Fast Fashion and the Environmental Impact of Overproduction

Posted by Adeline Ee on

We're all too familiar with new trends constantly bombarding us on social media, and the fact that fast fashion companies like Forever21 and H&M are astonishingly quick at meeting these ever-changing demands of the masses. We have also heard of and even experienced firsthand the woes of cheaply manufactured apparel that falls apart after only a few wears.

This leaves consumers with the dilemma of what to do with their fast fashion purchases—do we just cut our losses, toss out forgotten trends, and keep buying more?

The fast fashion industry has shown proven results, as it continues to chug away with daily releases of new designs to the public who constantly craves new styles to keep up with the Joneses (or Jenners, I guess). 


ic: ah, yes just toss last season's clothes straight into the pile! Seriously though, the amount of retail clothing waste generated by fast fashion is insane. | photo source:


However, fast fashion companies are often found guilty of unethical business practices, most commonly exploiting their garment workers both via poor conditions and inadequate pay. In addition, the cotton industry and many other traditional apparel production practices are infamous for extreme environmental pollution, unethical trade practices, and a massive carbon footprint. 

On the other hand, the slow fashion movement is all about buying garments that are made to last, which means they won't need to be replaced as often. 

Put simply, slow fashion is the opposite of fast fashion. It encompasses an awareness and approach to fashion that considers the processes and resources required to make clothing. It advocates for buying better-quality garments that will last longer, and values fair treatment of people, animals, and the planet along the way. 

—definition courtesy of

If you want sustainable clothing options, slow fashion is where it's at! Slow fashion brands place a high value on producing high-quality clothing that is meant to be enjoyed long-term, while also considering the impact of their operations on the environment, animals, and other people. Slow fashion isn't a new concept, as it closely follows the slow food movement where people looked for healthier, more local, and more sustainable options when dining out. Slow fashion is the slow meal of clothing—sustainably and ethically made.

This blog post will take a closer look at why consumers and companies should avoid the false glamor of fast fashion, and instead choose to support responsible clothing brands that aim to make high-quality clothing at a hugely reduced environmental cost. 


Table of Contents:

  1. The Environmental Cost of Cotton
  2. What Are Fast Fashion Companies?
  3. The Environmental Impact of Fast Fashion
  4. The Health Impact of Fast Fashion
  5. What Are Slow Fashion Companies?
  6. Sublimation Printing vs Dyeing
  7. How Can Consumers Support Slow Fashion?


The Environmental Cost of Cotton

The fast fashion industry is not just unsustainable, but it's truly environmentally devastating for the planet. Fast fashion often includes cotton production, a material often taken for granted because of its ubiquitous presence in our clothing.

However, cotton comes at a steep cost. The cotton industry has a significant environmental impact that we should acknowledge and address if fast fashion companies want to be sustainable.

According to the UNECE, the cotton industry ranks second in using and draining the world's water resources, contributing to 20% of total wastage. It takes 2,700 liters of water to produce a single t-shirt and approximately 7,000 liters to produce a pair of jeans. At the same time, millions of people worldwide in developing countries lack access to safe drinking water. This is not okay. 


ic: graphic source:


In addition, the chemicals and dyes used to produce cotton have been linked to severe health problems and diseases becoming more prevalent amongst people living in surrounding areas. Cotton accounts for more than 10% of all insecticide use globally, more than any other single crop. Cotton alone is responsible for 24% of the world's insecticide pollution and 10% of the world's pesticide pollution.

A recent World Health Organisation study of 20,000 individuals established a link between living near cotton farming establishments and experiencing a higher risk of cancer, congenital disabilities, and miscarriages. Yikes.

Fashion Checker also found that more than 90% of textile companies don’t pay a fair wage to their workers, while 80% of female employees receive much lower salaries than their male co-workers. 

Despite the abusive trade practices and sky-high environmental cost paid to produce these textiles, most of the precious cotton produced every year ends up straight into landfills. Despite being made of natural fibers, cotton can still take hundreds of years or more to decompose due to synthetic treatments and other factors. Sadly, it is estimated that 85% of all brand-new textiles produced manage to quickly find their fate in landfills each year. 


What Are Fast Fashion Companies?

Fast fashion companies consist of brands such as Zara, H&M, and Forever 21. These brands churn numerous clothing lines out each month and sell their products at a low cost to make them more appealing. 


ic: fast fashion companies that dominate the market | graphic source:


These companies are also known for copying styles from runway shows, current events, and other competing brands in order to launch fresh clothing lines that entice new customers and encourage existing ones to keep on spending. This means that their priorities lie with constantly meeting wasteful consumer demands, instead of creating sustainable products that people will buy regardless of the latest trends.

Fast fashion companies are detrimental to the environment because they produce a high volume of clothing at a low price. In addition, they often use low-quality synthetic fabrics like nylon and polyester that are not biodegradable, so they take several hundreds or even thousands of years to break down after being tossed out. There's a way to use synthetic material correctly, and the results definitely don't end up in the trash quickly.

In addition, the unethical labor practices of fast fashion are often found in developing countries that are unable or unwilling to protect their workers. People working in mass clothing manufacturing are typically paid a deplorable wage and often forced to work in poor, unsafe conditions.

In recent years, the awareness of sweatshops and child labor has forced fast fashion companies to reevaluate their business practices. Yet all too often, companies pay peanuts to workers to produce cheap t-shirts that they sell at a huge profit to the end consumer.

While fast fashion keeps the clothing industry booming and millions of consumers around the world fulfilled until the next trend goes viral, this never-ending cycle has devastating effects on the environment, animals, and people worldwide.


ic: graphic source:


The Environmental Impact of Fast Fashion

As previously mentioned, the environmental cost of fast fashion is devastating, accelerating climate change, and contributing to rare severe weather patterns. Here are some depressingly interesting facts about the fast fashion industry. 


ic: a "painted," dye-polluted landscape that should only exist within paintings | photo source:


The Health Impact of Fast Fashion

As consumers, we aren’t spared from the health consequences of cheaply and quickly produced apparel. The problem is a lot closer than one may think.

Fast fashion clothes are often sprayed with formaldehyde to prevent the development of mildew or wrinkling during shipping. This known dangerous chemical has been banned in several countries, as extensive exposure such as overconsumption of clothes can cause severe allergic reactions.

Many synthetic and synthetically-treated materials (that includes you, dyed cotton) contain harmful substances such as formaldehyde. Long-term exposure has been known to raise the risk of leukemia and cancers of the nose, throat, and sinuses. Certainly not what you want sitting against your skin! 


ic: a GreenPeace protest outside of a Zara store, condemning the use of hazardous chemicals in manufacturing | photo source:


In addition, VOCs, or Volatile Organic Compounds, are often found within the fibers of synthetic apparel and traditionally dyed fabric. They continue to release potentially harmful gases into their surrounding environment even after months of use.

Common VOCs include known carcinogens linked to a higher risk of cancer. VOCs can cause:

  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Headaches
  • Respiratory problems
  • Neurological issues
  • Liver and kidney damage
  • Infertility and miscarriage

Our consumption choices don’t just affect us as consumers: they have widespread, global implications on the health and well-being of millions of people, often in developing countries with little to no protection from systemic environmental destruction. 

While we as consumers can choose the slow fashion way of life by supporting responsible fashion brands, companies need to make the leap easier by becoming more responsible and promoting more ethical and environmentally friendly manufacturing practices. In order to help alleviate suffering and protect others from harm across the world, the status quo of fashion must change. 


What Are Slow Fashion Companies?

Slow fashion companies focus on creating sustainable, ethical, and environmentally-friendly clothing. They typically have slower production times, which limits them to producing fewer items at the benefit of a higher quality product that lasts longer. Slow fashion companies often use environmentally-conscious materials, such as fabrics that have been recycled or are destined to be composted at the end of their lifespan.


ic: words of truth from the great Vivienne Westwood | image source:


In addition, slow fashion companies typically have a more ethical approach to labor than their speedy rivals, valuing fair wages for their workers and ensuring that they are treated fairly in safe conditions. 

They typically adopt a more considerate business model overall, emphasizing the importance of human rights, conscious consumerism, and preserving the environment through sustainable production practices like sublimation printing. 


Sublimation Printing vs. Dyeing—Why Does It Matter?

Dyeing clothes is a common practice that has been around since the beginning of recorded human history. It has transformed the fashion world into the colorful and elaborate industry that we see today, and every day we grow to consume more and more clothing. 

With this rise in consumption comes an increased demand for dye. It can take as much as 200 tons of water to dye a mere 1 ton of textiles. In addition, traditional textile dye is usually chock-full of carcinogenic chemicals like copper, arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury. 

These chemicals are then released into the ecosystem, which can kill aquatic wildlife, seep into soils and waterways, and poison the water sources for surrounding communities. 


ic: gross! not this stuff again | photo source:


Sublimation printing is now widely used by ethical clothing companies as an alternative that uses a closed loop printing process, which saves massive amounts of water and reduces pollution entering the environment. 

The method of sublimation printing uses heat to transfer dye from a pre-printed sheet onto fabric. The heated ink is vaporized, binding onto the fibers of the fabric directly without any ink wasted or released into the environment. 

In addition, sublimation printing results in far superior products that last far longer than traditionally dyed fabric and don’t fade as much over time.

By designing clothing to last, slow fashion companies can create less waste. They also have better quality control with a smaller product volume, which means that they can be more attentive to the needs of consumers and implement timely improvements based on customer feedback. 


ic: amazing-quality fabric on CH13 drawstring bags—tough to get dirty and still looking pristine after many wears | photo source: a happy & super-stylish raver


Slow fashion companies are rapidly gaining popularity due to their high-quality products and ethical business practices. As consumers become increasingly aware of the damage done to the environment and human rights by fast fashion, more and more are turning to slow fashion and favoring the use of sustainable products that support responsible labor practices / production processes. 

One of the challenges that slow fashion companies face is keeping up with the rapid production cycles of fast fashion and keeping their costs low enough to compete. However, you really do pay for quality! Slow fashion companies focus on creating high-quality items that can be worn and loved for many years, saving consumers money in the long run. 


How Can Consumers Support Slow Fashion?

1. Avoiding fast fashion, of course! Make a thoughtful effort to purchase from sustainable slow fashion businesses. 

The first step, of course, is to stay away from brands that continuously churn out new product lines out to meet current trends. By educating ourselves on the impacts on fast fashion, we can decide which brands to avoid and only purchase from sustainable businesses that value preventing harm done to people and the environment.

These businesses often strive to use sustainable resources, recycled materials, and renewable energy as part of their moral foundation. Sustainable companies are usually more expensive than fast fashion brands, but they are worth the investment for the higher quality products you get and the difference you make in the world with your purchase. 


ic: graphic source:


2. Don't forget the 3 important R's: reduce, reuse, and recycle

When it comes to clothes, fast fashion has led to a culture of horribly wasteful consumption. We buy something, wear it a few times, and then toss it aside in favor of something new. This is not only bad for the environment, but it's also terrible for our wallets.

Before buying a piece of clothing, think about whether you need something brand new, or if you can buy it second-hand. Take time to decide if you're absolutely sure and consider whether you can trade with a friend or buy second-hand, as this way you can keep someone’s trash from hitting the landfills. Added bonus: a happier wallet! Thrift stores are a goldmine of treasure with clothing that can still handle many more happy years of use before falling apart. 


ic: organizing a clothing swap with friends can be a really fun way to give new life to forgotten apparel (and nab that shirt you've always wanted from your buddy) | photo source:


You can also reuse all of your old clothing by seeing if you can find another use for them around the house. For example, old pillowcases can make good storage bags, or you can turn old t-shirts into rags. Using an old sock as a hand-mitt works as a great DIY duster.

An excellent way to fight against fast fashion is to recycle and repair minor tears/damage on items instead of throwing them out. Patagonia goes above and beyond as a company in this arena, offering a lifetime repair program. If the boredom you feel from your old stuff is still too much, there are several ways to recycle clothes like donation sites and thrift stores, so your unwanted apparel can possibly become someone else’s treasure! 


3. Support ethical businesses that give back to the environment 

When it comes to sustainable and ethical companies, we can consider a few factors when choosing which companies to support. One of the most important things is how the business gives back its profits. A few examples include causes like Tree-Nation and 1% For The Planet, where companies donate a portion of their earnings to support environmental or social causes.



Another factor we can consider is how the company operates. Are they environmentally sustainable? Are they cruelty-free? Are they fair trade? These are all vital considerations when looking for sustainable and ethical businesses.

Finally, another aspect to consider is the price point. Quality does come at a price, and sustainable / ethical brands are notoriously pricier than fast fashion brands. However, the higher quality products will last way longer than cheaply made fast fashion products, which could actually save you loads in the long run. 


Final Thoughts

We live in the fast fashion world. We feel the force that compels us to keep up, keep buying, and keep replacing our wardrobes with new pieces with hopes that the trends don't outrun us. Whenever we go shopping, mass-produced fast fashion brands are widely available to compete for our attention by making us believe that if we don't shop now, we'll get left in the dust.

However, there are plenty of kinder, more responsible businesses out there with far superior products that don't leave anyone sad and tired. With some research, we can support the little guys and leave fast fashion behind us where it belongs. Thanks for reading, and all the best in your move towards a happier, healthier lifestyle! 


banner image courtesy of Andrei Stanescu / Getty Images

author: Adeline Ee | editor: Cat Durden

Adeline Ee
Adeline is a nature-lover and sustainability writer originally from Singapore. She holds a BA in Mass Communication from the University of Washington, and concluded a 10 year marketing career to pursue her love of writing. She utilizes her scrappy investigative journalism skills to help inform others across a range of topics including ethical business practice and eco fashion.

2022 fashion trends anti-waste closed loop production conscious consumerism eco friendly ethical business fast fashion green shopping slow fashion state of fashion sustainable clothing

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