Sustainability issues we are wearing: The social and environmental costs of the fashion industry

Updated: Apr 3, 2018

What would be your answer to the question “What is the second dirtiest industry in the world?“ If your answer is oil, mining or the chemical industries, then the following fact may be startling to you: fast fashion is the second dirtiest industry in the world, next to big oil[i]. The fast fashion industry is to blame for utilizing mass amounts of natural resources, for rampant land and water pollution, for massive carbon emissions, and for garment waste. The working conditions in many fast fashion factories also indicate the social issues behind the clothes we are wearing.


Large natural resources demand, water and land pollution

The fashion industry has a long supply chain from raw material, production, distribution, to disposal. The negative environmental impact begins from the very first level during the raw material production. For example, cotton, a popular natural material which is in large demand from the fast fashion industry, actually consumes huge amounts of water and fertile land during its production. Pesticides and strong chemical fertilizers used on the plants contribute to further environmental damage.

Amount of water it takes to produce a cotton shirt (Drew/Yehounme, 2017)[ii]


During the production process, the fashion industry has also leaves a tremendous environmental footprint. Denim, present in fashion for decades and popular among almost all age groups is a prime example of this. As early as 2010, Greenpeace, a non-governmental environmental organization, revealed the water pollution caused by denim printing and dyeing is linked with harmful heavy chemicals which contribute to land pollution, and which may leave a long-lasting impact on people’s health.

Water pollution from a denim washing factory in China (Greenpeace East Asia)[iii]


Carbon footprint

Though water and land pollution are more obvious issues when it comes to the fast fashion industry, huge carbon footprints are also a byproduct of production processes. Though it is difficult to calculate the exact number, estimates figure the fast fashion industry is responsible for 5% of global greenhouse gas emission, which is equivalent to the amount emitted by the aviation industry.[iv] The fast fashion industry has a long, complex, and global supply chain. Most of the factories are located in emerging markets where fossil fuels are the main source of energy. The global distribution system requires the raw material and the garments to be transported worldwide, which consumes even more fossil fuels. Furthermore, in 2015 alone, production of polyester-based textiles released around 706 billion kg of greenhouse gases - the equivalent of 185 coal-fired power plants' annual emissions.[v]


Garment waste

An other issue associated with the fast fashion industry is that of garment waste as disposal is the end of fast fashion’s value chain. Fast fashion companies compete with each other to provide ever cheaper garments at faster turnaround times. In turn, consumers buy more and more pieces of clothing, keeping them for shorter and shorter periods of time. In 2014, consumers bought 60% more clothing than in 2000, however, each piece was kept only half as long.[vi] As a result of this trend, garment waste has become a severe problem. Statistics show that in 2014, more than 16 million tons of textile waste was generated in the U.S. alone.[vii]


Working environment

Some of you may still recall the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh, which was one of the deadliest industrial disasters in history. A total of 1,134 people were killed in the collapse.[viii] Rana Plaza housed multiple garment factories. Because of its low labor costs, Bangladesh has attracted many international brands. However, the garment workers have been impoverished by the industry. The majority of the workers are women, who work extremely long hours for low wages. Even child labor is also often involved in garment manufacturing.[ix]


Overall, the fast fashion industry has huge environmental and societal impact. Some fast fashion companies have been taking steps to make the industry more sustainable by improving their manufacturing environments and adopting bio raw material. However, consumers’ hunger for clothing is also one driving factors behind the expanding industry. Perhaps we can also ask ourselves: What can we do to make the clothing we wear more sustainable?


XA | CEMS Club St. Gallen

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[i] Sweeny, G. (2015): Fast Fashion Is the Second Dirtiest Industry in the World, Next to Big Oil. 17.08.2015. Accessed 25.02.2018. https://www.ecowatch.com/fast-fashion-is-the-second-dirtiest-industry-in-the-world-next-to-big--1882083445.html, retrieved on 25.02.2018

[ii] Drew, D. and Yehounme, G. (2017): The Apparel Industry’s Environmental Impact in 6 Graphics. 05.07.2017. Accessed 25.02.2018. http://www.wri.org/blog/2017/07/apparel-industrys-environmental-impact-6-graphics

[iii] Greenpeace (2010): The dirty secret behind jeans and bras. 01.12.2010. Accessed 25.02.2018. http://www.greenpeace.org/eastasia/news/stories/toxics/2010/textile-pollution-xintang-gurao/

[iv] Bauck, W. (2017): THE FASHION INDUSTRY EMITS AS MUCH GREENHOUSE GAS AS ALL OF RUSSIA. 22.09.2017. Accessed 25.02.2018. https://fashionista.com/2017/09/fashion-industry-greenhouse-gas-climate-change-sustainability

[v] Cf. ii)

[vi] Cf. ii)

[vii] LeBlanc, R. (2017): Textile Recycling Facts and Figures. 29.12.2017. Accessed 01.03.2018. https://www.thebalance.com/textile-recycling-facts-and-figures-2878122

[viii] Hoskins, T. (2015): Reliving the Rana Plaza factory collapse: a history of cities in 50 buildings, day 22. 23.04.2015. Accessed 01.03.2018. https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/apr/23/rana-plaza-factory-collapse-history-cities-50-buildings

[ix] Moulds, J. (N.d.): Child labour in the fashion supply chain - Where, why and what can be done. Accessed 01.03.3018. https://labs.theguardian.com/unicef-child-labour/


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