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Fast Fashion and Carbon Emissions

Updated: Apr 7

Did you know the fashion industry makes up 10% of global carbon emissions? Annually it contributes over 1.2 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere. [1] “Fast Fashion” is a term popularized in the early 1990s when Zara was able to fulfill clothing orders in less than 16 weeks. Since then the desire to get trendy in style clothing has risen exponentially. With the rise of popularity in cheap and stylish clothing environmental impact has become an increasing concern among shoppers. Today we will dive into the environmental and social costs of fast fashion and how you can avoid contributing to them. 

fast fashion and carbon emissions
Source: Green Matters

Fast Fashion Explained

As consumerism grows and it becomes easier and quicker to purchase from online retailers the fashion industry has experienced rapid growth. At the same time, trends have become shorter and shorter as clothing utilization decreased by 36% between 2003 and 2018, with a third of young women believing that a garment is considered ‘old’ after it’s been worn once or twice. [2] It is hard for producers to keep up with the quick styles and trends and they have been trying their best with some European fashion brands releasing as many as 24 collections per year, and fast fashion brands release 52 micro-seasons per year, on average. [3] These hyper-fast lead times have been at the expense of the environment and human rights. 

The Carbon Footprint of Fast Fashion

Carbon Footprinting is a valuable tool to understand the full environmental impact of a product's life cycle. Fast fashion has a notoriously high impact as it has quick production, quick shipping, and quickly ends up in landfills.  Americans buy an average of 64 items of clothing per year, with jeans' carbon footprint being around 33 kg of CO2 and the average t-shirt at around 15 kg, your carbon footprint from clothes could easily be 1 ton of CO2. [4] 1 ton of CO2 is about the same as driving 2,500 miles or flying from Boston to London and back. It is important to be mindful of your fashion-related emissions as many of them can be avoided by simply not constantly buying new clothes.

fast fashion and carbon emissions
Source: Climate Feedback

Beyond Carbon: Other Environmental Impacts

1. Water

Fast fashion uses massive amounts of water. The fashion industry is the second largest consumer industry of water, requiring about 700 gallons to produce one cotton shirt and 2,000 gallons of water to produce a pair of jeans. [6] Textile dying is also a major contributor to water pollution as textile dyeing is the world's second-largest polluter of water since the water leftover from the dyeing process is often dumped into ditches, streams, or rivers. [7]

2. Microplastics

Fast fashion’s plastic pollution travels far and wide: Discarded plastic clothing alone is estimated to have released at least 1.4 quintillion (or a million trillion) plastic microfibers into the ocean. Each time an article of synthetic clothing is washed, it sheds hundreds of thousands to more than a million tiny plastic fibers into wastewater—which is eventually discharged into waterways. [8]

3. Energy

The production of fast fashion items typically relies on carbon-intensive energy sources such as coal, oil, or natural gas. Factories are major energy consumers and therefore greenhouse gas emitters. An estimated 80% of the energy used in the fashion industry is used in textile manufacturing. [9]

The Social Cost of Fast Fashion

Shein’s scale makes its harms markedly worse. There are reports of several human rights violations, including workers needing to clock in for back-to-back 18-hour days, with no weekends, to make a living wage. A 2022 investigation by UK publication found that workers are paid as little as 0.03694 cents per item. [10] It is impossible to make a living wage at some of these factories, and the conditions are horrific. When studying modern slavery it was found that fast fashion accounts for almost a third all current slaves. [11] These brands are only capable of producing so many items so quickly due to their disregard for human life and exploitation.

Rethinking Consumption: Steps Towards a Sustainable Wardrobe

Rethinking our approach to fashion consumption is crucial in mitigating the environmental impact of our wardrobes. Shifting towards a sustainable wardrobe means prioritizing quality over quantity, investing in timeless pieces rather than succumbing to fleeting trends. By choosing brands that are committed to ethical practices and sustainable materials, consumers can significantly reduce their carbon footprint. Embracing second-hand shopping, clothing swaps, and rental services can also play a vital role in extending the life cycle of garments and reducing waste. Additionally, taking good care of clothes—repairing rather than discarding them, washing in cold water to save energy, and using eco-friendly detergents—can further minimize our fashion-related environmental impact. Through these conscious choices, individuals can contribute to a more sustainable fashion ecosystem, one garment at a time.












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