The Environmental Impacts of the Fashion Industry

Written by: Martina Steiner

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Sitting on the train on my way home from uni a notification pops up on my phone, Zara is having a clearance sale on winter stock. Being a poor uni student, I eagerly tap the link, and in 3-5 business days a beautiful pale pink raincoat is waiting on my doorstep.


Have you ever heard of the concept fast fashion? Likening fashion, its production, consumption and even disposal to that of fast food. Seems crazy doesn’t it? 20 years ago this booming fashion apparel industry was non existent.


But mass media drove consumers demand for more than just the standardized Levi 501s and globalization provided irresistibly cheap labour costs. And so was born a new age where instead of the standard summer and winter clothing collections, retailers are supplying us with up to six seasons in the year. Magazines targeting young women encouraging demand for the next new trend².


So today we have ever increasing variety of cheap fashion choices driving consumption. That’s fine and well. Where I had never made the link however is the environmental impact of such an industry.


I was particularly interested in a study by S Muthu, Assessing the Environmental Impact of Textiles and the Clothing Supply Chain, which looked at the lifecycle of a given garment, from production of the fiber for the material ³. Following the surge of the fashion apparel industry, use of manmade fibers such as polyester almost doubled. Check the tag of your shirt right now! Polyester production is so harmful to the environment that its facilities are considered hazardous waste sites. This is due to its energy intensive production from petroleum, releasing byproducts such as toxic organic compounds, acidic gases and particulate material. Volatile chemicals are also emitted in the waste water, all of which are also incredibly harmful to human health. And if you think wearing cotton avoids these problems unfortunately that is also untrue since cotton production accounts for almost ¼ of the pesticides used in America.


The usage phase in a garments lifecycle can account for as much as 80% of a products carbon footprint. Specific to the fabric type and personal garment care, usage includes frequency of washing and drying, chemicals and temperature used, and ironing.


Okay, we get it. Unfortunately, that’s not all, lets now look at the final stages in the lifecycle of a fast fashion item. Many studies of the lifecycle of a garment consider production to retail¹, however the article Waste Couture: Environmental Impact of the Clothing Industry, by L Claudio ⁶, in particular includes the disposal phase. As we feel more and more need to buy the next new trend, disposal of the old is also increasing, therefore having a significant environmental impact in the lifecycle. He estimated that as little as 1/5th of annual clothing purchases stay in consumers’ wardrobes, and that 30 kilograms of clothing is thrown away per person per year (Claudio, 2007).


Three options present themselves to consumers, reuse, recycling, and landfill disposal. Reuse includes repurposing or passing to a secondary consumer³. Recycling the original product involves industrially breaking it down to make into a new product. Although still impacting the environment through input energy required, additional materials and gaseous byproducts, it is still by far preferred to landfill disposal. Landfill sites are notorious for the harmful materials they emit into the atmosphere and leech into the soil, not to mention that landfill sites are increasingly filling up globally.


I love fashion and dressing up. Although conducting my research was incredibly eye opening, its not realistic to say don’t buy any new clothes. But my hope is that this blog has made you consider your consumption habits and ask yourself if fast fashion is really worth it?



  1. Kozlowski, A. M. Bardecki, C. Searcy, Environmental Impacts in the Fashion Industry: A Life-cycle and Stakeholder Framework.
  2. Bhardwaj, V. and A. Fairhurst, Fast fashion: response to changes in the fashion industry. The International Review of Retail, Distribution and Consumer Research, 2010. 20(1): p.165-173
  3. Muthu, S. S., Assessing the Environmental Impact of Textiles and the Clothing Supply Chain. Woodhead publishing series in textiles, 2014. 157: p. 1-185
  4. Turker, D. and C. Altuntas, Sustainable supply chain management in the fashion industry: An analysis of corporate reports. Europeans Management Journal, 2014. 32(5): p. 837-849
  5. Tokatli, N., Global sourcing: insights from the global clothing industry – the case of Zara, a fast fashion retailer. Journal of Economic Geography, 2008. 8(1): p.21-38
  6. Claudio, L., Waste Couture: Environmental Impact of the Clothing Industry. Environmental Health Perspectives, 2007. 115(9): p.449-454