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Environmental and Social Impacts of Fast Fashion

In our daily life, we see people in different brand shops, looking to be trendier. Regardless of age or gender, the average people look for inexpensive and affordable clothes produced by mass-market retailers like Zara, H&M, and Gap, to represent the latest trends taken from the most recent catwalks. Fast fashion allows people to purchase trendy clothing that was produced rapidly by big and more affordable brands, only to wear them just a few times.

Although fast fashion might make shopping for clothes more affordable, it comes at an environmental and even social cost. The fashion industry is amongst the leading industries that affect the environment in a negative way. Globalization has made the production of increasingly less expensive clothes possible, for many consumers to consider their clothes disposable. Disposable clothing seems to be popular, regardless of the pollution and the potential occupational and environmental hazards.

Fashion’s Environmental Impacts

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is aimed to provide a blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future. There are 17 goals to Sustainable Development linked with economic, social and environmental growth. Let’s take a look at the sustainability goals that are being jeopardised by the fashion industry, starting with introducing the negative environmental impacts of cotton production.


The fashion industry the world’s second largest consumer of the world’s water supply as it relies heavily on water to survive in the supply chain. Cotton is the most important natural fibre in textile and therefore fashion industry, Not all cotton is grown in rain-fed fields; Around half of the cotton production requires additional irrigation, which can add to stresses on local water. Fashion is called a thirsty business since it needs water from the irrigation of cotton crops to the domestic washing of clothes, not just cotton, polyester, viscose and other materials also need a lot of water.

According to the Water Footprint Network, the water footprint of cotton, that shows the volume of freshwater used to produce it, is 11,000 liters of water for 1 kilogram of cotton. Therefore, the cost of a 250-gram shirt, is 2700 liters of water. Based on a report by CNBC “Just one pair of regular jeans requires 3,625 litres of water (the same amount of water one person requires for basic survival for around 2.5 years)”, said Christina Dean.

Textile Exchange has explained the cotton water consumption more detailed: “Of this total water volume, 45% is irrigation water consumed (evaporated) by the cotton plant; 41% is rainwater evaporated from the cotton field during the growing period; and 14% is water required to dilute the wastewater flows that result from the use of fertilizers in the field and the use of chemicals in the textile industry.” Only the cotton production itself is jeopardizing at least four goals of Sustainable Development goals in the 2030 Agenda. Namely clean water and sanitation, life below water, climate action and good health and well-being.


From field to the final product, cotton passes through different production stages, affecting the water resources. Researches about the water footprint of cotton consumption have shown that about 53 percent of the global cotton field is irrigated, producing 73 percent of the world’s cotton production. Irrigated cotton production usually takes place in Mediterranean and other warm climatic countries where freshwater is already in short supply such as Egypt, Uzbekistan and Pakistan. Pakistan draws 31 percent of irrigation water from ground water. The province of Xinjiang in China, the country that holds the production of cotton, is entirely irrigated. The extensive freshwater use in China has caused falling water tables. The Aral Sea is the most famous example of the effects of overusing water for irrigation. In the period 1960-2000, the Aral Sea in Central Asia lost approximately 60% of its area and 80% of its volume.


Cotton’s most noticeable environmental impacts are caused by the use of agrochemicals and particularly pesticides. Aral Sea in Central Asia, the Indus Delta in Pakistan and the Murray Darling River in Australia are victims of pollution by cotton. Soil degradation and erosion, contamination of water due to the use of pesticides and fertilizers, and pollution are some of the negative impacts of cotton production. The saddest part of the truth behind the fashion industry is that it uses enough water that can quench the thirst of 110 million people for an entire year.

Although freshwater use has not yet reached its planetary boundary, we are aware that the access to it is uneven across the Earth. There are certain areas already living in a state of near-permanent water stress, for example, North Africa and South Asia. The volume of freshwater consumed by the fashion industry is enough to fill 32 million Olympic-size swimming pools and is predicted to increase by 50% until 2030. China and India, as the biggest cotton producers, are already facing medium to high levels of water stress. This critical situation might lead to the fashion industry and cotton-growing nations to choose between cotton production and securing clean drinking water.


The fashion industry affects the level of atmospheric CO2 that has already exceeded by 20% of its safe zone. “The industry’s CO2 emissions are projected to increase by more than 60% to nearly 2.8 billion tons per year by 2030. The equivalent of emissions produced by nearly 230 million passenger vehicles driven for a year, assuming average driving patterns” The value opportunity at stake of improved energy management in the fashion industry with€67 billion, represents shifting climate patterns, as some of the primary manufacturing locations in the fashion sector are vulnerable to climate change and rising sea levels. The greatest impacts on the climate are from processing, the use of apparels and the production of raw materials.

Chemical usage

Cotton production is a process that requires the use of fertilizers. It consumes 4% of Nitrogen fertilizers and phosphorous globally. This is while the level of biochemical flows from the flow of phosphorus of fertilisers to erodible soils, has already exceeded the safe operating space by 220%.

Cotton production is using 16% of all insecticides and 7% of all herbicides. The damages to the environment are done also by the discharged organic and inorganic toxic substances to waterways. The severe impacts water pollution can have on human health includes the possibility of cancer, acute illness or other severe conditions due to toxins building up in the body.

The Global Fashion Agenda has estimated a profit of €7 billion, by eliminating such health impacts due to poor chemical management by 2030.

Waste creation

Humankind produces 2.1 billion tons of waste per year. The industry’s waste is predicted to increase by 60% by 2030, with an additional new 57 million tons of waste generated annually. By 2030 the total fashion waste will be 148 million tons. Most luxurious brands of the world willingly destroy their so-called “deadstock” by setting perfectly good clothes on fire as a way of preserving product scarcity and the exclusivity of the brand. The Wall Street Journal has reported that every winter the Tuscan Workshops pf Stefano Ricci, box up the year’s unsold products that include cashmere suits and silk ties, and send them off to be burned as waste, partially to claim a tax credit. This is not just about luxurious Italian brands. H&M and Bestseller, the high street retailers, are accused of burning tons of new and unsold clothes per year.

This dirty little secret of fashion is nothing new, for years brands have been incinerating what they could not sell. Doctor Christina Dean, founder and CEO of Redress (a Hong Kong based NGO working to reduce waste in fashion industry) has said during an interview that “It is yesterday’s news as it is happening everywhere in the industry, across the entire board. The only difference is that H&M got caught. I know many companies are doing it.” In her comments, there is zero transparency for consumers, but brands are open about it. Therefore, we should not just blame H&M and Bestseller, as they have been the only ones that got caught, while luxurious brands are the ones that even burn leather. A recent report by Pulse of the Fashion Industry has stated that fashion generates 4% of the world’s waste each year, 92 million tons.

Social impacts

We should keep in mind that fast fashion does not only have negative environmental impacts; after water pollution, land usage, textile waste and using toxic chemicals, fashion industry has been criticised for its negative social impacts against many sustainable development goals of the 2030 agenda; including decent work and economic growth, gender equality and reduced inequalities.

Brands and retailers like H&M and GAP have been criticised for creating atmospheres where employees are poorly paid and where the working environment can be dangerous. Regardless of how much this industry has created job opportunities in many countries, the pressure to meet fast fashion’s deadline is leading to women employees especially in Asian factories of these brands being victims of gender violence.

According to Global Labor Justice, women from Dhaka, Bangladesh, Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka and other countries, are routinely subjected to a wide range of violence. These researches show that the women are subject to violence on the basis of their gender or simply because they are perceived as less likely or able to resist. Radhika who was a female employee working for H&M describes the violence she went through in a few saddening sentences and I quote: “On September 27, 2017, at 12:30 pm, my batch supervisor came up behind me as I was working on the sewing machine, yelling “you are not meeting your target production.” He pulled me out of the chair, and I fell on the floor. He hit me, including on my breasts. He pulled me up and then pushed me to the floor again. He kicked me.” She is a widowed woman with a physically challenged daughter, so she needed the job. She reported this harassment to the human resources and the only thing they did was to make the manager apologize and ask her to be silent about this. However, this harassment never stopped. The #metoo movement or the Agenda to transform fast fashion can be some of the solutions to the gender base violence in fashion.


It is important to ask ourselves as consumers, is it truly worth to make a purchase of a product that has so many negative impacts? Is this product even worth being made considering that probably its lifetime is not going to be long enough to be worthy of production?

The fashion industry and the brands can create their collections not only thinking about the economic benefits for themselves, but in a more considerate way for humanity and the environment. Research has shown that nowadays a great number of consumers including many celebrities prefer sustainable brands. According to the 2015 Nielsen Global Corporate Sustainability Report, 66% of global consumers say they are willing to pay more for more sustainable brands. This number has been 55% in 2014 and 50% in 2013.

Now what is sustainable fashion? Of course, it is not just the brands’ fault that the fashion industry has turned into fast fashion. Based on consumer demands, the supply has grown until it has come to a point where it is okay to even burn some clothes. Sustainable fashion starts from consumers too. With regards to everything that has been said so far, on the next Article about Fast Fashion we will propose some solutions to stop or reduce fast fashion.

1- TextileExhchange. (2011). The Farm Hub. Retrieved from TextileExchange:

2-Ashok Chapagain, A. Y. (2005). The water footprint of cotton consumption. UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education, 9-15.

3-Worldwildlife. (2019). Sustainable Agriculture: Cotton. Retrieved from WWF:

4- UN (2020)Sustainable Development Goals. Retrieved from Sustainable Development Goals, Knowledge platform:

5-John Kerr, J. L. (2017). Pulse of the Fashion Industry. Global fashion agenda and the Boston consulting group, 12.

6-Counts, T. W. (2020). We are producing gigantic amounts of waste. Retrieved from The world counts:

7-Hendriksz, V. (2017). H&M accused of burning 12 tonnes of new, unsold clothing per year . fashionunited.

8-CNBC. (2019). CNBC. Retrieved from CNBC Transcript: Christina Dean, Founder and Chair, Redress; Founder and CEO, The R Collective:

9-Silliman, J. R. (2019). Global Labor Justice. Retrieved from Big Brands: The Missing Voice in the Fight to End Gender-Based Violence at Work:


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