The environmental impact of the fast fashion industry

SANVT Journal

For many of us, fashion and clothing are an important part of life. The fast fashion industry has conditioned us to constantly feel the need to reinvent our style, follow new trends and buy new clothes. And constantly changing trends and cheap prices have boosted the production of clothing to massive levels.

On the other hand, climate change and sustainability are becoming increasingly important issues, as mass movements such as “Fridays for Future” show. The fast fashion industry is also reacting to these social changes and is trying to win buyers with green labels. But is this making any difference or is fast fashion still one of the dirtiest industries in the world? We took a closer look at the various stages in the fashion production cycles to get to the truth about the environmental impact of fast fashion – focused on:


In our conclusion we’ll also outline a few suggestions for a more sustainable approach towards fashion. 


Probably everyone knows this problem: Despite standing in front of an overflowing wardrobe, we still can’t find anything to wear. Greenpeace found out that a staggering 40 % of our wardrobes is rarely or never worn. Due to constantly changing trends and new collections in the shops, our own clothes quickly go out of fashion and we get the impression that we need something new again. The offer of constantly new collections is huge: Between 2000 and 2014 the production of new clothing has doubled, and in 2014 for the first time the eye-watering mark of 100 billion newly produced garments was hit. This huge growth in the past two decades is partly due to big fashion chains that have increased their offering from two collections per year at that time to five or more. Fashion giant H&M even releases 12-16 collections per year and Zara also launches a new collection approximately every two weeks (equivalent to approximately 24 collections per year).

“The fashion industry incites us to buy more than we need”

Fast fashion retailers also continue to sell their collections for extremely low prices –  and these questionable bargains are normalised and expected. Greenpeace estimates that 60 new pieces per year make their way into an average German wardrobe. However, these items are, by a long way, not used for as long as they were just a short time ago: clothes are now only worn for half as long as they were in 2002, and more than half of our wardrobe ends up in landfill within 3 years.

Source: Greenpeace. (2017): “Konsumkollaps durch Fast Fashion”


But it is not only the high consumption and huge production volume that are to blame for the negative impact the fashion industry has on the planet. The environmental impact begins with the cultivation of the materials used to make clothes – either natural fibers, chemical fibers or a mixture of both. But what exactly is so harmful about the processes involved?  

Natural fibers

In the case of natural fibers, we speak of materials such as cotton, silk or wool. The most frequently processed natural fiber is cotton (used purely or most likely as a blend in 40 % of all clothing), which is grown in about 80 countries around the world. The main problem in the cultivation of cotton is the high water consumption used in cultivation. For example, 1 kg of conventional cotton needs about 11,000 liters of water. In addition, pesticides and insecticides are used in most cotton fields and two-thirds of the cotton grown is genetically modified. Cotton can also be grown more sustainably and without the use of pesticides: however, this “organic cotton” also consumes a lot of water and is sometimes harvested in developing countries under questionable working conditions. Read a previous article in our blog to find out more about the advantages and disadvantages of organic cotton.

Chemical fibers

60 % of clothing produced is made from synthetic materials – mainly polyester, polyamide (nylon and perlon), polyacrylic and elastane. The most commonly used synthetic material is polyester. Polyester consists of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), of which the basic materials are petroleum, hard coal, limestone and natural gas. The production of polyester alone requires 98 million tons of crude petroleum every year. This currently corresponds to about 1 % of the oil produced worldwide. And the trend is rising. If the fashion industry remains on this course, consumption could rise to 300 million tonnes of oil by 2050, and would be responsible for 26 % of human CO2 emissions by 2050Currently this figure is 10%, which is more than all international flights and sea shipments together (5 %). Overall, the production of polyester (= 6 kg CO2 per T-Shirt) emits three times more CO2 than the production of cotton (= 2 kg CO2 per T-Shirt). 

“The fashion industry is responsible for 10 % of the global CO2 emissions. This is more than the global air- shipping traffic combined”  

Source: Fokus Online (2019). “Schlimmer als Kreuzfahrten: Mode-Wahnsinn zerstört Umwelt – wie wir das ändern”.

Sources: Ellen Macarthur Foundation. (2017). A New Textiles Economy. & EEA Europa. (2016). “Luft und schiffsverkehr im Fokus”.


Water pollution due to microplastics (during use)

But it is not only the production of chemical fibers that is harmful to the environment. Another problem of synthetic materials is that they are very difficult (or often impossible) to biodegrade. This has serious consequences for oceans and inland waters. The fashion industry is responsible for 35 % of the microplastics in the sea and is the main source of microplastics in the oceans. When polyester clothing is washed, tiny fibers are detached, which then end up as microplastics in the wastewater and consequently also in the rivers and oceans of the world. Since microplastics are not biodegradable, it becomes dangerous especially for animals. But microplastics are also increasingly problematic for humans. As long as animals absorb microplastics through their food, microplastics will also get into our food-system and thus into our bodies.

Source: IUCN. (2017). Primary Microplastics in the ocean.

Water pollution due to chemicals (due to production)

The fashion industry is also responsible for polluting fresh water with chemicals because the chemicals that are used to dye textiles, end up in rivers as wastewater without any kind of filtering or recycling, especially in developing countries. The reason for this is that filter systems, which are designed to stop the chemicals, are often not used by production facilities in developing countries in order to save costs (often forced cost savings, as global fashion chains demand ridiculously low prices from their suppliers). Since many factories depend on their powerful customers, they have to take illegal risks, exploit nature and their work-force. 

It goes without saying that these chemicals can also be life-threatening for animals, plants, and local communities. 

Source: IntechOpen. (2017): Challenges and treatment of microplastics in water.


As mentioned earlier, the fashion industry now produces more than twice as much clothing as it did in 2000, and even though consumption has increased, not all garments that are produced find their way to buyers. What really happens to non-sold garments after they have left the stores is hard to find out and the fashion giants don’t give much information about it. If you trust insiders, though, it would seem that every 5th piece is not sold. Apart from the sale in outlets and the recycling of filling materials, it is assumed that most of the clothes are burned. This would result in significant CO2 emissions. It’s shocking to think that 80 % of all clothes sold end up in residual waste sooner or later. Only 1 % is fully recycled.

Source: Business of Fashion (2018): The State of Fashion 2018 & Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, Bund für Umwelt und Naturschutz Deutschland (2019): “Plastikatlas”


But what can you do to prevent or at least reduce the impact your fashion consumption has on the environment? Here are 7 suggestions to help you shop more sustainably. And more details on sustainable fashion habits can also be found here in one of our former blog posts.

Buy less

Check your wardrobe to see how many garments are in there that you hardly wear. If, like most people, there are plenty of items you don’t wear then try to appreciate your old clothes again instead of following the latest trends. 

Buy used

When going on a shopping spree, it is also worth visiting second-hand shops, flea markets or vintage online marketplaces. Here you often find great pieces that deserve a second chance. Not only that, you can often find higher-quality clothes that you couldn’t otherwise afford.

Quality over quantity

If you want something completely new, you should invest in good quality and timeless classics so that your clothes last longer. Fair Fashion brands are especially suitable as their collections are typically better made and last longer than fast fashion (or even designer) products, as well as being ethically produced.

Cotton instead of polyester 

When buying your clothes, pay attention to the fabric. One rule of thumb here: cotton is better than polyester! Cotton clothing is usually more environmentally-friendly as cotton is biodegradable. Cotton garments are also softer on your skin. 

Fair Fashion instead of branded clothing

Fair Fashion often seems expensive compared to clothing from cheap chains. But if you compare their prices with global brands, prices are often similar. So, it is better to invest in sustainable clothing than in branded items, which are often produced in the same questionable conditions as clothing from fast fashion giants.

Wash less

Sometimes it is enough to air-out clothes or partially remove stains before putting them in the washing machine. Also, only wash when the machine is full and use bio detergent which does not pollute the waste water with chemicals.


Don’t throw your clothes away immediately if they are broken, you can repair many defects yourself. But if you don’t have the time or the skills, you can also take your clothes to your local tailor who should be able to repair most defects for a reasonable price. 

 Find more information about how to make your clothes last here.

What makes SANVT different?

In our company philosophy on the environment you will find information on how we try to minimize the problems described in this article and how we want to make a positive contribution to environmental protection. SANVT aims to want to encourage a “more gentle” approach to fashion and nature.

Infographic: Environmental impact of the fast fashion industry

All information, at one glance: Download as PDF.