Is Fast Fashion Causing Climate Change? 5 Ways

Jane Marsh - April 18, 2022

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Have you ever wondered, “Is fast fashion causing climate change?”

When clothing first began to be mass-produced, new garments were released seasonally. However, advances in technology and the globalization of the textile industry mean that new clothing lines now come out on a weekly basis. Garments are made of cheaper material, and changing trends quickly make yesterday’s clothes undesirable. 

This business model is known as fast fashion, and it’s having a significant negative impact on the environment. Here are five ways fast fashion is impacting climate change. 

1. Leads to Waste

Consumers have begun to buy 60% more clothing today than they did just 20 years ago. This change in behavior is the result of advanced marketing campaigns and lower clothing prices. Unfortunately, the focus on saving money within the industry has led to compromise on textile quality and environmental impact. 

As clothing has become more affordable, demand for new styles and product lines has grown. This has created a vicious cycle with constantly increasing production speeds. To keep up with the market, textile companies have shifted to cheaper materials, outsourced their production, and primarily ignored the environmental impact of their actions. 

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, in 2018, 11.3 million tons of textiles were sent to landfills. 3.2 million tons of textiles were incinerated to recover some energy from the waste. In addition to end-of-life waste, studies suggest that there’s also significant waste during the production of clothing. 

2. Pollutes Clean Water

Because labor is cheaper in developing countries, many textile companies outsource their work to countries with fewer environmental regulations. This saves money for the industry and consumers, but the people who work for outsourced textile companies ultimately pay a high cost in polluted water and air. 

For example, many clothes are dyed with chemicals that run off into natural waterways, polluting drinking water and killing aquatic life. Because developing countries don’t regulate these chemicals, it’s difficult to even identify the chemicals textile companies are using. 

Lack of transparency and accountability in the industry is damaging the environment many people live, eat, and sleep in. Because the water system works on a global level, dye run-off from the textile industry is polluting clean water around the world. 

3. Harms Marine Life

One of the cheapest fabrics to produce is polyester, a kind of plastic fiber created from the fossil fuel petroleum. Although polyester can be made quickly, it doesn’t breathe like natural fibers. It also doesn’t last for very long. 

While polyester does break down, it doesn’t biodegrade. Instead, it breaks into smaller microplastics that typically end up in the ocean. Washing polyester during use can also introduce these tiny microplastics into the water system. 

According to some studies, microplastics can negatively affect the lives of aquatic animals and even interfere with their genetic makeup. However, differences in study results seem to suggest that some microplastics, including those from clothing, are more harmful to the environment than others. These findings are very concerning, as healthy oceans are essential for a healthy planet. 

4. Produces Greenhouse Gases

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or IPCC, the fashion industry is responsible for 10% of global carbon dioxide emissions each year. Greenhouse gases are produced with almost every step of creating a garment, from growing or extracting raw materials to shipping finished garments around the world. 

In total, the fashion industry is responsible for around 4% of greenhouse gas emissions each year. That’s the same amount of GHGs produced by the combined countries of France, Germany, and the U.K. for an entire year.  

Again, outsourcing is one of the reasons for these high GHG emissions. Developing nations have few to no environmental regulations on air pollution or reducing the use of fossil fuels in factories. During textile production, these fossil fuels vent into the atmosphere, affecting the native population and contributing to global climate change. 

5. Supports Abusive Systems

Although the textile industry employs 75 million people worldwide, it’s estimated that only 2% of these workers are paid a living wage. Environmental contamination and poor working conditions in textile factories are human rights violations.

Poor working conditions are directly related to climate change because countries that don’t take care of their citizens are the same countries that don’t protect their natural resources. Human rights and environmental protection are intimately connected. 

Textile companies with poor working conditions are feeding into a system that prioritizes immediate profit instead of sustainable economic growth and responsible stewardship.

What Can Customers Do?

Unfortunately, it’s impossible to change these industry structures in a day. However, consumers can reduce their personal contribution to climate change by shopping purposefully. There are many companies with transparent supply chains that are striving to create sustainable clothing. 

Shopping secondhand is another way that consumers can avoid fast fashion and the harm that it brings to Earth’s climate. As more consumers change their behavior, internal and external pressures will change the fashion industry and reduce its negative impact on the environment.

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About the author

Jane Marsh

Starting from an early age, Jane Marsh loved all animals and became a budding environmentalist. Now, Jane works as the Editor-in-Chief of where she covers topics related to climate policy, renewable energy, the food industry, and more.