In recent years, the fashion industry has received abun-
dant criticism over its limited consideration of social and
environmental issues, placing the non-financial costs of
fashion on the global public agenda. The environmental
impacts of the fashion industry are widespread and
substantial. For example, although there is a range of
estimates, the industry produces 8-10% of global CO2
emissions1,2 (4-5 billion tonnes annually). The fashion
industry is also a major consumer of water4 (79 trillion
litres per year), responsible for ~20% of industrial water
pollution from textile treatment and dyeing103, contrib-
utes ~35% (190,000 tonnes per year) of oceanic primary
microplastic pollution1 and produces vast quantities
of textile waste2 (>92 million tonnes per year), much of
which ends up in landfill or is burnt, including unsold
The rising environmental impact (and awareness
thereof) can be attributed to the substantial increase in
clothing consumption and, therefore, textile production
(FIG.1). Global per-capita textile production, for instance,
has increased from 5.9 kg to 13 kg per year over the
period 1975–2018 (REF.7). Similarly, global consumption
has risen to an estimated 62 million tonnes of apparel
per year, and is projected to reach 102 million tonnes by
2030 (REF.4). As a result, fashion brands are now produc-
ing almost twice the amount of clothing today compared
with before the year 2000 (REF.8,14).
Indeed, the drastic increase in textile production
and fashion consumption is reflected in the emergence
of fast fashion, a business model based on offering
consumers frequent novelty in the form of low-priced,
trend-led products9,10. Fast fashion relies on recurring
consumption and impulse buying, instilling a sense of
urgency when purchasing9,10. This business model has
been hugely successful, evidenced by its sustained growth,
outperformance of more traditional fashion retail and
market entry of new players such as online retailers, who
can offer more agility and faster delivery of new prod-
ucts more frequently9. As a result, brands are now pro-
ducing almost twice the number of clothing collections
compared with pre-2000, when fast-fashion phenomena
started8,14, and the overall increase in clothing-production
demand is estimated to be 2% yearly11.
The rising consumption and efficiency in produc-
tion of fashion products has, in turn, driven the price
of clothing very low8. For example, despite an increase
in the number of items owned, the average per person
expenditure on clothing and footwear in the EU and UK
has decreased from ~30% in the 1950s to 12% in 2009
and only 5% in 2020 (REFS12,13). Low costs further amplify
the phenomenon of buying more and wearing items less
frequently9,14,15, facilitating the fast-fashion model. In the
USA, the average consumer now purchases one item of
clothing every 5.5 days (REFS14,16), and in Europe, a 40%
increase in clothing purchases was observed during the
period 1996–2012 (REFS5,17). As a result, more new clothes
are bought per person per year, quantified as 14.5 kg in
Italy, 16.7 kg in Germany, 26.7 kg in the UK and between
13 kg and 16 kg of textiles across Denmark, Sweden,
Norway and Finland17–20. The average garment-use time
The environmental price of fast fashion
1 ✉ , GregPeters
Abstract | 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.
1Department of Design, Aalto
University, Espoo, Finland.
and Economics, Chalmers
University of Technology,
3Centre for Sustainable
Consumption and Production,
Finnish Environment Institute,
4Department of Materials,
The University of Manchester,
5Parsons School of
Design, The New School,
New York, USA.
6Division of Education,
Arts and Social Sciences,
University of New South
Wales, Sydney, Australia.
EarTh & EnvironmEnT VOLUME 1
has, consequently, decreased by 36% compared with
2005 (REF.14), with evidence in the UK, Norway and else-
where suggesting disposal after little use, especially for
impulse purchases15,21–24. While these examples draw on
literature from the Global North, increasing economic
development and population growth in emerging mar-
kets has also brought greater consumption and taste for
Western-style clothing to the Global South.
Given the global proliferation of fast fashion and the
volume of items produced (and wasted), the fashion
industry represents a key environmental threat26. Indeed,
considerations of pollution and waste were not of pri-
mary concern for fast-fashion producers and retailers,
with the emphasis instead on reduced cost and increased
speed of delivery to the market25,27. However, with
public attention now very much on the climate crisis,
environmental degradation and sustainability more
broadly (for instance, the United Nations Sustainable
Development Goals; namely, SDG 12 and 13), the indus-
try (producers, retailers and consumers alike) is being
forced to seek more sustainable practices and to take
note of its environmental impacts1.
In this Review, we outline the global supply chain
before discussing the environmental impacts of fast
fashion, specifically, water use, chemical pollution and
CO2 emissions. Fashion-related waste is subsequently
detailed, followed by guidance and perspectives on how
the industry can be changed to become more sustaina-
ble, including decreasing garment production and waste,
and increased garment use and lifetime.
Global supply chains
The fashion supply chain is characterized by vertical dis-
integration and global dispersion of successive processes,
spanning a number of industries from agriculture (for
natural fibres) and petrochemicals (for synthetics) to
manufacturing, logistics and retail (FIG.2). The global shift
of textile and garment production to lower-labour-cost
countries led to a substantial decline of production in
many developed countries, in some cases to the point
of extinction, with concomitant increased complexity
and reduced transparency through the supply chain.
It is often difficult for downstream manufacturers to
know where raw materials have come from and how they
were processed28. This section will discuss this complex-
ity in the supply chain and the many steps a garment will
go through in the manufacturing process.
60% of global fibre production is destined for the fash-
ion industry, the rest being used for interiors, industrial
textiles, geotextiles, agrotextiles and hygienic textiles,
among other uses14,29,30. Of this textile production, polyes-
ter (a synthetic) accounted for 51% (54 million tonnes) in
2018, followed by cotton at 25% (26 million tonnes)
(FIG.1). Polyester dominates production due to its per-
formance characteristics and cost-efficiency, and is
projected to increase further as consumers in emerging
Asian and African economies begin to adopt Western
lifestyles and dress31.
Yarn manufacture follows fibre production, and
includes spinning and, sometimes, wet processing, such
as dyeing. Textiles are manufactured from yarns through
knitting or weaving and use a lot of water and energy
through wet processes such as bleaching, dyeing and
finishing. Furthermore, textile manufacturing creates
excessive waste. Finished textiles are transported to gar-
ment manufacturers for assembly (cutting and sewing).
In addition to textiles, trims (sewing threads, buttons,
zippers, linings, labels and lace, for example) are used in
garment construction, which remains labour-intensive,
and, as a result, sourcing decisions are largely determined
by labour costs.
Often, each step of garment production occurs in
a different country, which increases the logistic steps
between processes9, depending on economic decisions.
Given that developing countries generally hold the com-
petitive advantage in manufacturing and labour costs32,
textile production has, therefore, shifted to these nations
(FIG.2). China, for example, dominates the market,
exporting $109.9 billion USD worth of textiles and $158.4
billion worth of clothing each year33. While the market
•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
•Current fashion-consumption practices result in large amounts of textile waste,
most of which is incinerated, landfilled or exported to developing countries.
World population (billions)
Fibre production (million tonnes per year)
1970 1975 1980 1985 1990 1995 2000 2005 2010 2015
Fig. 1 | Growth in global population and textile production by fibre type. Fibre types
include cotton, polyester, non-cotton cellulosics, polyamide and polypropylene, with silk
and wool represented together as ‘other’. Growth in world population is also depicted.
By the 2010s, textile-production growth overtook world-population growth, largely
driven by the rise of cheap manufacturing and fast fashion.
share in clothing export from China has decreased in
recent years, the textile exports have grown as coun-
tries such as Bangladesh, Cambodia, Vietnam, Pakistan
and Indonesia demand increased supplies34. However,
whereas manufacturing is mostly located in the Global
South, the design processes are done in the Global North,
often the EU or USA, where brands’ main offices are.
The distance makes it hard to avoid mistakes during pro-
duction planning, causing unnecessary pre-consumption
waste from manufacturing.
After manufacturing, garments are shipped in large
quantities to central retail distribution centres, followed
by smaller retailers where clothing is purchased, often
in the UK, EU and USA. Garments are traditionally
transported by container boats, but increasing amounts
are shipped through air cargo to save time, especially
in online shopping. Air cargo has a substantially larger
environmental impact, as it is estimated that moving
just 1% of garment transportation from ship to air cargo
could result in a 35% increase in carbon emissions2.
Moreover, the long supply chains mean that garments
can have travelled around the globe once or even several
times during the many manufacturing steps in turning
raw fibre cultivation into a ready outfit. At their end
of life, many garments are incinerated or transported
to landfills or developing countries, very often by ship to
Africa35,36, and few are recycled.
At each stage of the aforementioned supply chain, the
fashion industry exerts environmental impacts, from
water and chemical use during fibre, yarn and textile
production to CO2 emissions during the manufac-
ture, distribution and consumption of clothing (FIG.2).
The globalization of the textile and fashion system
has resulted in an uneven distribution of these envi-
ronmental consequences, with developing countries
(who largely produce the textile and clothing) bearing
the burden for developed countries3 (who largely con-
sume the products). Thus, western countries import
the impacts (for example, water through cotton growth
and CO2 emissions associated with polyester produc-
tion) when importing clothing (FIG.3). However, the
increased globalization and fragmentation of clothing
manufacturing (FIG.2) has also made it challenging to
accurately assess these environmental impacts, for
example, due to uncertainty in raw-material sourcing
and processing28. Nevertheless, in the following sections
we discuss current understanding of the impacts of the
fashion industry on water resources, CO2 emissions and
environmental quality through chemical pollution.
Water use. The fashion industry uses large amounts of
water, totalling 79 billion cubic metres in 2015 (REF.4)
and averaging an estimated 200 tonnes of water usage
during the production of one tonne of textile9. Most of
fashion’s global water usage is associated with cotton
cultivation and the wet processes of textile manufactur-
ing (bleaching, dyeing, printing and finishing). Current
textile production uses an estimated 44 trillion litres of
water annually for irrigation37,38 (or about 3% of global
irrigation water use), 95% of which is associated with
cotton production39. In the production of a T-shirt and
pair of jeans40–42, for instance, cotton cultivation causes
88% and 92% of the total water footprint, respectively
(BOX1). Indeed, cotton has the highest water footprint
of any fashion fibre24 (FIG.4) and, as 44% of cotton is
grown for export37, about half of the local-water-use
Agriculture (natural ﬁbres)
End of life
• South Korea
• Southeast Asia
• Southeast Asia
• Southeast Asia
• Middle East
Energy consumption Chemical use
Waste productionWater use
Fig. 2 | Garment-manufacturing supply chain. The key stages of the fashion supply chain with the geographic location
and broad-scale environmental impacts (energy use, water use, waste production and chemical use) for each stage
of the process. The garment supply chain is globally distributed, with much of the initial fibre production and garment
manufacturing occurring in developing countries, while consumption typically occurs in developed countries.
EarTh & EnvironmEnT
impacts of cotton cultivation are caused by foreign
demand. For example, it was estimated from trade rela-
tions that 20% of the water loss suffered by the Aral Sea
was caused by cotton consumption in the EU41. Recent
reports use scarcity-based weighting to emphasize the
impact of water use in arid regions43, demonstrating
that the textiles and fashion sector is associated with 7%
of local groundwater and drinking water losses caused
by water use globally, especially in the water-stressed
manufacturing regions of China and India44.
Beyond exacerbating water scarcity, the fashion
industry impacts local water supplies by producing waste
water. As some chemicals used during manufacturing
are toxic, improperly treated waste water that enters
local groundwater might degrade the entire ecosystem9.
In Cambodia, for example, the fashion industry, which
is responsible for 88% of all industrial manufacturing
(as of 2008), has caused an estimated 60% of water
pollution and 34% of chemical pollution9.
Carbon footprint. Textiles, alongside aluminium, gen-
erate the most greenhouse gases per unit of material45.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change claims
that the textile industry causes 10% of global greenhouse
gas emissions1, but the scope and method of this esti-
mate are unclear. More conservative estimates have also
been made — Quantis, for example, estimated that the
fashion industry emitted approximately 4.0 gigatonnes
(Gt) of CO2 equivalent in 2016 (REF.2), or 8.1% of global
CO2 equivalent emissions. Approximately one-fifth
(0.7 Gt CO2 equivalent, or 1.4% of global emissions) of
these CO2 emissions were from footwear alone, with
the rest from apparel2 (3.3 Gt CO2 equivalent, or 6.7%
of global emissions), although none of these estimates
includes emissions during the use phase of the life cycle,
such as transport from retail environments and launder-
ing. Estimates from the Carbon Trust are more conserv-
ative, approximating 0.33 Gt of CO2 equivalent emitted
in 2011 due to clothing production (omitting footwear),
with a further 0.530 Gt of CO2 added by the use phase
of the life cycle3. Similarly, a study of Swedish textiles
consumption42 found that the use phase could contribute
14% of the total climate impacts of clothing consump-
tion. We estimate global production of 2.9 Gt of CO2
equivalent emissions, two-thirds of which is associated
with synthetic materials during fibre production, textile
manufacturing and garment construction. This estimate
is based on the results obtained by Sandin etal.42 for the
Swedish consumption of textiles, scaled to the global
consumption of textiles in 2018 and excluding the use
phase for comparability with the Quantis2 estimate.
The fashion industry’s high carbon footprint comes
from high energy use and is influenced by the source of
the energy used. For example, in China, textile manu-
facturing depends on coal-based energy and, as a result,
has a 40% larger carbon footprint than textiles made in
Turkey or Europe42,46. High energy demands and CO2
emissions are associated with textile manufacturing and
consumer use42,47,48 (namely, laundering), as well ship-
ping when air freight is used25,49. However, in the gar-
ment life cycle, energy use and CO2 emission is highest
during initial fibre extraction, especially for synthetic
fibres, such as acrylics50, as they originate from fossil
fuel46 (FIG.4). Polyamide production, for example, uses
160 kWh per kg of fibre49.
Beyond fibre type, the production method influ-
ences energy use and climate impacts, as highlighted
by different modes of cotton production. For example,
conventional cotton cultivation can emit 3.5 times more
CO2 than organic cotton cultivation, which, in India,
produces double the CO2 emissions of organic cotton
cultivation in the USA50. However, organic cultivation
can require more water than conventional manage-
ment, presenting a drawback to organic cotton usage9.
Nevertheless, as natural fibres have a lower carbon
footprint than synthetic fibres (FIG.4), the best way to
decrease CO2 emissions associated with fibre produc-
tion would be to substitute the use of polyester with the
use of natural fibres. Furthermore, plant-based fibres
sequester atmospheric carbon and act as a carbon sink50
— for instance, one tonne of dry jute is equivalent to
the absorption of 2.4 tonnes of carbon. Linen and hemp
production similarly have low carbon emissions (FIG.4).
However, the lower carbon footprint of the natural fibres
during production can be offset during the use phase
because of high energy requirements for washing, dry-
ing and ironing50 compared with synthetics. One esti-
mation of the life-cycle emissions of a cotton T-shirt
Waste Waste waterIncreasingImportedChemical
Fig. 3 | Critical points in textile and fashion production. The geographic distribution
of key environmental impacts from the textile and fashion supply chains. High volumes of
fashion production and consumption and the logic behind fast fashion increase the
environmental impacts by promoting unsustainable manufacturing, distribution and use
of garments. Chemical pollution is greatest in countries where cotton is cultivated, but
also in countries where waste water from the textile industry is not purified properly.
Moreover, chemicals spread around the globe and they enrich (bioaccumulate) in the
food chain, causing a risk to organisms, ecosystems and biodiversity. Water and energy
are exported as garments from countries where they are produced (such as some Asian
countries) to countries where they are consumed (such as North America, Europe and
Australia). Waste is generated during both production and consumption, where it is
either disposed of locally or exported, for example to countries in Africa63.
shows that, based on 50 washes, 35% of CO2 emissions
are due to textile manufacturing, while 52% is produced
during the use phase3. To decrease the greenhouse-gases
impact of the fashion industry, production volumes and
non-renewable energy use must be decreased, poly-
ester production should be substituted with renewa-
ble plant-based textiles and sustainable shipping and
garment usage must be considered.
Chemical use. The textile industry uses over 15,000 dif-
ferent chemicals during the manufacturing process51,
beginning during fibre production. Estimates suggest
that, in terms of financial value, 6% of global pesticide
production is applied to cotton crops52, including 16%
of insecticide use, 4% of herbicides, growth regulators,
desiccants and defoliants, and 1% of fungicides. Heavy
use of agrochemicals can cause nausea, diarrhoea, can-
cers and respiratory diseases53,54, and acute pesticide
poisoning is responsible for nearly 1,000 deaths a day
and afflicts neurological and reproductive problems,
such as infertility, miscarriage and birth defects55. In the
environment, agrochemicals leach into the soil, where
they cause a decrease in soil biodiversity and fertility,
interrupt biological processes and destroy microorgan-
isms, plants and insects55. Despite the substantial human
and environmental impacts of pesticide application,
non-target species have become increasingly problem-
atic56 (such as the whitefly Bemisia tabaci), leading to
increased insecticide application. While the introduction
of genetically modified cotton led to a reduction in exter-
nal pesticide application, reduction appears to have been
a temporary phenomenon in major cotton-producing
countries such as India, Brazil, China and the USA52.
Furthermore, the introduction of herbicide-resistant
cotton has preceded major increases in herbicide appli-
cation in recent years52,57. Thus, even with a lower energy
footprint, cotton cultivation requires large amounts of
chemicals, demonstrating another clear environmental
impact caused by fibre production.
Many of the chemicals used during textile manufac-
turing are associated with spinning and weaving (lubri-
cants, accelerators and solvents) and wet processing
(bleaches, surfactants, softeners, dyestuffs, antifoaming
agents and durable water repellents, among others).
In one example, a single European textile-finishing
company uses over 466 g of chemicals per kg of textile,
including sizing agents, pretreatment auxiliaries, dyestuff,
pigments, dyeing auxiliaries, final finishing auxiliaries
and basic chemicals48. However, approximately 80% of
EU-consumed finished textiles are manufactured outside
of the EU, making it difficult to ascertain total chemical
usage. Similarly, even some textiles labelled as being pro-
duced in the EU are actually imported as semi-finished
textile materials from outside the EU and only finished
locally. Hence, the majority of the chemicals use con-
nected to producing textiles for the EU occurs outside
the EU. The knowledge about chemical contents in textile
articles should be made more readily available by increas-
ing and improving the information exchange along the
During chemical usage in textile manufacturing,
the limited data on material safety data sheets are often the
only source of information, increasing environmental
risks from unsafe usage or disposal48. In one Swedish
study, 2,450 chemicals related to textile manufacturing
were investigated for their hazardous properties. 10% of
these chemicals were identified to be of high potential
concern for human health, including fragrances and
Box 1 | The case of a cotton shirt and a pair of jeans
To give an overview and an example of the environmental impact of fashion, two common garment items are examined
to expose their impact: a T-shirt and a pair of jeans made in Asia (primarily China, Bangladesh and Turkey) and used in
Sweden42. The water-scarcity impacts are dominated by the production of cotton fibre (see figure), as the water required
for the use phase is relatively abundant in Scandinavia compared with cotton-growing regions. For example, estimates
of the water use associated with the production of just one 250-g T-shirt range from 2.7 m3 in the unweighted full-water
footprintofChapagainetal.41 to 26 m3 equivalent when weighted using the AWARE method42 and scaled for this article.
Most water use in cotton garment production is associated with cotton production (92% in the T-shirt example here,
and 93% for the jeans). Since most of the energy for washing and drying the clothes during use in Sweden is provided
by relatively climate-friendly nuclear and hydroelectric sources, the production processes in Asia for garments dominate
the life-cycle climate impacts (kg CO2 equivalent), representing about 80% of the total impact of Swedish clothing
consumption. In a sensitivity analysis with average European electricity, the CO2 emissions of washing and drying
clothes in the user phase are considerably higher, but garment production is still the cause of 71% of the total impact.
Cotton production: 8%
Yarn production: 19%
User phase: 19%
% of CO2 production
Yarn production: 10%
User phase: 20%
End of life: 0.1%
2 equivalent: 2.6
55 m3 equivalent
water scarcity (93%)
54 MJ energy
247 MJ energy
12 m3 equivalent
water scarcity (92%)
kg CO2 equivalent: 11.5
EarTh & EnvironmEnT
direct and acid-type azo dyes58, as well as reproductive
toxins such as brominated flame retardants, highly fluori-
nated water, stain repellents and phthalates58. Additionally,
antibacterial agents are also added into textiles, which can
lead to increased antibiotic resistance58. 5% of the chem-
icals investigated were of high potential concern for the
environment, where they can spread globally and bio-
accumulate (gradually increase in concentration in organ-
isms), causing diseases, allergic reactions and increasing
cancer risk58. For example, chemicals used to waterproof
textiles, which are mostly chemically stable fluoropoly-
mers, are found even in remote Arctic locations and in the
bodies of polar bears and seals59, demonstrating the global
impact of chemical use during textile manufacturing.
In some cases, substituting chemicals are developed to
avoid the use of toxic chemicals, but problems arise when
these are put into use before the safety of the new chemi-
cal is tested and proven. For instance, long-chain perfluo-
roalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances in manufacturing
could be replaced with short-chain perfluoroalkyl and
polyfluoroalkyl substances and perfluoropolyethers, but
information on these fluorinated alternatives is insuffi-
cient for risk assessments. Even the alternatives that have
low acute toxicity and are considered safe according to
current regulations may still pose risks in the future.
To improve the situation, communication among stake-
holders (manufacturers of fluorinated materials, indus-
trial users of these materials, regulators, scientists and the
public) needs to be improved and intensified60.
As there is a wide variety of chemical pollutants ema-
nating from the fashion and textile industries, life-cycle
analysts have attempted to aggregate their impacts into
an indicator that reflects both the relative rate of emission
of the chemicals and their potential for harm61. The latest
European approach to aggregate impacts is based on the
USEtox model, a nested, multicompartment transport
and fate model that has been applied to over 4,000 sub-
stances42. The USEtox model uses ‘comparative toxicity
units’ (CTU) to estimate the impact of chemical pollu-
tion on human health (calculated as the incidence of dis-
ease per kg of chemical emitted) and the environment42
(the potentially affected fraction of species integrated
over time and area or volume per kg of chemical emit-
ted). Based on scaling the total burden of toxic chemi-
cals used during the production of fashion consumed in
Sweden40, the annual impacts of global textile consump-
tion are 5,100 CTU for non-cancerous effects, 4,200 CTU
for cancerous effects and 4.0 × 1013 CTU for ecotoxic
effects. However, it is difficult to reliably compare these
data with benchmarks due to the relative infancy of
these aggregated-toxicity-assessment methods and the
exclusion of supply-chain emissions, such as solid waste
from coal combustion62. In general, though, it is clear and
known that fashion companies look to save production
costs through manufacturing in locations with lax envi-
ronmental regulation and where pollution-mitigating
technologies are not needed. This mode of manufactur-
ing leads not only to high environmental impacts from
chemical usage9 but increased health risks for factory
workers, cotton farmers and fashion consumers.
The dramatic increases in (fast) fashion production
and consumption volumes have resulted in increas-
ing textile waste. Western countries traditionally handled
textile waste by exporting old garments to developing
Non-cotton cellulosicsCotton Polyester
(l per kg)
(kWh per kg ﬁbre)
(kg per kg ﬁbre)
1.2 8922 3.1
Fig. 4 | Environmental impacts of six types of fibres. Approximate fibre production, energy consumption, freshwater
consumption and CO2 emissions for cotton, polyester, non-cotton cellulosics, polyamide, wool and hemp. The environmental
impact of production varies between fibre types — natural fibres (cotton, non-cotton cellulosics, wool and hemp) require
less energy but more water during production than synthetics (polyester and polyamide). Total annual fibre production is
from REF.102. Freshwater consumption for cotton, polyester, non-cotton cellulosics and polyamide are estimated using
per-kg production data from ecoinvent80 and thinkstep38. Freshwater consumption for wool and hemp are from REF.40.
Energy-consumption and CO2-production values are from REF.40.
countries, such as those in Africa63 (FIG.3). However,
with higher waste production, this practice cannot
continue, as many developing countries are banning
the import of textile waste, either to protect domestic
textile production (as in Turkey and China) or because
markets are oversaturated by second-hand garments and
second-hand clothing has replaced local production9,36,63
(as in parts of Africa). In the following sections, both
pre-consumer and post-consumer waste are discussed.
Pre-consumer textile waste. Pre-consumer waste in fash-
ion, also referred to as production waste, is produced
during the manufacturing of textiles and garments, and
includes fibre, yarn and fabric waste, the last of which is
the greatest waste of resources. One study estimated that
15% of fabric used in garment manufacturing is wasted64;
in other studies, the figure is ~10% for pants and jeans
and >10% for blouses, jackets and underwear65, and
some estimates even place textile waste during garment
manufacturing at 25–30% (REF.66). This waste percentage
is impacted by many variables, from garment type and
design to fabric width and fabric-surface design (for
instance, greater waste is associated with one-directional
prints). The fabric waste is produced during the cutting
phase of garment construction and is influenced by how
well the flat patterns are designed to be fitted on the fab-
ric and by the garment design in general. Moreover, mis-
takes in garment assembly cause garments to be wasted66.
As the output of the global fashion system has grown,
so have all forms of production waste. To decrease the
amount of pre-production waste, manufacturing rates
should be decreased and production should be made
more accurate through better communication between
design and manufacturing67.
In recent years, substantial attention has also been
given to a type of pre-consumer waste called deadstock,
which are new, unworn garments that are unsold (or
returned, especially after being bought online) and ‘des-
ignated as waste’. In 2016, for instance, Ecotextile News
reported that only a third of all imported clothing in the
EU is sold at full retail price, a third is sold at a discounted
price and a third is not sold at all68, although these fig-
ures remain unverified. In the Netherlands, however,
it was confidently estimated that 21 million garments were
unsold in 2015, representing 6.5% of garments69, and two
cases in 2018 shed additional light on deadstock. Swedish
fast-fashion brand H&M was reported to hold $4.3 billion
worth of unsold inventory in warehouses70, following
reports of the company incinerating brand new clothing at
a waste-to-energy plant in Denmark71,72. Similarly, British
luxury brand Burberry was reported to have incinerated
£90 million worth of unsold inventory over five years as of
June 2018 (REF.73), of which it admitted £28.6 million worth
was incinerated in 2017 (REF.74). Although the incineration
of deadstock ‘recovers’ some energy from the products,
it also generates more emissions and air pollutants than
reuse or recycling26. Relative to the total garment life cycle,
however, carbon emissions associated with the incinera-
tion of clothing are of very low levels24, whereas the biggest
carbon emissions are produced in textile-manufacturing
processes and during the use phase3. However, the bigger
concern is the environmental impact of energy, material,
water and chemicals that have gone into manufacturing
unsold garments67, which represents a substantial waste
Post-consumer textile waste. Post-production waste
comprises garments discarded by consumers, including
almost 60% (REF.8) of the ~150 billion garments produced
globally in 2012 (REF.75) that were discarded within sev-
eral years after production. The turnaround from con-
sumption to post-production waste is rapid — the use
lives of three garment types (T-shirts, knit collared shirts
and woven pants) in six countries (China, Germany,
Italy, Japan, the UK and the USA) averaged only 3.1 to
3.5 years per garment, albeit with significant variation
between countries76. The short garment lifetimes, along-
side increased consumption, has led to a 40% increase
in landfilled textile waste in the USA between 1999 and
2009 (REF.77), and, globally, textiles account for up to
22% of mixed waste worldwide78. For fibre produced in
2015, 73% (39 Gt) was landfilled at their end of life. Per
capita, both the USA and the UK waste an average of
30 kg of textiles per person annually79, which is similar
to Australia (27 kg annually80) and more than in Finland5
(13 kg) and Denmark81 (16 kg).
Despite the high waste, textile-recycling rates remain
low — only 15% of post-consumer textile waste was col-
lected separately for recycling purposes in 2015, and less
than 1% (0.5 million tonnes) of total production was
recycled in closed loop14 (recycled into the same or sim-
ilar quality applications). Most of the recycled textiles
(6.4 million tonnes) were recycled into other, lower-value
applications, such as insulation material, wiping cloths
and mattress stuffing, and 1.1 million tonnes were
lost during collection and processing6. Post-consumer
textile collection rates varies widely between countries,
for instance, 11% of annual textile waste in Italy and 75%
in Germany, and some have no textile-recycling system
at all17. The UK’s reported collection amount of 11 kg
per capita is second only to Germany, but this recycling
rate is partly due to the UK’s far higher consumption
of clothing and textiles than any other EU country. To
reflect these differences, the European Clothing Action
Plan report on textile collection in European cities pro-
posed that recycling-collection rates should be viewed
in relation to consumption rates17. Thus, to close the
material loop and create an effective recycling system
for all textile waste, not only must garment recycling
become more widely adopted but the production and
consumption of garments must be slowed.
Changing the paradigm
The current business logic in the fashion sector is based
on ever-increasing production and sales, fast manu-
facturing, low product quality and short product life
cycles, all of which lead to unsustainable consumption,
fast material throughput, substantial waste and vast envi-
ronmental impacts. Both production processes and con-
sumption attitudes must, therefore, be changed. Doing
so, however, requires involvement for all stakeholders:
the textile industry to invest in clean technology, fashion
businesses to construct new business models, consumers
to change their consumption habits and policymakers
EarTh & EnvironmEnT
to modify legislation and global business rules (FIG.5).
Here, we highlight key approaches to create a new para-
digm for sustainable fashion, including limiting growth,
reducing waste and promoting a circular economy.
Limits to growth. Despite actions by the fashion indus-
try to reduce environmental impact, current efforts to
improve sustainability are often outpaced by increasing
consumption11. Sustainability potential, for example, has
been constrained by consumer culture (that is, increased
consumption) and the tightly related output growth (that
is, increased production), both of which are factors that
the fashion industry is slow, or unwilling, to mitigate for
economic reasons4,11,82. Indeed, future projections of the
fashion industry presently rely on assumptions of limit-
less resource use and economic growth. However, such
unlimited-growth models do not take into considera-
tion planetary boundaries, specifically, finite resources
and waste generation associated with new or continued
unsustainable practices82,83. Instead of pursuing unlim-
ited growth and, thereby, promoting unsustainable prac-
tices, degrowth of the global fashion industry — that is,
a planned economic contraction associated with reduced
production volume — is desperately needed79.
However, degrowth in the face of improved sustaina-
bility is a complex challenge, with many cultural, psycho-
logical and social factors that require consideration to
accomplish ‘post-growth fashion’ (REFS83–85). For exam-
ple, one difficulty is in determining ‘fair share’, even if
a complete extent of a planetary boundary is defined.
Moreover, it is problematic to define the individual share
of a company or even a country in a global and open busi-
ness environment. If the degrowth means ending manu-
facturing in many developing countries, there would be
social and economic problems for those countries that
are currently dependent on their textile-manufacturing
or garment-manufacturing industry. For example, half
of Pakistan’s exports are from textiles and the apparel
industry, and 55% of all exports from India are associated
with the garment industry9. Furthermore, these changes
cannot come solely from the industry — consumer cul-
ture in which fashion is cheap entertainment with no
consumer consequences must change10.
The industry needs to improve sustainability and
business needs to create alternative models for fast
fashion to lower its environmental impact. Degrowth
could lead to better balance in the industry through
slowing down production and creating stable businesses
focused on better garment quality, longer product life-
times and smaller production amounts. Extended pro-
ducer responsibility, in which producers and importers
are responsible for product disposal and recycling (FIG.5),
promotes more environmentally friendly business
practices by making waste a cost for the industry and
encouraging it to reduce overproduction.
Closing the loop. Further to limiting the growth of the
fashion industry, promoting a circular economy (keep-
ing materials in the system for as long as possible) is an
additional approach to improve environmental sustain-
ability. The extended use of a product can be achieved
through various means, often falling on the consumer
via improved product satisfaction and person–product
attachments9. Achieving extended product lifetimes,
however, can also require the decoupling of fashion
ownership and use, necessitating new approaches for
profit baselines, from single sale to extended use and
grounding into new business models86.
Access-based consumption models offer one such
approach towards circularity86. These models are
centred on rentals and peer-to-peer sharing systems,
which currently exist in occasion, formal and designer
wear. However, rentals have not traditionally been a
viable alternative to fast fashion for many consumers,
related to barriers in price, availability and hygiene86,87.
Nevertheless, in recent years, collaborative consump-
tion and sharing economy88 (exchanges, swapping and
sharing between parties) has started to emerge89, with
leasing and renting of clothing becoming more accepted
and commonplace, especially amongst younger con-
sumers86–88. In Europe alone, the sharing economy
(including swapping and renting) is worth an estimated
28 billion Euros in transactions104. As a result, increas-
ing numbers of companies have started to explore
such collaborative business models to extend garment
use, including repair services and second-hand sales,
especially in the luxury market67,90–93. It must be noted,
however, that the environmental benefits of collabora-
tive consumption might be outweighed by additional
• Prevent waste
• Invest in pollution-control
• Avoid surplus production
• Close the material loop
• Supply-chain transparency
• New business models to
support slower consumption
and circular economy
• New pricing system to
consider the environmental
impact of a product
• Extend products use times
• Conscious consumption
• Slower consumption
Tools for better balance
and a slower system
Policy for extended
Fig. 5 | Stakeholders and actions for a more sustainable fashion industry. Recommendations for policymakers, industry ,
retailers and consumers to create a more environmentally friendly fashion business model.
Material recycling at the end of a product’s life-
time also provides opportunities to promote a circular
fashion industry94 and minimize waste. Many forms
of textile recycling exist for both pre-consumer and
post-consumer waste14,35, based on mechanical and/or
chemical and thermal recycling processes. Recycling,
however, is complicated by garments being constructed
of fibre blends, which require separation. The hetero-
geneous composition of post-consumer waste, there-
fore, has high technical requirements for sorting,
often achieved through automated solutions based on
near-infrared technology95. Robotic technology has
also been able to separate four different textile material
classes with an average accuracy of over 90% (REF.95).
Mechanical fibre recycling works through simply
shredding the textile waste into short fibres, lowering
their quality, before they are manufactured into new
materials. Given the shredding-related deterioration
in fibres, it has been suggested that a maximum of 20%
post-consumer mechanically recovered cotton fibres can
be blended with virgin cotton before strength is com-
promised, although high percentages can be achieved
when using pre-consumer cotton waste and/or other
virgin fibres96 (which are longer). The shredded fibre
can then be used, for example, in composite materials,
nonwovens and filling materials, materials with lower
monetary value than the original product95.
Other recycling processes are more efficient than
mechanical recycling. For example, chemical recycling
works by fractionating fibres through a chemical dis-
solving process into a polymer level and it is suitable
for cellulose fibres95. The process preserves fibres bet-
ter than mechanical recycling and is, therefore, antic-
ipated to enable garments to be produced with higher
percentages of recycled fibres, promoting upcycling —
even 100% recycled yarn can be produced95. Thermal
recycling is used for thermoplastics, like polyester, and,
in this process, fibres are melt-spun through the same
process as the original thermoplastic fibres95. New tech-
nologies further allow even greater improvements in tex-
tile return. The cellulose carbamate process, for example,
creates viscose-grade staple fibres from cotton-rich
textile waste97, which can subsequently be used for the
same applications as viscose fibres, namely, nonwovens,
wovens and knits, or mixed with different fibres, such
as cotton or polyester95. Moreover, other techniques98,
such as the Ioncell-F process, uses dissolution and spin-
ning of cellulosic fibres to create an alternative to virgin
cotton or viscose production99. As both Ioncell-F and
cellulose carbamate rely on fibre-presorting technology,
other chemical-recycling processes have focused on
blended textiles (such as polycotton) to enable unsorta-
ble recycling using inexpensive chemicals7. Additionally,
chemical processes can remove contaminants, such as
hazardous substances included in textile waste14.
Collectively, mechanical, chemical and thermal recy-
cling of textile materials offers the potential to reduce
environmental impacts when compared with processing
virgin fibres60. For example, polyester (mainly through
recycled polyethylene terephthalate bottles) and cot-
ton recycling uses only 1.8% and 2.6% of the energy to
process virgin fibres, respectively24. However, recycled
polyester accounts for only 14% of the total polyester
market share, and cotton recycling remains limited34.
Moreover, in some situations, textile incineration with
energy recovery can be more sustainable than recycling
materials100, as textiles might include chemicals that are
not recyclable or recycling might be impossible, owing to
inseparable fibre materials. Thus, further innovations in
textile recycling are needed to promote circularity. With
the EU proposing that all textile waste will be collected,
sorted and recycled in each of its member states by 2025
(REF.12), developments in waste systems and recycling
technologies may be on the horizon. Moreover, a policy
of extended producer responsibility will exert stronger
pressure on businesses and ensure that all apparel items
are collected and put back into the system, closing the
material loop. The understanding that waste is part of
the fashion business that must be taken responsibility for
pushes the business paradigm away from fast and envi-
ronmentally harmful fashion towards cleaner, slower
and more sustainable fashion. In the future, garments
must be designed to be suitable for recycling and closing
the material loop must be the norm, requiring systematic
changes in the industry. Furthermore, extending the use
time of garments and their waste should be integrated
for a holistic garment life cycle model, thus, fostering a
sustainable fashion industry.
Waste in focus. While the above-mentioned recycling
technologies can help address textile and inventory waste
(surplus production or deadstock), it is important to con-
sider whether the fashion system could instead be rede-
signed so that waste and, in particular, surplus product
(and, therefore, environmental impacts) are not created.
Two approaches can be used to prevent clothing waste
and implement more sustainable fashion practices: pro-
active (prevent, reduce) and reactive (reuse, recycle and
dispose). The first priority when transforming the fash-
ion industry is the proactive prevention of waste produc-
tion, which requires novel design–production–marketing
logic. A mix of proactive and reactive approaches
to minimize waste production and reuse the product to
extend its lifetime offers a feasible alternative. The least
sustainable approach, however, is fully reactive, focused
on efficient product disposal. All these approaches have
challenges associated with their implementation.
When companies’ design offices are located dis-
parately to production, information sharing is made
more difficult, inhibiting waste reduction. For example,
designers and pattern cutters may not have full infor-
mation on the width of fabric used in manufactur-
ing and cannot, therefore, design to maximize fabric use
and minimize waste. Instead, it is left to the planner at
the manufacturing stage to try to cut a production lot
as efficiently as possible. More recent design software
bridges the gap between design and manufacture, pro-
viding real-time feedback between three-dimensional
design and two-dimensional pattern layout101. Although
the use of this software will not prevent all pre-consumer
fabric waste, its capacity as a feedback mechanism
for fabric wastage warrants further research.
Questioning current fashion design and manufac-
turing practices could indeed lead to more creative
EarTh & EnvironmEnT
ways of producing garments. For instance, proactive
methods have been developed to design garments that
minimize cutting waste and put nearly all offcuts into
production66. These strategies include: invisible reman-
ufacturing, where fabrics are placed in invisible sections
of the garment; visible remanufacturing, where they are
placed in external visible places; and design-led manu-
facturing, where offcuts are used creatively to decorate
the garment66. It has been estimated that this creative
way of manufacturing garments could save as much
as 17% of virgin material and 7,927 kg of CO2 during
the production of 10,000 garments66. Further consider-
ation of small offcuts — which could later be used in
mechanical fibre recycling — further offers opportuni-
ties to save more fabric and minimize CO2 emissions.
Creative manufacturing practices such as the example
described here could be one solution to reduce the envi-
ronmental impact of the fashion industry. Similarly,
closer collaboration between design and manufacturing
could create a new kind of low-waste-driven sustainable
Summary and future perspectives
The cost pressure and level of competition in the fashion
industry remain very high, making it difficult to change
business practices. Yet, it is essential that the industry as
a whole (from fibre production to retail) takes respon-
sibility for its environmental impacts, including water,
energy and chemical use, CO2 emissions and waste
production. Minimizing and mitigating these impacts,
however, requires change, which businesses are often
opposed to for a multitude of reasons, first and foremost
being economic. For instance, investment in the latest
pollution-control technology is an essential require-
ment for the short-term future of the textile industry,
necessary to remove chemicals, heavy metals and other
toxic substances from waste streams. Yet, using cleaner
processes will increase production costs, a cost that is
ultimately borne by the consumers, potentially ending
cheap and fast fashion, leading to economic declines
within the fashion industry.
However, streamlining industrial processes, including
a reduction in the numbers of chemicals used, might also
save costs in manufacture, providing economic incen-
tives to implement more sustainable practices. Similarly,
creative business models built on proactive design act
to reduce waste, avoid surplus production and, thereby,
creating a more stable business environment.
Ultimately, the long-term stability of the fashion
industry relies on the total abandonment of the fast-
fashion model, linked to a decline in overproduction
and overconsumption, and a corresponding decrease
in material throughput. Such transformations require
international coordination and involve new mindsets
being adopted at both the business and the consumer
levels (FIG.5). One approach to lowering fashion’s envi-
ronmental impact is to shift the system from linear
(take, make, dispose) to circular with the following three
approaches: narrowing (efficiency), closing (recycling)
and slowing (reusing)90. Another is to consider new busi-
ness models such as renting, leasing, updating, repairing
and reselling, all of which enable longer product lifetimes
while simultaneously proposing a new, slower lifestyle
for consumers. Moreover, these models can result in
eco-efficiency (intensifying the use, as in renting) or
even sufficiency (less consumption). Successful changes
in consumer behaviour, however, must be accompanied
and supported by policies addressing the social organi-
zation of consumption at the social, cultural, economic
and material levels.
Slow fashion is the future. However, we need a new
system-wide understanding of how to transition towards
such a model, requiring creativity and collaboration
between designers and manufacturers, various stake-
holders and end consumers. We need new system-level
understanding on how to make the transition towards
better sustainable balance in the fashion industry.
Moreover, a functional system for textile recycling must
be constructed. One of the most difficult challenges
going forward will be to change consumer behaviour
and the meaning of fashion. Consumers must under-
stand fashion as more of a functional product rather
than entertainment, and be ready to pay higher prices
that account for the environmental impact of fashion.
Published online 7 April 2020
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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.
All authors researched data for the article. K.N. and G.P. dis-
cussed the content. All authors contributed to the writing of
the article. K.N., G.P. and H.D. edited the manuscript before
The authors declare no competing interests.
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