The environmental price of fast fashion

Updated: Mar 1

Article published by Juan Ignacio Pérez (@Uhandrea) in the Notebook of Scientific

Venere degli stracci (Venus de los trapos), 1967-1974, de Michelangelo Pistoletto
Venere degli stracci (Venus de los trapos), 1967-1974, de Michelangelo Pistoletto

The fashion industry accounts for 10% of global global pollution. The reason its impact is so great is twofold. On the one hand, its supply chain is long and complex; It begins in agriculture (vegetable fibers) or petrochemical manufacturing (synthetic fibers), continues through manufacturing and, through logistics, ends in retail. And, on the other hand, it is a sector that has experienced enormous growth in recent years, due to the emergence of what can be called fast fashion ("fast fashion"), by analogy with the expression "fast food". Its environmental impact is produced through four components: the water that is consumed, the materials that are used (and disposed of), the use and elimination of chemicals with potentially harmful effects, and the expenditure of energy. Let's look at some data to illustrate the magnitude of its effects. The fashion industry produces between 4 and 5 billion tons of CO2 annually, which represents between 8% and 10% of global emissions of this gas. Its water consumption is one of the most important, with about 7,900,000 cubic meters per year; It is responsible for 20% of industrial water pollution, due to textile treatment and dyeing activities. It contributes just over a third to the accumulation of microplastics in the oceans, with an annual amount of 190,000 tons. And it generates textile waste –including unsold clothing- of more than 92,000 tons per year, a significant part of which ends up in landfills or is incinerated. If we look at the last half century, clothing production rose in parallel with population growth until about 2000. However, in the twenty years since then, textile production has grown more than population. In fact, between 1975 and 2018 the production has increased from 6 to 13 kg per person; in other words, it has more than doubled. It is estimated that the demand for this type of fashion is currently growing at a rate of 2% per year. This massive growth has been due to the industry's ability to offer consumers new products much cheaper and more frequently than before. The main producers have displaced traditional companies based on distribution through small establishments and have benefited from the possibilities of commercialization through the internet. As a result, successful brands put twice as many collections on the market today as they did before 2000, when the fast-fashion phenomenon began. The efficiency of production has grown so much that despite the increase in consumption, spending per person on clothing in Europe has gone from representing 30% of the shopping basket in the 1950s to 12% in 2009 and to 5% in 2020. And that reduction makes it easier to buy more clothes because they are bought more frequently. In the United States today a piece of clothing is purchased every 5.5 days. And in Europe the time of use has been reduced by 36% in the last fifteen years. The fashion industry has focused its efforts on reducing costs and reducing delivery times, because this is a fundamental element of its attractiveness and success, but humanity pays a price for it.

About the author: Juan Ignacio Pérez (@Uhandrea) is Professor of Physiology and coordinator of the Chair of Scientific Culture of the UPV / EHU

Source: Niinimäki, K., Peters, G., Dahlbo, H. et al. The environmental price of fast fashion. Nat Rev Earth Environ1, 189–200 (2020).