How Fast, Cheap Fashion Is Polluting the Planet

The business model known as fast fashion has proved wildly successful. Apparel makers churn out new styles on an ever-shorter cycle, offering them at prices so low — like $5 for a shirt or $20 for jeans — that consumers buy more and more items, sometimes getting only a few wears out of them. But there’s a dark side: The boom in the production of garments has increased carbon emissions and other ecological harms, and generated enormous clothing waste. Some consumers say they would prefer to buy clothing made with less injury to the environment, and brands in the $1.5 trillion fashion industry are starting to commit to producing so-called sustainable fashion. Even so, fast fashion continues to grow unabated.

1. How does clothing harm the environment?

In China and developing nations where most garments are produced, energy is often generated from dirty fuels such as coal. Frequently, each step of the assembly process occurs in a different country, adding to emissions from transportation. All told, textile production, dominated by apparel, generates as much as 8% of global carbon emissions, according to the United Nations, exceeding the impact of maritime shipping and international flights combined. Polyester and cotton make up 85% of all clothing material, and both are rough on the planet in added ways. Most polyester is made from crude oil. Chemical dyes are often added to the fabric, which can contaminate groundwater. When polyester and nylon clothes are washed, they shed particles that contaminate sewage. Cotton is thirsty: The production of a single T-shirt requires enough water to sustain a person for three years.

2. What’s the issue with clothing waste?

In the last two decades, clothing production roughly doubled, whereas the global population increased by about 30%. That means people are buying more garments and using them for shorter periods. More clothes than ever are being discarded, both by consumers and by fast-fashion sellers, which often ditch unsold merchandise to make room for new designs. Most used clothing isn’t collected for recycling or reuse, leaving much of it to be sent to landfills or incinerated, which releases carbon. Because clothes are dyed and chemically treated, they account for an estimated 22% of hazardous waste globally.

3. What’s sustainable fashion?

It’s a movement aimed at making the fashion industry more environmentally responsible by changing the way clothes are designed, made, transported, used and discarded. Proponents say that if apparel makers were forced to bear the cost of cleaning up after themselves, they would adopt cleaner practices. Among the practices promoted by advocates: tighter integration between the design and manufacturing phases, which often happen on different continents. That could make fabric cutting more accurate and reduce textile waste. Clothing brands are feeling the pressure and have begun citing the budding popularity of sustainable fashion as a risk to their business. They are also making changes. Adidas AG reported that roughly 96% of the polyester it used in 2022 came from recycled material. Hugo Boss AG said 93% of its cotton was purchased from “more sustainable” sources in 2022; for Gap Inc. that number was 81%. Burberry Group, H&M Hennes & Mauritz and Levi Strauss & Co. are moving toward plant-based alternatives to chemical dyes. Many small apparel makers hawking sustainable fashion have entered the market in recent years, exploring the potential of “leather” made from mushrooms and even algae to reduce the impact of clothes that are thrown away.

4. Is recycling or reuse a solution?

Yes and no. Most clothing can be at least partly recycled, but the process has its own environmental costs. For example, the fiber blends need to be separated using an energy-intensive process. Even after separation, only about 20% of the material can be blended with polyester or so-called virgin cotton to make a new garment. In the US, only about 15% of textiles including clothing are recycled or reused. Western nations have long exported their textile waste to developing countries for reuse, mainly in Africa, but those countries are accepting less of it now. Regulators in parts of the US and Europe are considering making fashion companies pay fees based on how much clothing they produce, as makers of batteries and mattresses sometimes do, with the proceeds going to recycling programs.

5. Is any of this making a difference?

Not yet. Better practices still don’t offset the negative effects of the industry’s rapid growth, projected to reach more than 100 million tons of apparel and footwear purchased each year by 2030. Retailers including Shein Group, H&M, Zara and Boohoo Group have been chided by consumers, activists and public officials for their mounting climate, water and plastic pollution footprints and for “greenwashing,” or misleading consumers about their environmental impact. Some industry solutions raise new problems: Organic cotton farming reduces exposure to toxins, but it uses much more water. And even the most adamant proponents of a shift to “slow fashion” acknowledge that little change is possible without a radical change in consumer habits.

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