The Fashion Industry’s Impact on the Environment

Fashion plays a big part in many people’s lives. There are millions employed in the fashion business along with the retail sector that helps to support it. There are designers, models, artists, and retail staff, and many more roles supported by the business. Fashion lovers buy magazines, attend shows, and have favorite designers.

The problem with the fashion industry is what many of these people don’t see that happens behind the scenes. People are certainly more aware of the environment but it may not be clear how buying a cheap shirt from a chain store like Primark may affect the environment.

How are the fashion industry and its consumers affecting the environment and what can be done, if anything to improve its position?

How harmful is the fashion industry to the environment?

If you were asked which was worse, shipping or fashion which would you choose? If you were asked the same question but air travel was added to the environmental damage caused by shipping surely you would pick those two. While fashion itself may not be totally responsible, the textile industry is worse than both the air and shipping industries combined.

It is in fact the fourth-worst villain when it comes to climate emissions on the planet and that doesn’t even cover the chemicals used and the damage done to the world’s water supplies.


You may not realize it but tropical forests are being cut down for your fashion needs. South American countries including Brazil have a huge problem now from clearing forests to make way for cattle. Leather in your handbags and shoes could be traced back to these countries and the effects being felt include forest fires sweeping along the Amazon.

It isn’t only cattle that is the problem. Even though trees are natural and indeed necessary for the planet’s and our survival they are being cut down to make man-made products. The pulp from certain trees is used to make man-made cellulosic fibers or MMCF. These fibers include cellulose, rayon, and viscose and they come from wood pulp.

It is believed that this type of fiber is more sustainable than other forms such as polyester but it may be that other methods are needed.

Farming and manufacturing practices for textiles

Apart from deforestation, there are also the chemicals used. To soften cotton and other materials they need to have chemicals applied, plus there is the dye to color the cotton too. This creates waste and needs to be released somewhere. This means releasing it into the local rivers. In Asia and countries like Bangladesh, there are now black rivers where once there was an abundance of fresh fish and crops growing nearby. Now factories are polluting the environment with dyes, chemicals, and heavy metals. These countries are likely to be the ones that need fresh drinking water the most and fashion is responsible for nearly a fifth of water pollution by all industries.

Then there are the farmers themselves who grow cotton. These crops can be covered with pesticides which the farmers and pickers get on their skin. While organic farming is an alternative there are also problems there with the amount of water used for growing cotton. Textiles and other man-made issues have caused an entire land-based sea to reduce to only 15% of its former size.

How can things be improved?

Clearly more sustainable farming methods and processes are needed. Consumers themselves hold a lot of power and refusing to buy from unethical companies has seen changes in the past.

Companies are in business for one thing usually, and that is to make money. If consumers switch brands then profits plunge and the businesses will have to start looking at how to change the way they manufacture.

Choose recyclable materials

Even small things can help. When you go shopping and you are buying a new coat, for instance, look at the hangtag label. Eco-friendly companies will put their corporate social responsibility ideas here sometimes or their mission statement. Good hang tag companies will produce custom designs on natural materials.

Hang tags themselves are normally recyclable which is a small but important element to your purchase. When you are browsing in a retail shop check the hang tags and see what information is on there. More companies will start listing information such as eco-friendly, organic cotton, and carbon-neutral.

Recycle your clothing

There are processes for recovering textiles and using them in other forms but if you can’t find anywhere to take your unwanted textiles then simply donate them. As long as your clothes are in a wearable condition many charitable organizations will happily take them from you. If you want to make a little money then put them on an auction site or do a garage sale.

Avoid fast fashions

There are many negative aspects to throw-away or fast fashion. This is one of the worst areas of the modern clothing industry and leads to millions of garments being tossed into landfills around the world. It is a problem that is happening in many western countries including the UK and the USA where garments are mass produced and sold for a low price. They tend to be worn a few times and discarded.

The Environmental Protection Agency has reported textile waste rose from 7 to 14 million tonnes over twenty years and in 2018 stood at 17 million tonnes in the US alone. This waste takes more than 200 years to biodegrade and is causing much concern to environmental activists.

Choosing custom made pieces and keeping them is a far more sustainable way to choose to clothe than picking mass-produced items. Of course, there is the cost but then maybe people should consider buying better quality but less often.

Eco-friendly options

Many designers are now looking at ways to make their garments more environmentally friendly. Everything from labels to buttons can be made from organic natural materials now. Wedding gowns have joined the list of eco-friendly purchases with brides to be starting to consider the impact of their special day on the rest of the planet.

Organic products are generally good and of course, any company showing they are committed to reducing carbon is to be commended. Consumers can now find eco-friendly jewelry for those special days and nights.

It isn’t just the environment that would benefit if the industry changed its habits

Of course, if textile factories changed their processes then factory emissions wouldn’t be so terrible but there is also a toll on human lives.

Many manufacturers who are producing cheap clothing cut corners and this means a lack of health and safety, dangerous working conditions, low wages, long hours, and even child labor. If you knew that a cheap t-shirt was made by a child earning pennies would you still see it as such a bargain?


While there is nothing wrong with fashion it is perhaps worth considering how a garment arrived on the hanger before you purchase it. Everyone can make a change and it can start with something small such as inspecting the hang tag for environmental and ethical information about the manufacturer and designer. Choosing ethical designers will lead to an improvement in the environment and hopefully to better conditions for workers as well as a quality garment for you.