Mar 15, 2024

“Sustainable” fast fashion decoded

Nupur Gulati, PGDM 2023-25  

The environmental costs of fast fashion

Who doesn’t love Zara’s trendy clothes and its collection that changes every 3 months? New season, new collection, new me. But though the price tag says 2999, have any of us ever stopped to think about the non-financial cost of that new top we bought? 1

Data suggests that in the past 20 years, clothing production around the world has doubled. Various reasons include higher demand from a growing middle class around the world and a decrease in garment usage lifetime on the consumer side. This perfectly captures the essence of “fast fashion”: more options, quicker trend turnaround, lower prices, and unpriced damage to the environment. Most shocking in the graph above is the decrease in clothing utilization: 36% globally. 2

According to McKinsey, the textile industry (60% of which goes into clothing) pumped 2.1 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere in 2018, accounting for 4% of global emissions that year. For context, that is much as the economies of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom combined.3

What does this mean? It means as our spending income is increasing, so is our need for instant gratification. In a world where repeating outfits is considered a social crime; we are constantly shopping for more.

But in this race to be the most fashionable, we have forgotten to consider the possible impact of our choices. We can always ask brands to move away from fast fashion, but that is a very temporary solution. There will always be some other company that will come up to fulfil our needs. Accept it or deny it. The truth is that our demand is the root cause of fast fashion. New collections serve as drugs to consumers, and this hedonic bullet train is only catching more speed.

Most fashion brands outsource their material and there are still very few brands who know where their material comes from in the supply chain. Even fewer have collaborated with their suppliers to reduce their carbon footprint. 4

According to Harvard Business Review, the fashion industry is pushing for more quantity simply because that is easier to do. It is difficult to make a better performing / more efficient blouse, handbag, or pair of socks, so the automatic solution is to push for cheaper, or faster clothes.4

This vicious cycle has led to overproduction, wastage, massive pollution levels in oceans, and so much more. While companies claim their clothes to be sustainable, vegan, organically produced, etc. there is little truth in these claims. In the end, there is much more harm being caused than the efforts to reduce it.

“Polyester has grown to become the number one synthetic fibre and now represents more than half of all global fibre production. It is derived from non-renewable resources, requires a great deal of energy for extraction and processing, and releases significant by-products. With no standardised language or regulated frameworks, deciphering what companies are doing is extremely challenging. Most CSR reports do not accurately quantify the full carbon emissions profile of fashion brands and remain unaudited by external parties.”5 Companies are using CSR to facilitate guilt-free production, making us ignorant of the real damage they cause. We see their shallow claims of sustainability on clothes and convince ourselves that we can buy as much as we want.

Terms like “sustainably sourced”, “recycled”, and “upcycled” have become overused in this industry. The truth is that recycling does little to limit environmental damage as long as overproduction is still prevalent. Most donated items still end up being dumped in poor countries. “The fashion industry itself consumes an estimated 93 billion cubic meters of water each year, much of which ends up contaminated by toxic chemicals. According to the UN Environment Programme, 20% of global wastewater comes from textile dyeing.” 6 And where will this wastewater eventually go? Since most of the production and operations of this industry happen in poor countries, this waste ends up there- making their condition even worse.

What can we do?

Clearly, our current ways are not working. There are only two ways of steering everyone towards the right path. One of us needs to set their foot down- companies or consumers. In an ideal world, a one-sided approach would be sufficient. However, I believe that the current statistics call for more urgent efforts. Both consumers and companies need to understand the long-term impacts of their decisions. While these suggestions look great on paper, there are a lot of stakeholders involved in the decisions a company makes. Faster and cheaper fashion makes investors happy, as it fulfils their short-term monetary goals. If companies keep going down this road- they will keep their focus on cheaper materials and lower costs- which will have irreversible consequences in the future. To bring about this change, we need to rethink our goals. It is not just financial gain that we should be after. We need newer, better, more holistic measures of company and investor goals. At the same time, governments and legislation need to come together to form stricter regulations and a standardised framework that can help them fairly assess all companies. This standardisation should be such that it leaves little to no room for loopholes and grey areas. Change the very definition of your KPIs, and think about the triple bottom line.

As consumers, we need to be more aware of and informed about these practices. And more importantly, we need to check our consumption. Because at the end of the day, it is our consumption that pushes companies to promote even more cheap clothes. We have the power to end this vicious cycle once and for all.

Rather than buying ten jeans in 2 months for $10 each, buy 1 for $50, and utilise it well. No matter how enticing that new collection looks, ask yourself, “Do I even need these new clothes?” Because I promise you, when you need a new pair of jeans, you will have plenty of options to choose from. Consumerism isn’t going anywhere anytime soon!


1,2,3 – Member, F. (2021, September 9). The Construction Industry Is Getting Greener: Why, How, And What’s Changing? SAP Community.
4,5 – Pucker, K. P. (2022, January 14). The Myth of Sustainable Fashion. Harvard Business Review.
6 – Mulhern, O. (2021, December 8). In Scope: Fast Fashion, the Environment and Climate Change. Earth.Org.

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