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The environmental cost of the fast-fashion industry

The fashion industry is the second largest polluting industry, accounting for 10% of the planet’s carbon emissions. With the relevance of the climate crisis, and the increasing collective need to protect the planet, fast fashion has been scrutinized for its environmental impacts and several people have made conscious decisions to no longer support the industry. Despite the growing popularity of sustainable brands and second-hand shopping, the fashion industry continues to grow, yet the impacts it bears on the environment cannot be ignored.

What is a fast fashion?

The fast fashion industry relies on cheap and speedy manufacturing to produce frequent new items at a low cost. The growth of consumerist tendencies in the 21st century has contributed massively to a growing market for cheap products, with Zara and Primark being examples of brands that fall under this category. Such methods of production are having detrimental impacts on the environment, and with the global expansion of the fast fashion industry, the effect it has on the planet comes at a great cost.

Why is fast fashion so damaging to the environment?

The process of how clothes are made is a long and complex cycle and includes several steps which are harmful to the environment.

One of the leading causes of climate change is large scale agriculture, which of course is necessary to produce textiles such as cotton. The production of cotton demands large quantities of water. On an annual scale, 1.5 trillion litres of water is consumed by this industry, with 700 gallons being needed to produce a single cotton shirt, according to Business Insider.

The manufacturing of textiles also bears detrimental environmental impacts, with the production of polyester releasing two to three times more carbon emissions than cotton. Polyester is also a material that cannot be broken down and on estimate, microplastics from clothing make up approximately 30% of plastic pollution in our oceans. Chemicals used in manufacturing are also highly toxic and destructive, with textile dyes used to create vibrant colours in clothing being the second largest polluters of water systems after agriculture.

The fast fashion industry relies on cheap and speedy manufacturing to produce frequent new items at a low cost

Textile waste is another factor that is vastly harmful to the planet. The fast fashion industry creates on average 92 million tonnes of waste annually, most of which ends up in landfill or is exported to developing countries. This has become an unintended consequence of the fast fashion industry, but why?

Growth in consumption has meant that people bought 60% more clothing items in 2014 than they did in 2000, which has consequently put pressure on the fast fashion industry to produce larger quantities of clothing. Zara already puts out 24 collections each year, and seasonal sales are a common occurrence. This only adds to a consumerist need to constantly be updating wardrobes, making clothes something to dispose of regularly and aggravates the vicious cycle of fast fashion’s impacts on the environment.

If the fast fashion industry continues on this path, it is estimated that the carbon emissions it produces could increase by 26% by the time we reach 2050, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.


The only way to ensure that the fast fashion industry does not continue to harm the planet is by taking more preventative and environmentally conscious measures. Buying second hand from charity shops and thrift stores is becoming increasingly popular amongst younger generations who are committed to carrying out green practices. Organisations have also initiated campaigns to raise awareness over the harmful effects of the fashion industry and to advocate more eco-friendly alternatives. Greenpeace’s Detox campaign has been fundamental in putting pressure on brands to stop using harmful chemicals in their manufacturing processes, with brands such as Nike and Adidas taking up the challenge. Sustainable brands are also growing in popularity, such as Tala and Ecoalf which sell clothing and other products made from completely up-cycled materials.

The only way to ensure that the fast fashion industry does not continue to harm the planet is by taking more preventative and environmentally conscious measures

An additional fast fashion tax was proposed to the UK government in 2019, which consisted of charging a 1p surcharge on every item sold as a way to fund recycling schemes and the improvement of textile production for the fashion industry. While this scheme ended up being rejected by the government, MP’s backing this tax firmly believe that this method would be highly effective in altering the fast fashion industry and its effects on the environment.

It is undeniable that the fast fashion industry is harming the environment, and its continuing growth will only make matters worse. It is now up to us to make small changes in order to play our part in saving the planet.


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