The true cost of your closet

When we shop for new clothes, a factor that most of us consider is how much we spend. However, while seeking out the best deals, many of us aren’t thinking about what the tag leaves out: a hidden, but steep, environmental and social cost. In fact, the price of your new outfit is probably higher than you think.

In the past 20 years, we have seen a continued rise in fast fashion. This term refers to mass-produced, inexpensive clothing that is intended to be stylish yet short-lived [4]. The process for traditional fashion – from design to production to distribution to sales – can take a year to a year and a half to complete and results in one or two seasonal releases per year. The same process takes anywhere from a couple weeks to four months for fast fashion, with up to 24 releases each year [1]. Using a quick-response production framework, fast fashion retailers like Zara and H&M churn out new styles as soon as they pop up on the runway or on celebrities. These offerings are changed very often in stores via a dynamic assortment process, with hundreds of new product introductions per week [1]. Together, these methods encourage frequent consumption of cheaply made, trendy garments and give consumers a sense of urgency about buying products.

We see this shift in business model reflected in consumer habits. At the basic level: the newest styles are available, prices are lower than ever, and people want to buy more. Since 2000, brands have almost doubled their garment production [2]. Between 1996-2014, there was a similar 40% increase in clothing purchases among Europeans [3]. However, all these garments are worn for 36% less time relative to 2005 [2]. In Germany, 16.7 kg of new clothing is bought per person per year, coming in second only to the UK at 26 kg, and around 11 kg is discarded [3]. This acceleration of production and consumption of products comes with a cost that is not reflected on price tags in stores.

The footprint of fast fashion

A significant amount of water is tied up in the production of your wardrobe. In 2015, the fashion industry used up 79 billion cubic meters of it [2, 3]! Much of this lies in cotton, which is the thirstiest fiber used in fashion, though water is also used in dyeing, bleaching, and other processes associated with the manufacture of clothing. With the 2,700 liters of water that is required to produce just one cotton t-shirt, a person could have drinking water for about 2.5 years [3].

Yet, production goes beyond only the use of water. The processes that fall under making fabrics and creating garments require chemical inputs and generate a lot of waste. This includes agrochemicals and petrochemicals associated with natural and synthetic production respectively, as well as solvents used in the manufacture of textiles and creation of specific garments [2]. Lax standards, poor infrastructure, and inadequate management allow for improper application techniques and untreated wastewater, which results in toxins and heavy metal inputs to the local environment [2]. Even once consumers have the garment, they can continue to pollute. Laundering clothes made from synthetic fibers like polyester releases microplastic into the environment, accounting for 35% of oceanic microplastic pollution [2, 3].

Due to their low cost and quality, high availability, and quick turnover of fashion trends, consumers view the clothing that comes as a result of the above processes as disposable. While some are recycled or resold domestically or abroad, up to 85% of textiles are sent to landfills or burned [3, 4]. As a result, we also see a lot of solid waste and associated hazards stemming from the fashion industry [4].

What about greenhouse gases? Estimates from the IPCC suggest that the fashion industry contributes up to 10% of global emissions. These emissions can come from fiber production (particularly of synthetics, which are made from oil), energy use during manufacturing and production of garments, and transport. The specific numbers can vary based on location, as various factories run on different energy sources [2]. Overall, the climate impact of fashion is greater than that of all international flights and maritime shipping combined [3].

Ultimately, industry globalization means that the consequences of fast fashion are not evenly distributed. Garment production, and all that comes along with it, tends to take place in low- or middle-income countries, while consumption is highest in western countries [2, 4]. In this way, unsafe working conditions, water scarcity, and toxic pollution – all leading to significant negative health impacts for people primarily in production countries – are fueled by consumption countries.

Shifting the trajectory

Clearly, the current path of the fashion industry is completely unsustainable and damaging to people and the environment. To address this, we need to see transformations across the board. At the international level, the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion intends to facilitate change in the industry and turn fashion into a driver of sustainable development by engaging with outreach, knowledge sharing, active collaboration among stakeholders, and identifying synergies. Specific modifications to the current system can include the use of sustainable fabrics (like Lyocell, which is made from the cellulose of bamboo) as well as renewable energy in textile production [2, 4]. Cohesive standards for corporate sustainability should be introduced, as many companies are now taking advantage of greenwashing to market themselves or their products as “eco-friendly” without truly comparative criteria [4]. Policy can also be used as a tool to promote workers’ rights and limit environmental impacts of fast fashion [3, 4]. In line with this is the EU Commission Circular Economy Action Plan, which includes measures to support circularity in the system by improving recycling and ensuring reparability of products as well as giving consumers information on the impacts of the products they buy [3].

On the individual level, people can do their part to change the paradigm of fast fashion by extending the lives of their garments. Simply put, we should be wearing the same clothes for longer. This might involve repairing or reworking older garments. When clothing needs to be replaced, you could try thrifting for new-to-you clothing that still has plenty of life left. Another option that is gaining popularity is renting garments, which is especially useful in the case of a specific event that requires clothing that you might only wear once or twice. However, if you would rather buy fully new, try to focus on quality items, preferably made using sustainable fibers, and choose to support businesses that engage with safer practices which minimize negative impacts on people and the environment [4].

If you are interested in learning more about the impacts of fashion, check out “The Clothes We Wear,” a short documentary from Deutsch Welle, below.


[1] Caro F., Martínez-de-Albéniz V. 2015. Fast Fashion: Business Model Overview and Research Opportunities. In: Agrawal N., Smith S. (eds) Retail Supply Chain Management. International Series in Operations Research & Management Science, vol 223. Springer, Boston, MA. Access here.

[2] Niinimäki, K., Peters, G., Dahlbo, H. et al. 2020. The environmental price of fast fashion. Nat Rev Earth Environ 1, 189–200. Access here.

[3] European Parliament. 2021. The impact of textile production and waste on the environment. Access here.

[4] Bick, R., Halsey, E. & Ekenga, C.C. 2018. The global environmental injustice of fast fashion. Environ Health 17,92. Access here.

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