Fast Fashion: The Environment’s Downfall

The price of the $3 top we find online is as low as it can go. But the cost of that top to the environment is way higher than we ever stop to think. The popularity of inexpensive clothing websites has increased significantly over recent years. These fast fashion websites have begun to dominate the world of online shopping. The appeal of these sites is that the clothes are in style and obtainable at low price. 

The rise of fast fashion websites and the poor quality clothes they offer has consumers shortening the clothes service life. The cycle of fast fashion and the want to stay trendy also has the majority of clothes bought from these sites to end up in landfills after they have served their short lived purpose. “Fast fashion” is the term that has been coined to describe these websites that have become favorable to consumers looking for cheap, trendy clothes. According to the EPA on their website, on their page “Textiles-Material Specific Data,” it was “estimated that the generation of textiles in 2018 was 17 million tons.” Specifically in the United States, the volume of clothing that is thrown away each year has doubled in the last 20 years. It’s important to note that out of the 17 million tons of clothes, only 14.7 percent is recycled. Less than 15 percent means that there is room for improvement in how we dispose of clothes when we no longer find them useful. 

Fashion is among the world’s most polluting industries: it requires large quantities of raw materials, creates high levels of pollution, leaves a significant carbon footprint, and generates copious levels of waste. The relationship between the fashion industry’s need to continually evolve to satisfy consumers’ insatiable desire to acquire the latest trends and the loss of exclusivity as consumers acquire the most popular garments, shows that the fashion industry is inherently opposed to sustainability.

Solene Rauturier in the article, “What Is Fast Fashion” for good on you, made the point, “Clothes shopping used to be an occasional event—something that happened a few times a year when the seasons changed or when we outgrew what we had. But about 20 years ago, something changed.” The main goal of fast fashion is to get the newest styles on the market as fast as possible. Then these companies hope that consumers grab these clothes while they’re at the pinnacle of popularity and then discard them after a few years. This cycle contributes to the idea that wearing the same outfit more than once is looked down upon. This mindset promotes the current system of overproduction that has made fashion one of the largest polluters. 

A movement to combat fast-fashion has arisen known as slow fashion which places emphasis on more sustainable practices. This movement naturally promotes sustainability through more ethical sourcing and production techniques as well as by using organic, recycled, or more durable materials. The labor involved in the production of such garments receives higher wages and greater protection than those in the supply chain of the fast fashion industry. While finished garments may cost more, they last longer and incorporate more timeless styles to combat the need for only wearing the latest trends. One example of slow fashion that is most popular is collaborative consumption. In a broad sense of the term, collaborative consumption, is the shared use of a service or good by a group of people. The main example used for collaborative consumption when talking about clothing is thrift stores. By donating and buying clothes that were donated, consumers are able to extend the longevity of the clothes instead of throwing them away. There is a solution that promotes collaborative consumption and the slow fashion movement. Going to thrift stores to seek out pieces of clothing that are timeless rather than focusing on the latest trend is a huge step in the right direction of lowering the environmental impact of clothes. Taking the time to look for clothes that will be able to stay in your wardrobe long term is worth the environmental payoff.

The convenience of the internet has made shopping for virtually anything extremely accessible. Now, if somebody sees something they like that is owned by someone else they can easily type into Google the description of the item and find it, or something similar, in seconds. Online shopping has become the norm for consumers when looking for clothes. A study by NPR found that as many as 84% of Americans have purchased clothes or shoes from a digital retailer. Clearly online shopping is popular and will continue to rise, particularly amongst young adults as the world becomes more technologically advanced. In the EU, e-commerce picked up, that over the 2010-2020 period those aged 16-24 had the biggest increase of online shopping at 29%. Younger generations are driving the increase of online shopping more than any other age group. 

Generation Z, (those born from 1990-2010) are in the most impressionable part of their lives right now. The desire to fit in and conform to cultural norms to get a positive reaction on social media is a factor that influences their eating habits, hobbies and clothing choices. Much of this generation is preoccupied with social acceptance and coolness associated with the clothes they wear. People liked to be liked, and tend to conform to popular trends in order to feel accepted. In an article for Mindless Mag, Rachel Howel makes the point that, “Although fashion can contribute to aiding an individual with good mental health, the immense pressure for young people to stay up to date can be jarring.” Trends in the world of fashion are constantly changing with every season so consumers need to buy more clothes before they’ve even worn through their old ones in order to keep up. Those on social media feel pressure to keep up to date with the newest trends because they want the validation received through likes on the pictures they post. Generation Z is also looking for lower priced clothes because most of them cannot afford to pay much more for their wardrobe. They are focused on putting their money towards other things and don’t want to pay designer prices if they can find something that looks the same for less. The most common solution for those in Generation Z has been to turn towards fast fashion websites. Fast fashion has allowed people to keep up with the newest trends at the cheapest price.

High school and college students are looking for clothes they can buy for cheap to wear once out at a party or other social event. They are looking for something to fit the theme of the outing they’re going to without breaking the bank. It’s known when they begin the process of looking for new clothes that the quality of the clothes isn’t going to be the best but that’s what they are expecting. If the clothes are damaged or the purchaser does only wear it once before it’s out of style, it doesn’t matter because they didn’t spend a lot of money on it to begin with. Due to the low price of the clothes, the quality of the material is also going to be low. A study done by Laitala K. and Klepp I.G. through PLATE, found that of the 620 clothing items used by 16 households, 50 of the garments were never used. In total every fifth garment was either never used or used only a couple of times by the current owner. Klepp and Laitala also found that of all the age groups studied, teenagers and young adults had the shortest average lifespan of all their garments at less than half compared to older generations. 

It is becoming more popular for these younger generations to shop at thrift stores. The motivation to shop in thrift stores is shifting towards being for fashion purposes.Thrift stores are trying to get rid of the stereotype that they are dark, disorganized and dirty. The motivation to shop at thrift stores is shifting away from being purely economic. For example, Plato’s Closet is a second hand store that specifically asks it’s donors for brand name clothes like Free People, LuluLemon and Urban Outfitters. They ask for name brands so that they’re target market knows that Plato’s Closet is a place to go to find those popular clothing brands. 

The problem is that the younger generations shop at thrift stores more than they donate. In Roger Bennett’s study titled “Factors Underlying the Inclination to Donate to Particular Types of Charity,” in the International Journal of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Marketing, he found that 60% of donations come from those aged 60-70. The reason these fast fashion clothes are being thrown away before their full potential is used is because there aren’t advertised places and ways to easily donate clothes.Data found in a study, Fast-fashion consumers’ post-purchase behaviours found that “fast-fashion consumers had positive attitudes towards the environment, yet they did not participate in recycling.” Author Hyun-Mee Joung, concluded that the want for these consumers to recycle was there, fast fashion companies just need to implement and remind their customers of the importance of sustainability. 

Thrift stores are the best places for clothes to go so their wearable lifetime extends beyond the first owner. These secondhand stores are not only the most convenient and popular places for clothes to be dropped off but also the best environmentally friendly option. There are other ways for consumers to dispose of their clothes that include throwing them away so they end up in landfills and take years to break down. People could also drop them off at recycling centers so they can be turned into other items such as upholstery and seat stuffing but the carbon emissions are extremely large. Recovering the energy used from burning textiles sounds like an okay idea until you look at how much energy is used to burn the materials. These alternatives don’t accomplish increased longevity of the lifespan of clothes like thrift stores. 

Throwing clothes away is the least environmentally friendly option because most clothes contain manmade fibers that don’t break down as easily and they release toxic greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide and methane. Smart Guide to Climate Change author Christine Ro makes the point in “Can fashion ever be sustainable?”, that as much as 10% of greenhouse gasses come from human activity. Carry Somers, founder and global operations director of the nonprofit organization Fashion Revolution in an interview for Wbur “The Environmental Cost of Fashion,” notes that “Even extending the life of our garments by an extra nine months of active use would reduce the carbon, water and waste footprint by around 20% to 30% each.” According to the US census, “There are currently more than 25,000 resale, consignment and Not For Profit resale shops in the United States.” Donating clothes to thrift stores is the most convenient way to recycle old clothes. 

Textile recycling is when fabrics are collected and then reprocessed into useful products. This process is better than throwing clothes away, but the carbon waste and greenhouse gasses emitted is still much greater than donating clothes to thrift stores. In a study done for MDPI by Toshiro Semba, Yuji Sakai, Miku Ishikawa and Atsushi Inaba titled, Greenhouse Gas Emission Reductions by Reusing and Recycling Used Clothing in Japan, the CO2 emissions of clothes that were “reclaimed” or thrifted was only 2.10×109kg. To compare, from the same study it was found that the CO2 emissions from clothes that were used for textile recycling was almost double at 4.01x 109kg. There are thrift stores located in every town across America meaning, there is easy access and common knowledge as to where the closest one is in relation to an individual. If people go to drop off their clothes at a thrift store in their town that’s close enough to them that they can walk to, they wouldn’t even be contributing to releasing carbon emissions from driving a car. According to the EPA the average carbon emissions for a car per year is 4.6 metric tons. To put the carbon emissions of a car into perspective when comparing it to the emissions from textile recycling, there are only about 4100 kilograms in 1 ton. In one year, a car emits about 4.4×106 kg of carbon emission in comparison to textile recycling’s 4.01×109kg. 

Recovering the energy used from burning textiles is a way to recycle clothes but doing so raises environmental concerns. A study done for the Royal Institute of Technology, Environmental Assessment of Textile Material Recovery Techniques by Lena Yohannan found that the main benefit of incineration is that textiles don’t need to be separated and the collected waste can be brought directly to the incineration plant. However, when textiles are incinerated in large amounts there is the potential issue that the packed textile particles can leave material about it un-ignited. Incineration of textiles causes negative impacts on the environment because of the ashes, both bottom and fly away in addition to other emissions. It’s also important to note that the study done by Yohannan found that most of the energy being used came from non-renewable energy sources. Yohannan shockingly notes that, “When only considering the combustion of the cotton and polyester content in 1 ton of textile waste, 785 kg of CO2 is found to be emitted.” When you incinerate clothes, plastic is being burned which contributes to the emission of CO2.

After examining other avenues of getting rid of clothes from one’s closet it has been found that donating is the best option. From a convenience standpoint, finding a thrift store is much easier than finding a textile recycling bin or incinerator as they are the most accessible places to drop off old clothes. Textile recycling causes more CO2 emissions than dropping clothes off at a local thrift store. Burning the textiles can create energy that can be reused but it takes more energy to burn the clothes than it makes up for. 


Bahareh Zamani, Gustav Sandin, Greg M. Peters, Life cycle assessment of clothing libraries: can collaborative consumption reduce the environmental impact of fast fashion?, Journal of Cleaner Production, Volume 162, 2017, Pages 1368-1375, ISSN 0959-6526

Bennett, Roger (2003),  “Factors Underlying the Inclination to Donate to Particular Types of Charity,” International Journal of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Marketing,” Vol. 8, pp. 12-29.

Brown, R. (2021, January 08). The environmental crisis caused by Textile Waste. Retrieved April 06, 2021

Commerce statistics for individuals.  Retrieved April 12, 2021. 

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Howell, Rachel (2020, October 10)  Gen z’s pressure to keep up with fashion trends.  Retrieved April 12, 2021.

Joung, H.-M. (2014), “Fast-fashion consumers’ post-purchase behaviors” , International Journal of Retail & Distribution Management, Vol. 42 No. 8, pp. 688-697.

Laitala K. and Klepp I.G. Age and active life of clothing. (2016, October 27). Retrieved April 12, 2021.

NPR/Marist poll: Amazon is a Colossus in a nation of shoppers. (2018, June 06). Retrieved April 12, 2021. 

Rauturier, S. (2021, March 29). What is fast fashion? Retrieved April 06, 2021

Ro, Christine. Can fashion ever be sustainable? Retrieved May 01, 2021, from Can fashion ever be sustainable? 

Semba, T., Sakai, Y., Ishikawa, M., & Inaba, A. (2020). Greenhouse Gas Emission Reductions by Reusing and Recycling Used Clothing in Japan. Sustainability, 12(19), 8214. doi:10.3390/su12198214

Textiles: Material-specific data.  (2020, October 07). Retrieved March 08, 2021Young, R., & Hagan, A. (2019, December 03).The environmental cost of fashion.  Retrieved May 01, 2021

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