The environmental impact of fast fashion and its contribution to climate change

Irregular freak storms, mudslides, flooding and increasing hurricanes are the result of climate change and it’s reported that these natural events will continue to increase in the next few years. Although, there are many opposing views and speculations on climate change, something we can’t deny are the facts…. For example, the ice in the Antarctic is melting and we are generally seeing an increase of irregular climates around the world.


So, What Causes Climate Change?

Greenhouse gas emissions are the main cause of the earth’s rapidly changing climate. Greenhouse gases are important as they warm the planet for us to inhabit. However, concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxides “have increased to levels unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years. Increase production of burning of fossil fuels like oil, and gas for electricity, heat, and transportation, air pollution are caused by many industries, fashion is one of them. Living in a Material World Before the rise of fast fashion in the early 2000s clothing was produced at a much slower rate and many organizations used sustainable systems. However, now trends move faster and companies have begun using cheap synthetic materials and conducting unsustainable practices to keep up. The challenge is fast fashion is contributing to climate change and it’s important to know how…


a business concept which entails a brand-new season of clothing rotated through stores every single week, has taken over the fashion world. While it is able to offer cheap prices and react to trends quickly, it is severely lacking in another aspect: sustainability. In fact, the fast fashion industry has a disastrous environmental impact. It has even been dubbed the second most damaging industry in the world.

Fast fashion is polluting our air and waters, as toxic wastewater and harmful fumes are released from sweatshops where fast fashion garments are typically made. They contain substances such as lead, mercury, arsenic and many others detrimental to the health of humans, animals and entire ecosystems. Water is also severely contaminated by fertilizers used in growing some of the fibers for the fashion industry and maximizing the yield of a single harvest. Aside from polluting water, fast fashion also uses A LOT of it in its production chains. From the watering of crops, through dying of the fabric to finishing the garments, it takes 2,700 litres of water (nearly 600 gallons) to create a single t-shirt. One of the major consequences over the past few decades has been the desertification of the Aral sea due to cotton production nearby. Fast fashion has been particularly favoring the use of synthetic fibers such as polyester, nylon or acrylic, as they cost less to produce than natural materials (e.g. cotton, linen or hemp).

However, these have created a whole new range of environmental problems in the fashion industry. That is because they are made from plastic, which has several implications.

Firstly, plastic is made from fossil fuels. Plastic materials also shed microscopic plastic fibers – micro plastics – any time they are washed. Unfortunately, our wastewater treatment systems are not advanced enough to filter them out, and so they end up in our rivers, ocean, or even back in our drinking water. Their last major issue is that they never biodegrade, meaning that they will pollute this Earth for hundreds of years after we discard them from our wardrobe.

Besides those severe environmental dangers, fast fashion is also contributing to one of the largest threats we are facing today: climate change. The fashion industry is responsible for 10% of all global carbon emissions! According to estimates, this amount is only expected to skyrocket – by 60% in the next decade. These greenhouse gases are produced due to unsustainable practices within production, manufacturing and transportation of the garments. Cheap synthetic garments also emit N2O, which is a greenhouse gas 300x more damaging than CO2. Most fast fashion garments are sown in Bangladesh, China or India, which source most of their energy from non-renewable sources. Lastly, those countries are also located across half the world from most countries where fast fashion is consumed, which leads to a large carbon footprint of the transportation process.

The Challenge is Synthetic Materials Currently, the world is experiencing overwhelming quantities of plastic by 2050, there will be 12 billion metric tons of plastic in landfills. Not only are synthetic materials causing waste, but every single stage of the fast fashion industry contributes to climate change. So, let’s start from the beginning…

Sourcing - Companies will source fossil fuels to create synthetic materials, however, within this process, harmful toxins and chemicals are released into the air, rivers and oceans. When materials are processed, dyes and chemicals also affect the surrounding environment.

Transport – In order for your garments to arrive, they need to be transported via ship, planes etc which increases carbon footprint released in the atmosphere.

Waste – Majority of clothes are made from synthetic materials is non-biodegradable and can take over 400 years to degrade compared to natural materials such as hemp, cotton and bamboo. Natural materials take up to 20 years to biodegrade, therefore, less waste on the planet. In addition, the packaging is also a major contributor to waste as most materials are nonrecyclable.

All things considered; fast fashion is one of the most environmentally damaging industries in the world. Unfortunately, sustainability is not where its negative impact ends, as it is also highly ethically problematic. Instead of buying fast fashion, we can help improve the performance of the industry by shopping from local, environmentally-responsible brands or second-hand stores, which have a much more positive impact.

3 Ways to Reduce Your Impact on Climate Change

  • Rethink – Before purchasing a garment rethink, do you actually need to make this purchase? We live in a consumeristic world where there is always a need to purchase something… however the more we want the more resource, production and waste we will produce. By reducing or making conscious decisions can reduce the impact on the environment.
  • Zero-Waste – So let’s imagine 4 years ago you bought a dress, but it’s gone out of fashion instead of throwing it away, perhaps reinvent it, repair or repurpose it.
  • Purchase Second-hand or Eco-friendly – Purchasing preloved garments slows down the production systems, using garments that are already on the planet can circulate fashion delaying it from going to landfill piles. When purchasing eco-friendly, materials organic is considered to have a lower impact on the environment by producing around 46% less CO2e compared to conventional cotton.
Now you know how fast fashion affects the planet, here are ways you can help combat one of humanities biggest battles! Overall, there is so much information about climate change that it can often feel overwhelming. At times your actions may feel small compared to the magnitude of the challenge. However, if we all make small changes together, we can change the narrative on our future.
Hasan Seremet