These days, most fashion-lovers could answer the question, what is fast fashion? But far fewer could tell you why fast fashion is bad or explain the negative effects fast fashion has on the environment. In this article, we'll highlight ten must-know fast fashion statistics about everything from water pollution to microplastics to greenhouse gas emissions to garment worker exploitation.
We'll warn you in advance that these facts and figures won't make you feel warm and fuzzy inside, but Zeitgeist's trendsetting sustainable streetwear will (wink, wink). Keep scrolling to legit have your mind blown. 🤯
As alarming as they may be, these 10 fast fashion statistics are something every Zara, H&M, and Fashion Nova shopper should know in 2021.
1 in 6 people in the world works in a fashion-related job.
Fashion is a complex global industry that employs one in six people worldwide—including some of the world's highest and lowest paid individuals.
On one end of the spectrum, billionaires like Amancio Ortega, the founder of Inditex—the parent company of Zara, Bershka, Stradivarius, and Pull & Bear. As of December 2020, Ortega has a net worth of $77.5 billion, making him the wealthiest clothing retailer and six richest person in the world.
On the other end of the spectrum are the garment workers and farmers employed by these retailers. Fast fashion brands employ millions of garment workers in Bangladesh, India, China, Indonesia, Vietnam, and other developing nations that lack adequate protections for the environment and workers' rights. It's estimated that up to 80% of the labor force across the fashion industry's complex supply chain are women.
The COVID-19 pandemic has only widened the wealth gap in the fashion industry. Many major fashion brands and retailers have canceled upcoming orders and stopped payments on previous orders— all without taking any responsibility for the impact of their actions. In a Garment Worker Diaries study conducted in April 2020, only 3% of Bangladeshi garment workers said they were eating an adequate amount of food, and the median monthly work hours dropped from over 250 to 43.
93% of brands aren't paying their garment workers a living wage.
Yep. You read that right. 93% of the brands surveyed by Fashion Checker aren't paying their garment workers a living wage. And only 5 of the 250 large brands surveyed in the 2020 Fashion Transparency Index “publish a time-bound, measurable roadmap or strategy for how they will achieve a living wage for all workers across their supply chains.”
Living wages— earnings sufficient to afford a decent standard of living for workers and their families— are recognized by the UN as a fundamental human right. This amount should be earn-able in a standard work-week of no more than 48 hours, and include enough to cover food, water, housing, healthcare, housing, education, and transportation with enough left over to save for unexpected events.
100 billion items of clothing are produced each year.
Overproduction and overconsumption are two of the worst side effects of the fast fashion industry. Over the past twenty years, clothing production and consumption have doubled, yet consumers keep their clothes only half as long. A mind-boggling 100 billion clothing items are produced annually. That's nearly 14 items for every person on the planet.
Three out of five fast fashion garments end up in a landfill within a year of purchase.
As businesses cut costs and speed up production over the past decade, apparel sales have continued to skyrocket. This unprecedented access to cheap, trendy clothing has caused consumers to shift their mindset around apparel. BoF's 2019 State of Fashion Report found that one in three young women consider a garment worn once or twice to be old, and one in seven consider it a fashion faux-pas to be photographed in the same outfit twice.
In actuality, most fast fashion garments are discarded after only seven or eight wears. As anyone who watches or shops at Fashion Nova or watches sustainable Youtubers can attest to, you're lucky if one of these low-quality garments even lasts that long without falling apart.
The fashion industry is responsible for 8-10% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
It's hardly a secret anymore that fashion is one of the most polluting industries in the world. According to the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion, fashion was responsible for 8-10% of global carbon emissions in 2019— more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. Additionally, the textile industry is responsible for 24% of insecticide use and 11% of pesticide use.
Perhaps the most alarming fast fashion statistic of all: the apparel industry's climate impact is expected to increase 49% by 2030, meaning that fashion alone will emit 4.9 metric gigatons of CO2— nearly equal to today's total annual US greenhouse gas emissions.
Over a third of all microplastics in the ocean come from synthetic textiles.
Did you know that every time you wash your favorite Lululemon leggings, and even Patagonia ~gasp~ fleece jacket, it sheds countless tiny pieces of plastic? Any garment made from synthetic fabrics (aka petroleum-based) will shed millions over its lifetime. Multiply that number by the billions and billions of polyester garments hanging in closets all across the globe, and you'll begin to understand how the fashion industry is responsible for over a third of all microplastics in the ocean.
Synthetic fabrics like polyester, nylon, rayon, acrylic, spandex, or faux fur naturally shed tiny plastic particles when you wear and wash them. To reduce your fashion environmental footprint, wash your clothes in a Guppyfriend Washing Bag, or install Girlfriend Collective's Microfiber Filter on your washing machine.
A single polyester garment can shed millions of microplastics.
That's right. A single polyester garment can shed over a million microfibers every time it is washed. These microplastics are less than five millimeters in length, meaning they are small enough to pass through water filtration processes. In a study of over 150 tapwater samples from around the globe, 83% of them were found to contain plastic particles.
While one would think the simplest way to reduce your fashion environmental impact is to stop wearing synthetic fabrics like polyester, (as you'll learn below) natural fibers come with their own ecological and ethical concerns. Textile scientists are currently researching eco-friendly alternatives to synthetic textiles and toxic dyes, including peach palm fibers, vanilla-based dyes, and reclaimed fishing nets.
Polyester takes over 200 years to decompose.
Each year, nearly 70 million barrels of crude oil are used to make the most common clothing fiber in the world: polyester. Over half of the fabrics used by fast fashion retailers are derived from petrochemicals, the same stuff used to make everything from car bumpers to plastic Tupperware to plant fertilizer.
But when thrown in a landfill, polyester more than 200 years to decompose. Remember, the apparel we purchase now will quite literally outlive our great-great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren, and IMHO that's really f@$#d up.
Only 13% of clothing and footwear is recycled.
According to the UN, over 21 billion tons of textiles are sent to landfills each year— and American consumers are responsible for far greater than their fair share. Alarmingly, Americans throw away around 70 lbs of clothing per person per year. In 2018, only 13% of clothing and footwear was recycled, based on information from the EPA and American Textile Recycling Service.
Many fast fashion brands now offer textile recycling programs that only furthers the overconsumption plaguing our consumer culture. Though these programs seem environmentally-friendly to unassuming shoppers, look a bit deeper, and you'll discover they're actually greenwashing marketing schemes— conveying a false impression or providing misleading information about the environmental-friendliness of your company and its products.
It takes over 1800 gallons of water to produce a pair of jeans.
It's a common misconception that cotton is a sustainable fabric. While it is more sustainable than synthetic fabrics like polyester and acrylic, it requires a ton of water. According to the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion, the fashion industry is the second-biggest consumer of water and is responsible for around 20% of the world's wastewater. It takes over 400 gallons to produce a single cotton t-shirt and 1,800 gallons of water to produce just one pair of jeans.