10 Scary Statistics About Fast Fashion & the Environment

10 Scary Statistics About Fast Fashion & the Environment

The global fashion industry, particularly fast fashion, is often viewed as a glamorous and exciting world. However, beneath the surface, it hides a much darker reality. With an enormous environmental footprint, the fast fashion sector has become one of the planet's largest polluters. The impact is widespread and devastating, from water pollution to carbon emissions and textile waste.

Fast fashion, defined by rapid trends and quick production, contributes to environmental damage. Its alarming waste statistics are particularly concerning; the U.S. alone generated 17 million tons of textile waste in 2018, with only 15% being recycled. This industry also contributes 20% of global wastewater and 10% of carbon emissions, outpacing international flights and maritime shipping. Understanding these startling facts can guide us towards more conscious consumer choices, ultimately supporting more sustainable practices in the fashion industry.

1. Fast fashion production

Fast fashion is a term that embodies the mass production of inexpensive, trendy clothes that cater to ever-changing consumer desires. The pace of fast fashion production has dramatically increased over the years. Today, fast fashion brands produce twice as many clothes as they did in 2000.

This rapid production model not only contributes to environmental degradation but also leads to significant material waste. A study estimated that about 15% of fabric used in garment manufacturing ends up as waste, further exacerbating the industry's environmental impact.

2. Clothing lifespan

The lifespan of clothing, particularly in fast fashion, has significantly decreased over recent years. Despite fashion production doubling, the average lifespan of a garment has reduced considerably. A study found that garment usage has decreased by approximately 36% over the past 15 years.

Indeed, many clothing items are worn merely seven to ten times before being discarded. This trend represents a significant drop of over 35% within 15 years. The short lifespan of these garments contributes significantly to the waste and environmental impact of the fast fashion industry.

3. Global textile waste

Global textile waste is a pressing concern, with staggering statistics that underscore the severity of the issue. As the Copenhagen Fashion Summit reported, out of the 100 billion garments produced annually, 92 million tonnes end up discarded in landfills.

In another alarming statistic, every second, the equivalent of a rubbish truckload of clothes is either incinerated or buried in landfills. These numbers highlight the scale of textile waste globally, signifying an urgent need for more sustainable practices in the fashion industry.

4. U.S. landfill statistics

The issue of landfill waste is particularly significant in the United States. An estimated 11.3 million tons of textile waste end up in U.S. landfills yearly, accounting for approximately 85% of all textiles. This equates to an alarming 81.5 pounds (37 kilograms) of textile waste per person per year.

In more tangible terms, 2,150 textile pieces are discarded per second across the country. These statistics underline the urgent need for improved waste management and recycling practices in the United States.

5. Wastewater impact

The fashion industry's impact on wastewater is significant and far-reaching. The industry is responsible for 20% of the world's wastewater, underscoring its substantial contribution to water pollution.

This pollution largely stems from processes such as dyeing and finishing, which contaminate water and contribute to 3% of global CO2 emissions. These figures highlight the urgent need for the industry to adopt more sustainable practices to reduce its environmental footprint.

6. Fast fashion's water consumption

Fast fashion's water consumption is shockingly high, particularly in denim production. To create just one pair of denim jeans, 10,000 liters of water are required to grow the one kilo of cotton needed.

To put this into perspective, a single person would take ten years to consume the same amount of water. This stark comparison underscores the unsustainable water usage associated with fast fashion. It highlights the urgent need for the industry to adopt more environmentally friendly practices.

7. Microplastics pollution

Microplastics pollution is a significant and often overlooked consequence of fast fashion. Many garments today are made from materials like nylon or polyester, which are both long-lasting and affordable. However, these synthetic materials shed microfibers during each laundry cycle, particularly during drying.

Up to 700,000 microscopic fibers can be released into our oceans each time clothing is washed. These tiny fibers travel through sewage systems and eventually find their way into water bodies. Astonishingly, over 14 million tonnes of microplastics have accumulated on the world's ocean floor, and research reveals that 35% of microplastics in oceans come from clothing. This highlights the fashion industry's significant role in global microplastic pollution.

8. The economic impact of recycling issues

The economic impact of the lack of recycling in the fast fashion industry is substantial. Over US$500 billion is lost annually due to under-utilized clothes and a need for more recycling. In the United States, only about 15% of used clothes and other textiles get reused or recycled; globally, just 12% of the material used for clothing is recycled. The main issue lies in the complex composition of clothing materials, which often include a mix of natural and synthetic fibers, plastics, and metals.

Innovative solutions are emerging to tackle these issues. One such initiative is State of Matter's - THE 360° AFTERLIFE PROGRAM, which aims to give garments a second life. This program represents a paradigm shift in the industry, focusing on circularity and sustainability. By reusing and recycling materials, this program reduces waste and unlocks significant economic value that would otherwise be lost. Through initiatives like these, the fashion industry can start to mitigate its environmental impact while also realizing significant economic benefits.

9. Returns items ending up in landfill

The issue of returned items ending up in landfills is a significant and often overlooked aspect of the fast fashion industry. In the United States alone, shoppers returned $816 billion in goods last year. Unfortunately, many of these items are sent to landfills as companies often find it more cost-effective to dispose of them than reintroduce them into the market. The scale of this waste is staggering: returns tech platform Optoro estimates that as many as 9.5 billion pounds of returns ended up in landfills in 2022 — equivalent to 10,500 fully loaded Boeing 747s. This highlights the need for more sustainable practices in handling returned items in the fast fashion industry.

10. Fast fashion pollution is projected to climb

Fast fashion pollution is a serious concern; current projections suggest it will continue to climb. The apparel industry is among the top polluters, producing vast greenhouse gas emissions. In 2021 alone, the industry released around 897 million metric tons of CO2 equivalents.

Without significant interventions, these emissions could rise to nearly 1.3 billion metric tons by 2030. This increasing trend is in direct opposition to global climate goals. As the latest U.N. climate report notes, all sectors, including fashion, must almost halve emissions by 2030 to stay in line with the Paris Agreement. These statistics underscore the urgent need for the fast fashion industry to adopt more sustainable practices.

What Can I Do Instead of Buying Fast Fashion?

If you're looking to avoid fast fashion and contribute to a more sustainable fashion industry, here are some steps you can take:

  • Evaluate Your Current Wardrobe: Regularly assess the clothes you own. Donate or sell items you haven't worn in a long time, and cherish those you wear frequently. This will help you maintain a minimalist, functional wardrobe that reduces the need for constant new purchases.
  • Invest in Quality: Prioritize purchasing well-made, durable clothing items you'll wear for years rather than opting for short-lived trends. This reduces waste and saves you money in the long run.
  • Prioritize Sustainable Fibers: When shopping, look for clothing made from sustainable fibers, which are environmentally friendly and typically more durable. Brands like State of Matter Apparel offer such products.
  • Avoid Fast Fashion Retailers: Steer clear of brands known for mass-producing cheap, trend-driven clothing, such as H&M, Zara, and Forever 21. Instead, focus on brands that emphasize quality over quantity. These brands often have more ethical and sustainable practices.
  • Research Before Buying: Spend time researching and reading reviews about slow fashion brands before purchasing. This will help you make informed choices and support sustainable and ethical fashion practices. Your buying power can make a difference, so use it wisely!