Clothing and the Fashion Industry


Fashion is one of the most polluting industries in the world [often ranked 2nd]. It’s valued at $2.42.7 trillion USD and creates employment for over 300 million individuals across the global value chain. The fashion industry misses out on an extra $560 billion USD per year due to the lack of recycling and other underutilization factors.

Textile production was responsible for 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2e [12 billion pandas] emissions in 2015, which accounted for roughly 2.4% of global GHG emissions the same year [using a 50 Gt total]. Note that the textile and fashion industries are different but closely related, since apparel is responsible for roughly 60% of global fiber demand – with household and industrial textiles splitting the rest of the demand relatively equally.

As a whole, the fashion industry accounts for approximately 5-10% of our global GHG emissions – but the industry’s emissions are projected to rise by 49% by 2030. The industry also consumes roughly 215 billion m3 of water per year.

In this section we’ll follow the life-cycle of clothes to see why they generate so much pollution and waste.

Fast Fashion

There aren’t many industries like this one that intentionally manipulate individuals for profit – and do it so well. Clothes have lifetimes of decades if taken care of properly, so why are we buying new clothes all the time?

The concept that certain clothes can trend for a very short period of time is something created by fashion companies, and can be traced back to the late 1900s. These companies need a steady demand to keep making money, so it’s in their best interest to have billions of us buying the hottest fit out there. In a world without fickle fashion trends, we could all be satisfied with what makes us feel good and comfortable. We wouldn’t need to buy clothes every few months to stay ‘in’ with the season trends. We could pick our clothes, keep them as long as we wear them, then dispose of them appropriately.

That seems otherworldly. Fashion has created a stigma around wearing old clothes so that we feel the need to buy newer and take advantage of ‘good deals’ – all that to fit in or stay ahead of the trend. With that in mind, it’s pretty ironic that fashion trends have started to repeat themselves. Overalls, baggy clothes, plain oversized shirts, short sports shorts – these are all old trends that have resurfaced in the last 10 years. Almost as if we ran out of authentic ideas.

The problem with being money focused when setting global trends for billions in an extremely polluting industry is that the less these fashion companies take care of the environment, the more money is left on the table [with their current business models]. With a handful of decisions, they have the reach and influence to cause catastrophic damage to the environment.

All the clothes we buy have stained the environment throughout their production process, and they will keep on polluting during and after use. Those 3 stages of the life-cycle have significant impacts on the environment because of clothing’s production, washing, and disposal processes. We’ll see why these cause pollution and biodiversity loss and discuss what we can do to lower our impact on the environment.

Getting to the Point

The following graph shows the clothing industry’s major inefficiencies and impacts. On top of this, we could evaluate the clothing cycle’s power consumption during each stage, especially in developed countries that rely on frequent and energy-consuming washing/drying.

The industry’s pollution occurs all around the world, but most of it takes place in developing countries during the production stage. Unfortunately, it’s hard for populations in those countries to denounce the ongoing pollution of their environment by clothing companies [or the lack of worker rights]. They face multinational corporations that can relocate at the slightest sign of trouble and leave hundreds/thousands unemployed. Consequently, most underdeveloped communities that take part in the clothing production process instead have to live with polluted soils and water streams that they use for bathing, fishing, drinking, and washing.

Clothing production has doubled from 2000-2014. The UN reports that average consumer purchases increased by 60% from 2004-2019, while clothing lifetimes decreased by 36% from 2002-2016. Highly populated developing countries like China caused the most recent drops in global clothing usage, as their middle classes continue to grow and get wealthier – and adopt wasteful habits.

The US and EU-28 countries seem to have stabilized, but nowhere near sustainable levels. On average, clothes in the US are worn half as many times as in Europe. This is due to the prominent fast fashion mentality in the US, the wealthy middle class, and the ridiculously small amount of clothes that end up being reused. Unfortunately, developed countries can afford to waste clothes, for now.

Clothing sales are expected to triple from 2017-2050 should the fashion industry continue in its current trajectory. Additionally, it’s estimated that the industry will occupy over a quarter of the hypothetical 2°C carbon budget by 2050, accompanied by an increasing generation of plastic microfiber waste.

For reference, 22 million tonnes of microfibers represents about 2/3 of the plastic-based fibers used to produce clothing in 2017.

For both developed and developing countries, the key to increasing sustainability is to change the perception that clothing is disposable with better policies and higher quality products.

BEFORE – Materials

Textiles are typically made from one [or a blend] of 4 sources, each having its own environmental impacts. The most used textiles are either sourced from synthetic fabric [e.g. polyester, nylon, acrylic, and polyamide], plants [e.g. cotton, flax, bamboo, jute, viscose], animals [e.g. wool, silk], or minerals [e.g. glass fiber, asbestos]. Polyester and cotton are by far the most common.

Unfortunately, each material has its fair share of impacts on the environment. Viscose-based clothing is weakening green ecosystems around the world, since collecting wood pulp contributes to the clothing industry’s 120 million trees logged every year.

Along with this immediate impact on the environment, growing/collecting the raw materials needed to make other types of clothes consumes energy and other resources as well. Cotton takes up 2.5% of arable land worldwide and accounts for 16% [200,000 tonnes] of global pesticide use. In addition, it accounts for 4% [8 million tonnes] of the world’s nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizer use.

Plastic-based textiles are made from around 46.5 million tonnes of oil per year and accounted for over 60% of the clothing market in 2016 [compared to below 20% in the late 1990s]. It’s not likely that we stop producing polyester-based clothing in the near future – but if the material becomes sourced with recycled plastics instead, the fabric could quickly become much more sustainable.

In 2015, textile production used 98 million tonnes of non-renewable inputs [e.g. pesticides, oil, dyes, etc…]. This is set to triple to 300 million tonnes by 2050 if we don’t stray away from our unsustainable practices.

Textile production also consumes around 93 billion m3 of freshwater per year, equivalent to 4% of freshwater withdrawal worldwide. In comparison, the fashion industry as a whole consumes over 215 billion m3 of freshwater per year. That’s over 73 liters/day/person for 8 billion people [compared to a recommended 50-100 L/d/p]. In addition to consumption, water pollution caused by industrial dyeing and treatment of textiles is contaminating freshwater sources in many underdeveloped countries. This isn’t very surprising, since 43 million tonnes of chemicals [e.g. dyes or finishing treatments] are used every year to produce fibers, on top of the pesticides and synthetic fertilizers mentioned earlier.

A perfect example of how polluting the industry can be is the Citarum river in Indonesia. It holds the title of the ‘most polluted river in the world’ with over 200 textile factories along its banks.

DURING – Washing

From 2002-2016, average clothing lifetime decreased by 36% – before being thrown out for good [i.e. not reused]. We’ve been using them less between washes as well, and that means more washes or more clothes – likely both. Frequent washes mean more power and water consumption. They also mean clothes are put under more frequent strain, which damages them. Not only could this partly explain why we’ve been purchasing more clothes, it can also explain why more and more microfibers are being released into the environment due to washing.

When our clothes shed material every wash, that material ends up in waste streams – and ultimately oceans. Around 500,000 tonnes of plastic microfibers [type of microplastics] end up in the ocean as a result of plastic-based textiles washing [roughly 9% of yearly microplastic losses]. Alas, that number is projected to climb to roughly 700,000 tonnes per year by 2050, which is equivalent to dumping 4 billion polyester tops in the ocean annually. These estimates don’t even account for the microplastics that pollute our environment due to clothing’s disposal phase – which will also be on the rise if we don’t change our ways.

Of course, washing our clothes is necessary, but we’ll have to transition from washing out of habit to washing when clothes are dirty, which is kind of the whole point.

Worldwide, washing machines consume loads of power and around 20 billion m3 of freshwater annually, yet seem irreplaceable in our modern societies. Until we can find an alternative that’s nearly as convenient, we’ll have to stick with reducing usage when possible. Also, to avoid producing billions of washing machines, we could all just share the most energy/water-efficient machines on the market at eco-friendly laundromats, instead of each household having its own inefficient washing machine.

Lastly, ditching dryers for air-drying is a must in a sustainable future, since these machines require loads of energy and damage clothing. Better policies can make sure these types of ideas become a reality in the near future, to help us reduce our impacts swiftly.

AFTER – 3 Rs and Disposal

We’ve seen that a garment’s lifetime has decreased significantly over the past 15-20 years, and it’s likely going to continue to drop as more individuals around the world integrate the fast fashion cycle. To make sure that doesn’t translate into increased pollution due to greater waste generation, global clothing disposal systems will have to improve considerably.

Collection and Shipping

Some regions of the world are much better than others as far as clothing collection goes. However, that doesn’t mean that those regions are nearing any kind of circular clothing system. In developed countries, high collection rates often mean that the used clothes end up being shipped to underdeveloped regions of the world. Exporting used clothes makes sense, since clothing collection doesn’t do much for a country if its population is set in its ways of exclusively buying new clothing. However, that’s the same mindset that needs to change.

Shipping abroad effectively extends clothing lifetimes and provides cheap clothing to poor regions of the world, but it fails almost everywhere else. The exporting country’s population will still buy new clothes too often, as the high collection rates won’t slow down clothing production or underutilization. This means that production and washing – up until disposal – remain just as polluting as in any other developed country with poor collection rates.

Shipping clothes to underdeveloped countries is a sneaky move. On one hand, it’s eco-friendly and humanitarian since the receiving country’s population will be able to buy cheap used clothing. On the other hand, it’s an easy way for a developed country to pass along the responsibility of disposal while making profit/avoiding the cost of dealing with it.

It’s almost the same as sending the country some trash we don’t want to deal with, except that clothing can be used before it ends up as waste. In any case, the main problem is that exporting our clothing doesn’t help reduce consumption in the developed country – where clothing over-consumption is a much larger problem than in underdeveloped countries.

In addition, an important secondary problem is becoming increasingly visible as well – exporting these large quantities of clothes ends up increasing waste in underdeveloped countries. And, these countries typically don’t have high collection rates or sufficient recycling programs after final disposal – so these clothes end up polluting much more than if they were recycled/landfilled within the developed country [this exporting process is also happening with cars that have reached their end of life in developed countries].

It’s true that underdeveloped countries would deal with pollution even if they weren’t sent the used clothes, but far less due to the volume of clothes imported. What’s occurring in some of these countries is second-hand fast fashion, where they receive so many clothes that it actually increases the rate of clothing disposal – in an area of weak waste management systems. These countries simply become saturated with second-hand clothing.

In addition, local clothing producers are at risk of being put out of business by the seemingly endless supply of cheap second-hand clothing. In other words, by sending our used clothing abroad, developed countries are effectively dismantling the local clothing production system and creating a dependence on our clothing exports [a dependence on other countries’ unsustainable habits – not great].

Second-Hand Clothing

Resistance and Usage

To decrease the amount of clothes produced per year, we need to stop buying new clothes as much and start buying/selling second-hand clothing. For both these options, it’s clear that clothing needs to be made more durable, to ensure that clothing lifetimes aren’t bounded by poor quality. Imagine setting up a circular cycle, but where clothes fall apart after 100 uses. Wouldn’t be much of a cycle if only 1-2 people can wear the garment over its lifetime.

More resistant clothing is great. If we could add to that some more responsible washing, we’ll boost clothing lifetimes and allow second-hand mentalities to develop worldwide.

Conversely, making more resistant clothes doesn’t help anybody if they’re going to be used just as much as they are now. This might reduce the amount of microplastics – because the fabric will be damaged less during each wash– but it would also increase the environmental cost of production, as more materials are needed to make stronger clothes. We shouldn’t use this as an excuse to not adopt more sustainable practices. Most of our clothes are already strong and durable enough to last multiple years, through multiple people – it’s up to governments and companies to set-up second-hand systems and up to individuals to use them.

With all the inefficiencies, waste, and losses accounted for, it’s estimated less than 1% of material used for clothing is recycled into new clothing. This represents a loss of over $100 billion USD each year, without mentioning the environmental costs of producing new clothing again. Less than 13% of clothing is recycled at all [most of it into lower value products]. The rest is landfilled, incinerated or open dumped – when clothing could be recycled instead. Note that clothes made from multiple materials are typically much harder to recycle and should therefore be produced less and reused more.

Lastly, throwing out a piece of clothing, even if ripped or torn, is plain foolish. Apart from getting it fixed, we could quite literally get our money’s worth and reuse or sell the damaged textile as is.

Second-Hand Stores

Second-hand stores can help people contribute to the reuse system. They’re convenient, simple, and effectively extend clothing lifetimes. The only limitation to these types of businesses is the fact that they depend on a steady supply of used clothing. Currently, we’re already seeing shifts in mentalities where thrift shops aren’t as stigmatized as they were decades ago. That has significantly increased demand, especially since many of the new customers aren’t necessarily living on ends meet – they’re just looking for great deals to expand their wardrobes.

While purchasing used clothing is definitely better than buying new, we just have to be careful about respecting the cycle that second-hand stores depend on. That is, we need to keep selling/donating our used clothes to second-hand stores to maintain a steady supply that will help them keep up with demand [ideally people who don’t need to buy clothes wouldn’t – but starting with buying second-hand is better than not changing habits at all]. This will help individuals that actually need to purchase cheap clothing do so, as they’ll continue to have a wide range of clothes to choose from at second-hand stores.


The fashion industry has considerable impacts on the environment, with multiple types of materials having different impacts at each stage of their life-cycle. As such, it’ll take more than one single solution to solve all the clothing industry’s problems. We’re going to have to mix a lot of them and experiment – but we can start with what’s obvious. For instance, we know that companies and governments have to apply the 3 Rs by producing less, higher quality, reusable, and recyclable garments. They also have to set-up the proper second-hand and waste management systems to make sure that garments are used as long as possible – until disposed of appropriately.

As for individuals, it’s important to understand that overconsumption can’t go on forever. Since truly sustainable clothing production can’t exist, we’ll have to be ready to change our habits once policies are passed – or even beforehand. We’ll need to stop buying new clothes every season and instead start buying second-hand only when necessary. Then, during use, we’ll have to keep in mind that laundry machines have high environmental impacts, so sharing these appliances and reducing usage can help us reduce our personal impacts. Last but not least, we’ll have to take advantage of good second-hand and waste management systems, when available.