The environmental cost of “fast fashion”

Updated: May 22, 2019

In March 2018, the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion was launched during the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi. It is an initiative of ten different United Nations agencies intended to contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals through coordinated action in the fashion sector. Specifically, the Alliance works to support coordination between UN bodies working in fashion and promoting projects and policies that ensure that the fashion value chain contributes to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals’ targets. The definition of fashion adopted by the UN Alliance includes “clothing, leather and footwear, made from textile and related goods”.



The fashion industry is a USD 2.4 trillion-dollar industry that employs nearly 75 million people in the world and the size of the industry is projected to increase in the next several years. It is also considered the second most polluting industry worldwide by UN Environment (the United Nations Environment Programme). The fashion industry might not be the first one that comes to mind when thinking about pollution, with the energy, food production or transport industries being commonly singled out. Though, the data related to the fashion industry are just as staggering. To create one pair of jeans the equivalent of seven years of drinking water for one person is used, or approximately 7,500 litres. In total every year, around 93 billion cubic meters of water is used by the fashion industry. This corresponds to the water needs of five million people. Additionally, the industry produces 20% of global wastewater and discards the equivalent of three million barrels of oil in the ocean (in the form of microfibres).


The environmental damages linked to the fashion industry do not stop at water consumption. The fashion industry is also responsible for a great share of carbon emission; more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. The predictions show that the industry´s green house emissions could increase by roughly 50% in the next ten years. Moreover, the rapid consumption of clothes pushed by the “fast fashion” trend leads to an over production and over consumption of “disposable” clothing. As a result, the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is landfilled or burned each second, often even before ever being sold.


Awareness about this issue is leading to changes in mindsets and new initiatives are being put in place to make the industry more sustainable. For example, Guess developed a recycling programme, an interesting initiative, as currently the recycling of clothes is a significant issue. Similarly, Patagonia uses polyester made from recycled bottles in its production. However, a lot more must be done by multinational companies to create significant change.



Customers’ perception and attitudes towards fashion are also slowly starting to change. According to the 2018 Sustainable Fashion Blueprint report, nearly 60% of consumers check whether articles carry a sustainability label. New creators are following this trend and have put forth sustainable products. Smaller companies have also started to propose ways to recycle clothes. Novel Supply, a Canadian brand, allows customers to return their used clothes so that the company can reuse and recycle them. The owner of this small company received the Young Champions of the Earth award, the UN’s highest environmental honour, acknowledging her efforts to develop a manufacturing model that includes using sustainable fabrics, and finding solutions to waste.


Now is the time to change our consumption modes and to highlight the real cost of staying fashionable.


Author: Dr. Fanny Tittle-Mosser

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