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Gina-Marie Cheeseman headshot

The High Environmental Cost of Fast Fashion


Those cheap jeans at H&M and the discount skirts at Forever 21 come at a very high cost to the environment. A report by Greenpeace Germany released before Black Friday, that infamous shopping day where consumers descend on stores in droves looking for deals, looks at the environmental cost of fast fashion.

The fast fashion industry is expanding rapidly. From 2000 to 2014, clothing production doubled, and sales rose from $1 trillion in 2002 to $1.8 trillion in 2015. They're forecast to hit $2.1 trillion by 2025. The average consumer now buys 60 percent more clothing items a year and keeps them for about half as long as 15 years ago. What that means is a huge volume of textile waste.

The environmental impacts of fast fashion range from chemicals used to produce textiles, which can pollute rivers and oceans, to high levels of both pesticide and energy use.

One of the biggest environmental costs associated with fast fashion comes from the use of synthetic fibers, which is rapidly increasing. Take polyester, which emits almost three times more carbon dioxide in its lifecycle than cotton.

Polyester is present in 60 percent of today’s clothing, and it can take decades to degrade. About 21.3 million tons of polyester was used in clothing this year, a 157 percent increase from 2000. Fossil fuels are needed to produce polyester, and the material's carbon footprint is almost three times that of cotton.

Since the 1980s, fashion retailers have been increasing the turnaround of fashion trends, which in turn increases the rate consumers throw away clothes. The life cycles of consumer products shortened by 50 percent from 1992 to 2002. But the current fast fashion phenomenon really began at the beginning of this century. Brands like Zara and H&M have seen what Greenpeace terms an “explosive expansion” since 2000 to become the biggest clothes retailers on the planet. And the fast fashion brands like these promote “leads to increased consumption of all clothes, including budget and basic items,” according to the report.

Solutions to the environmental problems of fast fashion

The hazardous chemicals used in textile production present a problem. Greenpeace began its Detox My Fashion campaign in 2011, and 78 companies have supported it since then -- including fashion brands, large retailers and textile suppliers. The goal of the campaign is to achieve both greater transparency and zero discharges of hazardous chemicals in the supporting companies supply chain manufacturing by 2020. Greenpeace found that three companies which support the campaign are on track to meet their commitments: H&M, Benetton and Inditex.

A McKinsey report released earlier this fall lists steps that both consumers and companies can take to make fast fashion more sustainable:

  • Develop standards and practices for designing clothing items that can be easily reused or recycled.

  • Invest in developing new fibers that will lower the environmental impact of making textiles.

  • Encourage consumers to care for their clothes in ways that will prolong their use such as washing them in cold water.
Clothing made by fast fashion companies is not designed to last very long. When consumers dispose of their unwanted clothes into the garbage, they almost always wind up in landfills. As much as 95 percent of the clothes that are thrown away can be either re-worn, reused or recycled. But Greenpeace points out that closing the loop by recycling the fibers into virgin material to make new textiles is needed.

The group said consumers must also slow down their rate of buying clothes by “focusing on the clothes that are needed and re-thinking the systems used to supply them, taking in all stages from their design to their re-use or recycling."

Creating a circular economy for fast fashion “is a fundamental component to a more sustainable industry,” Tamsin Lejeune, founder of the Ethical Fashion Forum (EFF) and CEO of Mysource, wrote in a blog post. But it only treats the “symptoms of the problem,” such as waste, and not the source. And that is “our addiction to buying and selling vast quantities of low cost products.” 

To address that problem, consumers need to be wiser in their purchases and companies need to re-think the strategy of turning out as many clothing items as they can.

Image credit: Flickr/Elvert Barnes

Gina-Marie Cheeseman headshot

Gina-Marie is a freelance writer and journalist armed with a degree in journalism, and a passion for social justice, including the environment and sustainability. She writes for various websites, and has made the 75+ Environmentalists to Follow list by Mashable.com.

Read more stories by Gina-Marie Cheeseman