, particularly in Western department stores, giving more people across the economic spectrum a selection of clothing to choose from. The lowered cost of these items drew the market away from handmade and artisanal clothing.

A garment maker at a factory in Cambodia. Image courtesy of Remake.

The present-day fast fashion model really took off in the late 1990s, following the establishment of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995. With the WTO in place, global tariffs declined significantly, encouraging trade and opening markets across the globe. With global import and export tariffs reduced, the fashion industry was able to move each step of the supply chain to the country with the lowest bid.

“Novelty and accessibility is still a motivating factor for consumers of fast fashion, who patronize stores like H&M, Topshop and Zara,” Calahan and Zachary write. “Zara, in particular, is important to this conversation because of their implementation of QR or ‘quick response’ retailing in the early 2000s.”

Using new technologies, Zara established a system where garments could go from conception to clothing store in a matter of weeks. This allowed the store to escalate the pace of “trends” and refresh its inventory on a monthly or even weekly basis. New styles meant customers visited the stores more often and more clothing was sold.

Mannequins in a shop window. Image by Photo Mix/Pixabay.

“Fast fashion constantly offers new styles to buy, as the average number of collections released by European apparel companies per year has gone from two in 2000 to five in 2011, with, for instance, Zara offering 24 new clothing collections each year, and H&M between 12 and 16,” according to a European Parliament briefing.

“This has led to consumers to see cheap clothing items increasingly as perishable goods that are ‘nearly disposable’, and that are thrown away after wearing them only seven or eight times.”

Forward into a slow fashion future

“Slow fashion is the future,” Niinimäki and co-authors conclude, but “we need a new system-wide understanding of how to transition towards this model, requiring creativity and collaboration between designers and manufacturers, various stakeholders, and end consumers.”

The authors call for manufacturers to invest in cleaner technologies, the fashion industry to employ sustainable business models, and policymakers to modify legislation.

“Recommendations for policymakers, industry, retailers and consumers to create a more environmentally friendly fashion business model.” Image courtesy of Niinimäki et al 2020; Nature Reviews Earth & Environment​.

The European Union appears to be leading the way in legislation. The circular economy package adopted by the EU in 2018 will, for the first time, require that member states collect textile wastes separately from other recyclables by 2025. And, though not specifically aimed at fashion, the landfill directive requires member states to reduce municipal landfilled waste to 10% by 2035.

Designers can make changes such as creating low or zero-waste patterns (patterns where none of a piece of fabric goes unused). Designers can also create more classic and uniform collections with modifications for the traditional two to four seasons instead of the 12 to 24 collections per year now expected by fast fashion outlets.

“Designers can certainly make an impact, but without customers purchasing their responsible products, there is only so much they can do. It all comes down to consumer awareness and investment in change,” Calahan and Zachary write.

There are many groups and campaigns aiming to raise awareness around the perils of fast fashion. The slow fashion movement, much like the slow food movement, focuses on clean and fair production and emphasizes the artisanal. The #slowfashion tag reached around 500,000 people on a day on Twitter in late April 2020.

The nonprofit Fashion Revolution has launched its Fashion Revolution Week to campaign for systemic reform of the fashion industry this week, April 20-26, on the anniversary of the Rana Plaza building collapse.

The Rana Plaza Building collapse in Bangladesh killed 1,134 people. Photo by Sk Hasan Ali/Shutterstock

Once a consumer knows what goes into putting a shirt on their back, what are they to do? While consumers alone cannot bear the brunt of changing an entire industry, increasing the demand for slower and more sustainable fashion may have some power to shift the market.

Niinimäki and colleagues urge consumers to move away from the idea of fashion as cheap entertainment; to engage in slower, more conscious consumption; and to extend the use time of each garment through investment and care.

Brands that promote more sustainable fashion choices are often more expensive. This is because, according to Hartsock, these prices reflect the true cost of paying fair wages and not cutting corners to avoid environmental regulations. However, these pieces are typically made of higher-quality fabrics and stitching and will last longer.

Shopping thrift and extending the use time of garments are ways to move away from fast fashion.  Photo by Andrea Izzotti/Shutterstock.

“Invest in a piece then learn how to take care of it,” Hartsock said. “Do you need five pairs of jeans or can you buy one nicer pair and make it last?”

Washing clothing less often, using less harsh detergents, and mending or repairing clothing are all ways to ensure clothing lasts longer and higher-quality pieces give a greater return on investment.

Shopping for used clothing (vintage, thrift, secondhand) is among the major recommendations for those hoping to fight fast fashion’s seedy underbelly while saving money. The used clothing industry is booming, with $28 billion in sales reported in the U.S. in 2019, and the industry is expected to continue to grow as Generation Z adopts secondhand fashion more than twice as fast as other age groups. Clothing swaps have also become more popular and contribute to a circular versus linear model for fashion.

“It will take a massive shift in consumer mentality to effect change on a global scale,” Calahan and Zachary write. “This may be a generational shift in terms of consumers’ system of values and how they see their role in the continued health of the planet.”

Citation: Niinimäki, K., Peters, G., Dahlbo, H., Perry, P., Rissanen, T., & Gwilt, A. (2020). The environmental price of fast fashion. Nature Reviews Earth & Environment1(4), 189-200. doi:10.1038/s43017-020-0039-9

Banner image of a shopper via Stocksnap/Pixabay.

Liz Kimbrough is a staff writer for Mongabay. Find her on Twitter @lizkimbrough_

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