How Fast Fashion Contributes to Climate Change — And What YOU Can Do About It
Every day it seems like a new fashion trend is popping up and types of clothing that were once so popular have lost their appeal. It’s not always easy to keep up, but thanks to fast fashion we’re able to find the extravagant garments we see in Vogue at our local Target.
Fast fashion is the production of quick and cheap clothing items that are meant to imitate the latest and trending styles seen on the media. Most of the time, fast fashion items are made as quickly as possible to keep up with the constantly changing fashion trends, only to be discarded within a few years when it’s no longer in style.
The problem with this, though, is that fast fashion is extremely harmful to the environment, and is one of the top industries contributing to climate change. In fact, the fashion industry accounts for 10% of annual global carbon (CO2) emissions.
But this doesn’t mean much without context and understanding where the emissions came from. In this article, I’ll be:
- addressing how the fashion industry became a top emitter of greenhouse gas emissions and where exactly these emissions come from,
- explaining other ways fast fashion harms the environment, and
- specifying how you can reduce your carbon footprint when it comes to fashion and clothing
A Quick History Lesson — How We Got Here
Before fast-fashion came about, new styles were usually only launched four times a year to match the seasons because of how long it took to produce the clothes. However, in the early 1990s, Zara opened in New York and boasted of its fast process that could go from the design phase to stores within two weeks. This soon sparked a chain reaction of retailers like H&M, Forever 21, and more producing cheap clothing in short amounts of time.
Despite how great this is for people looking to keep up with fashion trends without spending hundreds of dollars (so the majority of the population), making so many clothes at such a rapid pace ends up creating a lot of waste and harming the environment.
Making cheap clothing also requires low labor costs, which usually means buying cheap labor in countries such as China and India. While this has its own ethical issues, I’ll mainly be focusing on how fast fashion on a large scale affects the environment.
Because carbon emissions play a large role in contributing to climate change, this article mainly evaluates where the emissions from fast fashion come from.
Where the Emissions Come From
The majority of emissions comes from two different categories: the production of the clothing and consumer use (after you purchase it).
Let’s start with production.
The fashion industry works through a supply chain. (A supply chain represents the steps it takes to get a product from its original state or condition to a final product). The majority of the emissions the fashion industry emits comes from the supply chain.
In the fashion industry, the supply chain is usually described in tiers and includes how raw materials (like cotton) become a finished product. This process is highlighted below:
(Logistics just means the way the supply chain is coordinated. For example, transportation of materials from one place to another.)
The total number of emissions emitted largely depends on the production stage and the material the piece of clothing is made out of. For example, producing fabric from conventional cotton causes more emissions than synthetic, or man-made, fibers. (A common example of synthetic fiber is polyester.) While materials like cotton are natural, synthetics are often made from fossil fuels. This means a lot of energy is used to extract oil from the ground and produce the fabrics.
Note: Processes that take more energy to complete result in more greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This is because we get the majority of our energy from the burning of fossil fuels. Therefore, the more fossil fuels we burn, the more emissions we release into the air.
To better understand how the fashion industry emits such a large number of emissions, let’s break it down by going through the process it takes to produce a single white T-Shirt. (For purposes of simplification, let’s assume the t-shirt is 100% cotton. I’ll also be looking at carbon emissions or carbon equivalent emissions).
Emissions From the Production Phase
Let’s start with tiers 4 and 3 (raw material extraction and processing). This is where the raw materials, in this case, cotton, needed for the t-shirt are cultivated and then taken from their original location and processed into fibers or yarn.
Growing and ginning enough cotton for a t-shirt releases around 1.27 kg of CO2 equivalent. This comes from the use of fertilizers, water, and the structure of the soil and temperature. (This is tier 4)
Next is the processing of the cotton into fiber or yarn (Tier 3). The production of cotton releases 8 kg (17.6 pounds) of CO2 per kilogram (2.2 pounds) of fiber.
Let’s do some quick math. 😊
One white t-shirt requires around 10 ounces of cotton. (0.28 kg/0.625 lbs)
This means around 5 lbs (2.28 kg) of CO2 is released when producing cotton for a white t-shirt. (This does not include any further transportation that may be needed.)
Where are all these emissions coming from? To make the shirt, the textiles (woven fabric) have to be spun (made into yarn), knitted, and dyed. In the past, this was all done by hand. However, nowadays everything is pretty much done by machine. These machines take energy to operate. They need electricity to work and energy to heat up. This ends up causing the release of GHGs.
Moving on to tiers 2 and 1 (material production and finished production assembly). This is where the fabrics are sewn together and manufactured to create the shirt. Again, the majority of the emissions from these tiers come from the use of machines over long periods of time to produce the shirt.
Tier 0 is distribution. This is where all the clothes are shipped out to wherever they need to go. In this tier, clothes are packaged, transported to a warehouse and delivered to a customer. The transportation needed to deliver the clothes from place to place accounts for 61% of emissions that come from the distribution process.
In tier 0, 2.93 kg of CO2 emissions is released into the air.
In total, producing a single t-shirt from tiers 4 to 0 releases around 6.48 kg (14.29 pounds) of CO2 into the air. (That’s enough CO2 to fill around 28 glass cups!)
But it doesn’t end here.
While 14.29 pounds may seem insignificant, this is for one t-shirt. Every year, over two billion t-shirts are made. This doesn’t even include other types of clothing. When we think on a scale this large, it’s no surprise that the fast fashion industry releases 1.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide yearly.
But we as consumers also play a large role in the release of these emissions. Around 31% of the carbon emissions released come from the use phase. This is the point where YOU own the shirt.
Emissions From the Use Phase
When you own clothes, several emissions come from washing, drying, and wearing them. Eventually, unrecycled clothing ends up in a landfill, polluting the Earth.
Washing and drying a load of 5 kg load of laundry every two days release 440 kg (970 pounds) of CO2 equivalent in one year. A good chunk of these emissions come from the energy it takes to heat up the water to wash the clothes, and heat up the dryer to dry them.
So… What Can You Do?
Despite how seemingly big this problem is, you can create an impact. Because such a large part of the emissions come from the use phase alone, there are action items you can take to reduce your carbon footprint when it comes to fashion.
Wash your clothes at a lower temperature
Remember, the more energy it takes to heat up the water, the higher your carbon footprint. By lowering the temperature you wash your clothes in from 60° C (140° F) to 40° C (104° F), you can cut the carbon footprint of the use phase by 45%
Don’t throw away your clothes!
Less than 1% of the material used to produce clothing is recycled. In fact, 60% of all clothing made is thrown away within one year. (This is like one garbage truck full of clothing being thrown in a landfill every second!)
Recycling your clothes is so important, not just because it keeps them out of the landfill, but it also reduces the energy it takes to produce clothing.
Another tip is to just not purchase clothing you know you won’t wear at least 30 times.
Check the Material
Like I said earlier, different types of fibers contribute differently to the release of GHGs. Therefore, it’s important to be conscious about what types of material you’re buying in the clothes you wear. Avoid synthetic materials such as nylon and polyester, and try and wear more organic materials like organic cotton.
Although we have a long way to go before fashion, in general, is sustainable, taking small steps every day can add up to a large impact. Hope this inspired you to be more conscious about what you wear.
One Last Thing…
Hi, I’m Adeola! I’m a 16-year-old innovator who loves tech and the environment. Want to talk?