Fast fashion. A term used so often in the past two years, one might begin to think of it as a buzzword, instead of the business model it truly is. To define it, fast fashion is “cheap, trendy clothing that samples ideas from the catwalk or celebrity culture and turns them into garments in high street stores at breakneck speed to meet consumer demand.” Its model is based on trends and their popularity among consumers. In order to meet consumer demands, fast fashion brands must have the resources to not only manufacture these popular designs quickly, but also dispose of them with equal speed to make room for incoming trends. That’s why brands like ZARA and Forever 21 are so popular—they’re selling you the latest styles right when you want them, and taking them off the racks by the time you don’t. Seems harmless enough, this people-pleasing model. But a look at fast fashion’s environmental impact tells a different story.

"A fast-paced model requires fast-paced production, and unfortunately, quicker production gives way to an increase in environmental damage."

A fast-paced model requires fast-paced production, and unfortunately, quicker production gives way to an increase in environmental damage. By doing such things as using toxic, water-wasting materials to produce textiles, and neglecting safe workplace protocols as a means of acquiring cheap labour, the fast fashion industry has become a detriment to our environment, having a carbon footprint that rivals all other industrial productions. Here’s a collection of statistics and explanations that portray the reality of fast fashion’s damage, and reveal the true price of trendiness.

Water usage

When thinking about garment production, a common misconception is that it only takes a mix of textiles and sewing methods to craft a t-shirt or pair of jeans. Unfortunately, what gets ignored is the mass consumption of water that occurs during the production process. Approximately 93 billion cubic metres of water are consumed every year in the garment industry, which would be enough to meet the needs of 5 million people.

90% of these garments are made with cotton or polyester, cotton being a major section of the water-guzzling garment train. Although polyester, which is a synthetic textile, takes oil to produce, cotton requires large amounts of water and pesticides to produce. That t-shirt takes up to 2,700 litres of water, and that pair of jeans can take up to 3,781 litres.

But fabric production isn’t the only thing impacting fast fashion’s water usage. About 20% of our world’s wastewater is a direct result of fabric dyeing and treatment, with this untreated wastewater being pumped back into our water systems, contaminating its contents with toxins and heavy metals. Not only does this negatively impact the health of the water itself, but also the health of the animals that consume it, including us as humans.

Textile waste

Ready for a terrifying statistic? Here it is: 92 million tonnes of textile waste is created each year, worldwide. By 2030, we are expected to discard more than 134 million tonnes of textiles per year. 95% of these textiles could be reused and recycled, but due to the model of fast fashion, this isn’t encouraged. The constant trends and guise of “affordability” causes us to believe that the clothing we buy is disposable. If you’re going to buy the latest fashions, you have to feel comfortable getting rid of the old ones. But while we’re purchasing new garbs, our tossed-aside garments are being sent into landfills.

In 2018, 17 million tonnes of textile waste ended up in landfills, which can take up to 200 years to decompose. To this day, 84% of clothing still ends up in landfills or incinerators. Even the second hand dealings of the fast fashion industry have caused unseen global pollution. In the United States alone, unsold clothing is exported overseas to be “graded” (sorted and resized) and sold in low/middle-income countries. Due to the fragility of some of these country’s municipal waste systems, whatever isn’t sold in these second hand markets becomes solid waste, creating health hazards through the clogging of rivers, greenways, and parks. The toxicity of textile waste is slowly choking our environment and poisoning our ecosystem, for nothing more than to dispose of garments fast fashion brands overproduce on the daily.