Updated: Dec 1, 2022
The Environmental Impacts of the Global Fashion Industry
Article Written by Julia Willette
The global fashion industry generates significant amounts of waste and greenhouse gasses during the production, manufacturing, and transportation of millions of garments each year. As one of the largest carbon polluters and greatest producers of waste, the fashion industry has a huge impact on the environment. Consumer demands for low costs in the past few decades have given rise to the fast fashion industry where clothes are manufactured in large quantities and often in poor conditions. Fast fashion clothing notably lacks in quality which results in increased production and consumption rates. Not only does the fast fashion industry directly contribute to global environmental destruction, their inequitable practices also exacerbate social injustices and exploit cheap labor.
Fabric and clothing production rely heavily on the usage of water; the global fashion industry uses an estimate of 1.5 trillion liters of water each year. However, the contaminated wastewaters often go untreated. Many textile factories dump untreated wastewater into rivers which then travel to the seas, harming aquatic life and the health of people living by river banks and in coastal areas. Water contamination from fashion industries is also caused by cotton fertilizers that pollute runoff waters and evaporation water.
Furthermore, synthetic apparel can take up to 200 years to decompose. The plastic microfibers from discarded clothing pollute our oceans as an estimate of 700 microfibers are released into the water each time a synthetic piece of clothing is washed. Once these microfibers and plastics travel to our waters, they are consumed by aquatic organisms which then carry the plastic pollutants into our food chain.
Additionally, the fashion industry also contributes greatly to land pollution as factories prompt deforestation, overgrazing of pastures, and degradation of soils due to the mass use of chemicals. Moreover, the logging of rainforests for fabric-making destroys ecosystems, harming natural habitats and surrounding wildlife.
Sustainable Fashion Practices: Household Actions for Change
The average household consumes around 60,000 liters of water each year and does around 400 loads of laundry. In addition to the release of microfibers, washing clothes uses a lot of energy, heat, and water. Washing with cold water saves energy and avoiding dry cleaning also saves one from the exposure to harmful chemicals. Many laundry detergents also have chemicals harmful to our bodies and the environment; opting for green detergent choices and limiting the frequency of washes is one step towards keeping our family and our environment healthy.
Sustainable fashion can help make a huge difference for health and the environment. According to studies, only about 20-30% of clothing in a women’s closet is actually worn. Investing in ethically sourced clothing of higher quality would increase the number of wears and therefore decrease the discardment rate. Thrifting, donating and upcycling clothing are also ways to help combat fast fashion; buying used and donated clothing reduces textile waste and is often more affordable as well.
Sustainable fashion is not impossible to achieve. By considering the greater effects that clothing has on the environment are helpful in determining whether purchasing the clothing is necessary. Thus, education is important in understanding how harmful chemicals used in clothing are, for not only the environment, but also one’s health. Spreading awareness about the impacts of the fashion industry enables others to take responsibility and make a difference. By education and change people can create healthier, sustainable, alternatives for clothing and fast fashion.
Charpail, M. (n.d.). Fashion & Environment — SustainYourStyle. Sustain Your Style. Retrieved June 12, 2022, from https://www.sustainyourstyle.org/en/whats-wrong-with-the-fashion-industry
Davis, N. (2020, April 7). Fast fashion speeding toward environmental disaster, report warns. The Guardian. Retrieved June 12, 2022, from https://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2020/apr/07/fast-fashion-speeding-toward-environmental-disaster-report-warns