The environmental impacts of fast fashion

What’s the real cost of that £8 shirt?

Fashion is often branded as the second most polluting industry in the world after the oil and gas sector. All stages of the clothing production process can incur serious environmental impacts throughout the product lifecycle – pre and post-consumer – so fashion’s collective ecological footprint is undoubtedly big.

Since the 1990’s, growth of the multi-trillion-dollar garment industry has been fuelled by so- called ‘fast fashion’ which, as the name suggests, requires high speed and low cost to keep up with the global appetite for newness. The traditional (slow) fashion calendar sees bi- annual collections released for Spring/Summer and Autumn/Winter, with the predictable waste and seasonal discounting that ensues. In contrast, fast fashion ranges can involve up to 50 ‘drops’ of trend-led ranges per year, resulting in even greater waste and chemical by- products.

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What is fast fashion?

The term fast fashion is used to describe the production of high volume, quick turnaround, low cost clothing. Fast Fashion first appeared in the 1990s as corporations, in an attempt to increase profits, invested in cheaper production methods to mimic fast paced fashion trends.

Fashion has always reflected something about the times in which we live. Brands respond to demand as much as consumers respond to what’s on offer and consumer behaviour reflects this. As market pressure increases to reduce development and production costs, along with expectations of fast turnaround times from brands and consumers alike, environmental corners are more likely to be cut. That is, unless attitudes and practices change. Irrefutable evidence of climate change and environmental damage has finally forced the industry’s hand to shift from a linear economy to a circular one where efficiency and ethics are aligned.

natural vs synthetic fibres

Disposable Fashion

In the UK, fashion is a big business, contributing over £32 billion ($39 billion) to the British economy each year. Proportionally, the country’s also become a hub for fast fashion, with British consumers buying more new clothes per person than any other country in Europe.

According to a survey by Fashion Revolution, British fashion shoppers spent about £3.5bn on Christmas party clothing last year – but 8 million of those sparkly items will be on their way to landfill after just one wear. Sustainability issues also arise when clothing is no longer wanted. A report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation found that the growth of clothes production is linked to a decline in the number of times a garment is worn. The report also highlights how the fashion industry’s current “take-make-dispose” system creates greenhouse gas emissions of 1.2 billion tonnes a year—that’s “more than those of all international flights and maritime shipping combined.”

Single figures; single use?

With the normalisation of a shirt or dress with a single figures price tag, so-called fast fashion has ushered throwaway culture into the clothing business, with items so cheap that they’ve become single-use purchases with appalling pay-per-wear. According to the latest figures from WRAP, over one million tonnes of clothing was purchased in the UK in 2016. In the same year, fabric waste in the supply chain equalled an estimated 800,000 tonnes, while consumers discarded 300,000 tonnes of clothing. The correlation between cheap clothes and environmental damage is now beyond doubt.

In October 2018 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a final warning to politicians about the dire state of the planet, stating that there were 12 years left to reverse the effects of climate change. For Sarah Ditty, policy director at Fashion Revolution, it’s this sense of urgency more than anything that’s forcing the sustainable push. “It’s about survival,” she says. “If fashion brands don’t start working to mitigate their negative environmental impacts, fundamentally change the way they use natural resources and build climate resiliency into their business models, then they will not succeed in the near future.”

In broad terms, these are the four major types of impacts that arise from the fashion industry, clothing manufacturing and related activities such as transportation and consumer usage.

water footprint of fibres

Water Consumption

In 2017, a Global Fashion Agenda report revealed that the fashion industry consumed almost 80 billion cubic metres of water. To put this in context, that’s enough to fill 32 million Olympic sized swimming pools. Moreover, this figure is forecast to reach 120 billion cubic metres by 2030.

Part of the reason for such extreme water usage is that these garments are traditionally made from cotton, which is grown in warm and dry countries, where water is scarce. It takes 20,000 litres of water to produce just one kilogram of cotton and therein lays the problem. In such arid countries, the amount of water required to produce one shirt – 2,700 litres – could provide drinking water for one person for 2 and a half years.

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It takes 2,700 litres of water to produce a simple T-shirt and almost 10,000 litres for a pair of jeans.

Cotton makes up around 90% of all the natural fibres used in the fashion industry and because its production requires vast amounts of water for irrigation, the environment and nearby communities have been negatively affected.

The most notorious case is the Aral Sea devastation. Here, an increase in cotton production in the 1960s led to irrigation canals being created to divert water from the sea to the farmland. This proved unsustainable and resulted in the Aral Sea being reduced to just 10% of what it originally was.

Water Pollution

It’s estimated that 20% of the world’s water pollution is as a result of the fashion industry’s dyeing and cultivation processes, with over 800 chemicals used to transform raw materials into fabrics.

The production of natural fibres, such as cotton, is highly pesticide intensive. Let’s take cotton farming as an example. Cotton is grown on only 3% of the world’s farmland and yet its production consumes a disproportionately high level of chemicals: 16% of global insecticide and around 25% of the world’s herbicide use. These toxic chemicals are absorbed into the soil, before making their way into waterways, polluting rivers and water supplies.

Equally, every time a garment made from a synthetic fibre such as polyester is washed, microfibres are released which then make their way into the water system. With each wash, around 1,900 microfibres are leaked into small aquatic organisms. The natural food chain process – whereby larger organisms feed off the smaller ones – means that these microscopic plastics enter into the food chain and return back into the food we eat as humans.

Fashion Waste

In 2018, £140 million worth of clothing was sent to landfill in the UK alone, equating to around 350,000 tonnes of unwanted garments. An average western household is estimated to dispose of 30kg of clothing annually, and of that 30kg only 4.5kg is recycled or donated – the rest is either sent to landfill or incinerated.

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Synthetic and non-biodegradable fibres, such as polyester, are used in around 72% of garments and can take a staggering 200 years to decompose.

Equally, due to fabric cutting techniques, around 15% of the material intended for clothing production ends up as off-cuts, which explains the industry’s increased interest in zero waste pattern cutting techniques

It’s estimated that around 4% of a factory’s output is rejected during the quality check process. Given that some of the largest clothing factories output 240 million garments annually, this equates to just fewer than 10 million garments being wasted by one manufacturer alone.

Gas Emissions

The fashion industry contributes to around 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions, due in part to its energy intensive production processes, which exceed those of the aviation and shipping industries combined.

Different fabrics release varying amounts of toxic by-products, both pre and post-production. Synthetic fibres (polyester, acrylic, nylon, etc.), which are used in the majority of fast fashion garments, are made using fossil fuels. Their production accounts for 70 million barrels of oil used annually to produce the raw material polyethylene terephthalate (PET), before the fabric is further treated.

According to estimates, 262% more CO2 is emitted to produce a single polyester T-shirt than it is for a cotton shirt. One of the most damaging components of PET production is a chemical called antimony, which is used as a catalyst to create the plastic. Antimony is carcinogenic and, although “locked” into the fibres after production, it’s released into the water systems during manufacturing. The use of antimony is equally problematic when the garments come to the end of their life. When polyester fabric is incinerated, the antimony is released into the air as antimony trioxide. As such, the product lifecycle of synthetic fibres ultimately pollutes both waterways and the air.

Fast Fashion Statistics:

  • ​Producing one cotton shirt uses around 2,720 litres of water; around the same amount as an average person drinks over three years. (Ejfoundation)
  • Polyester production creates around 706 billion kg of greenhouse gases per year, equivalent to the annual emissions of 185 coal-fired power plants. (World Resources Institute).
  • The average person buys 60% more items of clothing and keeps them for about half as long as 15 years ago. (Greenpeace )
  • The number of garments produced globally exceeded 100 billion for the first time in 2014. (McKinsey )
  • Garment manufacturing accounts for 20% of global industrial water pollution. (World Resources Institute).
  • ​The UK alone disposes of 350,000 tonnes (£140 million worth) of clothing in landfills each year. (Greenpeace)
  • ​By 2030, the total amount of fashion waste is expected to be 148 million tonnes – equivalent to 17.5 kg per person across the planet. (Global Fashion Agenda)
  • It takes about 10,000 litres of water to produce enough cotton for a pair of jeans. (WRAP)
  • The carbon emissions generated by the clothing of the average UK household is equivalent to driving an average modern car 6,000 miles. (WRAP)
  • More than 50% of the emissions from clothing production comes from three phases: dyeing and finishing (36%), yarn preparation (28%) and fibre production (15%). (Quantis)

Why cheap fashion is costly

Back to that £8 shirt. In March 2019, the young-fashion brand Boohoo had over 50 men’s shirts available online costing less than £15. Meanwhile, rival Asos was also offering more than 50 shirts of all styles for less than £15. Many – like a button-down collar Oxford style shirt were listed at £7.50, meaning the delivery charge could be virtually the same as the contents of the package.

Elsewhere, companies such as H&M are making great strides towards sustainability with their ‘Conscious – Sustainable Style’ range and Sustainability Strategy. However, the causal link between fast fashion and environmental damage is now beyond dispute. Sustainability has become a core tenet of emerging designers and those starting a own clothing line, as the industry as a whole acknowledges that consumers do care and that fast fashion is most certainly not free.

While it’s important to tackle the wider issue of consumer behaviour and manufacturing processes, rather than singling out specific brands, it’s worth reminding ourselves of the words of Lucy Siegle, the journalist and ethical fashion campaigner:

”Fast fashion isn’t free. Someone, somewhere, is paying”

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