Fast fashion 1 – Why is the fashion industry an environmental problem?

We look at the modern phenomenon that is the fast fashion industry and its impact on the environment. What is ‘fast fashion’? How has it changed our behaviour and what impact does that have?

We will explain how fast fashion came to be, why it needs to change, how the industry is addressing these problems and, crucially, what we as consumers can do to help.

By Nadin Moustafa, PhD student in the Department of Chemical Engineering.

French artist Christain Boltanski’s ‘No Man’s Land’, made of 30 tons of discarded clothing. Photograph: Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images (The Guardian, 2017).

We’ve done more damage to our environment in the past 100 years than we have in all the world’s history. Governments, companies, industries and individuals are all trying to work towards a more sustainable future. We cannot fix one thing and expect everything else to fall in place. There are so many topics we need to focus on. One of the major topics that has been highlighted recently is fast fashion.

What is fast fashion?

Fast fashion is essentially the production of cheaper clothes, with lower quality, as often as possible. On average, fashion companies went from producing two collections per year in 2000 to five in 2011. In 2012, Zara was able to produce and deliver new collections in two weeks, Forever 21 in six weeks and H&M in eight weeks. On average, people bought 60% more garments in 2014 than they did in 2000, calculated McKinsey and Company in 2016, and they only kept clothes for half as long.

This is a problem because the fashion industry has a disastrous impact on the environment. It depletes non-renewable resources, emits greenhouse gases and uses significant amounts of water and energy. The 2018 Quantis International report found that the three main drivers for the industry’s environmental impact are dyeing & finishing (36%), yarn preparation (28%) and fiber production (15%).

Greenhouse gas emissions of fast fashion

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change calculated the industry accounts for 10% of the global CO2 emissions. That’s more emissions that all international flights and maritime shipping combined! The polyester production for textiles alone equalled the amount of CO2 released from 185 coal-fired power plants in 2015. If the fashion sector continues on its current trajectory, its share of carbon budget will increase to 26% by 2050, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. By 2030, the global middle class will increase to 5.4 billion people from 3 billion in 2015. Thus, the demand for fast fashion will also increase and we will need three times as much natural resources for it by 2050 compared to 2000.

Environmental impact of fast fashion

The fashion industry is the second-largest consumer of water worldwide, according to the UN Economic Commission for Europe in 2018. Cotton is a water-intensive plant, so the production of one cotton shirt uses more than 3000 L of water. A pair of jeans uses more than 9000 L of water. That’s enough for a person to drink ~2.4 L per day for 3.5 & 10 years respectively. In 2018, more than 4.5 billion pairs of jeans were sold worldwide! Using WHO/UNICEF calculations from 2012, that would’ve been enough water for 4.5 billion people to drink for 10 years, at a time when 780 million people do not have access to an improved water source.

The truth about fast fashion: cheap for you but costly for the planet (WTVOX, 2020).

The industry also pollutes the oceans with microplastics. Washing clothes releases 500,000 tons of microfibers into the ocean every year. That is the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles. A 2017 report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) found that the fashion industry contributes to 31% of the overall plastic pollution in the ocean.

Textile dyeing is the world’s second largest polluter of water. Wastewater is often dumped into streams, rivers, and oceans, which affects plant and animal life in the water. Wastewater from textile dyeing can have detrimental effects. Some dyes do not degrade. Those that do may produce harmful substances as they decompose. For example, azo dyes, which are a class of synthetic nitrogen-based dyes, are cost effective to produce but have toxic and carcinogenic effects.

Finally, more than 85% of all textiles are dumped each year. One garbage truck of clothes is burned or dumped in a landfill every second according to UNEP. Since recycling in the fashion industry still faces a lot of challenges, less than one percent of all materials used in clothing is recycled back to clothing.

Can fashion be sustainable?

The fashion industry is not going anywhere (I for starters sincerely hope it doesn’t)! However, the important question is, how do we make it sustainable? The industry needs to fundamentally change in order to mitigate its environmental impact. There are several ways to work towards a greener fashion industry. Those include embracing renewable energy, developing new methods for recycling, using a biodegradable and/or sustainable substitute for polyester and finally, producing better-quality, longer-lived products. Research also needs to focus on how to scale new technologies, and make them commercially viable.

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