Exploring the Harmful Environmental Footprint of Fast, Low-Cost Fashion

Clothing manufacturers produce new fashions on an ever-shorter schedule and sell them for so little (say $5 for a blouse or $20 for jeans) that customers buy more and more, sometimes only wearing them a few times.

However, the surge in clothing production has raised carbon emissions and other environmental problems, created a ton of waste from clothing, and other a negative effects as well.

Customers have expressed that they would prefer to purchase clothing that has been produced with less environmental damage, and firms in the $1.5 trillion global fashion market are beginning to commit to creating so-called sustainable fashion. However, the growth of fast fashion is inexorable.

According to a Bloomberg article, the United Nations estimates that the manufacture of textiles, primarily used to make clothing, contributes up to 8% of all global carbon emissions, outpacing both international and maritime commerce combined. 85% of all clothing is made of cotton and polyester, both of which are harmful to the environment in other ways; most polyester is produced using crude oil. Polyester and nylon fabrics release contaminants into sewage when they are laundered.

As stated by the Bloomberg author, Catelli, while the world’s population expanded by nearly 30% in the past two decades, garment production roughly doubled over that time. This indicates that consumers are purchasing more clothing and wearing it for fewer hours. Consumers and fast-fashion retailers are both discarding more clothing than before.

The majority of used clothing is not gathered for recycling or reuse; instead, it is often disposed of in landfills or burned, which releases carbon. Since clothes are coloured and chemically treated, they are said to be responsible for 22% of all hazardous waste produced worldwide.

Some argue that if clothes manufacturers had to pay for their own cleanup, they would start using greener methods. Tighter integration between the design and manufacturing phases, which frequently take place on different continents, is one of the procedures advocated by proponents. That might improve the accuracy of fabric cutting and lower textile waste.

About 96% of the polyester Adidas AG used in 2022, according to the company, was made from recycled materials. In 2022, Hugo Boss AG said that 93% of the cotton it used was sourced from “more sustainable” sources; for Gap Inc., the percentage was 81%. In place of chemical dyes, companies including Levi Strauss & Co., H&M Hennes & Mauritz, and the Burberry Group are turning to plant-based alternatives.

Thus is recycling and reused are the solution? The answer would be yes and no as said by Catelli. The majority of clothing may be recycled, at least in part, although doing so has its own environmental consequences. Only 15% of textiles, including apparel, are recycled or reused in the US. Although developing nations, particularly those in Africa, have long accepted Western nations’ textile waste for repurposing, they are currently accepting less of it.

The industry’s rapid expansion, which is expected to reach over 100 million tons of garment and footwear sales annually by 2030, nonetheless has a negative impact that isn’t completely compensated by better practices. Customers, campaigners, and government authorities have criticized retailers such as Shein Group, H&M, Zara, and Boohoo Group for “greenwashing,” or deceiving customers about their environmental impact.


Allegra Catelli. 2023. Bloomberg: How Fast, Cheap Fashion Is Polluting the Planet.  Retrieved from https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2023-06-09/fast-fashion-s-environmental-impact-in-2023-explained?srnd=green

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