Hidden polluters: The fashion industry and its environmental impact

The recent documentary on fast fashion on BBC, paired with news of MPs demanding an inquiry in the environmental impact of fast fashion in the UK, has generated an increase in people looking into what fast fashion is and its effects on the environment.

What is “fast fashion”? Fast fashion broadly represents the quick turnover of trends from the catwalk to stores, done by retailers at a rapid pace.  It is the epitome of the modern consumerist lifestyle, an industry that relies solely on the fast turnaround of trends and the desire of people to conform to them. The industry benefits from strong marketing that instigates consumers to buy, disregarding need in favour of trends.

Common controversies about the industry that has received widespread media attention concern labour rights, with issues such as working conditions, unfair wages and precarious labour in sweatshops making headlines. Another controversy is the practice of destroying unsold items of good condition. Less publicized, but equally concerning is the environmental burden of the fast fashion industry.

Fast fashion is a hidden polluter, mostly because it is not something that you usually associate with pollution and because it is difficult to calculate precisely how polluting the fast fashion industry is due to the nature of its supply chain. Multiple sectors are connected to the fashion industry in the supply chain, and this makes quantifying the environmental impacts of fashion difficult. It is almost impossible to isolate the contributions to the fashion industry of each sector and then add the known statics of fashion alone.  This makes quantifying the environmental impact of fashion difficult, but it does point towards the processes behind fast fashion are resource intensive, and that fashion is interlinked with other environmentally polluting industries, such as agriculture and oil and gas production. Studies by the Copenhagen Fashion Summit point that fast fashion contributes yearly with 92 millions of waste dumped to landfills.

This is mostly in excess material and waste fabrics from the garment making process, as well as finished products that are disposed of by consumers. The issue here is that not all textile fibres are compostable, those based on plastic take years to degrade and release harmful chemicals within the environment. The dyeing process of textiles is also highly polluting and water intensive, with the fashion industry being estimated as being the second-biggest water consuming industry. The scale of water usage led contributed to the catastrophe of the Aral Sea, which dried up as a result of intensive agricultural farming for cotton, one of the primary materials in the fashion industry.

Recently, in the UK, MPs have requested an investigation into the effects of fast fashion on the environment. This aims to get a scope of the damage and look into solutions. However, here it seems that the industry seized itself before being noticed by politicians as an environmental polluter, with a growth in the green sector of the fashion industry, with a focus on sustainability. The Copenhagen Fashion Summit has been a pioneer in opening the debate on the sustainable fashion. In the UK, the British Fashion Council put sustainability at the core of its activities with its Positive Fashion initiative and a series of events on sustainable fashion at London Fashion Week. The industry is becoming more aware of the impacts of fashion on the environment and consumers are starting to become more conscious of this.

However, the ethos of fast fashion is consumption, it exists on the basis of rapidly changing and price point. Fast fashion is trendy and accessible. These two are the selling points behind its success. Improvements in the industry regarding textiles that are more environmentally friendly and less water-intensive dyeing processes are welcomed, but they will not have a significant impact unless the patterns of demand and supply change. Fast fashion needs an overhaul for which the rapidly expanding industry might not be willing. In trying to become more environmentally sustainable, retailers of fast fashion have made pledges to eliminate landfill waste and cut water usage in their fabric making. There is a growing commitment to ‘circular fashion’, based on principles of circular economy. However, for fast fashion to be more environmentally efficient what needs to change is the consumption patterns it instigates. I doubt that is what retailers have in mind.

What does this mean for consumers? Firstly, is about confronting the realities of what fast fashion does to the environment and look into the alternatives. Secondly, it is about thinking of how we contribute to this and if it is possible to take action and create change. For a consumer motivated by a desire to be more environmentally aware in a world driven by consumption, often the first step means instead of asking “what do I want”, it is more and more about asking “what do I need”.

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Evelyn Mantoiu 5 Articles
Evelyn read for a BA in International Relations and Politics and is currently completing an MSc in Democracy and Comparative Politics. She is an aspiring researcher with an interest in all things political. On Darrow, she enjoys writing on topics focusing on climate policy and environmental pollution.