The Environmental Impact of Fast Fashion


Compiled by Sanyam


The term “fast fashion” was coined by the New York Times back in the year 1990 while describing the poster child of fast fashion, Zara. In a nutshell, fast fashion is essentially the model of quick paced designing, producing, distributing and marketing of clothes and bringing them from the runway to retail stores in a matter of days. Fast fashion allows consumers to keep up with the latest trends and do so at extremely affordable rates.  

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If you pick at random, a brand from a list of major apparel companies, there’s a very good chance that it follows a fast fashion-based model. The likes of Zara, H&M, and many others are all fast fashion companies, with the former being the one who pioneered it. Closer to home, brands like Roadster and Urbanic have made a name for themselves following the same model, which is a remarkable feat considering fast fashion didn’t exist as a concept in the country until about a decade ago. It is simply a very efficient method to make more sales.  

On the surface it might not look like fast fashion has any problems at all. If anything, it may even seem like a force for good. People get to keep up with the joneses at affordable prices and fashion companies generate more profit. Win-win isn’t it? Not exactly. There’s a whole another unexplored side to fast fashion, a side which concerns our future.  


fast fashion

As much as we love our shopping sprees, it is necessary to know their environmental impact. According to business insider, the textile industry can be held responsible for roughly 10% of the total carbon emissions done by humans every year. That’s nearly equal to the emissions from the entirety of the European Union every single year. Here in India, nearly a million tons of textiles are dumped every single year, a number which is set to only increase with time.  


Water exploitation is rampant in areas with apparel factories. The fashion industry alone uses 1/10 of all the water used for industrial purposes. It takes nearly 10,000 liters (about 2641.72 gal) of water to produce a single kilogram of cloth grade cotton and nearly 3000 liters (about 792.52 gal) to make a single cotton shirt. Apart from this, the textile dying process, which too used water, involves the usage of many toxic chemicals which are then discharged into the ocean. In some cases, the polluted water cannot even be treated to become normal. Plenty of places here in India, which is the fifth most popular destination for apparel manufacturing, have a compliance issue with factories using way more water than permitted and disposing untreated waste into the river. 


Post the Second World War, the advent of synthetic textiles such as nylon and polyester lead to big changes in the fashion industry. Synthetic fibers were a much cheaper and more convenient way to make clothes. More and more clothes were being made by synthetic fiber over time and today more than 60% of household textiles are made from synthetic fibers.  

The Problem with synthetic fibers is that it is a major source of plastic leakage into the environment. Above is a picture of a micro plastic next to a grain of rice. Over 200,000 to 500,000 tons of such micro plastics find their way into the oceans every year because of the use of synthetic fibers. Consideration of synthetic fibers will be very crucial in the fight against the plastic crisis. 


Rayon, a fiber made from wood pulp, is used very extensively today in apparel manufacturing. Rayon itself isn’t exactly problematic but it’s the source of rayon, which is. Manufacturing rayon involves the usage of many toxic and harmful chemicals which, if not disposed off carefully, can be dangerous not just to the environment but also to the people involved in the manufacturing process. Often times, rayon isn’t sourced from the most reputed sources so there isn’t a guarantee of safety or ethics regarding the handling of the waste left from the process. 


fashion industry solution

In the last years, thanks to activists and environment groups, awareness regarding the wastefulness of fast fashion has increased multifold. There has been public pressure and pressure from activist groups to make the apparels industry change the way it works. In India, surprisingly, there’s an increase in demand for natural fibers, a viable alternative to synthetic fibers.  

There have been calls for “sustainable fashion”, i.e. Advocating and using clothes that are more environmentally friendly, last longer, are minimalist and are made with ethical practices.  

You can join the movement too by tuning your thought just a bit. The next time you go shopping, look for clothes that have been ethically made. It means that their brands treat their workers well and don’t use manufacturing methods that are harmful to the environment. Support brands like Patagonia who use recycled clothes to manufacture a bulk of their products. Use the recycling and exchange programs a lot of brands offer. Buy better quality clothes which last much longer. Engage in “slow fashion”, i.e., buying clothes not based on current trends but what you’re likely to stick to wearing soon. Learn a bit about your style of fashion and dress sense to do that.  

Sustainable fashion, and caring about the environment by extension, isn’t particularly hard. Just have to make one small change at a time. For the future.