Airing dirty laundry: Our harmful relationship with fast fashion

The fashion industry is commonly said to be the second dirtiest industry in the world, second only to the oil industry. As we’ve mentioned before, every item produced comes with an ecological cost – but in fashion, this cost skyrockets because of the sheer volume of clothing produced. This is driven by the concept of “Fast Fashion”.

Due to the industrial revolution, clothing became cheap to produce. As new trends and clothing continued to proliferate through society, it was only in the late 1990s where large retailers took designs from top brands, and began reproducing them quickly and cheaply so everyone could purchase trendy clothes. So what exactly is “Fast Fashion”?

Three definitions come to mind:

  1. Fast Fashion is defined as cheap, trendy clothing, that samples ideas from the catwalk or celebrity culture and turns them into garments in high street stores at breakneck speed.

Good On You

  1. "Fast fashion” is a term used by fashion retailers to describe inexpensive designs that move quickly from the catwalk to stores to meet new trends. As a result of this trend, the tradition of introducing new fashion lines on a seasonal basis is being challenged. Today, it is not uncommon for fast-fashion retailers to introduce new products multiple times in a single week to stay on-trend.


  1. An approach to the design, creation, and marketing of clothing fashions that emphasizes making fashion trends quickly and cheaply available to consumers.

Merriam Webster

Generally, Fast Fashion companies emphasize producing high turnover of clothes that change in style very quickly, at extremely low cost. This allows companies to continuously sell clothes to consumers at low prices, while establishing a sense of need by constantly creating the impression that the existing clothes consumers have are no longer “trendy”.

Why does it matter?

The amount of resource waste that Fast Fashion generates is incredible. According to True Cost – a documentary about the reality of the fashion industry – the average American throws away 82 pounds of clothing annually. Worldwide, we consume 80 billion pieces of clothing a month – a 400% increase from two decades ago!

How does Singapore fare then? A survey by YouGov has found that Singaporean youths are as much a part of Fast Fashion as the rest of the world:

  1. 30% of millennials have purchased at least half of their wardrobe in the past 12 months
  2. 4 out of 10 millennials have thrown unwanted clothes away
  3. 1 out of 5 millennials have thrown away clothes because they are bored of them

Knowing that each item produced comes with an ecological cost, and now taking into account the sheer volume of fashion products produced each year, we start to have a clearer perspective on the immense ecological damage that Fast Fashion inflicts on our planet. Anika Kozlowski, an assistant professor of Fashion Design, Ethics & Sustainability at Ryerson University elaborates on this:

“Every product has [ecological] impacts. The reason [why the main problem with fashion] is the volume of clothing that is being produced is because…it exacerbates all these impacts.”

Yet, what exactly are these ecological costs?

The ecological costs of Fast Fashion

  1. Water pollution

Untreated waste from textile factories, usually containing many toxic chemicals, are dumped directly into local rivers. In fact, water pollution is so severe, that farmers in parts of China and India are predicting the colour of the next fashion season by the colour of the rivers running through their land, due to runoff from textile factories upstream. Unsurprisingly, the fashion industry is the second biggest polluter of freshwater resources on the planet!

 An example is the Citarum River in Indonesia – according to Greenpeace, the careless dumping of untreated waste from textile factories on the Upper Citarum has affected the health of 5 million people and the surrounding wildlife. These wastewaters usually contain lead, mercury, arsenic, and a bunch of other toxic chemicals. (Read recent developments here)

 We should also consider the use of chemicals in the production of cotton. Cotton is the world’s single largest pesticide-consuming crop, using 24% of all insecticides and 11% of all pesticides globally. The use of pesticides and insecticides has far-reaching consequences on biodiversity and the native wildlife in these areas. Take the Monarch Butterfly for example – these insects are heading towards extinction as you read this sentence partly due to excessive use of insecticides. Again, this would affect us as the ecological balance of these areas are disrupted: without pollinators, there will be no agriculture, and consequenty, no food. 

  1. Water consumption

In light of our increasingly scarce freshwater resources, the extremely high water usage of the fashion industry is a significant problem. Agriculture uses 70% of our freshwater resources – of which cotton uses 3%. This may seem small, but if we consider the total volume of fresh water resources in the world, this is quite a large amount of freshwater being directed into our clothing!

Currently, there are 844 million people living without access to safe water, and 2.3 billion people living without access to improved sanitation. Due to agriculture, pollution, and climate change, our water resources are vanishing at an alarming pace: at our current rate of consumption, by 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population may face water shortages. This only means that our global water scarcity problem will only worsen.

Cotton, a commonly used fabric in fashion, requires astronomical amounts of water to grow. 1kg of cotton will require up to 20,000 litres of water – this is only one t-shirt and a pair of jeans! The destructive impact of centering agriculture around this thirsty plant is most clearly illustrated by the Aral Sea, an inland sea in Uzbekistan. In 1950s, two rivers that drained into the Aral Sea were redirected to irrigate cotton plantations. Today, the Aral Sea has dried up such that water levels are less than 10% of what they were 50 years ago. As the sea dried up, toxic chemicals from plantation runoff that dissolved into the sea became exposed to the wind. The winds could then blow these toxic chemicals across surrounding settlements, creating health hazards for the local communities in the area.

 The tremendous use of water in the fashion industry is perhaps most succinctly summed up in this quote by Stephen Leahy from The Guardian: “85% of the daily needs in water of the entire population in India would be covered by the water used to grow cotton in the country. 100 million people in India do not have access to drinking water.”

  1. Microfibers in our oceans

Whenever we wash a piece of clothing made from synthetic materials, microfibers are released into the washing machine – which would then eventually find their way into the ocean. A study has found that when synthetic jackets are washed, on average, 1,174 miligrams of microfibers are released from the washing machine. These microfibers then travel to wastewater treatment plants, where up to 40% of them enter our water bodies. Scarily, plastic microfibers shed from synthetic clothing account for 85% of human-made material found along ocean shores.

 This is significant because it introduces plastic into our food chain. As marine animals ingest microfibers, and eventually end up on our plates, we’d be ingesting these microfibers as well. Microfibers have the ability to absorb persistent organic pollutants and to concentrate them in animals’ tissues – which means our food can potentially become increasingly toxic, creating health hazards for us.

 Microfibers are also harmful to the animals who ingest them. Not only does it concentrate toxic chemicals in their bodies, potentially poisoning them, but it also alters their behavior. A study from the University of Exeter has found crabs that ingested microfibers ate less food overall, suggesting stunted growth over time.

  1. Waste accumulation

Due to Fast Fashion, we’re creating tremendous amounts of trash. On average, a western family throws away an average of 30kg of clothing each year. Only 15% of this fabric waste is recycled or donated. Other sources have found that Americans throw away about 70 pounds of clothing per person per year.

 Bringing back the poll done by YouGov mentioned earlier, it’s clear that Singaporeans are just as much guilty of fabric waste as any other person. Singaporean millennials are twice as likely to throw unwated clothes away than baby boomers, as opposed to sustainable disposal measures like giving old clothes away, reselling, and upcycling.

This problem is especially significant for us due to our limited land. The implications of that is that we will soon run out of places to store our trash. Pulau Semakau landfill was meant to last us until 2045, but at our current rate of trash generation, it’s possible that it will be full an entire decade earlier in 2035

  1. Greenhouse emissions

Surprisingly, the fashion industry accounts for 10%of global carbon emissions due to the energy involved in production, manufacturing, and transportation. Synthetic fibers are also made from fossil fuels, which means some are not biodegradable by nature (polyester and nylon). Nearly 70 million barrels of oil are used each year to make polyester.

 The manufacturing of both materials require a lot of energy – if this energy is provided by fossil fuels such as coal, the environmental impact will be much higher. Additionally, nylon emits copious amounts of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that is 300 times worse than carbon dioxide for global warming.

Lastly, Fast Fashion items are estimated to be worn less than 5 times, kept for only 35 days, but they produce over 400% more carbon emissions per item per year, than garment worn 50 times and kept for a year. 

  1. Rainforest destruction

Over 70 million trees are felled each year to turn into fabrics like rayon. What exacerbates this issue is that about 30% of rayon and viscose used to produce clothing come from endangered and ancient forests, which can have potentially lasting damaging effects on these fragile ecosystems. 

Deforestation has extremely negative impacts on the environment. These include the loss of habitats for local wildlife, increased greenhouse gases which worsens climate change, and reduces the amount of water in the atmosphere which contributes to water scarcity. Deforestation can also result in soil erosion and flooding, affecting indigenous populations that live in the area.

 Where do we go from here?

There are many ideas that have tried to guide us in a way that allows us to consume clothing in a more sustainable way. Sustain Your Style has specific recommendations for each environmental issue that comes with Fast Fashion.

However, the overarching idea is “Slow Fashion”.

The concept of “Slow Fashion” is to purchase high quality clothing that is produced responsibly, both environmentally and socially. These pieces of clothing must then be worn for a long period of time, taken care of by patching up wear and tear, and in the event of disposal, be disposed of through sustainable ways such as reselling/gifting/upcycling. The “Slow Fashion” movement also encourages buying clothing from second-hand sources to extend the lifetime of each piece of clothing, and to avoid contributing to Fast Fashion exploitation.

Another graphic by Dr. Anna Brismar from Green Strategy has 7 ways in which consumers can be more ethical consumers of clothing.

Consumers can:

  1. Purchase clothing that is custom made only on demand, to reduce the excessive waste of Fast Fashion
  2. Choose products produced in an environmentally responsible way throughout the entire supply chain
  3. Choose products that are high in quality so it can last a long time, and designed in a way that is above “fads” and “trends” so that the purchaser can look stylish with the item regardless of the fashion season
  4. Choose products that are made in a fair and ethical manner, such as ways that involve local communities and avoid animal cruelty
  5. Consumers should choose to repair, redesign, and upcycle their clothing to extend its lifespan
  6. Consumers can also rent, lease, and swap their clothes for more variety
  7. Consumers can purchase second-hand and vintage clothing to extend their lifespans as well

It also goes without saying that an industrial overhaul is necessary. The entire supply chain must reorganise itself around new sustainable and greener processes, to mitigate the problems with Fast Fashion. Many retailers have begun making inroads into more sustainable practices, such as H&M.

Supporting this idea is an article written by Francesca Willow, the owner of the blog Ethical Unicorn. Contrary to the commonly stated fact that the fashion industry is the second dirtiest industry, losing out only to oil, she believes fashion is only the 5th most polluting industry. Francesca has done some calculations herself and found that fashion is less polluting than electricity and heat, agriculture, road transportation, and oil & gas production, and livestock. Yet, this is telling, because the fashion industry involves all of these industries that she’s analysed (except for livestock), which only proves to her that fashion is powerful. If fashion’s supply chain can be fixed, then in her words, “fashion, could in fact, save the world.”

However, as with all things, we have our own responsibility as consumers to make conscious choices. We are the ones driving the global supply chain of fashion and it is our choices and our demands, that could potentially send a message to industry players who could make an actual difference.

It’ll be difficult, but we can always start somewhere.

In fact, it is exactly for this reason that Seastainable launched our new product line – Salty Seas Co – curated specially for those looking to begin their sustainable fashion journey. One of our most prominent partners is a prime example of ethical fashion: Rags2Riches. Salty Seas Co works closely with local artisans in providing ethically sourced products, produced in environmentally friendly ways. So if you’re feeling inspired to start on your sustainable fashion journey, check out Salty Seas Co’s product selection here!


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