The environmental price of fast fashion

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

This article has been updated


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.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

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.


  1. 1.

    United Nations Climate Change. UN helps fashion industry shift to low carbon. (2018).

  2. 2.

    Quantis. Measuring fashion: insights from the environmental impact of the global apparel and footwear industries. Full report and methodological considerations. (2018). This report provides calculations of the impacts of fashion, including the footwear industry.

  3. 3.

    The Carbon Trust. International carbon flows. Clothing. CTC793. The Carbon Trust (2011). A report on calculations of the impacts of fashion.

  4. 4.

    Global Fashion Agenda (GFA) & The Boston Consulting Group (BCG). Pulse of the fashion industry. (2017).

  5. 5.

    Dahlbo, H., Aalto, K., Eskelinen, H. & Salmenperä, H. Increasing textile circulation — consequences and requirements. Sustain. Prod. Consumption 9, 44–57 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. 6.

    Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF). Circular Fibres Initiative analysis in EMF (2017).

  7. 7.

    Peters, G. M., Sandin, G. & Spak, B. Environmental prospects for mixed textile recycling in Sweden. ACS Sustain. Chem. Eng. 7, 11682–11690 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. 8.

    Remy. N., Speelman. E. & Swartz, S. Style that’s sustainable: a new fast-fashion formula. McKinsey & Company (2016).

  9. 9.

    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.

  10. 10.

    Niinimäki, K. in Eco-Friendly and Fair: Fast Fashion and Consumer Behaviour (eds Becker-Leifhold, C. & Heuer, M.) 49–57 (Routledge, 2018).

  11. 11.

    Fletcher, K. Craft of Use: Post-Growth Fashion (Routledge, 2016).

  12. 12.

    Sajn, N. Environmental impact of the textile and clothing industry: What consumers need to know. European Union. European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS) (2019).

  13. 13.

    Jackson, T. & Shaw, D. Mastering Fashion Marketing (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).

  14. 14.

    Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF). A new textiles economy: Redesigning fashion’s future. (2017). This report provides the newest information of the environmental impact of fashion and how to redesign the system.

  15. 15.

    Niinimäki, K. From Disposable to Sustainable: the Complex Interplay between Design and Consumption of Textiles and Clothing. Doctoral dissertation, Aalto Univ. (2011).

  16. 16.

    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).

  17. 17.

    European Clothing Action Plan Used Textile Collection in European Cities (2018).

  18. 18.

    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).

  19. 19.

    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).

    Google Scholar 

  20. 20.

    Palm, D. et al. Towards a new Nordic textile commitment: collection, sorting, reuse and recycling. Tema Nord 2014, 540 (2014).

    Google Scholar 

  21. 21.

    Laitala, K. & Klepp, I. G. in PLATE: Product Lifetimes And The Environment 2015 Conference (ed. Cooper, T. et al.) 182–186 (Nottingham Trent University, 2015).

  22. 22.

    Armour, R. Once worn thrice shy — women’s wardrobe habits exposed. tfn Third Force News: the voice of Scotland’s third sector (2015).

  23. 23.

    Petter, O. Brits to spend £2.7bn on outfits they wear once this summer. Independent (2019).

  24. 24.

    WRAP. Valuing our clothes: the cost of UK fashion. (2017).

  25. 25.

    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).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. 26.

    House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee (EAC). Fixing fashion: clothing consumption and sustainability. (2019).

  27. 27.

    Perry, P. Read this before you go sales shopping: the environmental costs of fast fashion. The Conversation (2017).

  28. 28.

    Karaosman, H., Perry, P., Brun, A. & Morales-Alonso, G. Behind the runway: extending sustainability in luxury fashion supply chains. J. Bus. Res. (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. 29.

    Muthu, S. S. Assessing the Environmental Impact of Textiles and the Clothing Supply Chain (Elsevier, 2014).

  30. 30.

    Finnish Textile & Fashion. Fibre production, consumption and prices [Finnish]. Finnish Textile & Fashion (2018)

  31. 31.

    The Business of Fashion and McKinsey & Company. The state of fashion 2018. McKinsey & Company (2017).

  32. 32.

    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).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. 33.

    Lu, S. Changing trends in world textile and apparel trade. (2018).

  34. 34.

    Textile Exchange. 2018 Preferred Fiber and Materials Market Report. (2018).

  35. 35.

    Sandin, G. & Peters, G. Environmental impact of textile reuse and recycling - a review. J. Clean. Prod. 184, 353–365 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. 36.

    Brooks, A. & Simon, D. Unravelling the relationships between used-clothing imports and the decline of African clothing industries. Dev. Change 43, 1265–1290 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. 37.

    Cotton Incorporated. 2012 life cycle assessment of cotton fiber & fabric. Full report. (2012).

  38. 38.

    GaBi. GaBi Professional Database, version 8.7, service pack. (thinkstep, 2018).

  39. 39.

    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).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. 40.

    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.

  41. 41.

    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).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. 42.

    Sandin, G., Roos, S., Spak, B., Zamani, B. & Peters, G. Environmental assessment of Swedish clothing consumption — six garments, Sustainable Futures. Mistra Future Fashion (2019).

  43. 43.

    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).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  44. 44.

    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).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  45. 45.

    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).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  46. 46.

    Wang, L., Li, Y. & He, W. The energy footprint of China’s textile industry: Perspectives from decoupling and decomposition analysis. Energies 10, 1461 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  47. 47.

    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).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  48. 48.

    Schönberger, H. HAZBREF case studies and sector guidance for the textile industry. Presentation given at Tallinn Conference. (2019).

  49. 49.

    Connell, K. Y. H. in Handbook of Sustainable Apparel Production (ed. Muthu, S. S.) 167–180 (CRC, Taylor & Francis, 2015).

  50. 50.

    Rana, S. et al. in Handbook of Sustainable Apparel Production (ed. Muthu, S. S.) 141–165 (CRC, Taylor & Francis, 2015).

  51. 51.

    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).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  52. 52.

    Pesticide Action Network UK. Is cotton conquering its chemical addiction? A review of pesticide use in global cotton production. (2018).

  53. 53.

    Reeves, M., Katten, A. & Guzman, M. Fields of poison 2002: California farmworkers and pesticides. Pesticide Action Network (PAN) (2002).

  54. 54.

    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).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  55. 55.

    Pesticide Action Network UK. Pesticide concerns in cotton. (2017).

  56. 56.

    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).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  57. 57.

    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).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  58. 58.

    KEMI Swedish Chemicals Agency. Chemicals in textiles – Risks to human health and the environment. Report from a government assignment. Report 6/14. (2014)

  59. 59.

    Peters, G., Granberg, H. & Sweet, S. in Routledge Handbook of Sustainability and fashion (eds Fletcher, K. & Tham, M.) 181–190 (Routledge, 2014).

  60. 60.

    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).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  61. 61.

    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).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  62. 62.

    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).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  63. 63.

    Ericsson, A. & Brooks, A. in Routledge Handbook of Sustainability and Fashion (eds Fletcher, K. & Than. M.) 91–99 (Routledge, 2015).

  64. 64.

    Cooklin, G. Garment Technology for Fashion Designers (Blackwell, 1997).

  65. 65.

    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).

  66. 66.

    Runnel, A., Raiban, K., Castel, N., Oja, D. & Bhuiya, H. Creating a digitally enhanced circular economy. Reverse Resources (2017).

  67. 67.

    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.

  68. 68.

    Mathews, B. One third of all clothing “never sold”. Ecotextile News (2016).

  69. 69.

    Pijpker. J. Hoe H&M van zijn kledingberg afkomt. NRC weekend. (2018).

  70. 70.

    Paton, E. H&M, a fashion giant, has a problem: $4.3 billion in unsold clothes. The New York Times (2018).

  71. 71.

    Starn, J. Swedish power plant ditches coal to burn H&M clothes instead. Independent (2017).

  72. 72.

    Hendriksz, V. H&M accused of burning 12 tonnes of new, unsold clothing. Fashion United (2017).

  73. 73.

    BBC News. Burberry burns bags, clothes and perfume worth millions. (2018).

  74. 74.

    Reints, R. Burberry burned $37 million worth of products to protect its brand. Fortune (2018).

  75. 75.

    Kirchain R., Olivetti E., Miller T. R. & Greene S. Sustainable Apparel Materials (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2015).

  76. 76.

    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).

    Google Scholar 

  77. 77.

    Office of Solid Waste, United States Environmental Protection Agency. Municipal solid waste in the United States: Facts and figures (EPS, 2010).

  78. 78.

    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).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  79. 79.

    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).

  80. 80.

    ecoinvent. ecoinvent database version 3.5. (ecoinvent, Zurich, Switzerland).

  81. 81.

    Watson, D. et al. Mindre affald og mere genanvendelse i tekstilbranchen: Idéer fra aktørerne på tekstilområdet [Danish] (Danish Environmental Protection Agency, 2014).

  82. 82.

    United Nations Environment Programme: Sustainable Consumption and Production Branch. Decoupling Natural Resource use and Environmental Impacts from Economic Growth (UNEP, Earthprint, 2011).

  83. 83.

    Rockström, J. et al. Planetary boundaries: exploring the safe operating space for humanity. Ecol. Soc. 14, 32 (2009).

  84. 84.

    Cranston, G., Steffen, W., Beutler, M. & Crowley, H. Linking Planetary Boundaries to Business (The University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership & Kering, 2019).

  85. 85.

    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).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  86. 86.

    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).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  87. 87.

    Iran, S. & Schrader, U. Collaborative fashion consumption and its environmental effects. J. Fash. Mark. Manag. 21, 468–482 (2017).

    Google Scholar 

  88. 88.

    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).

  89. 89.

    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).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  90. 90.

    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).

  91. 91.

    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).

  92. 92.

    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).

    Google Scholar 

  93. 93.

    Abtan, O. et al. Why luxury brands should celebrate the preowned boom. BCG (2019).

  94. 94.

    RSA Action and Research Centre. Designing for circular economy: Lessons from The Great Recovery 2012–2016.—designing-for-a-circular-economy.pdf (2016)

  95. 95.

    Heikkilä, P. et al. Telaketju: Towards Circularity of Textiles. VTT Research Report, No. VTT-R-00062-19 (VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, 2019).

  96. 96.

    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 (2017).

  97. 97.

    Heikkilä, P. et al. The Relooping Fashion Initiative. VTT Research Report, No. VTT-R-01703-18) (VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, 2018).

  98. 98.

    Pensupa, N. et al. in Chemistry and Chemical Technologies in Waste Valorization. Topics in Current Chemistry Collections (ed. Lin, C.) 189–228 (Springer, 2017).

  99. 99.

    Sixta, H. et al. Ioncell-F: a high-strength regenerated cellulose fibre. Nordic Pulp Pap. Res. J. 30, 43–57 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  100. 100.

    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).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  101. 101.

    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).

    Google Scholar 

  102. 102.

    Industrievereinigung Chemiefaser. Production volume of textile fibers worldwide 1975–2018. (2018).

  103. 103.

    Kant, R. Textile dyeing industry: An environmental hazard. Natural Science 4 1, 22–26 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  104. 104.

    ONS (Office for National Statistics). The feasibility of measuring the sharing economy: November 2017 progress update. ONS (online), retrieved: (2017).

Download references


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.

Author information




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.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Kirsi Niinimäki.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

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.

Publisher’s note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Related links

European Environment Agency (EEA). Environmental indicator report 2014. Environmental impacts of production–consumption systems in Europe. (2014)

Mistra Future Fashion. The Outlook Report:

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

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).

Download citation

Further reading


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing