Global Environmental Politics

Master's Degree Programs in Global Environmental Policy and in Natural Resources and Sustainable Development

Fast Fashion: How the Clothing Industry Impacts the Environment

Fast Fashion: How the Clothing Industry Impacts the Environment

Author: Maria Belen Marquina-Barrientos

“Whether fashion companies can influence fashion consumers’ purchase behavior depends on their ability to fulfill fashion consumer needs.”[1]

You drive to Walmart, Target, or H&M, if you are feeling bold. You grab a shopping cart and ready yourself for what is to be a good, busy spree—you and the rest of the masses. You go after the basics: the T-shirts in multiple colors, the pair of jeans that you’re excited to wear for a single specific event. You leave satisfied, for the time being, managing to squeeze in a variety of items within your conservative budget. In a few weeks, you toss the shirt, because it shrank or ripped, but you pay no mind. You did buy five shirts for $20, after all. You became part of what we have come to call fast fashion: an industry of inexpensive, disposable apparel that appeals to us, as the consumers who are eager to demand trendier styles quickly and cheaply, often ignoring that its production and disposal have disastrous outcomes for our environment and society. Water pollution, water waste, low wages, gender inequality, and waste management are only some of the issues deeply interrelated with the fashion industry and the billions of dollars it generates in revenue every day. There have been many attempts to address the social and environmental cost of the industry, but designers and manufacturers continue to evade the efforts necessary to transform the business.

This essay aims to clarify the state of the industry and its impact on the environment and society. Next, it will explore three methods of addressing the impact of fast fashion: (1) grassroots efforts to pressure corporations to shift their practices; (2) high-end fashion campaigns committed to producing haute-couture lines that meet high environmental and fair-trade standards; and (3) small entrepreneurs producing high quality fashion attached to message of sustainability without the exorbitant prices. I will conclude that investing in the eco-fashion industry can produce more tangible results, raising the standards of fashion production through a clear message of sustainability and the processes to match. By doing so, a demand for sustainable products is generated, as smaller boutique fashion lines become more prominent in the market, changing the consumer behavior rather than addressing the production side alone.

Supply Chain and Industry Trends

The fashion industry as we know it today evolved significantly after 2005, when the World Trade Organization dismissed the quota system that capped overseas production of apparel, and opened the doors for the now $3 trillion dollar industry that employs over 60 million people worldwide.[2] This supply chain often begins with cotton fields like the ones in Uzbekistan, where workers harvest the crop under the sun or snow, typically under inhumane labor conditions. Around the same time, factories produce substances used for the textile processing and coloring, which often contain toxic chemicals like nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs), phthalates, and azo dyes.[3] The cotton is then transported to India, Bangladesh, and China among other Export Processing Zones (EPZs) to produce yarn and textiles, printed and dyed with the use of the previously produced chemicals and water—20,000 liters for a pair of jeans and a cotton T-shirt, to be exact.[4] A labor force, mostly comprising of women, children, and economic refugees—often called migrant workers—are underpaid to spend entire days at a spinning mill, using harmful dyes proven to be carcinogenic, and polluting the water as they finalize the fabrics that will eventually become T-shirts sold in packs of five for under $20 shipped to stores worldwide. Today, we buy 400 percent more clothes than we did in the early 1990s, after adjusting for population growth.[5] With this perceived insatiable need for new clothes comes pollution, social and environmental costs of transportation of fashion goods, and the final resting place to millions of tons of clothing: landfills.

Impact on the Environment: Water

The first and perhaps more obvious impact of the fashion industry on the water is the pollution of streams and lakes through the use of harmful, toxic chemicals, dyes, and detergents. According to an investigation by Greenpeace, chemicals found in clothing including NPEs, toxic perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs), and azo dyes,[6] all of which are carcinogenic to both humans and animals. Close to 20 percent of the water pollution is produced by the textile industry the some 8 thousand synthetic substances, according to The Guardian.[7] Approximately 70 percent of China’s lakes and rivers are contaminated, and much of it comes from the production of textiles.[8] And like oil spills, incidents such as China’s Red River incident in 2012 are caused by corporations in the industry which are reluctant to take assertive action to mitigate the damage and improve their processes.[9]

The contamination of rivers, lakes, and oceans is not the only water related outcome of the fast fashion industry. Producing textiles, from harvest to final product, takes a significant toll on the amount of water used, as well. A report on Bangladesh’s textile industry impact calculated that it takes as much water to sustain two people per day as it takes to produce one kilogram of fabric.[10]

Impact on the Environment:  Waste

Waste is also a major concern within the fashion industry, both at the pre-consumer and post-consumer stages of the garment’s life cycle. Over 6 percent of the 400 billion square meters of textiles produced annually are deemed “cutting room floor waste,” which typically ends in landfills.[11]  Once the low-quality clothes are produced, major cities like New York, London, and Hong Kong discard between over a million tons of clothes per year, of which 80 percent could be reused but instead will also end in a landfill.[12] In fact, in 2012 alone, the US sent 11 million tons of fabric to landfills, occupying over 126 million cubic yards of space in just one year.[13]

Impact on Society: Labor

The demand for fast fashion has created irresponsible production practices by multinational corporations, which too often ignore well documented cases of slavery, child labor, and the contributions of these practices in gender inequality. For instance, reports suggest that in the Guandong province in China, young women in the textile industry work 150 hours of overtime every month, at little pay, without insurance.[14] In Cambodia, where over 80 percent of the workers in the textile industry are women, many of whom are the single income earners in their families, are largely unable to afford a decent living with their current wages.[15]

Just as concerning is the blatant disregard for reports of child labor. The Center for Research on Multinational Corporations released multiple reports assessing the hazards and human rights violations in the fashion industry. In India, for instance, 60 percent of workers are under the age of 18, many of them bound to the spinning mills, physically confined to the work location.[16]

This lack of regulation has led to hazardous work conditions, more recently brought to light by the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh in 2013, where over a thousand workers were killed.[17] The production of apparel is “routinely sourced to EPZs, which are located throughout the Global South where wages and other forms of regulation on production are lower than in the Global North.”[18] Today, around 97 percent of the world’s apparel production is now carried out by countries “with few labor laws and rock-bottom minimum wage.”[19]

Challenges of a Fashion Revolution

Creating clothing through responsible labor and environmental practices often raises prices, less attractive to consumers. Even if consumers have a positive attitude towards environmentalism, that rarely translates into an effort to purchase ethically-made apparel.[20] Studies show that consumers accept a price premium increase of 10%, but become more reluctant to purchase items after a 25% price increase.[21] Furthermore, consumers who are not actively searching for ethical apparel are often unaware of the origin of their clothes and the impact of the industry. In order to have a more significant impact in mitigating the damage of fast fashion, it becomes important to address the behavior of consumers as well. Consumers generate the demand of an ever-growing industry and as long as people continue to require disposable, cheap fashion, companies will continue to create it. In 2012, a study in Hong Kong concluded that nearly 90 percent of surveyed consumers had never purchased or were unsure of having purchased eco-fashion.[22] Therein lays the first challenge: consumers are uneducated about the fashion industry, and seldom willing or able to pay a price premium necessary for fair labor practices and a reduction of the use of hazardous materials.

In a utopian world, where these consumers become aware of the footprint of fast fashion, the demand for clothes will decrease. As the market needs shift, large multinational corporations will lose profit and reduce their operations. This would present a significant improvement for environment and workers who today are quite literally chained to their work stations. Nevertheless, the thousands of retailers worldwide, marketing professionals, designers, artists, and low skilled workers would be jobless. Some would even argue that, as low as the wages are in the textile mills in South Asia, they are better than no wages at all. Globalization, not just fashion, has created an opportunity to exploit cheap labor abroad; yet some of those families previously lacked an income altogether.  As threats of unemployment in the fashion industry loom, the incentive to divest from it decreases. Nevertheless, to produce a lasting, sustainable change in the industry, the perception that any improvement in labor conditions suffices must be dispelled.

What Has Been Done

Nonprofit and international organizations have launched several campaigns meant to expose the use of hazardous chemicals, pollution and waste of water, unsafe disposal, and inhumane labor practices by corporations that include H&M, Calvin Klein, Zara, Nike, and GAP to name a few. For instance, Greenpeace’s Detox initiative worked together with some of these companies in order to disclose their practices and encourage them to create more eco-friendly, fair trade clothing. Their reports studied chemicals found in clothing, educating producers and some consumers about the footprint of fashion and health hazards created by the use of Phthalates, NPs, and NEPs.[23]

Flawed Fabrics and Captured by Cotton are two other campaigns sponsored by the Center for Research on Multinational Corporations and the India Committee of the Netherlands, focused on the work conditions and footprint of textile mills in India.[24] Textile Pact, the International Trade Union Confederation, and a myriad of international organizations have also created awareness campaigns with robust research on pollution and labor practices.

While it is important to educate and raise awareness regarding the practices of fashion corporations, these campaigns have not significantly changed the industry yet. In fact, many of the corporations targeted by these reports have made minimal efforts to transform their processes, leading to a greenwashing of the industry. Some, though, have made small strides in the right direction. H&M, for instance, launched its eco-friendly clothing line after Greenpeace’s exposé. The new line emerged not in lieu of, but in addition to its traditional collections, which continue to use toxic dyes and that are produced en masse. In a capitalistic society, H&M may be waiting for the market to speak: when consumers demand eco-friendly clothing, it may be able to tout itself as one of the first “fast-fashion” manufacturers to introduce an eco-friendly line. Of course, this small eco-addition to their factories is not enough, as the company is still one of the major contributors to the problems associated with fast fashion. Perhaps in time, they will move to replace their lines, as opposed to merely offering an eco-friendly substitute.

A second tactic is being implemented, this time by high end fashion designers and artists releasing clothing lines that meet higher standards of fair trade and that boast of a lower ecological footprint. Vivienne Westwood’s “Handmade with Love” venture is a product of a partnership with the United Nations Ethical Fashion Initiative. Since 2013, Westwood has worked with artisans in Kenya and more recently Burkina Faso to bring to life fashion collections meant to make it into the mainstream fashion world.[25]  Stella McCartney has also joined the fight against fast fashion and the waste and pollution in produces. All of her stores and studios are powered by renewable energy, and her designs are mostly created with organic cotton and other fabrics, biodegradable soles, and even recycled materials.[26] In fact, she was the first head of a luxury goods company to join the Clean by Design campaign by the Natural Resource Defense Council to reduce waste and promote a cleaner environment.[27]

A very important component of both of these initiatives is the engagement of local communities in producing the garments. Significant investment is made in training artisans to partake in a more eco-friendly way of producing textiles, but also gathering knowledge from their work and traditions.[28] The establishment of artisan shops has empowered women not only by giving them a fair pay for their work, but also by allowing them to become entrepreneurs and skilled fashion designers.

These projects begin introducing ethically-made apparel to the world of haute couture, which often dictates the trends of the rest of the industry. Nevertheless, the prices of pieces by Westwood and McCartney land on the thousands of dollars. Consumers of high fashion do well to participate in the initiative, but in reality, they present a very small fraction of the demand source for fast fashion. The remaining portion of the consumers cannot afford to be part of the change when it looks like $3,000 per dress.

Eco-Fashion: A Worthy Investment

In a capitalist, consumerist society, effective measures tend to play within its rules. Boutique fashion shops and visionaries see an opportunity in eco-fashion, defined as “the type of clothing that is designed and manufactured to maximize benefits to people and society while minimizing adverse environmental impacts.”[29] Yael Alfalo, founder of Reformation, focuses on products that are of high quality and in style, since that is the entire message of the fashion industry. In his mind, “sustainability is not something to lead with. Sustainability and technology are both tools that will be a part of all companies moving forward.”[30]

Indeed, a growth and investment in the eco-fashion industry may do more for the environment and the labor force than a shaming campaign might. Why? Because it’s exploiting the consumer’s behavior, encouraging responsibility without sacrificing the demand for style. One study in Hong Kong by Ting-Yan Chan and Christina W.Y. Wong found that one of the driving forces behind the success of sustainable fashion was the store-related attributes of the consumer experience.[31] Ambiance, music, and the messaging of ethically-made fashion, are all elements that impact the consumer, particularly in a store setting. The sharing of information provided by the store is also essential. Labelling and certifications will help shape the market, giving consumers information about the origins of the apparel they buy.[32]

Currently, most of the eco-fashion retailers are found online and found only when consumers actively search for merchandize that is environmentally friendly. Furthermore, as it stands, “environmentally conscious consumers tend to be better educated, and higher in economic and income status.”[33] To more effectively solve the problems within the fashion industry, designers and investors must target a wider audience. By increasing investment in eco-fashion, the potential is to make it a mainstream industry rather than an alternative for an audience already invested in making changes for the benefit of society and the environment.

The eco-fashion industry is already beginning to thrive. In Britain, for instance, green fashion sales reached $294 million in 2009, already highlighting the potential success of industry.[34] These are entrepreneurs using the existing desire for fashion, adding a message of sustainability, and therefore creating a profitable business model that shifts the consumers’ standards for clothing. It is no longer effective to rely on the obvious horror behind the apparel industry. Instead, visionaries are working to change consumer needs in favor of sustainable clothing.  True to their trade, they are redesigning fashion.

The need for fashion is not a sin, but the way it is produced is. A fairer, cleaner future includes the excitement we will hopefully soon share when we brave the long lines at Walmart, Target, and H&M as they join an eco-fashion industry that does not taint the art and self-expression of clothes with azo-dyes and slavery.

[1]Ting-Yan Chan and Christina W.Y. Wong. “The Consumption Side of Sustainable Fashion Supply Chain: Understanding Fashion Consumer Eco-Fashion Consumption Decision.” Journal of Fashion Marketing and Management 16, no. 2 (2012): 193-215. doi:10.1108/13612021211222824, 207.

[2] Ditty, Sarah. “It’s Time for A Fashion Revolution.” Fashion Revolution. November 2015. Accessed August 7, 2016., 6.

[3] “Toxic Threads: The Big Fashion Stitch-Up.” Greenpeace. October 2012. Accessed June 27, 2016. 2012/ToxicThreads01.pdf, 10.

[4] “Cotton.” 2016. Accessed August 8, 2016.

[5]   “It’s Time for a Fashion Revolution,” 13.

[6]“Toxic Threads: The Big Fashion Stitch-Up.”

[7]  “It’s Time for a Fashion Revolution,” 12.

[8] “Toxic Threads: Putting Pollution on Parade.” Greenpeace. November 2012. Accessed July 28, 2016. 2012/ToxicThreads02.pdf, 17.

[9] “Toxic Threads: Putting Pollution on Parade.”14.

[10] “An Analysis of Industrial Water Use in Bangladesh with a Focus on the Leather and Textile Industries.” 2030 Water Resources Group. May 2015. Accessed August 10, 2016., 5.

[11] “It’s Time for a Fashion Revolution,” 11.

[12]  Ibid.

[13] Mattias Wallander. “Why Textile Waste Should Be Banned From Landfills.” Triple Pundit People Planet Profit. January 02, 2012. Accessed August 10, 2016.

[14] “It’s Time for a Fashion Revolution,” 9.

[15] Ibid., 10.

[16]  Martje Theuws and Pauline Overeem. “Flawed Fabrics :The Abuse of Girls and Women Workers in the South Indian Textile Industry.” SOMO. October 2014. Accessed August 2, 2016., 67.

[17] Hilary Milnes. “Fast Fashion Ramps Up (And Hits A Few Speed Bumps).” 2016: A Year In Preview. December 2015. Accessed July 15, 2016, 7. Milnes, 7.

[18] Angelina R.W. Jones and Gloria Williams. 2012. “Perceptions Of Fair Trade Labelling And Certification: Three Case Studies”. Journal Of Fashion Marketing And Management: An International Journal 16 (2): 246-265. doi:10.1108/13612021211222851, 247.

[19] Milnes, 7.

[20] Chan, 194

[21] Chan, 199.

[22] Shen, Bin, Yulan Wang, Chris K.Y. Lo, and Momoko Shum. 2012. “The Impact Of Ethical Fashion On Consumer Purchase Behavior”. Journal Of Fashion Marketing And Management: An International Journal 16 (2): 234-245. doi:10.1108/13612021211222842, 238.

[23]“Toxic Threads: The Big Fashion Stitch-Up.”

[24] “Still Captured by Cotton – SOMO – English.” SOMO. 2012. Accessed March 9, 2016.

[25] “Partner: Vivienne Westwood.” ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative. 2011. Accessed August 11, 2016.

[26] Alessandra Lolli. “Stella McCartney: Fashion And Sustainability.” The Fashion Globe Magazine. 2013. Accessed August 9, 2016.

[27] Ibid.

[28] “RISE Assessment.” Ethical Fashion Initiative. August 2015. Accessed August 10, 2016.

[29] Chan, 194-195.

[30] Milnes, 8.

[31] Chan, 193.

[32] Jones, 246

[33] Chan, 201

[34] Cervellon, Marie-Cécile and Anne-Sophie Wernerfelt. 2012. “Knowledge Sharing Among Green Fashion Communities Online”. Journal of Fashion Marketing And Management: An International Journal 16 (2): 176-192. doi:10.1108/13612021211222860, 177.