The Impact of Fashion on the Planet


Often branded as the world’s second biggest polluter, fashion often makes the front pages. True or not, the industry uses lots of resources, pollutes air and water and sends mountains of waste to the landfill.

Key Points

  • Fashion has a huge impact. Many resources are used i the production that release chemicals, increase gas emissions and creates lots of waste.
  • Water used in the fashion industry takes water away from healthy aquatic ecosystems.
  • Food could be created if resources weren’t used in the industry.
  • Emissions pollute waterways that are used for irrigation or drinking water.
  • Gases contribute to the degradation of the global climate.
  • After the oil and gas sector fashion is often quoted as the second highest polluting industry. It’s difficult to tell if this is true due to non-transparent supply chains and other polluting industries that fashion works closely with.
  • Data does exist to show that fashion is a huge contributor to pollution. Every stage of the garment creation process can create serious impacts to the environment. 

Large Footprint

Numbers from the Pulse Fashion Industry shows that the industry currently:

  • Uses enough water for 110 million people
  • Creates emissions equal to 372 million cars driving for 12 months
  • creates 13kg of waste for each person each year.
  • It takes landmass 1.3 times the size of France

In general terms there are four main areas that arise from the fashion industry.

Materials that are used deplete scarce resources.

The basis of synthetics, like polyester, use fossil fuels as the core of their fibres. If you’re using cotton then it is very water intensive and also takes lots of nutrients from soil. Viscoe pulp is made from woody materials that are sourced from bamboo or trees. And then if you use wool or leather land is cleared to raise cows and sheep for production. Jewelry depends on precious stones and minerals which takes resource intensive mining.

So you see – every type of fashion uses some type of resource from the earth.

Chemicals that are used to create clothing are oftentimes toxic and even worse are often released back in the environment

When you need to transform these natural resources in to fashion items you generally need to sue some type of chemical to get the desired effect. As an example – to use cotton you need to use insecticides, and pesticides and fertilisers. If you are using synthetic fabrics you will often use chemical baths to ‘set’ the fibres in place during the creation process.

If you need to dye fabrics this process uses a blend of chemicals to set and create the correct fabric colour. Lots of the chemicals that are used are toxic to the environment and to humans. Many countries have started to regulate chemical waste, the fashion industry often operates in countries that have less strict laws and so circumvent these policies.

Every step of the fashion industry uses energy

Every link in the supply chain is energy intensive. Energy is mainly sourced from fossil fuels which isa  contributor to climate change. Greenhouse gas emissions are released at each stage. Carbon dioxide is one of the major outputs and come about when the machines are powered to make garments.

Leather and cotton are also significant sources of carbon dioxide.

Every step in the garment process generates waste

At every stage of the fashion industry waste is created. Most of this waste ends u in a landfill. This could be left-over fabrics from cutting garments or from changes to the design at last minute which could make stock unusable and have to be thrown away. And the finally lots of waste is thrown away at the end of the process when consumers decide to get rid of clothing they have bought.

Why is this a problem?

Each part of the process has negative consequences for people and the planet.

The amount of water that is used in the fashion industry reduces the amount available for food, crops and livestock. 

Also – toxic emissions pollute the waterways for the communities that need fresh water to survive. And finally greenhouse gas emissions contribute to global warming.