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.
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.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution
Open Access articles citing this article.
Digital Economy and Sustainable Development Open Access 08 September 2023
Fashion and Textiles Open Access 25 May 2023
Characterization Frames Constructing Endoxa in Activists’ Discourse About the Public Controversy Surrounding Fashion Sustainability
Topoi Open Access 05 April 2023
Access Nature and 54 other Nature Portfolio journals
Get Nature+, our best-value online-access subscription
$29.99 / 30 days
cancel any time
Subscribe to this journal
Receive 12 digital issues and online access to articles
$99.00 per year
only $8.25 per issue
Rent or buy this article
Prices vary by article type
Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout
United Nations Climate Change. UN helps fashion industry shift to low carbon. unfccc.int https://unfccc.int/news/un-helps-fashion-industry-shift-to-low-carbon (2018).
Quantis. Measuring fashion: insights from the environmental impact of the global apparel and footwear industries. Full report and methodological considerations. quantis-intl.com https://quantis-intl.com/measuring-fashion-report (2018). This report provides calculations of the impacts of fashion, including the footwear industry.
The Carbon Trust. International carbon flows. Clothing. CTC793. The Carbon Trust https://prod-drupal-files.storage.googleapis.com/documents/resource/public/International%20Carbon%20Flows%20-%20Clothing%20-%20REPORT.pdf (2011). A report on calculations of the impacts of fashion.
Global Fashion Agenda (GFA) & The Boston Consulting Group (BCG). Pulse of the fashion industry. globalfashionagenda.com https://www.globalfashionagenda.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Pulse-of-the-Fashion-Industry_2017.pdf (2017).
Dahlbo, H., Aalto, K., Eskelinen, H. & Salmenperä, H. Increasing textile circulation — consequences and requirements. Sustain. Prod. Consumption 9, 44–57 (2017).
Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF). Circular Fibres Initiative analysis in EMF (2017).
Peters, G. M., Sandin, G. & Spak, B. Environmental prospects for mixed textile recycling in Sweden. ACS Sustain. Chem. Eng. 7, 11682–11690 (2019).
Remy. N., Speelman. E. & Swartz, S. Style that’s sustainable: a new fast-fashion formula. McKinsey & Company https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/sustainability/our-insights/style-thats-sustainable-a-new-fast-fashion-formula (2016).
Anguelov, N. The Dirty Side of the Garment Industry: Fast Fashion and its Negative Impact on Environment and Society (CRC, Taylor & Francis, 2015). This book provides good grounding to understanding the many problems behind industrial and global fashion manufacturing.
Niinimäki, K. in Eco-Friendly and Fair: Fast Fashion and Consumer Behaviour (eds Becker-Leifhold, C. & Heuer, M.) 49–57 (Routledge, 2018).
Fletcher, K. Craft of Use: Post-Growth Fashion (Routledge, 2016).
Sajn, N. Environmental impact of the textile and clothing industry: What consumers need to know. European Union. European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS) http://www.europarl.europa.eu/thinktank/en/document.html?reference=EPRS_BRI%282019%29633143 (2019).
Jackson, T. & Shaw, D. Mastering Fashion Marketing (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).
Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF). A new textiles economy: Redesigning fashion’s future. ellenmacarthurfoundation.org https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/assets/downloads/publications/A-New-Textiles-Economy_Full-Report.pdf (2017). This report provides the newest information of the environmental impact of fashion and how to redesign the system.
Niinimäki, K. From Disposable to Sustainable: the Complex Interplay between Design and Consumption of Textiles and Clothing. Doctoral dissertation, Aalto Univ. (2011).
Mooallem, 2009, cited by Grose, L. in Sustainability in Fashion and Textiles: Values, Design, Production and Consumption (eds Gardetti, M. A. & Torres, A. L.) 47–60 (Greenleaf, 2013).
European Clothing Action Plan Used Textile Collection in European Cities http://www.ecap.eu.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/ECAP-Textile-collection-in-European-cities_full-report_with-summary.pdf (2018).
Maldini, I. et al. Measuring the Dutch Clothing Mountain: Data for Sustainability-Oriented Studies and Actions in the Apparel Sector (Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, 2017).
Tojo, N., Kogg, B., Kiørboe, N., Kjær, B. & Aalto, K. Prevention of textile waste. Material flows of textiles in three Nordic countries and suggestions on policy instruments. Nordic Council of Ministers. Tema Nord 2012, 545 (2012).
Palm, D. et al. Towards a new Nordic textile commitment: collection, sorting, reuse and recycling. Tema Nord 2014, 540 (2014).
Laitala, K. & Klepp, I. G. in PLATE: Product Lifetimes And The Environment 2015 Conference (ed. Cooper, T. et al.) 182–186 http://www.plateconference.org/pdf/plate_2015_proceedings.pdf (Nottingham Trent University, 2015).
Armour, R. Once worn thrice shy — women’s wardrobe habits exposed. tfn Third Force News: the voice of Scotland’s third sector https://thirdforcenews.org.uk/tfn-news/once-worn-thrice-shy-womens-wardrobe-habits-exposed (2015).
Petter, O. Brits to spend £2.7bn on outfits they wear once this summer. Independent https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/fashion/summer-outfits-spend-billions-fast-fashion-barnardos-charity-shop-a8998846.html (2019).
WRAP. Valuing our clothes: the cost of UK fashion. wrap.org.uk http://www.wrap.org.uk/sites/files/wrap/valuing-our-clothes-the-cost-of-uk-fashion_WRAP.pdf (2017).
Turker, D. & Altuntas, C. Sustainable supply chain management in the fast fashion industry: An analysis of corporate reports. Eur. Manag. J. 32, 837–849 (2014).
House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee (EAC). Fixing fashion: clothing consumption and sustainability. publications.parliament.uk https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmenvaud/1952/1952.pdf (2019).
Perry, P. Read this before you go sales shopping: the environmental costs of fast fashion. The Conversation https://theconversation.com/read-this-before-you-go-sales-shopping-the-environmental-costs-of-fast-fashion-88373 (2017).
Karaosman, H., Perry, P., Brun, A. & Morales-Alonso, G. Behind the runway: extending sustainability in luxury fashion supply chains. J. Bus. Res. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jbusres.2018.09.017 (2018).
Muthu, S. S. Assessing the Environmental Impact of Textiles and the Clothing Supply Chain (Elsevier, 2014).
Finnish Textile & Fashion. Fibre production, consumption and prices [Finnish]. Finnish Textile & Fashion https://s3-eu-west-1.amazonaws.com/stjm/uploads/20180628171618/Kuitujen-tuotanto-kulutus-ja-hinnat-13.6.2018.pdf (2018)
The Business of Fashion and McKinsey & Company. The state of fashion 2018. McKinsey & Company https://www.mckinsey.com/~/media/McKinsey/Industries/Retail/Our%20Insights/Renewed%20optimism%20for%20the%20fashion%20industry/The-state-of-fashion-2018-FINAL.ashx (2017).
Perry, P., Wood, S. & Fernie, J. Corporate social responsibility in garment sourcing networks: factory management perspectives on ethical trade in Sri Lanka. J. Bus. Ethics 130, 737–752 (2015).
Lu, S. Changing trends in world textile and apparel trade. just-style.com https://www.just-style.com/analysis/changing-trends-in-world-textile-and-apparel-trade_id134353.aspx (2018).
Textile Exchange. 2018 Preferred Fiber and Materials Market Report. textileexchange.org https://textileexchange.org/downloads/2018-preferred-fiber-and-materials-market-report/ (2018).
Sandin, G. & Peters, G. Environmental impact of textile reuse and recycling - a review. J. Clean. Prod. 184, 353–365 (2018).
Brooks, A. & Simon, D. Unravelling the relationships between used-clothing imports and the decline of African clothing industries. Dev. Change 43, 1265–1290 (2012).
Cotton Incorporated. 2012 life cycle assessment of cotton fiber & fabric. Full report. cottoncultivated.cottoninc.com https://cottoncultivated.cottoninc.com/research_reports/2012-cotton-lca-full-report/ (2012).
GaBi. GaBi Professional Database, version 8.7, service pack. (thinkstep, 2018).
Pfister, S., Bayer, P., Koehler, A. & Hellweg, S. Projected water consumption in future global agriculture: Scenarios and related impacts. Sci. Total. Environ. 409, 4206–4216 (2011).
Sandin G., Roos S. & Johansson M. Environmental impact of textile fibers — what we know and what we don’t know. Fiber Bible part 2. Mistra Future Fashion ISBN:978-91-88695-91-8 (2019). This comprehensive report provides information on the impacts of textile fibres.
Chapagain, A. K., Hoekstra, A. Y., Savenije, H. H. G. & Gautam, R. The water footprint of cotton consumption: an assessment of the impact of worldwide consumption of cotton products on the water resources in the cotton producing countries. Ecol. Econ. 60, 186–203 (2006).
Sandin, G., Roos, S., Spak, B., Zamani, B. & Peters, G. Environmental assessment of Swedish clothing consumption — six garments, Sustainable Futures. Mistra Future Fashion http://mistrafuturefashion.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/G.Sandin-Environmental-assessment-of-Swedish-clothing-consumption.MistraFutureFashionReport-2019.05.pdf (2019).
Kounina, A. et al. Review of methods addressing freshwater use in life cycle inventory and impact assessment. Int. J. Life Cycle Assess. 18, 707–721 (2013).
Weinzettel, J. & Pfister, S. International trade of global scarce water use in agriculture: Modeling on watershed level with monthly resolution. Ecol. Econ. 159, 301–311 (2019).
Kissinger, M. et al. Accounting for greenhouse gas emissions of materials at the urban scale-relating existing process life cycle assessment studies to urban material and waste composition. Low Carbon Econ. 4, 36–44 (2013).
Wang, L., Li, Y. & He, W. The energy footprint of China’s textile industry: Perspectives from decoupling and decomposition analysis. Energies 10, 1461 (2017).
Munasinghe, M., Jayasinghe, P., Ralapanawe, V. & Gajanayake, A. Supply/value chain analysis of carbon and energy footprint of garment manufacturing in Sri Lanka. Sustain. Prod. Consumption 5, 51–64 (2016).
Schönberger, H. HAZBREF case studies and sector guidance for the textile industry. Presentation given at Tallinn Conference. syke.fi https://www.syke.fi/en-US/Research__Development/Research_and_development_projects/Projects/Hazardous_industrial_chemicals_in_the_IED_BREFs_HAZBREF/Events_and_meetings (2019).
Connell, K. Y. H. in Handbook of Sustainable Apparel Production (ed. Muthu, S. S.) 167–180 (CRC, Taylor & Francis, 2015).
Rana, S. et al. in Handbook of Sustainable Apparel Production (ed. Muthu, S. S.) 141–165 (CRC, Taylor & Francis, 2015).
Roos, S., Jönsson, C., Posner, S., Arvidsson, R. & Svanström, M. An inventory framework for inclusion of textile chemicals in life cycle assessment. Int. J. Life Cycle Assess. 24, 838–847 (2019).
Pesticide Action Network UK. Is cotton conquering its chemical addiction? A review of pesticide use in global cotton production. issuu.com https://issuu.com/pan-uk/docs/cottons_chemical_addiction_-_update?e=28041656/62705601 (2018).
Reeves, M., Katten, A. & Guzman, M. Fields of poison 2002: California farmworkers and pesticides. Pesticide Action Network (PAN) http://www.panna.org/resources/publication-report/fields-poison-2002 (2002).
Scarborough, M. E., Ames, R. G., Lipsett, M. J. & Jackson, R. J. Acute health effects of community exposure to cotton defoliants. Arch. Environ. Health 44, 355–360 (1989).
Pesticide Action Network UK. Pesticide concerns in cotton. pan-uk.org http://www.pan-uk.org/cotton/ (2017).
Rocha-Munive, M. G. et al. Evaluation of the impact of genetically modified cotton after 20 years of cultivation in Mexico. Front. Bioeng. Biotechnol. 6, 82 (2018).
Benbrook, C. M. Why regulators lost track and control of pesticide risks: lessons from the case of glyphosate-based herbicides and genetically engineered-crop technology. Curr. Environ. Health Rep. 5, 387–395 (2018).
KEMI Swedish Chemicals Agency. Chemicals in textiles – Risks to human health and the environment. Report from a government assignment. Report 6/14. kemi.se https://www.kemi.se/global/rapporter/2014/rapport-6-14-chemicals-in-textiles.pdf (2014)
Peters, G., Granberg, H. & Sweet, S. in Routledge Handbook of Sustainability and fashion (eds Fletcher, K. & Tham, M.) 181–190 (Routledge, 2014).
Wang, Z., Cousins, I. T., Scheringer, M. & Hungerbühler, K. Fluorinated alternatives to long-chain perfluoroalkyl carboxylic acids (PFCAs), perfluoroalkane sulfonic acids (PFSAs) and their potential precursors. Environ. Int. 60, 242–248 (2013).
Roos, S. & Peters, G. M. Three methods for strategic product toxicity assessment - the case of the cotton T-shirt. Int. J. Life Cycle Assess. 20, 903–912 (2015).
Bakas, I., Hauschild, M. Z., Astrup, T. F. & Rosenbaum, R. K. Preparing the ground for an operational handling of long-term emissions in LCA. Int. J. Life Cycle Assess. 20, 1444–1455 (2015).
Ericsson, A. & Brooks, A. in Routledge Handbook of Sustainability and Fashion (eds Fletcher, K. & Than. M.) 91–99 (Routledge, 2015).
Cooklin, G. Garment Technology for Fashion Designers (Blackwell, 1997).
Abernathy, F. H., Dunlop, J. T., Hammond, J. H. & Weil, D. A Stitch in Time. Lean Retailing and the Transformation of Manufacturing — Lessons from the Apparel and Textile Industries (Oxford Univ. Press, 1999).
Runnel, A., Raiban, K., Castel, N., Oja, D. & Bhuiya, H. Creating a digitally enhanced circular economy. Reverse Resources http://www.reverseresources.net/about/white-paper (2017).
Niinimäki, K. (ed.) Sustainable Fashion in a Circular Economy (Aalto ARTS Books, 2018). This book provides principles for system-level understanding of circularity in the fashion field.
Mathews, B. One third of all clothing “never sold”. Ecotextile News https://www.ecotextile.com/2016042122078/fashion-retail-news/one-third-of-all-clothing-never-sold.html (2016).
Pijpker. J. Hoe H&M van zijn kledingberg afkomt. NRC weekend. (2018).
Paton, E. H&M, a fashion giant, has a problem: $4.3 billion in unsold clothes. The New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/27/business/hm-clothes-stock-sales.html (2018).
Starn, J. Swedish power plant ditches coal to burn H&M clothes instead. Independent https://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/news/sweden-power-plant-h-m-coal-burn-vasteras-stockholm-oil-discarded-products-a8073346.html (2017).
Hendriksz, V. H&M accused of burning 12 tonnes of new, unsold clothing. Fashion United https://fashionunited.uk/news/fashion/h-m-accused-of-burning-12-tonnes-of-new-unsold-clothing-per-year/2017101726341 (2017).
BBC News. Burberry burns bags, clothes and perfume worth millions. bbc.co.uk https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-44885983 (2018).
Reints, R. Burberry burned $37 million worth of products to protect its brand. Fortune https://fortune.com/2018/07/19/burberry-burns-millions/ (2018).
Kirchain R., Olivetti E., Miller T. R. & Greene S. Sustainable Apparel Materials (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2015).
Daystar, J., Chapman, L. L., Moore, M. M., Pires, S. T. & Golden, J. Quantifying apparel consumer use behavior in six countries: addressing a data need in life cycle assessment modeling. J. Text. Appar. Technol. Manag. 11, 1–25 (2019).
Office of Solid Waste, United States Environmental Protection Agency. Municipal solid waste in the United States: Facts and figures (EPS, 2010).
Nørup, N., Pihl, K., Damgaard, A. & Scheutz, C. Quantity and quality of clothing and household textiles in the Danish household waste. Waste Manag. 87, 454–463 (2019).
Allwood, J. M., Laursen, S. E., de Rodriguez, C. M. & Bocken, N. M. P. Well Dressed? The Present and Future Sustainability of Clothing and Textiles in the United Kingdom (Institute for Manufacturing, Cambridge University, 2006).
ecoinvent. ecoinvent database version 3.5. https://www.ecoinvent.org/ (ecoinvent, Zurich, Switzerland).
Watson, D. et al. Mindre affald og mere genanvendelse i tekstilbranchen: Idéer fra aktørerne på tekstilområdet [Danish] (Danish Environmental Protection Agency, 2014).
United Nations Environment Programme: Sustainable Consumption and Production Branch. Decoupling Natural Resource use and Environmental Impacts from Economic Growth (UNEP, Earthprint, 2011).
Rockström, J. et al. Planetary boundaries: exploring the safe operating space for humanity. Ecol. Soc. 14, 32 (2009).
Cranston, G., Steffen, W., Beutler, M. & Crowley, H. Linking Planetary Boundaries to Business (The University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership & Kering, 2019).
Sandin, G., Peters, G. M. & Svanström, M. Using the planetary boundaries framework for setting impact-reduction targets in LCA contexts. Int. J. Life Cycle Assess. 20, 1684–1700 (2015).
Armstrong, C., Niinimäki, K., Kujala, S., Karell, E. & Lang, C. Sustainable product-service systems for clothing: exploring consumer perceptions of consumption alternatives in Finland. J. Clean. Prod. 97, 30–39 (2015).
Iran, S. & Schrader, U. Collaborative fashion consumption and its environmental effects. J. Fash. Mark. Manag. 21, 468–482 (2017).
Henninger, C. E., Jones, C., Boardman, R. & McCormick, H. in Sustainable Fashion in a Circular Economy (ed. Niinimäki, K.) 62–75 (Aalto ARTS Books, 2018).
Zamani, B., Sandin, G. & Peters, G. Life cycle assessment of clothing libraries: can collaborative consumption reduce the environmental impact of fast fashion? J. Clean. Prod. 162, 1368–1375 (2017).
Bocken, N. M. P., Miller, K., Weissbrod, Holdago, M. & Evans, S. in Sustainable Fashion in a Circular Economy (ed. Niinimäki, K.) 152–167 (Aalto ARTS Books, 2018).
Bocken, N. M. P., Weissbrod, I. & Tennant, M. in Sustainable Design and Manufacturing 2016 Vol. 52 (eds Setchi, R., Howlett, R., Liu, Y. & Theobald, P.) 297–306 (Springer, 2016).
Bocken, N. M. P., de Pauw, I., Bakker, C. & van der Grinten, B. Product design and business model strategies for a circular economy. J. Ind. Prod. Eng. 33, 308–320 (2016).
Abtan, O. et al. Why luxury brands should celebrate the preowned boom. BCG https://www.bcg.com/publications/2019/luxury-brands-should-celebrate-preowned-boom.aspx (2019).
RSA Action and Research Centre. Designing for circular economy: Lessons from The Great Recovery 2012–2016. thersa.org https://www.thersa.org/globalassets/pdfs/reports/the-great-recovery—designing-for-a-circular-economy.pdf (2016)
Heikkilä, P. et al. Telaketju: Towards Circularity of Textiles. VTT Research Report, No. VTT-R-00062-19 (VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, 2019).
Watson, D., Gylling, A. C., Andersson, T. & Heikkilä, P. Textile-to-textile recycling: Ten Nordic brands that are leading the way. Nordic Council of Ministers http://www.diva-portal.org/smash/record.jsf?pid=diva2%3A1147645&dswid=4329 (2017).
Heikkilä, P. et al. The Relooping Fashion Initiative. VTT Research Report, No. VTT-R-01703-18) (VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, 2018).
Pensupa, N. et al. in Chemistry and Chemical Technologies in Waste Valorization. Topics in Current Chemistry Collections (ed. Lin, C.) 189–228 (Springer, 2017).
Sixta, H. et al. Ioncell-F: a high-strength regenerated cellulose fibre. Nordic Pulp Pap. Res. J. 30, 43–57 (2015).
Geissdoerfer, M., Savaget, P., Bocken, N. M. P. & Hultink, E. J. The Circular Economy – a new sustainability paradigm? J. Clean. Prod. 143, 757–768 (2017).
Ondogan, Z. & Erdogan, C. The comparison of the manual and CAD systems for pattern making, grading and marker making processes. Fibres Text. East. Europe 14, 62–67 (2006).
Industrievereinigung Chemiefaser. Production volume of textile fibers worldwide 1975–2018. statista.com https://www.statista.com/statistics/263154/worldwide-production-volume-of-textile-fibers-since-1975/ (2018).
Kant, R. Textile dyeing industry: An environmental hazard. Natural Science 4 1, 22–26 (2012).
ONS (Office for National Statistics). The feasibility of measuring the sharing economy: November 2017 progress update. ONS (online), retrieved: https://www.ons.gov.uk/economy/economicoutputandproductivity/output/articles/thefeasibilityofmeasuringthesharingeconomy/november2017progressupdate (2017).
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.
The authors declare no competing interests.
Peer review information
Nature Reviews Earth & Environment thanks K. Fletcher, K. Laitala, A. Payne and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
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/
About this article
Cite this article
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
This article is cited by
Fashion and Textiles (2023)
Nature Reviews Earth & Environment (2023)
Nature Reviews Earth & Environment (2023)
Digital Economy and Sustainable Development (2023)
Characterization Frames Constructing Endoxa in Activists’ Discourse About the Public Controversy Surrounding Fashion Sustainability