The environmental impact of fashion

4 min read
October 6, 2021 at 9:56 AM

The fashion industry is known to have a strong negative impact on the environment but it is becoming increasingly conscious of the consequences of its activities on the planet's resources and the need to change its mechanisms and operational modes substantially.

How is the fashion industry contributing to GHG emissions?

The fashion industry is responsible for approximately 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions (more than the emissions of all international flights and maritime shipping combined!) (2). Fashion has an impact on the environment in terms of CO2 emissions and is also responsible for 35% of the plastic microfibers released in oceans and 20% of industrial water pollution (3). 

This harmful environmental impact is multiplied by the increasingly high demand for the production of clothes. Today, production rates are higher than ever. What has become known as "fast fashion," the sale of low-quality and cheap clothes, has boosted the creation of new collections and products. The use of unsustainable materials accompanies this, and an increasing amount of waste in the production and retail phases as collections are renewed every six months. The result? Thousands of unsold clothing are destroyed each year.

It has become clear that the fashion industry needs a revolution to reduce its environmental impact and align to a more sustainable long-run trajectory. 


What about the environmental impact of Fashion Weeks?

Fashion has always had a close relationship with climate. As seasons change, fashion trends and products change too. For this reason, fashion weeks are held annually in February for the Autumn/Winter collection and in September for the Spring/Summer collection. This inherent relationship between fashion and climate has, however, taken a negative connotation. Fashion is no longer changing with climate but actually changing climate. 

Just like the production of fashion products, Fashion Weeks also significantly impacts the environment. (4) The event's carbon footprint includes traveling, accommodation, transportation of the collections, and intercity traveling of fashion actors. On top of this, one should add press activities and set up the different locations. 


How can fashion become more sustainable? 

The first fundamental aspect that must be addressed to increase sustainability in the fashion industry is the textile and materials used. It is crucial to shift to more sustainable and less polluting materials that minimize environmental impacts when produced, washed, and recycled.

The fashion industry has found three main ways to improve its impact on ecosystems and climate change.

  1. First, switch to renewable energy. If fashion firms include at least 60% of renewable energy in their processes, emissions from the sector could be reduced by around 50% (5).
  2. Second, increase energy efficiency, reducing energy use to perform the same tasks. For instance, 10,000 liters of water are currently required to produce a single pair of jeans (6). This amount must be reduced through energy efficiency practices.
  3. The third solution is to align the fashion industry to the circular economy model. New recyclable materials should be used, and all materials that release microfiber plastics should be excluded. In addition, the supply of clothes must be aligned to demand to avoid overproduction and consequent waste. Today, less than 1% of the materials used to produce clothing are recycled (3). This percentage has to increase quickly.

Source: Ellen McArthur Foundation


How can the environmental impact of Fashion Weeks be reduced?

Concerning Fashion Weeks, several things can be done to increase sustainability. A first option is to combine seasons and gender fashion by having a single Fashion Week per year instead of two. A second solution is to increase the number of online events to decrease travel emissions. Finally, turn Fashion Weeks into climate awareness. Fashion Weeks are a great outlet to raise awareness of the environmental impact of fashion. On the one hand, to encourage fashion brands to apply codes of ethics, which the Fashion Industry Charter does by promoting sustainability in the industry, on the other hand, to educate the audience about climate change issues.


The importance of fashion in our society has revived consumers' consciousness.

As solutions for a more sustainable fashion supply have been outlined, it is important to highlight that consumers also have a role to play. They are actors of the change as much as retailers. The World Bank has provided a list of actions consumers can implement to contribute to the sustainable fashion industry. These include repairing clothes, donating them, purchasing according to quality criteria instead of quantity, and buying second-hand clothing. We have already pointed out that firms waste many resources, and many clothes go unsold and to waste, but consumers do, too: they never use as much as 40% of purchased clothing in some countries (6).

However, research has shown that consumer awareness is increasing as more customers press their favorite brands to become more sustainable (7). According to the BCG, more than 50% of consumers consider the environmental and societal actions of brands, and a third has already stopped buying clothes of a certain brand because of its bad environmental practices. This demonstrates that consumers have the power to drive this change. 

In conclusion, fashion brands must reconsider their environmental impact and meet customers' demands by committing to more sustainable practices. As outlined in this article, many solutions already exist. By changing our shopping habits, we can all positively impact the planet!