Despite its well-known environmental impacts, the fashion industry continues to grow. By 2017, global consumption had risen to 62 million tonnes of apparel per year and is expected to reach 102 million tonnes by 2030. Consequently, fashion companies are now producing almost twice the amount of clothing produced in the year 2000 (Niinimäki et al., 2020).
The fashion industry is valued at $3 trillion, corresponding to 2% of the world’s GDP (Global Fashion Industry Statistics, 2021). However, behind this $3 trillion are 8-10% of global CO2 emissions, 20% of industrial water pollution and 35% of oceanic primary microplastic pollution (Niinimäki et al., 2020). In fact, the environmental impacts of the fashion industry have been publicly debated but the business model remains successful due to the steady rise of fast fashion. The latter is dominated by mass-market retailers relying on cheap manufacturing and high volumes of production to respond to ever-changing fashion trends. The growth seems non-stop, especially with the emergence of online retailers, who offer new products more frequently. In addition to environmental concerns, ethical production issues come into play.
The fashion industry operates across multiple sectors: from agriculture and petrochemicals to manufacturing and retail. However, the supply chain is disintegrated, with production established in developing countries with low labour costs, while marketing and retail services are established in well-developed countries. For instance, in 2020, the top exporters of clothing were China, Vietnam, Bangladesh, and Turkey (excluding the European Union) (World Trade Organization, 2021). While the industry creates jobs for individuals in developing countries, it also enforces inhumane working conditions such as low safety standards and wages below the subsistence level. Moreover, the disintegration of the supply chain implies higher transportation costs that are reflected on the environment. For instance, online retailers rely on shipping through air cargo instead of container boats to save time. Yet, moving 1% of clothing transportation from ship to air cargo could result in a 35% increase in carbon emissions (Quantis, 2018).
As a result, the globalization of the fashion industry has increased the inequality gap between countries. Firstly, increasing consumerism in developed countries strengthens the inhumane working conditions in developing countries. Secondly, there is an uneven distribution of the environmental consequences, with developing countries bearing the burden for developed countries (Diffenbaugh & Burke, 2019). So, what can be done? To counteract fast fashion, there has been a rise in slow fashion movements, such as United Nations’ Ethical Fashion Initiative. These include deceleration of consumption and extending the use of clothing, promoting a circular economy. Moreover, higher ethical production standards should be enforced in order to offset the negative impacts of the industry on the most vulnerable. Still, this shift requires a joint effort between stakeholders, manufacturers, consumers, and policymakers.
Indeed, the cost pressure and high level of competition in the fashion industry make it difficult to change business practices. However, there is a need to shed more light on the vicious circle that involves the fashion industry, the economy, and the environment.
- Niinimäki, K., Peters, G., Dahlbo, H., Perry, P., Rissanen, T., & Gwilt, A. (2020). The environmental price of fast fashion. Nature Reviews Earth & Environment, 1(4), 189-200.
- World Trade Organization (2021). World Trade Statistical Review 2021.
- Quantis (2018). Measuring fashion: insights from the environmental impact of the global apparel and footwear industries.
- Diffenbaugh, N. S., & Burke, M. (2019). Global warming has increased global economic inequality. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(20), 9808-9813.
- Global Fashion Industry Statistics (2021). Global fashion industry statistics – International apparel. https://fashionunited.com/global-fashion-industry-statistics/. Last accessed 19.11.2021
- Museum Für Kunst Und Gewerbe Hamburg (2015, March 19th). Fast Fashion. The Dark Side of Fashion. http://www.fastfashion-dieausstellung.de/content/MKG_Fast_Fashion_pressrelease.pdf. Last accessed 19.11.2021
Student of the Master’s Degree in Economics
Nova School of Business and Economcis