Environmental Impact of Fast Fashion Industry

Last Updated on 26/04/2022

Environmental Impact of Fast Fashion Industry

R. Prabakaran
Bachelor of Fashion Technology
Angel college of Engineering and Technology, Tiruppur, India
Email: srpraba66@gmail.com


Every piece of clothing we buy has an impact on our planet before we even bring it home. Fast Fashion is the expression that is widely accepted by a group of people over time and has been characterized by several marketing factors such as low predictability, high impulse purchase, shorter life cycle, and high volatility of market demand. Some fast fashion products are also mass-produced in factories with less-than-ideal conditions for their workers. In addition, some manufacturing plants produce a considerable amount of waste and pollution that affects the environment. However, it’s not a secret that fast fashion helps to make desires among young consumers in the industrialized world for Luxury fashion, even as it embodies no sustainability. Tendency run their course with lightning speed, with today’s latest styles swiftly trumping yesterday’s, which have already been pack off to the waste tub.

Environmental Cost of Fast Fashion

Fast fashion products can be reused by the common people of the society for the necessity of clothing or retailers can sell them in the second hand clothing market in cheaper prices (which is being on practices in the third world, least developed counties.). These types of products are basically used by the marginal people of the society where cheaper price is the only factor to choose the product by the customers. From the recycled products, customers sometimes make the redesign, reshape as per the requirement. For this, local techniques and local labor are used which is another chance of increasing the scope of employment in the market and to fulfill the market demand. On the contrary, hot marketing fashion products are reused by common person; that is the ultimate saving of the new garments, required from the fashion market. Not only that, it also saves the use of thousand tons of raw materials for the manufacturing of new garments that is increasing the market demand of raw materials and price of the products. For instance, some brands make common fashion items like bags and shoes with recycled items to help lessen clothing waste.

fast fashion impact

The apparel waste causes very harmful impact in the social and ecological environment of the world. In pursuit of low production cost, fast fashion industries generally take less awareness to protect the ecological balance of the environment.

Textile waste:
Textile waste is a material that is deemed unusable for its original purpose by the owner. Textile waste includes fashion and textile industry waste, created during fiber, yarn and clothing production, and consumer waste created during consumer use and disposal.

Sources of textile waste:

Pre-consumer textile waste- “Waste generated in the fashion supply chain before the textile reached the consumer”.

  • Textile swatch waste is leftover textile samples.
  • Cut-and-sew textile waste is textile scraps generated during garment manufacturing.
  • End-of-roll textile waste is factory surplus textile waste leftover on the textile rolls from garment manufacturing.

Post-consumer textile waste- “Waste generated and collected after the consumer has used and disposed of it”.

  • Secondhand clothing waste is clothing or fashion accessories that have been used and discarded by consumers.
  • Secondhand textile waste is any textile waste (such as home furnishings or any non-clothing waste) that have been used and discarded by consumers.

The fashion and textile industries generate textile waste during production and consumer use. In some cases, it’s almost unavoidable to produce it, especially when garments are mass-produced. However, textile waste is now becoming a serious environmental concern because of its total amount. With fast fashion, and huge production, textile waste is increased. Globally, textile waste is flowing from factories and cascading from closets too often into landfill. Sadly, across the board, textile recovery rates for recycling remain relatively low, despite textiles being considered almost 100 percent reusable or recyclable. Thus, finding ways to use textile waste and repurposing it may help lessen fast fashion’s adverse effects on the environment.

The basics:

  • The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the average person throws away 31.5 kg of clothing per year. That adds up to 3.8 billion kilograms of unnecessary waste added to our landfills.
  • Clothing and household textiles currently make up 5.2% of the waste in landfills.
  • A textile is any material made from cloth or an artificial fabric like vinyl.

Textiles are used for clothing, linens, bedding, upholstery, curtains, carpets, and other items. Any textile item, even if it’s worn, torn, or stained, can be recycled. You can even recycle a single shoe which simply needs to be clean and dry.

Recycling clothing and textiles decreases the use of natural resources, such as water used for growing crops and petroleum used in creating new clothing and textiles. It also decreases the need for chemicals used in manufacturing new textiles and the pollution caused by the manufacturing process. Additionally, utilizing this material may help make fashion products more affordable.

Life cycle of fiber
Fig: Life cycle of fiber

Disposal Behavior:
Respondents disposed off or no longer used clothes primarily due to technical or quality related problems. Respondents also no longer used their clothes for psychological reasons (e.g. tired of the clothing style) and some respondents disposed of clothes that they bought on impulse and had never worn at all. Other important reasons for respondents disposing of clothing included clothes no longer fitting and in order to replace their clothing with (what they perceived as) better products or styles that had become available.

Reasons for disposing of or no longer using clothes:

Reasons for disposing of or no longer using clothesReasons for disposing of or no longer using clothes

Effects of Textile Waste:
Textiles are used widely in the design of items that support basic human needs. The clothing is a portable environment that serves to protect and shelter the human body from external environmental elements. Products like clothing, accessories, shoes, linens, towels and other household items are produced for utility function and are eventually disposed of, contributing to the growing stream of post-consumer textile waste. Some fashion trends may also influence people to dispose of their garments more often, even when they’re still in good condition. This practice could increase textile waste that ends up in landfills. In addition to post-consumer, pre-consumer textile waste is generated by industrial production and manufacturing. The overall apparel industry contributes to both pre-consumer and post-consumer textile waste. Both pre and post-consumer textiles have great potential for reuse or recycling, but still find their way into municipal solid waste streams. Textile waste is entering municipal solid waste streams in growing numbers, posing new challenges for communities and municipalities in its handling and disposal. Like waste of all kinds, handling textile waste poses complex challenges for municipal solid waste management. Materials Recovery Facilities (MRFs) used by municipalities to collect, sort and store municipal garbage and recycling before further transport are generally not equipped for handling and sorting textiles for proper reuse or recycling. Because of this, most municipalities have avoided collecting textiles alongside other materials for recycling.

fast fashion

When looking at the relative biodegradability of non-durable goods in landfills, there are three categories: Labile materials which are easily compostable and degrade fairly rapidly in about 5-10 years such as food scraps and other organic wastes; Resistant materials that are moderately degradable over 15-20 years; and Recalcitrant materials that degrade very slowly over 30-40 years in the landfill. Other outlying materials including plastics and metals hold their own label as Non biodegradable.

Within this classification system textiles are classified as Recalcitrant. However, since the mid-twentieth century there has been a rise in the use of synthetic fibers created from oil-derived polymers. This means that many of the textiles that end Textiles that are not recovered for reuse or recycling are destined for landfills or occasionally incineration.

The long life of all textiles in landfills contributes significantly to greenhouse gasses, including Carbon Dioxide (CO2) and Methane (CH4). This information provides evidence that increased recovery of clothing and textiles can have a major impact on reducing greenhouse gasses. Some research suggests that curbside recycling programs would dramatically reduce the amount of textiles sent to the landfill and that waste-recycling behavior is an indicator of the support that curbside recycling programs. Consumers are generally unaware of the need to recycle clothing up in landfills today possess some of the same properties as plastics and will therefore never degrade.

Effects of Textile Waste

Landfill Disposal:
Organic materials such as natural fibers like cotton and linen slowly degrade in landfills through the process of anaerobic digestion, contributing to methane (CH4) production. As previously mentioned, synthetic fibers that are petroleum based do not decompose in landfills (Bureau of International Recycling, 2015) and can exist in landfills for hundreds of years. When garbage is disposed of into landfills it is burrier beneath layers of dirt, but landfills that harvest methane (CH4) but some landfills are outfitted to harvest methane (CH4) from the mounds for energy production. Within the municipal solid waste hierarchy these landfills are preferred because the methane (CH4) is captured and put to work creating energy instead of being released into the atmosphere. even though waste generation is increasing each year, methane emissions from landfills have been slowly decreasing year over year due to an increase in landfill gasses harvested for energy production and an increase in organic materials diverted from landfills. The increasing transport of solid waste to distant landfills is another contributor to the production of carbon dioxide (CO2). Further, limited space is also contributing to rising disposal costs. As space for landfills decreases, disposal prices rise, environmental concerns grow and it is necessary to take further steps in the reduction of all waste entering landfills.

Textile Waste Resource Recovery:
Insufficient recovery of post-consumer textile waste is the greatest obstacle to the textile recycling movement, a sentiment that echoed by both the Council for Textile Recycling and the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles trade organization. In order to achieve higher donation and recycling rates from textile consumers, educators, the media, charity organizations and fashion retailers must all encourage consumers to engage in textile recycling efforts. After all, some consumers may not be aware of the effects of their consumption on the environment. These efforts must also include participation by federal and state governments in order to maximize potential for success. It could be challenging for a company or organization to collect textile waste and recycle it due to limited resources. So, it could be ideal for more influential entities to support the cause. Increasing recovery of pre and post consumer textile and apparel waste can create economic opportunity, and reduced environmental impact.

As part of paving the way for the recapture and recycling of textiles, policy makers must create an environment that allows for the easy disposal and free-flow of all recyclable materials, including textiles. Municipal curbside textile recycling collection can decrease the amount of textiles sent to the landfill while having positive effects on the environment. Proper collection and handling of textile waste by diverse stakeholders, including government agencies, municipalities, non-profit and for profit businesses, can contribute to economic and ecological benefits and move communities closer to zero-waste goals.

One efficient way to collect post-consumer textile waste has been for consumers to donate their unwanted clothing and household textiles to charitable organizations and donation centers that are set up to handle and sort textiles for reuse and resale. This practice allows people with low income to afford necessities like clothing while helping lessen the effects of textile waste on the environment. This has traditionally been the main entry point for input into the textile recycling system. The model of soliciting material donations, including clothing, to stimulate charitable economic activity, emerged in the late nineteenth century and was pioneered by two organizations: Goodwill Industries and the Salvation Army. Since then donating unwanted clothing and household textiles has become popular form of disposal for consumers and kept many textiles from entering municipal solid waste streams. In order to increase the amount of textiles that are recycled and decrease the amount entering municipal solid waste streams destined for landfills, recycling behaviors must be considered to their household survey.

Municipal Collection:
Another emerging point of entry into the textile recycling system is the participation of municipal solid waste programs in partnerships with the textile recycling industry. Traditionally, municipal solid waste programs have encouraged consumers to recycle materials such as plastics, glass, aluminum and paper, but have overlooked municipal textile recycling programs. They also facilitate the collection of these materials curbside along with the collection of trash. Most municipalities are not in a position to incorporate curbside textile collection programs because textiles have unique qualities that must be considered when planning comingled collection. Protecting textiles from contamination caused by comingling with other recyclables is an important step in collection efforts so that textiles can be processed for reuse or recycling. If textiles become wet or mildewed, they cannot be sold for reuse or recycling. Implementing municipal textile collection programs is challenging because collection trucks and materials recovery facilities are filled with dirty materials that can easily contaminate textiles through exposure. Also, more and more municipal recycling collection programs are switching to single-stream materials recovery facilities where recyclables are sorted by advanced, automated sorting equipment that makes the process extremely efficient. On the contrary to these streamlined systems, textile sorting must be done by hand, therefore making it only possible in dual-stream materials recovery facilities where materials are kept mostly separate, and special attention can be given to the materials.

When considering options for disposing of post-consumer apparel and textile waste, consumers have several options: discard, donate, reuse, trade or sell In a study on consumer clothing disposal behavior, found that donation to charities and passing along unwanted items to family and friends are the most popular forms of clothing disposal. This suggests that reuse is the preferred method for waste reduction by consumers. Some clothes made with durable materials can last a long time. So, they can be reused by other people without their quality degrading. Reuse, along with recycling can lengthen product life cycles and usage. Reuse is a form of source reduction, when resources can be recovered for an extending lifecycle.

Recycling is the process of changing waste material into a new material or product. Although the general public tends to think of the act of material recovery as recycling, recycling actually refers to the remanufacturing of recovered items into new materials. A majority of recovered textiles are not actually recycled but are simply reused or repurposed as is. The Council for Textile Recycling (2015) estimates that of textiles collected for recycling, 45% are reused and repurposed, 30% are converted and recycled into wiping rags, 20% are recycled into fiber for other products as mentioned, and the remaining 5% is disposed of as solid waste. Textile recycling is actually one of the oldest forms of recycling. More than 2,000 years ago, in China, worn out clothing was shredded and reprocessed by hand to create new virgin yarns for the production of new textiles.

Clothing and other textiles that is not suitable for reuse can be cut into items such as wiping rag and polishing cloths. They can also be repurposed as home accessories or containers like shopping bags. Stained textiles can be transformed into a new fiber referred to as Shoddy in the textile recycling industry which is then used in various applications including furniture stuffing, upholstery, home insulation, automobile sound-proofing, carpet padding, building materials and other products. Another innovative use being explored is using textile waste to retrofit existing concrete structures including buildings and bridges for structural reinforcement during earthquakes by transforming it into a material similar to carbon fiber reinforced composites.

Recycling existing materials is desirable because it means that fewer new materials need to be produced. This can in turn lead to benefits including decreased factory emissions, reduced dependency on new natural resources, and a lower dependency on landfills. In the 1980’s increasing landfill disposal rates and decreasing availability of landfills sites began to contribute to increasing environmental awareness around solid waste issues, which eventually contributed to expansive new recycling legislate. Although the concept of recycling is a generally accepted as good idea and an excellent alternative to disposing of all wastes into landfills, recycling industries do also have their critics. Critics argue that the time and resources devoted to collecting and engineering recycling processes can never be recovered economically or justified by environmental benefit.

Composting textile waste was a much more viable option for disposal during a time in history when clothing and other items were made exclusively of pure, natural fibers. Like food, natural fibers are derived from animal proteins and plants, making them suitable for compost as a form of disposal. These include cellulosic fibers such as cotton, flax fiber, hemp fiber, jute, as well as animal protein fibers like silk, wool, cashmere, alpaca and angora. Natural fibers, in their pure state, could be treated like food wastes which are classified as rapidly degradable, labile Materials in municipal solid waste. Theoretically, they should be easy to compost in both high heat composting operations or in a backyard composting system is they are cut into smaller pieces. However, textiles as whole are actually classified as Recalcitrant in municipal solid waste, and are considered at best, very slowly degradable, and hence poor candidates for composting. This is due in part to the common practice of blending natural with synthetic fibers that are difficult to separate once combined in fabric yarns. Although synthetic materials can be separated from natural/synthetic blend through a chemical process, this process is not economically viable and therefore not likely to be used as pre-composting step. Additional challenges to composting textiles exist with the pesticides and herbicides used in agricultural fiber cultivation, as well as the chemicals used in the cleaning, dyeing and finishing processed of fabric production.

Conventional cotton crops, for example are estimated to use 25% of insecticides and 10% pesticides used worldwide. Nearly all fabrics also require some sort of chemical cleaning, dying or finishing stage during production, unless the manufacturer opts for natural finishing process. Many of the chemicals found in finished fabric are listed in the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) Toxic Release Inventory list, on the basis of their potential as carcinogens that can have adverse heath affects. Acrylonitrile, Formaldehyde, Tricloroethane and Vinyl Chloride just a few that are listed as known or possibly carcinogenic to humans. These toxic chemicals can be hazardous contaminates to compost, adding to the unsuitability of textiles for compost as a disposal option. There has been some innovation in clothing and fibers that claim to be fully compostable.

One company dedicated to advancements in the area of fully biodegradable materials is Puma. Puma has been working with the Cradle to Cradle Products Institute in the development of their In Cycle product line that promises to be either 100% recyclable or biodegradable. As part of the development of the biodegradable side of this line, Puma recognizes that these products must be made exclusively of organic fibers, free of all toxic chemicals, in accordance with international standards for composting.

Waste to Energy Incineration:
Waste-to-energy incineration is one of two final disposal options. Waste-toenergy incineration is the practice of burning solid waste to recover heat energy that is used to generate electricity. In accordance with the hierarchy of solid waste management, if textiles cannot be recovered for reuse, recycling or composting, the next best option is to produce energy from them. Textiles, particularly synthetics, are highly combustible and produce a lot of heat when they are burned, making them well suited for waste-to-energy incineration. Textiles can also be incinerated in any condition, even if they are stained or contaminated. From an economic standpoint there is little reason for municipalities to get involved in textile recovery or recycling because waste-to-energy and landfill disposal have proven to be the easiest and most cost effective for handling textiles (MacBride, 2013) when it is possible.

The purpose of this study was to provide a deeper understanding of the environmental impact of fast changing fashion and textile recycling system with the intention of also highlighting efficiencies and inefficiencies within the system. This study’s findings outlined many of the strengths and weakness of the textile recycling system in India which is also reflective of national and global challenges in dealing with increasing amounts of textile waste. Inefficiencies in both input and output of the textile recycling system were identified in this study.

For future studies on textile waste in several areas are recommended. First, more research is needed in areas of recycling and converting textile waste back into fibers and other materials. Research and development of new viable, products and industrial applications for materials made from converted textile waste could provide important solutions for dealing with textile quantity of waste. Innovations in these areas could also provide opportunities for low-grade textile waste to be processed on more localized levels by fashion brands, entrepreneurs or organizations. Future studies are needed in areas that cultivate sustainable models of consumption, design, and production and that help to reform many of the wasteful components of fast fashion.

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