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Fast fashion has ‘detrimental’ environment cost, scientists warn

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University of Manchester researchers have warned that the fashion industry must make urgent and fundamental changes in order to prevent devastating environmental damage.

The fashion industry is one of the world’s largest industrial polluters, and yet it continues to grow, in part due to the rise of fast fashion. British people buy more clothes per person than any other European nation, with only a limited amount of used clothing being reused or recycled; less than one per cent of material used to produce clothing is recycled into new clothing.

The environmental impact of the fashion industry – particularly the fast fashion industry, which is based on a rapid cycle of cheap, mass-manufactured, disposable garments often made from artificial fibres – has been brought to mainstream attention in recent years. However, the fast fashion industry continues to grow and accelerate, largely driven by the popularity of budget online fashion retailers such as Asos, Boohoo and Missguided.

A paper published in Nature Reviews Earth and Environment has examined the environmental impacts throughout the textile and fashion chain from production to consumption, with a focus on water use, chemical pollution, carbon emissions and textile waste. The researchers found that every year the fashion industry is responsible for over 92m tonnes of waste and the consumption of 1.5tn litres of water, in addition to considerable chemical pollution and carbon emissions.

“We highlight the need for urgent and fundamental changes in the fashion business model to minimise and mitigate the detrimental environmental impacts,” said Dr Patsy Perry, an expert on the environmental and social impacts of the fashion industry.

“A transition away from fast fashion towards slow fashion requires a slowdown in manufacturing volumes, the introduction of sustainable practices throughout the supply chain and a shift in consumer behaviour to reduce the amount of new clothing being purchased and increase garment lifetimes.

“Such systemic changes could improve the long-term sustainability of the fashion supply chain.”

Reducing the vast environmental impact of the fashion industry will require dramatic changes, including a move towards “slow fashion” and more sustainable practices, such as fewer design cycles and the construction of longer-lasting garments made from higher-quality materials.

Professor Kirsi Niinimäki, co-author of the paper and a design expert at Aalto University, added: “Slow fashion is the future, but we need a new system-wide understanding of how to transition towards this model, requiring creativity and collaboration between designers and manufacturers, various stakeholders and end consumers.”

She warned that not only would industry be required to make fundamental changes to their practices, but consumers would also have the responsibility to change their habits.

Last year, the Parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee held an inquiry into the impact of fast fashion, concluding that the industry is “unsustainable”. MPs reported that the industry contributes to climate change more than entire industries combined; consumes lake-sized volumes of fresh water (with cotton notably being a serious offender), and generates chemical and plastic pollution that reaches the deep sea and is found in sea creatures.

The fast fashion industry also frequently relies on child labour, prison labour, bonded labour and forced labour, with “overconsumption of clothing […] based on the globalisation of indifference towards these manual workers”.

The committee recommended to the Conservative Government that it introduce a 1p levy on every garment sold in order to raise £35m per year to support clothing recycling. The proposal was rejected.


This story was edited on 28 April 2020 following a correction in Nature. The original paper and article misclaimed that the fashion industry is the second largest industrial polluter after aviation.

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