The fashion industry’s negative impact on the planet is growing at an alarming rate. With fast fashion brands like Shein, Temu, and Boohoo leading us into a new era of trend consumption, billions of garments are being produced every year, increasing our carbon output and overwhelming communities with the sheer volume of overproduced clothing. In the United States alone, about 81 pounds of clothes are discarded yearly. While this consumption and waste increase is driven by people mainly in Europe and the United States, its impact on the climate has the most significant effect on people in vulnerable communities in the Global South.
To truly understand how we got here (and how we can work to change it), it’s essential to look at the full scope of the problem – which isn’t limited to a singular source. Between farming cotton and other crops to make yarn and tanning leather hides from cattle, using fossil fuels to make synthetic fabrics, toxic and water-intensive manufacturing processes, and transportation emissions to ship them around the world, there is plenty to unpack. Mainly as the amount of clothing produced increases to an estimated 100 billion garments annually, the problem is only getting worse. At this point, apparel accounts for an estimated 4% of global carbon emissions (which is more than the entire United Kingdom, which accounts for about 3%). Every stage of the fashion production process has helped us get there.
[T]he amount of clothing produced increases to an estimated 100 billion garments annually
For starters, most of our clothing is made from cotton, cellulose, synthetics like polyester, natural fibers like linen, and leather – each material can be polluting or wasteful in its own way. Synthetic materials like rayon, nylon, and polyester make up nearly 64% of all apparel and are made from fossil fuels, such as oil and gas – and that number is growing with both virgin and recycled products becoming more and more prevalent in fast fashion.
[A]pparel accounts for an estimated 4% of global carbon emissions
According to a recent Textile Exchange report, “the production of fossil-based synthetics rose from 60 million tonnes in 2020 to 63 million tonnes in 2021.” To look at the metric another way, that’s the weight of nearly 9 million elephants, or 28558 Olympic swimming pools just in synthetic materials. When these garments are washed, they release microplastics into the water. For every two pounds of synthetic garments washed, between 640,000-1,500,000 microfibers are released.
This is a major issue because as plastics break down into water, they are eaten by animals which end up in our food supply. “Even though the evidence is a little bit elusive in terms of what the consequences are, there’s every reason to suspect that plastics are creating the same kind of health risk or threat at the bottom of the food chain in small creatures as we see at the top of the food chain with large creatures,” Tinku Ray said in a 2020 WBUR report. This can also lead to the death of marine life like fish, disrupting an already volatile ecosystem.
When these garments are discarded, they continue to shed into soil and water. Polyester is not easily degradable, which would be good if it wasn’t used in an industry that encourages one-and-done consumption habits. Instead, these polyester garments end up in landfills and can take anywhere from 20-200 years to break down.
For every two pounds of synthetic garments washed, between 640,000-1,500,000 microfibers are released.
Once these materials are made into yarn and fabric that can be woven into the clothes we wear every day, another set of problems emerges. For starters, synthetic dyes are made from either coal or petroleum, which breaks down into water when they are used on fabric. Then as clothing is made into wearable garments, textiles, especially denim, are rewashed several times, using a massive amount of water and polluting it with stones for washes and synthetic finishing agents.
While organic materials are certainly less impactful from an emissions point of view, it’s still important to look at the ways production can be polluting. Cotton, for example, which is what all denim is made from, uses a massive amount of water (5,283 gallons of water is needed to produce just 2.2 pounds of cotton) and insecticides to grow. According to the CDP Water and Apparel Analysis report, cotton production uses 16% of all pesticides worldwide and is responsible for 217 million cubic meters of polluted wastewater. That means chemicals like arsenic and mercury end up in the water used to irrigate our food supply. It also hurts the farmers who are harvesting the crops, many of them in China and India.
While leather is a part of the larger animal farming industry, the hides and skins of over 1.4 billion animals were used for leather production in 2021 alone. To get these skins into something wearable, they need to be tanned. While some producers use vegetable-based tanning, most still use chromium, a known carcinogen. Chromium is not only damaging to the health of the tanners using it to make the leather, it also ends up in the wastewater (about 40 million liters of water per year). Water waste is a two-fold issue. For starters, it impacts aquifer and groundwater supplies, which are difficult to replenish. Even worse, the wastewater requires a significant amount of energy to clean, especially when chemicals are in it.
[C]otton production uses 16% of all pesticides worldwide and is responsible for 217 million cubic meters of polluted wastewater.
Of course, it doesn’t stop there. Due to globalization, our products often travel thousands of miles before they end up on our doorstep. Now, most clothing is manufactured within a complicated supply chain structure that requires transportation several times before it’s even finished. In some cases, a material may be cut in one factory, shipped elsewhere to be assembled, and then shipped to another facility to be finished (and that’s before it gets shipped to stores and homes). A 2016 Harvard Business Review study found that for H&M, emissions from transportation made up 43% of its total greenhouse gas emissions.
Once the clothing is purchased and in our closets, the impact on climate continues. When garments are washed, microplastics and synthetic dyes shed and end up in the water systems. Then, when the garment is no longer wanted, the end-of-life process can have just as much of an impact as its beginning. The average American, for example, throws away 75 pounds of textiles and clothing per year. These pieces end up in landfills and dumpsites and overrun secondhand markets in countries like Ghana. Dielle Lundberg discusses just one of the ways this hurts people and the planet in a report for Boston University. “Unwanted, used clothing often clogs the gutters, preventing water from flowing properly,” Lundenberge notes. “This exacerbates flooding and leads to water-borne disease. This is particularly problematic as climate change has increased the incidence of flooding in many parts of the Global South.”
If the fashion industry continues on the path that it’s on, carbon emissions are expected to rise rapidly by 2030. A study by Hot or Cold estimates 2.7 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) will be emitted yearly by garment production – increasing fashion’s overall carbon significantly. It’s an insidious prospect when you consider just how climate change’s impact will be distributed and who will suffer the most directly from water shortages, flooding, and heat. In Bangladesh, for example, nearly 83% of exports are clothing made in factories, which is purchased mostly in Europe, the United States, and China. According to many estimates, however, climate change will impact them more than most places worldwide. There, factories are not equipped to safely withstand heatwaves that reach temperatures as high as 107 degrees Fahrenheit. These conditions are not only extremely detrimental to the worker’s physical health, they’re a dangerous fire hazard in the factories.
2.7 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) will be emitted yearly by garment production
Clothing can be an incredible thing. It’s how we express ourselves and tell stories. It’s also contributing to the greatest crisis facing the world. Unless the industry pulls back on production by reducing the amount of clothing that’s made every year (in turn reducing energy output, water waste, and fossil fuel reliance), we are headed in a terrible direction.