Dressing Up the Truth: Fast Fashion’s Environmental Consequences

by | Dec 20, 2023 | Climate change and sustainable development | 0 comments

Article by Emily Richardson-Moore

Photo by Fernand De Canne on Unsplash


As a product of globalisation, the fashion industry has become the second largest polluter in the world, rivalled only by the oil industry. A study by the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) has revealed that fashion production now produces 10% of global carbon emissions, with the subsequent pollution coming from both production and disposal of clothing. A significant contribution to these statistics is the rise of fast fashion, a term describing cheaply and rapidly produced clothing intended to meet consumers’ desire to keep up with ever-changing fashion trends. Who should be held responsible for the catastrophic environmental destruction caused by this industry? How do we initiate positive change and eliminate fast fashion? Is this goal even achievable?


To understand the forces behind fast fashion, we must first look at the impact on the consumer. Arguably fast fashion begins here – with demand. Over recent years, aided by social media, we’ve witnessed the emergence of ‘micro-trends’. Tending to only have a lifespan of a few months, these trends are promoted through social media via an increasing number of ‘influencers’. This creates mass overconsumption and subsequent disposal of these once ‘trendy’ items, resulting in 85% of all textiles ending up in “dumps” each year. Furthermore, this excessive disposal of textiles causes a lengthy decomposition process in landfills, emitting methane, which when absorbed into the atmosphere amplifies global warming.


However, there is no doubt that corporations facilitating the production of fast fashion must also take responsibility for their detrimental impacts on our environment. Production of fast fashion is a highly polluting process. Quantis International’s 2018 report found that dyeing and finishing clothing, yarn preparation and fibre production were the “three main drivers of the industry’s global pollution impacts”. Furthermore, they had the highest impact on resource depletion, due to the “energy-intensive processes” driven by fossil fuels. The dyeing and finishing process, for example, releases toxic chemicals into rivers and groundwater systems, comprising the land’s fertility, degrading drinking water, and killing marine life. This can have serious consequences for both the biosphere and human health, and as many major fashion corporations outsource production to third parties, they may not be aware of the degrading environmental impacts of their production processes. In spite of this, some companies are experimenting with more eco-friendly fashion production methods, such as Ralph Lauren’s recent promise to use “100% sustainably sourced key materials by 2025”. On the surface, this may look like progression, but NGOs such as Greenpeace frequently accuse corporations of ‘greenwashing’. This can be described as the way in which companies promote themselves as eco-friendly, yet behind closed doors continue polluting the environment. Greenpeace points to “sustainable collections” such as ‘H&M Conscious’ or ‘Zara Join Life’, as a way for companies to falsely appear to be ecologically conscious. These collections are accused of using misleading claims of recycled fabrics and providing a lack of confirmation of ethical practice across chains of production, to name just a few instances. Greenwashing techniques can be lucrative for major corporations, with today’s consumers more inclined to purchase products marketed as sustainable, boosting their profits, meanwhile damaging our planet. As a result, many advocate for textile corporations, particularly those involved in ‘fast fashion’, to be held responsible for their environmental impacts.


Another common standpoint among environmental activists is that governments and policymakers should be held accountable for the lack of stringent regulations that could prevent fast fashion from devastating our environment. In 2019, UK ministers rejected recommendations from the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) to charge 1p for every new garment on sale on the UK market. The proposed funds were to improve “clothing collection and sorting”, to help tackle the excessive fast fashion going to landfills [8]. This pressing issue appears not to be a priority for governments, prompting climate activists such as ‘Extinction Rebellion’ to use more drastic tactics of civil disobedience. While some argue positive environmental change must be implemented by governments, it can also be contended that as long as wealth and disposable income exist, preventing overconsumption is not viable, as people will always have the freedom to purchase what they desire. Ultimately, this demand is what motivates corporations to produce readily available, unsustainable fashion.


Only through significant changes in consumer habits, corporate production processes and government policy, will there be a substantial shift towards sustainability in this industry. It is cooperation between these key players that will bring about positive environmental change. 



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