The pandemic slowed fast fashion to a standstill. Now as the world opens up and we are socializing and going places, we want to dress up again. But after living a confined and simpler life during COVID, this is a good time to take stock of the implications of how we dress. Fashion, and especially fast fashion, has enormous environmental impacts on our planet, as well as social ones.
Since the 2000s, fashion production has doubled and it will likely triple by 2050, according to the American Chemical Society. The production of polyester, used for much cheap fast fashion, as well as athleisure wear, has increased nine-fold in the last 50 years. Because clothing has gotten so cheap, it is easily discarded after being worn only a few times. One survey found that 20 percent of clothing in the US is never worn; in the UK, it is 50 percent. Online shopping, available day and night, has made impulse buying and returning items easier.
According to McKinsey, average consumers buy 60 percent more than they did in 2000, and keep it half as long. And in 2017, it was estimated that 41 percent of young women felt the need to wear something different whenever they left the house. In response, there are companies that send consumers a box of new clothes every month.
Fashion’s environmental impacts
Fashion is responsible for 10 percent of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions and 20 percent of global wastewater, and uses more energy than the aviation and shipping sectors combined.
Impacts on water
Global fashion also consumes 93 billion metric tons of clean water each year, about half of what Americans drink annually.
Cotton is an especially thirsty crop. For example, one kilogram of cotton used to produce a pair of jeans can consume 7,500 to 10,000 liters of water—the amount a person would drink over 10 years. Cotton production also requires pesticides and insecticides, which pollute the soil; runoff from fertilized cotton fields carry the excess nutrients to water bodies, causing eutrophication and algal blooms.
The dyeing process for fabrics, which uses toxic chemicals, is responsible for 17 to 20 percent of global industrial water pollution.