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Clothing retailers like Zara, Forever 21, and H&M make cheap and fashionable clothing to satisfy the needs of young consumers. Yet, fast fashion has a significant environmental impact. According to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the industry is the second-biggest consumer of water and is responsible for about 10% of global carbon emissions – more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. Unfortunately, fast fashion problems are often overlooked by consumers.

What is Fast Fashion?

The term ‘fast fashion’ has become more prominent in conversations surrounding fashion, sustainability, and environmental consciousness. The term refers to ‘cheaply produced and priced garments that copy the latest catwalk styles and get pumped quickly through stores in order to maximise on current trends’.

The fast fashion model is so-called because it involves the rapid design, production, distribution, and marketing of clothing, which means that retailers are able to pull large quantities of greater product variety and allow consumers to get more fashion and product differentiation at a low price.

The term was first used at the beginning of the 1990s, when when Zara landed in New York. “Fast fashion” was coined by the New York Times to describe Zara’s mission to take only 15 days for a garment to go from the design stage to being sold in stores. The biggest players in the fast fashion world include Zara, UNIQLO, Forever 21 and H&M.

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The Dark Side of Fast Fashion

According to an analysis by Business Insider, fashion production comprises 10% of total global carbon emissions, as much as the European Union. It dries up water sources and pollutes rivers and streams, while 85% of all textiles go to dumps each year. Even washing clothes releases 500 000 tons of microfibres into the ocean each year, the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles.

The Quantis International 2018 report found that the three main drivers of the industry’s global pollution impacts are dyeing and finishing (36%), yarn preparation (28%) and fibre production (15%). The report also established that fibre production has the largest impact on freshwater withdrawal (water diverted or withdrawn from a surface water or groundwater source) and ecosystem quality due to cotton cultivation, while the dyeing and finishing, yarn preparation and fibre production stages have the highest impacts on resource depletion, due to the energy-intensive processes based on fossil fuel energy.

According to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, emissions from textile manufacturing alone are projected to skyrocket by 60% by 2030.

The time it takes for a product to go through the supply chain, from design to purchase, is called a ‘lead time’. In 2012, Zara was able to design, produce and deliver a new garment in two weeks; Forever 21 in six weeks and H&M in eight weeks. This results in the fashion industry producing obscene amounts of waste.

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Fast Fashion and Its Environmental Impact

1. Water

The environmental impact of fast fashion comprises the depletion of non-renewable sources, emission of greenhouse gases and the use of massive amounts of water and energy. The fashion industry is the second largest consumer industry of water, requiring about 700 gallons to produce one cotton shirt and 2 000 gallons of water to produce a pair of jeans. Business Insider also cautions that 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.

2. Microplastics

Furthermore, brands use synthetic fibres like polyester, nylon and acrylic which take hundreds of years to biodegrade. A 2017 report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimated that 35% of all microplastics – tiny pieces of non-biodegradable plastic – in the ocean come from the laundering of synthetic textiles like polyester.

According to the documentary released in 2015, The True Cost, the world consumes around 80 billion new pieces of clothing every year, 400% more than the consumption twenty years ago. The average American now generates 82 pounds of textile waste each year. The production of leather requires large amounts of feed, land, water and fossil fuels to raise livestock, while the tanning process is among the most toxic in all of the fashion supply chain because the chemicals used to tan leather- including mineral salts, formaldehyde, coal-tar derivatives and various oils and dyes- is not biodegradable and contaminates water sources.

3. Energy

The production of making plastic fibres into textiles is an energy-intensive process that requires large amounts of petroleum and releases volatile particulate matter and acids like hydrogen chloride. Additionally, cotton, which is in a large amount of fast fashion products, is also not environmentally friendly to manufacture. Pesticides deemed necessary for the growth of cotton presents health risks to farmers.

To counter this waste caused by fast fashion, more sustainable fabrics that can be used in clothing include wild silk, organic cotton, linen, hemp and lyocell.

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The Social Impacts of Fast Fashion

Fast fashion does not only have a huge environmental impact. In fact, the industry also poses societal problems, especially in developing economies. According to non-profit Remake, 80% of apparel is made by young women between the ages of 18 and 24. A 2018 US Department of Labor report found evidence of forced and child labour in the fashion industry in Argentina, Bangladesh, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Philippines, Turkey, Vietnam and others. Rapid production means that sales and profits supersede human welfare.

In 2013, an eight-floor factory building that housed several garment factories collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh, killing 1 134 workers and injuring more than 2 500. In her project, An Analysis of the Fast Fashion Industry, Annie Radner Linden suggests that ‘the garment industry has always been a low-capital and labour intensive industry’.

In her book, No Logo, Naomi Klein argues that developing nations are viable for garment industries due to ‘cheap labour, vast tax breaks, and lenient laws and regulations’. According to The True Cost, one in six people work in some part of the global fashion industry, making it the most labour-dependent industry. These developing nations also rarely follow environmental regulations; China, for example, is a major producer of fast fashion but is notorious for land degradation and air and water pollution.

Is Slow Fashion the Solution?

Slow fashion is the widespread reaction to fast fashion, the argument for hitting the brakes on excessive production, overcomplicated supply chains, and mindless consumption. It advocates for manufacturing that respects people, the environment and animals.

The World Resources Institute suggests that companies need to design, test and invest in business models that reuse clothes and maximise their useful life. The UN has launched the Alliance for Sustainable Fashion to address the damages caused by fast fashion. It is seeking to ‘halt the environmentally and socially destructive practices of fashion’.

One way that shoppers are reducing their consumption of fast fashion is by buying from secondhand sellers like ThredUp Inc. and Poshmark, both based in California, USA; shoppers send their unwanted clothes to these websites and people buy those clothes at a lower price than the original. Another solution is renting clothes, like the US-based Rent the Runway and Gwynnie Bee, the UK based Girl Meets Dress, and the Dutch firm Mud Jeans that leases organic jeans which can be kept, swapped or returned.

Other retailers like Adidas are experimenting with personalised gear to cut down on returns, increase customer satisfaction and reduce inventory. Ralph Lauren has announced that it will use 100% sustainably-sourced key materials by 2025.

Governments need to be more actively involved in the fashion industry’s damaging effects. UK ministers rejected a report by members of parliament to address the environmental effects of fast fashion. On the other hand, French president, Emmanuel Macron has made a pact with 150 brands to make the fashion industry more sustainable.

The best advice on reducing fast fashion comes from Patsy Perry, senior lecturer in fashion marketing at the University of Manchester, who says, “Less is always more.”

You might also like: What Is Slow Fashion and How Can You Join the Movement?

What Can I Do?

1. On A Personal Level

Ways to approach climate action within our personal lives (hint – it evolves personal action but is not focused on small behavioural changes, which whilst worthwhile will not get us there):

2. On A Professional Level

Ways to approach climate action within the workplace:

3. On A Political Level

Ways to approach climate action as a voter or political actor (even if you can’t vote):

Further Reading:

Fashionopolis by Dana Thomas

The Conscious Closet by Elizabeth L. Cline

Startup company Colorifix has created a sustainable dyeing process that offers a solution to current harmful industrial dyeing practices used by the fashion industry. The scientists behind the technology believe that this will help generate a greener, more sustainable society and improve fashion’s water pollution problem.

In 2013, a team of Cambridge University scientists visited Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley to explore the region’s waters and trial run a device that measures water pollution. 

After speaking to local people, who are reliant on the contaminated streams and rivers for their water supply, and conducting several analyses, the scientists discovered the culprit behind the polluted water: waste from textile factories.

“We were shocked,” said Orr Yarkoni, one of the researchers of the investigation. Being one of the most water-abundant countries in the world, Nepal also has extensive water pollution, which makes its way into the clean water supply. In fact, more than 85% of the population no longer has access to safe drinking water. 


In 2016, Yarkoni and two Cambridge University colleagues, Jim Ajioka and David Nugent, co-found Colorifix, developing a new method of dyeing clothes without the associated negative environmental effects, eliminating the need for toxic chemicals.

Yarkoni explained that the technology also uses close to 90% less water and nearly 40% less energy than the conventional dyeing process. 

The breakthrough finding offers a promising solution to the textile industry’s vast use of toxic dyes and pollutants that are harming the planet and its most vulnerable inhabitants. 

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Quinine and Purple 

In 1856, William Henry Perkin discovered the first synthetic dye. While trying to produce quinine, a substance used to treat malaria, Perkin created a vivid purple substance which easily transferred onto cloth. This discovery revolutionised fashion, however it coincided with an array of environmental problems that persist today.

The dyeing industry uses more than 8 000 chemicals to colour garments- including sulfur, arsenic and formaldehyde- all of which are detrimental to wildlife and human health.

Due to weak regulation enforcement in less developed countries across Asia, where most of the world’s clothes are produced, many textile manufacturers discard toxic substances directly into local waterways. 

The dyeing process utilises enough water to fill 2 million Olympic-sized swimming pools annually, making the dyeing industry responsible for close to 20% of industrial water pollution.

Microorganisms as a Solution

The device Yarkoni and his research team developed to test water pollution in Nepal used genetically modified bacteria that change colour when exposed to toxic chemicals. Yarkoni and his business partners decided to harness the bacteria’s colour-changing reaction to develop their dyeing innovation: Colorifix.

Based in Norwich, England, Colorifix produces dyes inspired by ‘nature’s blueprints’. The company is in a laboratory, where the bacteria reproduce and replicate the DNA sequence that codes for colour in an organism- rather than deriving colour dyes from plants or animals, like traditional dyeing methods do.

Using genetic code from plants, dragonflies and gorillas, for example, from scientific studies, the process leaves animals unharmed and the pigments sustainable: “we don’t like bothering animals,” Yarkoni explained. 

Colorifix inserts the genetic information that directs the colour-making process into a bacterial cell, which copies itself every 25 minutes This cell is placed in a fermenting machine, where cells are able to rapidly multiply, each one making more pigment. The bacteria are nourished with sugar molasses and nitrogen by-products of the agricultural industry.  

A Booming Innovation 

A German-Israeli firm, Algalife, is another company using biotechnology to create sustainable dyes with the help of algae. 

Pili, a French startup, uses a similar fermentation process to Colorifix to generate colour. Jeremie Blache, CEO of Pili, says the process- which is still at the trial stage- is expected to use 80% less water and produce 90% less carbon emissions than conventional dye-making methods.

Yarkoni however claims that Colorifix is the only biotechnology startup that aims to transform both dye production and application- which is key to integrating the new method into society, especially the fashion industry. 

Other dye innovations rely on water and chemicals to isolate pigments from bacteria, and make and apply the dye, but Colorifix places the bacteria directly onto the fabric to colour it. Once the fabric is heated, the microorganisms’ membranes burst and release the colour, which chemically binds to the fiber. The remnants of bacteria cells are then washed off, leaving a clean and coloured garment. 

Reduced Carbon Footprint 

Another benefit of the Colorifix technology is lower transport pollution, which is an added sector fuelling the large carbon footprint of the fashion industry.

Instead of transporting copious quantities of dye, Colorifix is able to send just five grams of colour-packed bacteria to a dyehouse. Yarkoni explains the microorganism will multiply and after 10 days, the factory will have the resources to produce approximately 50 tonnes of dye solution a day. 

This ‘grow your own’ approach has limitations: dyehouses will need to adapt by purchasing fermenting equipment and investing in training from Colorifix to correctly integrate the process.

Blache from Pili argues that ready-to-use pigments are far more likely to succeed due to their simple integration. 

Georgia Parker, Innovation Manager at startup accelerator Fashion for Good, claims that transporting live microbes safely is another obstacle the industry faces. “There is specific legislation around the transportation of living organisms across different geographies,” Parker said. “As a dyehouse, you would need to get government signoff to import these organisms.”

Despite this, Parker believes that bacteria-based dyes will become cost effective in the long-term and will be widely implemented in the industry “in the next couple years.”

A Promising Future Beyond Greenwashing 

Already in high demand, Yarkoni says Colorifix has more customers in the fashion industry than it can currently handle, and has garnered support from brands including H&M, which invested in the company in 2018 and continues to pilot the technology within its supply chain. 

H&M is one of the many fast fashion brands attempting to adopt ambitious goals to reduce their environmental and chemical footprint. 

Francois Souchet, who leads the Ellen Macarthur Foundation’s Make Fashion Circular initiative, explained that “increased scrutiny from policymakers” and “expectations from the consumer for better solutions” are pushing the fashion industry to become more sustainable.

Though still in the beginning stages of production, Colorifix launched its first industrial trial at a dyehouse in Portugal in July. Yarkoni says, “I truly believe that in the future, a very large proportion of our industry- if not all of it- will be based on these biological principles.”

Featured image by: Adityamadhav83

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