The Environmental and Ethical Costs of Normalizing Fast Fashion

by Kaelin Ferland '23 on March 24, 2022
Opinion Staff


With fashion trends constantly changing and new styles introduced every season, many shoppers use fast fashion websites to get cheap pieces to wear for a few months while they’re trendy. We probably buy more clothes from stores like Zara and H&M than we’d like to admit, but it’s understandable that we order a cheap and trendy top from these sites instead of spending close to a hundred dollars for a similar item at a more sustainable store. Since 2000, the average clothing consumption has doubled, while the amount of time that we actually wear and keep clothes has significantly decreased. To keep up with this demand, the fashion industry has had to adapt at the expense of the environment.

Every year, 85 percent of textiles are thrown away. Not only is this wasteful, but it also has an environmental impact on a larger scale, especially in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, water use, and pollution. According to the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion, 10 percent of our global carbon emissions is from the fashion industry. Additionally, clothes production has a significant water footprint, serving as the second greatest water consumer. Ninety-five billion cubic meters of water are used to produce clothing annually, which the UN estimates is enough water for five million people. Furthermore, cotton production also requires a lot of water, needing up to 10,000 liters of water to grow one kilogram of cotton. It is estimated that 2,000 liters of water are used to produce one pair of jeans. This water use poses a significant issue today, as one in three people do not have access to clean drinking water.

Some synthetic materials are equally harmful to the environment. For example, polyester uses 70 million barrels of oil annually to produce enough of this material to meet the world’s clothing demand. Because polyester is a plastic based material, it can pollute our oceans in the form of microplastics. About eight percent of the microplastics in the ocean comes from clothing waste alone. Pollution from chemical waste is also an issue. Leftover dye is disposed of in bodies of water, threatening the health of those in surrounding communities, as well as factory workers.

Aside from its environmental impact, fast fashion raises a lot of ethical concerns. In factories, workers are exposed to unsafe working conditions and forced to work anywhere from 10 to 18 hours a day, depending on consumer demand at the time. These workers also are not paid a livable wage, with some companies only paying their workers less than 10 cents for each piece they make.

There are many ways to minimize our environmental impact through the clothes we buy. Thrifting, for example, is a sustainable and cheaper alternative. It’s also important to avoid buying clothes for trends that will go out of style within a few months. However, if you have to buy new clothes, you can visit websites like that allow you to search companies and brands to see how ethical and sustainable they are. To minimize clothing waste, you can donate clothes you no longer wear. If you notice that some have stains or rips, bring them to a textile recycling facility instead of throwing them out. It’s possible to make these changes and shop more sustainably without sacrificing fashion.