A woman holding shopping bags stands in a pile of fast fashion waste

Ecology: The Real Cost of the Fast-Fashion Industry on Earth

Fast fashion satisfies our inherent desire for constant innovation, rapid consumption and economic efficiency. It’s a perfectly targeted win for consumers that simultaneously leeches life from our environment.


Store poster advertising up to 99% OFF absolutely everything in bold pink text
Image Source: littleredpr.co.uk

Add to cart … add to cart … add to cart … add to cart.

Total: $4.10

This is an actual dollar value I once saw whilst hypothetically filling up my cart after receiving a convincing email from a fast-fashion website. Who wouldn’t want 99% off? It’s almost like you’re SAVING money … right?

Another advertisement on social media that grasped my attention listed sale items for 5 cents! How on earth are companies able to sell things so cheaply?

There seems to be a price paradox. Mass-produced clothes are becoming cheaper, but there is an extremely high – and unaffordable – price for our environment. Further embroiling us in this paradoxical lifestyle is the tendency to love buying clothes, coupled with the simultaneous love for not wearing them.

Did you know that the fashion industry is the second-largest polluter globally, trailing closely behind the oil industry? Perhaps similar to our excessive meat consumption pattern, global apparel production has swelled far beyond meeting a basic human need. Our modern relationship with fashion has intensified, and it now fuels an insatiable desire for more of the best, more of the quickest, and more of the cheapest.

In a digital era where we click to shop and open our doors to collect, the connection between fast fashion and the immense environmental consequences remains unclear. This article seeks to fill in the gap – open your door to the reality of fast fashion, not to unconscious purchase decisions.

What is fast fashion?

Cambodian workers lined up in a factory folding pink and yellow clothes
Image Source: Mak Remissa/Epa/REX/Shutterstock

As environmental consciousness peaks, the term ‘fast fashion’ has been raised at increasing volume in sustainability conversations. It refers to:

‘Cheaply produced and priced garments that copy the latest catwalk styles and get pumped quickly through stores in order to maximise on current trends.’

This fast-fashion model entails rapid design, production and distribution processes. These methods allow retailers to accumulate and sell enormous quantities with greater product variety at a strikingly low price.

One of the examples I used above came from an online store called prettylittlething. While retrieving this link from the site, huge bold text leapt from the screen – ‘70% OFF EVERYTHING !!!’ Statements like this used to lure me into the world of consumption. However, this time, I am not in the slightest bit tempted to feed my empty cart. Before you’re tempted to splurge on surplus, read this article and consider the long-term effects fast fashion has on the earth ­– your home.

The trouble with trends

A woman peering into a giant blue shopping bag throwing a clothing item behind her into a huge pile of fabrics
Image Source: myweeklypreview.com.au

Nowadays, fashion trends have a minimal lifespan. Much like the rapid production process, many clothes only hold value for a three-month calendar season or even a single night out. And despite the material mounds that hoard behind our wardrobe doors, most women only wear 20-30% of their clothing collection. Being stylish has come at the expense of our environment.

A fashion editorial shot with a woman in a green dress in a pile of fast fashion waste
Image Source: fibre2fashion.com

Furthermore, since garment quality declines every year with hurried production processes, our clothes often look faded, shapeless, or worn out after only a few wears. Trend changes used to be the primary cause of ‘out with the old, in with the new.’ But many consumers now feel forced to buy more due to the reduced quality of their clothes. Together, these two factors – trends and wear and tear – have catalysed an unquenchable thirst for more.

Environmental impact

A woman holding shopping bags stands in a pile of fast fashion waste
Image Source: eubusinessnews.com

Fashion production makes up around 10% of the world’s global carbon emissions. In addition, it leeches water sources and pollutes rivers. A shocking 85% of all textiles and fabrics are discarded in dumps annually. Even caring for and washing clothes releases over 450 million kilograms of microfibres (or 50 billion plastic bottles) into our oceans each year.

A 2018 ‘Measuring Fashion’ report discovered that dyeing and finishing, yarn preparation, and fibre production were the fashion industry’s leading pollution causes. Globally, we now consume around 80 billion NEW pieces of clothing each year. This statistic is a 400% increase to what we were consuming just two decades ago. Worried? You should be. Some of these clothing materials take hundreds of years to break down. Soon we will have nowhere to discard our waste as it piles up around us; soon, we will watch our environment’s breath grow raspy.

The cost of cotton

Two workers in a cotton field with one man holding a giant sac of collected cotton above his head
Image Source: REUTERS/Luc Gnago

Cotton makes up about half of the total fibre used in clothes production. More than 90% of cotton is genetically modified, leading to the mass use of water and chemicals. As a result, global cotton production has become environmentally unsustainable.

Cotton production is now responsible for 18% of worldwide pesticide use and 25% of total insecticide use. There is a significant cause for concern regarding the chemicals in our clothing, with the possibility of these chemicals being transferred to human skin (and into the bloodstream) upon wearing.

Additionally, the cotton production process causes water pollution, and polluted waterways have a devastating impact on major ecosystems. The fast-fashion industry is a leading contributor to the dwindling water supply of the Aral Sea in Central Asia (once the fourth-largest lake in the world). The exposure of the lake beds has released crop-killing salt and pesticides into the atmosphere, causing cancer and lung disease among thousands of nearby residents.

Two side by side pictures of the Aral sea before and after water usage
Image Source: Wikipedia

Similarly, rigorous agricultural development in Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin has come at a high cost to the natural environment. Researcher Angela H. Arthington attributes three aspects of cotton production to this environmental degradation. Firstly, extensive vegetation clearing on flood plains. Secondly, water abstraction from regulated and unregulated river flows. And thirdly, intensive chemical use for pest control.

Fashion designer and environmentalist Katharine Hamnet says:

‘Conventional cotton (as opposed to organic cotton) has got to be one of the most unsustainable fibres in the world… Conventional cotton uses a huge amount of water and also huge amounts of pesticides which cause 350,000 farmer deaths a year and a million hospitalisations.’

The cost of leather 

Two men stand on large crates filled with dirty leather water
Image Source: santaluciaswim.com

Leather is a multibillion-dollar industry. The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that around 3.8 billion cows and other bovine animals are used in leather production each year. Put differently, that’s around one animal for every two people on the planet.

Leather production requires vast amounts of feed, land, water and fossil fuels to raise livestock. The process has instigated deforestation, water overuse and enormous emissions of gas. Leather is expensive, but the environmental cost is more significant.

Tanning leather is the most toxic production phase, with around 90 per cent of processes using chromium tanning. Chromium works by stabilising the leather by linking collagen fibres. The primary threat to the environment comes from the dumping of chromium-filled waste into local areas. This toxic waste then flows directly into waterways and can be consumed by animals and humans.

A woman carries a bundle over her head in a village with a stream of water polluted with rubbish running through the middle
Image Source: nobrandcustom.com

In addition, leather-production workers are exposed to these harmful chemicals while on the job. In India, around 2.5 million people work intensively with toxic chemicals for poverty wages to make clothes and shoes for Western brands.

A report published by the India Committee of the Netherlands found:

‘While more employment was created in the leather industry through the growth of large-scale export centres, no attention was paid to the nature and quality of the employment created…Accidents regularly occur with machine operators getting trapped, workers cleaning underground waste tanks suffocating from toxic fumes, or workers drowning in toxic sludge at the tannery premises.’

Water pollution and consumption

A boy stands hip deep in waste-filled water picking out rubbish
Image Source: Cheryl Ravelo/Reuters

The fashion industry is the second-largest water consumer, requiring about 700 gallons to produce one cotton shirt and 2 000 gallons of water to produce a pair of jeans. To visualise this problem, think back to the desertification of the Aral Sea, where cotton production has completely drained the water exposing the sea bed.

In most garment-producing countries, untreated toxic wastewaters (including coloured dyes) from factories are discarded directly into waterways and rivers. Locally, toxic substances such as lead and mercury harm aquatic life and the health of millions of riverbank residents. Globally, however, this pollution can reach the sea and have a more dispersed impact.

An additional source of water contamination comes from cotton production. Fertilisers used in these water-intensive processes pollute water runoff that travels to the sea.

What can we do? As consumers, we might not be able to change the behaviours of mammoth corporations. But we can make conscious decisions about what we wear. Here are a number of choices you can consider:

  • Purchase clothes made in countries with stricter environmental factory regulations (for example, EU, Canada, US).
  • Choose organic and natural fibres that do not require chemicals (see the image below for examples).
  • Choose fibres with low water consumption (for example, linen and recycled fibres).
A pictorial showing alternative fabrics for sustainable fashion
Image Source: sustainyourstyle.org

Waste accumulation due to fast fashion

Man in an orange vest walks beside a wall of fast fashion waste
Image Source: Getty via thenewsdaily

Many low-cost clothing stores manufacture new designs every week. With clothing becoming increasingly disposable, textile waste is mountainously piling up. The typical Western family disposes of around 30 kg of clothing each year. Only 15% of this figure is recycled or donated. Synthetic fibres, such as polyester, are non-biodegradable and can take up to 200 years to decompose. Scarily, 70% of our clothing uses these fibres. That’s a lot of decomposing time!

Fast fashion and greenhouse gas emissions

Landscape shot of distant factories releasing polluted smoke into the air
Image Source: Getty Images / Lukas Schulze

The fashion industry accounts for 10% of the world’s total carbon emissions. Shockingly, this is more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined.

The energy required to produce, manufacture and transport garments around the world creates a high carbon footprint. The environmental effect depends on the energy source used. For example, in China, textile production depends on coal-based energy. As a result, China has a 40% larger carbon footprint than textiles made elsewhere in Turkey or Europe. Energy use and CO2 emissions are also substantial during the fibre extraction processes used to make synthetic fibres (like polyester and acrylic).

Fast fashion and soil degradation

Healthy soil is foundational to a well-functioning ecosystem. Soil is used in food production and is home to micro-organisms that fix nitrogen, decompose organic matter, and absorb CO2.

The fast fashion industry plays a massive role in soil degradation. Primarily, this is facilitated through overgrazing of pastures while raising livestock, mass chemical use in cotton production, and deforestation caused by wood-based fibres like rayon. Soil degradation on a global scale presents a worrying threat to global food security. You have a choice: could you live without food or fashion?

Fast fashion and rainforest destruction

Five women in pink dresses hold signs to protest against the fast fashion industry for deforestation
Image Source: RAN via racked.com

Fast fashion leaves a heavy footprint in our forests. Common wood-based fabrics derived from plants include viscose, rayon, modal and lyocell. Every year, thousands of hectares of endangered forests are cut down to make room for tree plantations that are cultivated for these wood-based fabrics. This loss of natural forest threatens the ecosystem and the biodiversity within it. In Indonesia, mass deforestation has been unfolding. According to Global Forest Watch, the country lost over 15 million hectares of tree cover between 2001 and 2013.

Cotton production has also hastened rainforest destruction. With around half of all textiles made of cotton, land clearing for cotton cultivation contributes massively to global deforestation.

‘150 million trees are logged and turned into fabric every year. If placed end to end, these trees would circle our earth’s equator 7 times over. It’s a big problem, and with fast fashion increasingly shaping our purchasing behaviours we need big solutions!’ – Canopy

Working conditions in the fast-fashion industry

Two side-by-side images showing two women holding signs, the dress producer holds a sign that said 'I made this for 60 cents' and the dress wearer holds a sign that says 'I bought this for 50 dollars'
Image Source: medium.com

If the tragic fade of our Mother Earth wasn’t enough to make you rethink your fashion choices, perhaps a more humanitarian perspective will.

Particularly in developing economies, the work required to sustain fast fashion equates to modern slave labour rife with human rights abuse (including children). Our rapid apparel consumption and short fashion cycles result in stressed supply chains that prioritise profits over human welfare.

A young girl holds her hand near a fire while making a glass bangle
Young girl in Bangladesh works in a glass bangles factory / Image Source: Shutterstock

According to the non-profit organisation Remake, 75 million people make our clothes today. Young women between the ages of 18 and 24 make around 80 per cent of our apparel. These garment workers are often forced to work up to 16 hours a day, seven days a week. Sadly, it is not uncommon for employees to work until 3 am to meet the brand’s deadline without any compensation for overtime hours.

A woman amongst a crowd holds a sign that says 'I don't want to die for fashion'
Image Source: medium.com

Unsafe working conditions in highly unregulated countries have resulted in countless deaths and injuries. In 2013, the Rana Plaza factory collapsed in Bangladesh, killing 1,138 garment workers. After this event, some fashion retailers (including Australian companies like Kmart and Cotton On) have signed up for a union-led inspection and remediation initiative. Since this initiative, there have been minor improvements in factory safety in Bangladesh.

Moving away from fast fashion and towards sustainability

A recycling symbol with three circling arrows filled with images of trees, a garment worker and a deforested area
Image Source: businessoffashion.com

Instances of human rights abuse and environmental damage are becoming harder to ignore. As a result, many fashion brands around the world are trying to clean up the industry. For instance, companies like Puma and Citizen Wolf have obtained ethical accreditations from Ethical Clothing Australia. Consumers can go to this site to browse which companies produce clothes more ethically and enhance the sustainability of their wardrobe.

Other innovative companies have the specific goal of ending exploitation and environmental harm caused by the fast-fashion industry. The Fashion Revolution (FR) organisation, for example, centres around the anniversary of the Rana Plaza factory collapse. Its brand vision is ‘a global fashion industry that conserves and restores the environment and values people over growth and profit.’ One way the FR hopes to achieve this is by bringing about cultural change, for example, by collaborating with artists and activists to reframe powerful narratives embedded in the culture of fashion.

Here are some other things you can do as a conscious consumer to slow down fast fashion:

The real cost

A pile of clothes with a t-shirt hanging at the front imprinted with the text 'I have nothing to wear'
Image Source: krugstore.com

Sigh. Nothing to wear, again! You say as you stare blankly at the creased t-shirts you wore once or twice a month ago. Your bursting wardrobe seems to vomit as crumpled fabrics dangle down its sides. Ugh, you think, leftovers. The only solution is to buy new, more, better. I guess it’s time to hop on that sale! Before you do, remember this: the sale might save money for you, but the expense migrates elsewhere. Before you buy, ask yourself how it’s possible to order a $5 jacket that arrives at your door in days. Ask yourself what happens to that t-shirt you wore once that now sits in a material mountain of waste. What happens to young workers when they surrender to the horrendous working conditions? Ask yourself, what is the real cost?

One thought on “Ecology: The Real Cost of the Fast-Fashion Industry on Earth

  1. This has probably increased over the past 18 months due to COVID. Hopefully, people will be considering this issue when online shopping

Leave a Reply