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The environmental price of fast fashion

An Author Correction to this article was published on 23 April 2020

This article has been updated

Abstract

The fashion industry is facing increasing global scrutiny of its environmentally polluting supply chain operations. Despite the widely publicized environmental impacts, however, the industry continues to grow, in part due to the rise of fast fashion, which relies on cheap manufacturing, frequent consumption and short-lived garment use. In this Review, we identify the environmental impacts at critical points in the textile and fashion value chain, from production to consumption, focusing on water use, chemical pollution, CO2 emissions and textile waste. Impacts from the fashion industry include over 92 million tonnes of waste produced per year and 79 trillion litres of water consumed. On the basis of these environmental impacts, we outline the need for fundamental changes in the fashion business model, including a deceleration of manufacturing and the introduction of sustainable practices throughout the supply chain, as well a shift in consumer behaviour — namely, decreasing clothing purchases and increasing garment lifetimes. These changes stress the need for an urgent transition back to ‘slow’ fashion, minimizing and mitigating the detrimental environmental impacts, so as to improve the long-term sustainability of the fashion supply chain.

Key points

  • The textile and fashion industry has a long and complex supply chain, starting from agriculture and petrochemical production (for fibre production) to manufacturing, logistics and retail.

  • Each production step has an environmental impact due to water, material, chemical and energy use.

  • Many chemicals used in textile manufacturing are harmful for the environment, factory workers and consumers.

  • Most environmental impacts occur in the textile-manufacturing and garment-manufacturing countries, but textile waste is found globally.

  • Fast fashion has increased the material throughput in the system. Fashion brands are now producing almost twice the amount of clothing today compared with before the year 2000.

  • Current fashion-consumption practices result in large amounts of textile waste, most of which is incinerated, landfilled or exported to developing countries.

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Fig. 1: Growth in global population and textile production by fibre type.
Fig. 2: Garment-manufacturing supply chain.
Fig. 3: Critical points in textile and fashion production.
Fig. 4: Environmental impacts of six types of fibres.
Fig. 5: Stakeholders and actions for a more sustainable fashion industry.

Change history

  • 23 April 2020

    An amendment to this paper has been published and can be accessed via a link at the top of the paper.

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Acknowledgements

This research was supported by the Academy of Finland’s Strategic Research Council’s grant no. 327299 Sustainable textile systems: Co-creating resource-wise business for Finland in global textile networks/FINIX consortium.

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All authors researched data for the article. K.N. and G.P. discussed the content. All authors contributed to the writing of the article. K.N., G.P. and H.D. edited the manuscript before submission.

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European Environment Agency (EEA). Environmental indicator report 2014. Environmental impacts of production–consumption systems in Europe. europa.eu: https://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/environmentalindicator-report-2014 (2014)

Mistra Future Fashion. The Outlook Report: http://mistrafuturefashion.com/download-publications-on-sustainable-fashion/

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Niinimäki, K., Peters, G., Dahlbo, H. et al. The environmental price of fast fashion. Nat Rev Earth Environ 1, 189–200 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43017-020-0039-9

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