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The Environmental Impacts of Fast Fashion

December 3, 2020

FFAC summer intern Sammi Lin gives a brief overview of the environmental impact of the fast fashion industry. This is part two of a four-part series on sustainable fashion.

This is part two of a four-part series on Sustainable Fashion by our FFAC summer interns and mentees. You can read part 1, 3, and 4 here:

Part one: fast fashion and workers

Part three: fast fashion and health

Part four: five tips for shopping sustainably

It is no secret that the fashion industry has quickly become one of the largest, most influential businesses today. With a focus on releasing the latest trends at costs affordable to even the lowest echelons of society, it can be argued that the growing prevalence of fast fashion has brought an abundance of benefits to our world, such as improving the quality of life for consumers who now have access to new designs regularly. Yet, behind the rosy glasses and glamour of designer brands and immaculate ad campaigns lies a duplicitous business that, much like the nature of the factory farming industry, values profit above all, compromising the safety of their employees, our welfare, and the environment. 

While one of the biggest culprits of rising emissions is typically assigned to the transportation sector, little press often covers the fashion industry, which according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has been responsible for over 10% of global carbon emissions each year, greater than the combined carbon emissions of all international flights and maritime shipping. This figure is staggering, especially when put in the perspective of the goals of the Paris Agreement, which aimed to avoid worldwide temperatures increasing beyond 2 degrees Celsius. The IPCC predicts that carbon emissions would need to reach net-zero by 2050 to keep global emissions under 2 degrees Celsius, or even the more beneficial 1.5 degrees Celsius. Yet, according to projections made by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, the industry will easily move to consume over 26% of the carbon budget by 2050 if major efforts and stop guards are not put in place, moving us farther and farther away from carbon neutrality

Of course, beyond contributing greater amounts of carbon emissions to our rapidly warming climate, the lengthy line of production to manufacturing to distribution of our garments is responsible for a host of other environmental issues, especially for the many impoverished communities where garment factories are located. Over 20% of global water pollution is currently attributed to the fashion industry, which includes 1.3 trillion gallons of water used per year for dyeing fabric alone. This is particularly devastating to local waterways as they are not only drained to support the dyeing process, the lack of environmental regulations in many of these nations allow companies to simply dump gallons and gallons of the contaminated water back into water streams, allowing toxins and chemicals to leach into the water supplies of surrounding towns and putting these populations at risk of disease. 

One of the reasons that the fashion industry is responsible for such a massive portion of global water consumption is due to one of the primary crops used to create clothing: cotton. According to the World Resource Institute, one T-shirt alone can easily require 700 gallons of water to produce enough cotton, as well as over 2,000 gallons for a single pair of jeans. Yet, even if we shift the focus away from one of the most water-intensive fabrics, other common textiles, particularly polyester, are still at fault. Polyester is technically a synthetic polymeric fiber made from polyethylene terephthalate or PET, a common compound used in plastic food containers. However, the greatest issue is not the petrochemical composition of polyester, but rather, plastic microfibers that these garments shed with every wash. According to a study by the Plastic Soup Foundation, over 4,500 microfibers can be shed per gram of clothing per wash, with 40% of these fibers eventually entering our oceans where they can be consumed accidentally by neighboring fish colonies. This poses a massive threat to human health as these fibers can absorb other toxins like polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs, and biomagnify in the stomachs of larger organisms that consume those fish, whether that be larger aquatic organisms or people. 

Given such a destructive system that is continuously perpetuated by singular-focused megacompanies, it cannot be overstated how important our individual choices are as consumers. Since 2000, the average consumer now buys 60% more items of clothing but keeps each item half as long, where once discarded each garment can sit for up to 200 years in a landfill. Thus, the most actionable solution we can take today to combat this system of waste is to redefine our relationship with clothing. The growing movement of “Slow Fashion” aims to encourage consumers to create a lasting bond with our clothes by actively seeking out high-quality pieces that align with our style as opposed to the trends of next season. One way to do this is to invest in clothing made by companies with fair labor laws and environmental regulations. However, this method often necessitates a much higher price tag than we are used to. Thus, a far more accessible and arguably more sustainable approach would be buying second hand. In addition to eliminating the issue of waste, this may very well introduce a new era of fashion that prioritizes consciousness and creativity, where fashion is defined by what benefits us and the planet. 

Sammi Lin was an FFAC Summer 2020 intern.