• Fast fashion makes shopping for clothes more affordable, but it comes at an environmental cost.
  • The fashion industry produces 10% of all humanity’s carbon emissions and is the second-largest consumer of the world’s water supply.

Some parts of modern life are, at this point, widely known to cause environmental harm – flying overseas, using disposable plastic items, and even driving to and from work, for example. But when it comes to our clothes, the impacts are less obvious.

As consumers worldwide buy more clothes, the growing market for cheap items and new styles is taking a toll on the environment. On average, people bought 60% more garments in 2014 than they did in 2000. Fashion production makes up 10% of humanity’s carbon emissions, dries up water sources, and pollutes rivers and streams.

What’s more, 85% of all textiles go to the dump each year. And washing some types of clothes sends thousands of bits of plastic into the ocean.

Here are the most significant impacts fast fashion has on the planet.

Clothing production has roughly doubled since 2000.

While people bought 60% more garments in 2014 than in 2000, they only kept the clothes for half as long.

In Europe, fashion companies went from an average offering of two collections per year in 2000 to five in 2011.

Some brands offer even more. Zara puts out 24 collections per year, while H&M offers between 12 and 16.

A lot of this clothing ends up in the dump. The equivalent of one garbage truck full of clothes is burned or dumped in a landfill every second.

A truck unloads garbage at a temporary dump on the edge of Beirut, Lebanon September 23, 2015.
Landfill sights all across the world are filled with clothes.
Image: REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

In total, up to 85% of textiles go into landfills each year. That’s enough to fill the Sydney harbor annually.

The Sydney Harbour lit by the setting sun, on a summer day in Australia, November 24, 2018.
The Sydney Harbour could be filled twice annually with the textiles sent to landfill waste.
Image: REUTERS/David Gray

Washing clothes, meanwhile, releases 500,000 tons of microfibers into the ocean each year — the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles.

Many of those fibers are polyester, a plastic found in an estimated 60% of garments. Producing polyester releases two to three times more carbon emissions than cotton, and polyester does not break down in the ocean.

A 2017 report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimated that 35% of all microplastics — very small pieces of plastic that never biodegrade — in the ocean came from the laundering of synthetic textiles like polyester.

A boy in the Philippines collects plastic materials near a polluted coastline. Cheryl Ravelo/Reuters
35% of all microplastics come from the laundering of synthetic textiles like polyester.
Image: Cheryl Ravelo/Reuters

Overall, microplastics are estimated to compose up to 31% of plastic pollution in the ocean.

A giant green turtle rests on a coral reef at a diving site near the island of Sipadan in Celebes Sea, east of Borneo, November 7, 2005. Reuters
Microplastic pollution accounts for nearly a third of all ocean plastics.
Image: Reuters

The fashion industry is responsible for 10% of humanity’s carbon emissions.

A man uses his mobile phone as he walks amid smog in Tianjin, China after the city issued a yellow alert for air pollution, November 26, 2018.
The fashion industry is responsible for 1/10 of carbon emissions.
Image: Stringer / Reuters

That’s more emissions than all international flights and maritime shipping combined.

If the fashion sector continues on its current trajectory, that share of the carbon budget could jump to 26% by 2050, according to a 2017 report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

The fashion industry is also the second-largest consumer of water worldwide.

Women fetch water from an opening made by residents at a dried-up lake in Chennai, India, where taps ran dry city-wide in June 2019.
The fashion industry uses vast quantities of water.
Image: REUTERS/P. Ravikumar/File Photo

It takes about 700 gallons of water to produce one cotton shirt. That’s enough water for one person to drink at least eight cups per day for three-and-a-half years.

It takes about 2,000 gallons of water to produce a pair of jeans. That’s more than enough for one person to drink eight cups per day for 10 years.

That’s because both the jeans and the shirt are made from a highly water-intensive plant: cotton.

Farmers work at a cotton market in Soungalodaga village near Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso March 8, 2017. REUTERS/Luc Gnago
Cotton is highly water intensive.
Image: REUTERS/Luc Gnago

In Uzbekistan, for example, cotton farming used up so much water from the Aral Sea that it dried up after about 50 years. Once one of the world’s four largest lakes, the Aral Sea is now little more than desert and a few small ponds.

An image of the Aral Sea as captured by NASA’s Earth Observatory on August 25, 2000 (left) shows the diminished shoreline from where the lake sat in 1960. In 2014 (right), the lake’s east lobe dried up for the first time in 600 years. NASA
Cotton farming used up so much water from the Aral Sea that it dried up after about 50 years
Image: NASA

Fashion causes water-pollution problems, too. Textile dyeing is the world’s second-largest polluter of water, since the water leftover from the dyeing process is often dumped into ditches, streams, or rivers.

A worker dyes yarn at a textile mill on the outskirts of Agartala, the capital of India’s northeastern state of Tripura, April 19, 2008.
Dying textiles causes lots of water pollution.
Image: REUTERS/Jayanta Dey

The dyeing process uses enough water to fill 2 million Olympic-sized swimming pools each year.

The water in a ditch turns red as chemicals and waste are dumped into it from nearby tannery factories in Dhaka, Bangladesh, May 14, 2005.
The dying process.
Image: REUTERS/Rafiquar Rahman

All in all, the fashion industry is responsible for 20% of all industrial water pollution worldwide.

A boy swims in the polluted waters of the Buriganga river in Dhaka, Bangladesh, May 14, 2009. REUTERS/Andrew Biraj (Bangladesh Environment Society)
A fifth of water pollution comes from the fashion industry.
Image: REUTERS/Andrew Biraj (Bangladesh Environment Society)

Some apparel companies are starting to buck these trends by joining initiatives to cut back on textile pollution and grow cotton more sustainably. In March, the UN launched the Alliance for Sustainable Fashion, which will coordinate efforts across agencies to make the industry less harmful.