Fast Fashion: A Toxic Relationship


In his influential text, The Dirty Side of the Garment Industry, Nikolay Anguelov claims that “the garment industry is one of the largest, most globalised and most essential industries in the modern world.” Although technological advances in production, societal changes in wealth and market changes at the retail level have created numerous opportunities for people across the globe. The failure to mitigate the industry’s ecological impact has paved way for an environmental disaster.

According to Nature Reviews: Earth and Environment, the ecological impact of the garment industry has been widely publicised, yet despite international condemnation, the industry continues to grow at a sharp rate. This trend is largely attributed to the advent of fast fashion. Fast fashion refers to the production of inexpensive clothing by mass-market retailers in response to the latest trends. It relies on cheap manufacturing, frequent consumption and short-lived garment use.

The Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) claims that the fashion industry produces 10% of global carbon dioxide emissions every year, and is estimated to use around 1.5 trillion litres of water annually. This makes the fashion industry the second-largest consumer industry of water, with 720 gallons of water needed for one cotton t-shirt and more than 2000 gallons of water needed for just a single pair of jeans.

Not only does this place immense pressure on an already scarce resource, but it has also led to critical ecological consequences like the desertification of the Aral Sea, where cotton production has completely depleted water stores since 2000.

The industry’s incessant degradation and pollution of global ecosystems are further seen in a 2017 report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), where an estimated 35% of all microplastics found in the ocean derive from the leakage and laundering of synthetic materials like polyester. According to Greenpeace International, a large part of the problem is the poor management and disposal of untreated toxic wastewaters by the majority of countries that produce garments.

This was illustrated in 2011, when Greenpeace International Reports found “a range of hazardous substances being discharged into the Yangtze and Pearl River deltas from two textile manufacturers in China, with commercial links to many major clothing brands.” Toxic substances found included lead, mercury, and arsenic among others. These toxic substances threaten not only aquatic life, but endanger the many millions of people which inhabit coastal banks and depend on marine ecosystems as a source of livelihood.

Unfortunately, the ecological impact of fast fashion is not limited to just water. According to Earth.Org, there is also an energy-intensive process that is used to produce plastic fibres and poly blends that sate the industry’s demand. Estimates from the World Bank (WB) find the fashion industry responsible for more annual global carbon emissions than all
international flights and maritime shipping combined. This includes the emission of volatile particulate matter and acids like hydrogen chloride. The WB claims that at this pace, “the fashion industry’s greenhouse gas emissions will surge more than 50 % by 2030.”

So, how do we prevent a fast fashion environmental crisis?

According to Business Insider, the fast fashion industry’s operating model is exacerbating the problem. The pace of design and production has increased and as a result, clothing inventories are being replaced much more frequently.

The Ellen McArthur Foundation reports that 50 billion new garments were made in 2000; after two decades, this figure has doubled with the average person buying 60% more than they would have in 2000. And not only do they buy more, but they also discard more as a result. The WB reports that less than 1 % of used clothing is recycled into new garments.

There are many ways in which we can help tackle this problem, a few key ways include:

– Reuse your clothes, wearing something for an extra nine months can reduce its carbon footprint by 20-30%

– Recycle your unwanted clothes, it’s easy. Find your local recycling centre here:

– Resell your clothing online, it pays to save the environment

– Repair clothes instead of buying new ones, and learn a new skill whilst doing so

– ‘Buy to last’ – buy an item to be treasured, to last a lifetime and be passed down generations

– Swap clothes with friends and family, it is a sustainable and cheap way of exchanging clothes you don’t want for clothes you do want

– Donate your unwanted clothes and explore your local charity shops

– If you do buy new clothes, purchase high-quality items and avoid clothes that contain plastic and other environmentally harmful materials

– Try to buy from clothing brands that include a message relaying the brand’s environmental goals and efforts

– Buy sustainable clothing which is organic, untreated and has low emission and consumption rates.

By following these recommendations, we can try to abandon our toxic relationship to fast fashion and avoid an impending environmental disaster as a result


Anguelov., N. 2015. The Dirty Side of the Garment Industry: Fast Fashion and Its Negative Impact on Environment and Society. CRC Press.

Written by: Zahira Rafiq

Edited by: Zahira Rafiq

Artwork by: Laszlo Kubinyi