Fast Fashion: An Environmental Emergency
And the Fast Fashion Disaster Continues…
After touching the surface on how fast fashion promotes inequitable and unjust social systems in our first blog, we now take a look at how the industry destroys ecosystems around the world. The hidden externalities associated with the value chain of an article of clothing are vast and detrimental.
When we refer to the value chain here, we mean each process undergone to generate an article of clothing to wearing it to its end-of-life. The process flows as such: Fiber Production, Yarn Preparation, Fabric Preparation, Dyeing & Finishing, Assembly, Distribution, Use, and then End-of-Life. These nine steps of the value chain negatively influence countless aspects of our worldwide ecosystem.
With that said, this post is going to be a bit data heavy… but bear with us because the numbers speak for themselves. To make the facts a bit more digestible, we will be organizing fast fashions largest environmental crimes by subject: water use, climate change, pollution, and waste. The damages far exceed the contents of this blog, but we chose to highlight a few most critical.
The fashion industry earns the spot of the world’s second-largest consumer of water (McFall-Johnsen 2019). Along the fashion value chain 4 trillion gallons of water are consumed. This leads to dried up and polluted water sources, mainly from Fiber Production involving cotton. In fact, the diversion of water to irrigate cotton fields even caused one of the four largest lakes in the world to dry up in 2014 (Howard 2014). The Aral Sea’s Eastern Basin located in Uzbekistan completely dried up for the first time in 600 years.
Just consider the fact that growing cotton for a pair of jeans requires 2,000 gallons of water (McFall-Johnsen 2019). Wow. To put this stat into perspective, 2,000 gallons of water provides one human with 8 glasses of water a day for 10 years. We are using this resource extremely unsustainable. Although it is a renewable resource, the rates at which we are extracting exceed the ability of natural resources to replenish our supply—the future is uncertain.
The industry is responsible for 10% of human-produced carbon emissions—more than all international flights and maritime shipping emissions combined (McFall-Johnsen 2019). It’s share of worldwide carbon emissions could take a leap to 26% by 2030 if business as normal continues. Some estimates even predict 60% (UN 2018).
Along the fashion value chain, the Dyeing and Finishing and Yarn Preparation stages account for the industry’s majority of climate change impact (Chrobot et al. 2018). The heavy reliance on coal and natural gas to power processing locations, mainly in China, India, and Bangladesh, provides us an insight on the high carbon emissions. The Dyeing and Finishing process in the value chain relies on coal and natural gas 70% of the time (Chrobot et al 2018).
The fashion industry is a heavy supporter of the fossil fuel industry with 65% of all fibers produced being synthetic in 2016 (Common Objective 2018). Producing synthetic fibers is an extremely energy intensive process (Maiti 2020). Synthetics refer to synthesized chemicals, known as polymers, which come from petrochemicals, like crude oil (Common Objective 2018). These polymers are then processed into fine threads and woven into fabric. The production of these textiles releases harmful greenhouse gases (GHG’s) in the process. Take nylon: it generates N2O emissions, 300x more harmful than CO2 (Oecotextiles 2014). Then look at polyester fibers, the most commonly used fiber in clothing, they release 2 to 3 times more carbon emissions than cotton and will never decay (McFall-Johnsen 2019).
The pesticides, nitrates, and other pollutants used in the Fiber Production phase are deadly. Growing cotton efficiently is no easy task, so farmers rely on environmentally unsustainable methods to assist the process. Agrochemicals, mainly fertilizers and pesticides, threaten soil and water quality. These inputs immediately impact biodiversity through extreme toxicity or over long-term accumulation (WWF 2020).
The Dyeing and Finishing stage utilizes our freshwater resources and then returns it to waterways, unchecked. This water is filled with toxic chemicals, left behind from the dyeing process, is mainly returned to ditches, rivers, and streams. These chemicals, like mercury, lead, arsenic, etc., are harmful for aquatic life and humans too. Globally, the fashion industry is liable for about 20% of all industrial water pollution (McFall-Johnsen 2019). Two-hundred thousand tons of dyes are discharged into waterways each year, and 90% of developing countries do not treat their wastewater prior to discharge (Sustain Your Style 2020).
The pollution does not end here! Once we purchase and take home our synthetics, laundering them creates another pollution stream. Washing synthetics sends thousands of micro-plastics into our waterways each year too (McFall-Johnsen 2019). This equates to sending about 500,000 tons of microfibers into the ocean every year—or about 50 billion plastic bottles (McFall-Johnsen 2019). An International Union for Conservation report (IUCN) estimates that laundering synthetic non-biodegradable clothing accounts for 35% of all microplastics in the ocean (Maiti 2020).
After all of the damage already incurred, fast fashion then encourages the norm that clothing is disposable. The average American tosses about 80 pounds of clothing annually (Bick, Halsey, and Ekenga 2018). The clothing not sent to the landfill finds its way to second-hand trade, often being exported from the U.S. Annually, 500,000 tons of clothing leave the U.S.—bound for developing countries to be sorted, categorized, and re-sold (Bick, Halsey, and Ekenga 2018).
Anything not sold becomes solid waste. The equivalent of one garbage truck full of clothing is dumped into a landfill or burned every second (McFall-Johnsen 2019). The decomposition of clothing here releases harmful GHG’s, like methane. Placing textiles in landfills also poses new environmental risks of clogging up rivers and natural areas where the toxins in the clothing fibers leach into soils, contaminating ground and surface water. This threatens the life of both humans and the endless other life forms.
We cannot continue down this path—the fashion industry literally leaves no ecosystem untouched. Microplastics have even made their way to Antarctica. Our societies addiction to clothing now impacts krill that feed on Antarctic ice. Just digest that for a second.
Anyways, thanks for pushing through the depressing reality that is fast fashion with us. These first two blogs were designed to bring us all up to speed on the current situation. From here on out, its positivity, tips, inspiration, and encouragement! Drop by and check out our next blog post on slow fashion and conscious consumerism!
Continuously Questioning the Norm,
eM and the eMpulse team
Chrobot, Pauline, Mireille Faist, Lori Gustavus, Amanda Martin, Annabelle Stamm, Rainer Zah, and Michèle Zollinger. 2018. “Measuring Fashion.” Quantis, 2018. https://quantis-intl.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/measuringfashion_globalimpactstudy_full-report_quantis_cwf_2018a.pdf.
Common Objective. 2018. “Synthetics & Sustainable Synthetics: Global Production.” Common Objective, May 29, 2018. https://www.commonobjective.co/article/synthetics-sustainable-synthetics-global-production#:~:text=Turning%20oil%20into%20fashion,consumer%20of%20fossil%20fuel1.
Howard, Brian Clark. 2014. “Aral Sea’s Eastern Basin is Dry for First Time in 600 Years.” National Geographic, October 2, 2014. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/10/141001-aral-sea-shrinking-drought-water-environment/#close
Maiti, Rashmila. 2020. “Fast Fashion: Its Detrimental Effect on the Environment.” Earth.org, January 19, 2020. https://earth.org/fast-fashions-detrimental-effect-on-the-environment/.
McFall-Johnsen, Morgan. 2019. “The Fashion Industry Emits More Carbon than International Flights and Maritime Shipping Combined. Here are the Biggest Ways it Impacts the Planet.” Business Insider, October 21, 2019. https://www.businessinsider.com/fast-fashion-environmental-impact-pollution-emissions-waste-water-2019-10.
Oecotextiles. 2014. “Climate Change and the Textile Industry.” Oecotextiles, October 15, 2014. https://oecotextiles.blog/2014/10/15/climate-change-and-the-textile-industry/.
Sustain Your Style. 2020. “The Fashion Industry is the Second Largest Polluter in the World.” Sustain Your Style, https://www.sustainyourstyle.org/old-environmental-impacts#scroll-to-top.
UN. 2018. “Fashion Industry, UN Pursue Climate Action for Sustainable Development.” United Nations, January 22, 2018. https://unfccc.int/news/fashion-industry-un-pursue-climate-action-for-sustainable-development.
University of Manchester. 2020. “Environmental Cost of ‘Fast Fashion’ is Not Sustainable.” Phys.org, April 8, 2020. https://phys.org/news/2020-04-environmental-fast-fashion-sustainable.html.
WWF. 2020. “Overview.” Sustainable Agriculture, Cotton. World Wildlife Fund. 2020. https://www.worldwildlife.org/industries/cotton.