Fast Fashion: can a balance be found between the textile industry and protecting the environment?

What are the consequences of the textile industry on the environment? Greenly reveals the truth about the fast fashion phenomenon.

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March 25, 2022

cotton flowers

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Unfortunately, the effects of climate change are becoming more and more visible nowadays. With heatwaves, fires and floods on the increase, many companies are finally acknowledging their impact on the environment.

This is especially true of one of the most polluting industries on the planet: the fashion industry. Wardrobes are updated with increasing frequency and prices are kept low to attract more customers. This phenomenon of disposable fashion has a name: fast fashion.

What is fast fashion?

Fast fashion is a true menace on both the environment and society. This phenomenon refers to the overconsumption of clothes and the rapid renewal of fashion collections.

Fast fashion, a definition

The facts are indisputable: more than 100 billion items of clothing are sold each year throughout the world, i.e. 60% more clothes than 15 years ago, according to ADEME (French Agency for Ecological Transition).

This is known as fast fashion. To increase their turnover, brands continue to produce more and more clothes and update their collections with increasing regularity by capitalising on trends and the demand for new products.

While this means there is a wide range of choice on the shelves, the production and life cycle of an item of clothing can have significant consequences for the environment and society. This overproduction is thus leading to climate change on an increasingly worrying scale.

Human rights scandals in the spotlight

Although the fashion industry generates 1 million jobs worldwide, working conditions are far from ideal. The frenetic pace of production, low workers' pay and poor working conditions create an abhorrent situation. In light of this, certain ethical and eco-friendly brands have chosen to base their production in France, following the example of Bomolet.

One particular example demonstrates how little interest employers often have in worker safety. In 2013, a dramatic accident occurred in Bangladesh when the Rana Plaza production plant collapsed, killing 1,200 people.

Another example is the forced labour of the Uyghur people in China, currently the subject of a major scandal. Furthermore, big name brands in the textile industry are implicated in this affair (Nike, Puma, Adidas and Lacoste).

In addition, the fast fashion workforce is regularly exploited. With the aim of saving money at all costs, brands disregard human rights by producing goods in Bangladesh or Pakistan where workers are paid next to nothing.

According to the Blaune website, for a T-shirt produced in India and sold for €29, the price can be broken down as follows:

  • €17 goes to the shop;
  • €3.61 represents the profit made by the brand;
  • €3.40 is to pay for the raw materials;
  • €2.19 is to pay for transport;
  • €1.20 is paid to the various intermediaries;
  • €1.15 euros represents the Indian factory's profit;
  • 27 cents on overheads;
  • 18 cents to pay the worker's salary.

What are the impacts of fast fashion on the environment?

Fast fashion has many negative effects on the environment and is extremely harmful for both biodiversity and human life. It is time to raise awareness of the ecological footprint associated with the life cycle of an item of clothing, as shown in this video by Le Monde:

A water and pesticide intensive industry

Cotton is the most consumed textile fibre in the world (in high demand for its quality and absorbency), but it is the most polluting crop on the planet, according to Weebio.

To protect this crop from external dangers, a quarter of the pesticides consumed worldwide are used in its production, as well as 4% of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilisers globally. Pesticides contain arsenic derivatives that endanger the health of workers and pollute the soil, water and biodiversity.

And that's not all! This material requires 120 days of sunlight a year and a huge amount of water. A UNESCO study has shown that 10,000 litres of water are needed to produce 1 kg of cotton, 33% of which is drinking water. As an example, 2,700 litres of water are required to make one T-shirt, the equivalent of 70 showers.

Consequently, 4% of the world's drinking water is used to produce our clothes, making the textile sector the third largest consumer of water after wheat and rice production!

Unsurprisingly, using such large quantities of water has obvious consequences for the environment. The clearest example of this is the catastrophic drying up of the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan. 20 to 60 km3 of water were diverted to water cotton and wheat fields from 1960 onwards due to a decision made by the USSR. As a result, the decrease in surface area and the increase in salinity caused the death of millions of fish and, therefore, the forced relocation of the surrounding communities who could no longer feed themselves.

Finally, once purchased by the consumer, a garment will be washed many times. Machine washing accounts for 12% of the water consumed each year by French households, i.e. 14,000 litres of water per year.

Fast fashion responsible for plastic pollution

The textile industry also uses non-renewable resources to produce synthetic fibres (including polyester). Unlikely as it may seem, 70% of these fibres are derived from oil. In fact, 70 million barrels of oil are needed to produce 40 million tonnes of polyester each year.

Moreover, the extraction of oil results in a carbon footprint 2.5 times higher than that of a cotton T-shirt. And the problem doesn't end there.

Every time synthetic clothes are washed, they release plastic microfibres so small that they are not filtered out by sewage treatment plants. Every year, as much as 500,000 tonnes of plastic particles are released into the world's oceans, the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles.

The textile industry pollutes soil and waterways

In order to add colour to our clothes, they must go through a dyeing process. In Europe, the use of chemical constituents is limited due to the REACH regulation issued in 2007. Unfortunately, developing countries do not have a legal framework on this scale.

The 4 main toxic substances used are as follows:

  1. Nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs), used to fix dyes;
  2. Azo dyes;
  3. Phthalates;
  4. Formaldehyde (carcinogenic) for clothes that do not require ironing.


All these substances are very toxic for workers, consumers and the ecosystem. When the clothes are rinsed, some of the dye is released into wastewater. The World Bank estimates that this causes between 17% and 20% of industrial water pollution.

High waste production  

Between unsold and rarely-worn items, and those that are quickly worn out, fast fashion is responsible for a large amount of global waste. In Europe alone, this results in 4 million tonnes of textile waste per year, according to ADEME. What’s more, people are still not in the habit of recycling their clothes! 80% of clothing is simply thrown away and only 20% is recycled.

Despite this, initiatives for sustainability in clothing are springing up all over France. Brands will exchange used clothes for discount vouchers and certain associations will take items free of charge to give them a second life. As a result of these efforts, 210,000 tonnes of textiles and shoes were recycled in 2016.

Fast fashion’s high carbon footprint

According to an ADEME infographic, the fashion industry emits 1.2 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases every year. This is more emissions than international flights and maritime transport combined. This amounts to 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions and could increase to 26% by 2050 if we do not change our behaviour.

In addition to all the emissions generated by the manufacturing process, the transportation of goods (by plane and truck) is also a major source of emissions. Produced on the other side of the world (mainly in Asia), 87% of the clothes sold in France must then be rapidly shipped to stores. In other words, a pair of jeans can travel up to 65,000 km, according to ADEME.

In view of the negative effects of fast fashion, it is more essential than ever to aim for carbon neutrality.

How can we reduce the textile industry’s carbon footprint?

Fortunately, there are ecological alternatives that can reduce the carbon footprint of the textile industry. Below are some practical actions that could be taken.

The carbon assessment to measure the environmental impact of textiles

For a business to act in a sustainable manner and become carbon neutral, it is advisable to carry out a carbon assessment of the company. This proactive approach can be used to measure every source of emissions within a company in order to better reduce their emissions.


So, the carbon assessment helps companies to focus their efforts on improving transportation and reducing water or electricity consumption to facilitate their energy transition. Why not opt for the Greenly solution so that you can easily monitor your emissions? Find out more about the example of CABAÏA, a textile company and a Greenly customer that is committed to reducing the environmental impact of its products.

Making ecological issues a central focus of your operations has several advantages:

  • Improve your brand image;
  • Boost your productivity;
  • Increase your turnover;
  • Maximise your team's involvement in a meaningful cause.

Performing an LCA to understand the specific impact of a product

In addition to a company's carbon footprint, it is recommended that a Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) be carried out to understand the environmental impact of a particular product throughout its life. This environmental strategy tool covers air pollution, the destruction of biodiversity and CO2 emissions.

This calculation can be used to improve environmental performance at each stage of production and for each use phase of the product, i.e. “from cradle to grave”, thus creating environmentally-friendly products.

In the textile industry, LCA can be used to identify several possible scenarios for each garment and to implement a strategy based on the following issues:

  • The use of recycled and quality raw materials;
  • The preservation of resources;
  • The choice of a country of production using mainly decarbonised energy;
  • The choice and limitation of transport by prioritising products Made in France whenever possible;
  • Chemical-free manufacturing methods;
  • Improved waste management (recycling the product at the end of its life).

Being aware of a product’s carbon footprint is part of a continuous improvement process.

Keep in mind: Fashion brands’ commitment to sustainability issues is becoming increasingly important to consumers!  

Slow fashion as an alternative

So how can you dress in an eco-friendly way? This video from Brut. provides an overview.

Since each French person buys 9.2 kilos of clothing on average per year, it is important to adopt an ethical approach to fashion in order to consume less, but better. This concept, in contrast to fast fashion, is called slow fashion.

What is slow fashion? It is about changing our usual buying behaviour towards clothing, by purchasing more sustainable and eco-designed fabrics. It is about prioritising recycled fibres (especially organic cotton, hemp or linen), and buying high-quality, timeless pieces.

As a buyer, you should ask yourself the right questions. With clothes piling up in your wardrobe, why do you want to buy new ones? Do you really know where your clothes come from?

To identify the most committed brands and avoid being fooled by Greenwashing, look for labels on your clothes, such as SloWeAre, the European Ecolabel, Ecocert Textile or Demeter. These labels guarantee more responsible manufacturing, using renewable or recycled materials and working conditions that respect people and the environment.

Is there another way to identify which brands are trying to make a change? You can consult the list of 150 signatories of the tribune published in July 2021 in Le Monde. They have pledged to fight against the unfair competition imposed on sustainable clothing companies by introducing an environmental contribution for all polluting brands. As far as they see it, their efforts to combat climate change will have no effect if other brands are not involved.

There is one other alternative that is useful in the fight against fast fashion: Thrift shops such as The Place to Frip or Label Emmaüs where you can buy second-hand clothes either in store or online. By opting for these alternatives, you can give clothes a second life, save money and limit your social and environmental impact by buying quality products.

Did you enjoy this article?

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