What is the Carbon Footprint of Fast Fashion?

The Eco Experts

Fast fashion is responsible for 10% of all global emissions

75% of the planet’s fashion market is concentrated in Europe, the USA, Japan, and China

100 billion items of clothing are produced every year, more than double what it was in the year 2000

It’s true that few people like paying through the roof for clothes. But most people don’t want to rely on the same tired wardrobe, either.

The quick fix? Fast fashion, a buzzword that has taken over the fashion industry in the last few years. But what exactly is fast fashion? And more importantly, what is its impact on the environment?

The Eco Experts have looked at world of fast fashion to work out what its carbon footprint might be, and how its continued existence is a genuine threat to our planet.

Big clothing shop, showing row after row of stacked clothing racks

What exactly is ‘fast fashion’?

Big fashion brands become big for a simple reason – people want the latest styles, styles often started by celebrity actors, music artists, or models.

The main problem is that these big fashion brands tend to charge a lot for their clothes, with huge differences between what you’d pay for a jacket in, say, Primark, versus what you’d pay for one from Gucci.

Some companies saw that they could emulate the latest styles from big fashion brands, then sell them for a fraction of the price – and thus ‘fast fashion’ began.

Why is this an issue though? The problem is that big fashion brands rely on a quick turnover for their expensive items, with a comparatively smaller group of wealthy individuals buying expensive items regularly.

Because fast fashion is always seeking to emulate the big fashion brands, you get a similar situation of relying on a quick turnover, only the profit per item is much less. So fast fashion needs a much larger audience in order to generate revenue.

If a much larger audience is constantly buying copies of whatever the latest styles are, a lot of clothes/shoes/etc. need to be made. In times gone by, you’d traditionally have two clothes-buying seasons (Spring/Summer, Autumn/Winter). Now, we effectively have 52 microseasons, one for every week.


What’s actually wrong with more clothes being made?

The fast fashion industry needs to produce huge numbers of clothes to remain profitable, and this means using a lot of resources. For example, one kilogram of raw cotton requires between 10,000-20,000 litres of water, which equates to around 3,000 litres of water for a single cotton shirt.

Put this into the perspective of a global industry, which sells around 2 billion t-shirts every single year, of which a good chunk are cotton. You can start to grasp the astonishing volumes of water needed to keep this industry going.

What’s the carbon footprint of fast fashion?

Calculating the carbon footprint of fast fashion is daunting, to say the least. We’ll use the production of a single pair of jeans to start with. From the picking of the cotton to the manufacturing of the jeans, through to the final delivery of the product to a shop, there is a lot of carbon emissions to account for.

It takes around 3,700 litres of water to produce a pair of jeans, according to figures from the UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme). This means the emission of around 33 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e).

And this is just for one pair of jeans – imagine the water needed for your entire wardrobe! Once you put it into a global perspective, things get a little mind boggling. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation collaborated with the UNEP to report some shocking statistics:

  • The fashion industry consumes 93 billion cubic metres of water every year – this is enough to meet the water needs of five million people
  • 10% of all carbon emissions globally come from the fashion industry – this is more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined
  • 20% of global wastewater comes from fabric dyeing and treatment

The rate of growth for fast fashion sees no signs of slowing either, which means the above figures will almost certainly get worse. Fast fashion’s carbon emissions for example, are projected to increase by a further 50% by 2030.

Data from the same report revealed that in 2000, 50 billion new items of clothing were produced. Twenty years later, that number has doubled – a deeply troubling trend in the midst of a climate crisis.

Interior of a clothes shop, with a white floor and ceiling, and a mannequin in the centre.

Which countries are the worst culprits?

With almost 75% of the world’s fashion market concentrated in Europe, the USA, China, and Japan, it’s immediately clear that the bulk of the issue sits on the shoulders of the world’s wealthiest countries.

Demand for new clothes in these countries is far higher than in other parts of the world, but as is often the case, it is the poorer countries that suffer the most from this demand. In order to maintain the supply of clothes, and for the fast fashion companies to sell at low prices, cheap labour is used.

Much of this labour is concentrated in clothes factories best known as sweatshops. Typically, the workers in these sweatshops earn very little (the global average is around $200 USD per year), even by comparison to other workers in the same country.

Which countries are the worst affected?

The majority of sweatshops are concentrated in Asia and Central and South America. This is because companies can more easily exploit the low wages paid to workers in these countries, and hoard a much greater profit return.

Poor countries such as Cambodia have become ensnared in fast fashion’s grip, with a huge workforce employed there to make the clothes we take for granted. With more than 700,000 workers (90% of them women) earning little more than $183 (USD) a month, they’ll never be able to afford the clothes they make.

It’s not just parts of Asia and the Americas that are affected by sweatshops – big UK brands have been accused of running sweatshops in Britain.


How can we improve?

There are loads of ways we can wean ourselves off of fast fashion – we just need to make the first step! Here are a few things to think about:

  1. Shop consciously. As the damages of fast fashion become more obvious, numerous ethical fashion brands have started to appear. Many of these companies are working towards or are already paying their workers far more than they’d earnt previously. It’s also important to look for companies using organic materials in their clothes ranges.
  2. Learn to love less clothes. Honestly, do we really need to wear a different outfit for every occasion? We need to put far less emphasis on appearing in something new each time we go out. Treat clothes with respect! Wear them again!
  3. Make new and mend. An old tip from a bygone age, but it needs a comeback. Get into the habit of fixing clothes – don’t just chuck out something because it’s got a little tear on it.
  4. Look up deadstock. This is for items of clothes that never made the shop floor, usually for some totally minor defect or just oversupply. Websites like eBay or Etsy are particularly good for this (as are some dedicated deadstock businesses).
  5. Know which brands to avoid. Until fast fashion companies make tangible efforts to reduce their impact, avoiding them is the best thing you can do to help. Research which brands are the worst offenders, and arm yourself with knowledge!

There are brilliant initiatives popping up in some of the worst-affected countries as well, proving that great fashion can be sustainable.

Clothes hanging on a rack, a mixture of autumnal tones.

Next steps

Much of the work that needs to be done obviously rests on the shoulders of the guilty brands, but governments around the world must do more too. What, exactly, is tough to say, though politicians in some countries are urging their governments to move away from the industry.

Basically, if governments aren’t willing to clamp down on fast fashion, then platitudes about sustainability sound a bit hollow. Until that happens, all we can really do is become more aware of what our fashion habits are doing to the planet, and the people who make our clothes.

Written by:
Tom Gill
Tom joined The Eco Experts over a year ago and has since covered the carbon footprint of the Roman Empire, profiled the world’s largest solar farms, and investigated what a 100% renewable UK would look like. Tom has a particular interest in the global energy market and how it works, including the ongoing semiconductor shortage, the future of hydrogen, and Cornwall's growing lithium industry.
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