How Fast Fashion Is Hurting the Environment More Than You Realize

How Fast Fashion Is Hurting the Environment More Than You Realize

Posted at 11:00 - 20th July - Francesca Block

The fashion industry is home to the world’s most creative designers and glamorous creators, but behind all the glitz and glam there is a dark, hidden secret: the fashion industry is one of the highest polluting and waste producing industries in the world.


According to the UN Environment Programme, over 10% of the world’s carbon emissions come from the fashion industry alone. From cultivating cotton, one of the world’s thirstiest crops, to dying colors to creating textile patterns, the fashion industry ends up producing over 20% of wastewater worldwide.

To put this into perspective, it takes nearly 2,700 liters of water to produce a single cotton t-shirt. That is enough to provide drinking water to one person for 900 days.

Before delving further into why the fashion industry is such a dangerous polluter and what consumers can do about it, let’s first get a better understanding of what Fast Fashion is.

What is Fast Fashion

“Fast fashion” is a commonly used term to describe styles that come directly from the runway to retail stores. Brands like Zara, Forever 21, H&M and Gap all capitalize on the ebb and flow of fashion trends by constantly producing new styles for cheap prices.

“The most environmentally sustainable jacket is the one that is already in your closet.”

- Lisa Williams -

 Patagonia’s Chief Product Officer

Why is Fast Fashion so wasteful?

Many fast fashion brands such as Zara produce over 20 collections a year to meet the growing demands of consumers looking for affordable, runway inspired choices. In order to meet these extremely demanding production targets, brands rely on outsourced, exploitative labor practices and low-quality synthetic fabrics.

Not only are many clothes produced by “Fast Fashion” brands made from low-quality fabrics that are detrimental to the environment, but the constant roll out of new collections encourages mass overconsumption and waste production. As trends quickly fall out of style, consumers willingly toss recent purchases in the trash, which is why an estimated 2 million tons of textiles and fabrics are thrown into landfills every year.

Let's talk fabrics:

What is the difference between cotton, synthetic, and tencel fabrics?

Cotton: Cotton is probably one of the most commonly used natural fibers used in clothing and other goods, yet it is also one of the dirtiest and thirstiest plants in the world. Cotton is responsible for 16% of global insecticide releases, which means cotton relies on more pesticides than any other crop in the world. Once the crop is harvested, over 8,000 toxic chemicals are used to convert the cotton plant into the popular fabric used for anything from clothing to bedding and home decor.

Water is used throughout the entire process, so much so that it takes nearly 10,800 liters of water to produce a single cotton bedsheet. Lastly, cotton production leads to soil degradation and erosion, meaning that once cotton is produced on a stretch of land for too long, the land is easily destroyed until it is untenable.

Synthetic: The most commonly used synthetic fabric is polyester. Because polyester is more durable and water resistant than cotton fabrics, it is often a top choice for athletic wear and loungewear.

Currently polyester or polyester blends are the most commonly used fabrics in clothing production, surpassing cotton and all other natural fabrics. Derived from heavy pollutants such as fossil fuels and created entirely in a laboratory, polyester production is an extremely energy-heavy process that requires the quick heating of materials. The cooling process then requires an abundance of water, which is contaminated after use.

Due to their chemical properties, polyester fabrics emit nearly double the amount of toxic greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than cotton. Lastly, polyester products are not biodegradable, meaning that when they end up in landfills it takes anywhere from 20 to 200 years to decompose.

Tencel: Unlike cotton or polyester, our tencel lyocell fabrics are made from sustainable wood sources including eucalyptus wood pulp. All production is done through a closed loop process, meaning 99% of all water and solvents used are recycled. With 1/10 the amount of water needed to make cotton products, one can generate 10 times the amount of tencel fabric. Tencel is therefore the most sustainable fabric choice and it is also extremely breathable and soft.

What can consumers do to prioritize sustainability?

Consumers should prioritize transparency with their brands. This means consumers should always do research into each brand's production process to determine whether or not they are environmentally and socially conscious.

To combat the environmental impact of constantly producing clothing in the fast fashion industry, consumers should invest in pieces of clothing that are more durable and timeless rather than spend money on less expensive pieces that are made of unsustainable, low-quality materials.

More resources:

Still interested in learning more about the detriments of the fast fashion industry and what you can do to be a more eco-conscious consumer? Check out these resources below:

Leave a comment