The environmental impact of fast fashion: Exploring the urgent need for sustainable clothing options

sustainable clothing

Clothes shopping was traditionally an occasional event – something that occurred when a special event cropped up or the seasons changed, or we outgrew what was in our wardrobe. That was until the arrival of fast fashion around 20 years ago when trend cycles sped up, clothing became cheaper, and shopping became a more frequent activity. The rise of fast fashion has not only changed consumer habits but also highlighted the critical need for a sustainability strategy in the fashion industry.

Global chains and fast fashion companies now dominate our high streets, and consumers can purchase items in-store or online from stores halfway around the world, which calls for a shift towards sustainable clothing options to mitigate the environmental impact of our modern shopping practices. It all sounds incredibly convenient, however, fast fashion has serious impacts on the planet, people, and animals. A survey by Fashion Checker uncovered that 93 percent of brands are not paying garment workers a living wage. Additionally, there are 92 million tonnes of clothes-related waste per year, which creates approximately half a million tonnes of microplastics. 

Despite an increase in annual clothing sales from 100 to 200 billion units, the average number of times an item of apparel was worn fell by 36 percent. With all of this in mind, there is an urgent need to explore sustainable clothing options that don’t cause extensive damage to the environment, harm animals, or exploit workers. Below we dive into fast fashion, what sustainable clothing is, and how you can make your fashion brand more eco-conscious. 

What is sustainable clothing?

Now that you have a greater understanding of the issues surrounding fast fashion, you are probably wondering, ‘What is sustainable fashion?’. Sustainable clothing or fashion is a means whereby brands manufacture and produce garments that not only reduce the impact on the planet but are also mindful of the people who work to create the items. 

Essentially, sustainable clothing is garments that are more environmentally friendly and ethically made. There are many characteristics and principles of sustainable fashion. For instance, proper use and conservation of natural resources are vital for the manufacture and design of clothing. 

Those companies creating sustainable clothing also select materials with low ecological impact that can be recycled or repurposed and work to reduce their carbon footprint. They also operate in a way that respects the working and economic conditions of industrial workers, promoting good hygiene conditions and pay, in particular. 

Sustainable fashion brands also ensure their garments are long-lasting and that upon their disposal, they do not generate contamination or contribute to pollution. Finally, they make garments from existing clothing pieces or materials in an effort to constantly reduce waste. 

What clothing brands are sustainable? 

Many clothing brands place huge importance on respecting nature and, as a result, operate more sustainably. Patagonia was one of the first companies in the fashion industry to advocate for environmental ethics. They were also one of the first brands to utilise recycled materials and make the switch to organic cotton. 

Girlfriend Collective is another example of a sustainable clothing brand. They are best known for their recycled activewear. Almost all their pieces are created from recycled plastic bottles which can be recycled again thanks to its take-back programme. They also place a large importance on using eco-friendly dyes, recyclable sustainable packaging, and ethical production. 

Harvest & Mill grow, mill, and sew their pieces exclusively in the US, as a means to support American organic cotton farmers and local sewing communities. The brand makes ‘basics’ that are not bleached or dyed, which enables them to significantly reduce their use of energy, water, and dye materials. They also cultivate different kinds of cotton, which allows them to bolster biodiversity. 

These are just some examples of clothing brands that are sustainable; many other brands are producing ethical fashion and paving the way for more environmentally friendly clothing options. Responsible fashion brands create eco-conscious products but also look at their operations as a whole to see where they can reduce their impact and spark positive change. 

Why is sustainable fashion important? 

The fashion industry is seriously harmful to the planet. With clothing being cheaper and trend cycles speeding up, we are producing and consuming more garments than ever before. The excess of clothing is causing items to be discarded in landfills where they pollute precious ecosystems and waterways. 

In response to this, sustainable clothing and fashion brands aim to reduce waste generation by creating high-quality garments from durable materials. Additionally, clothes are actually made of plastic, which ultimately raises concerns with respect to microplastics. Thousands of toxic chemicals are also used in textile mills around the world that are dangerous for the people working with them and the planet. 

Not to mention, the fashion industry is one of the world’s biggest polluters. The industry has a significant ecological footprint in respect of carbon, water, and other resources. Sustainable clothing brands work to reduce carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions. They do this by utilising biodegradable components from recycled or natural fibres. 

These fabrics grow with no fertiliser or pesticide use, consume less water and energy and require no chemical treatment. Unfortunately, most fast fashion brands that create cheap clothing and launch numerous collections throughout the year also source their garments from developing nations. 

What this often means is that industrial workers are barely paid a living wage whilst having to work long hours in poor safety and unhygienic conditions. It is the constant pressure on brands to manufacture new pieces that result in an environment whereby workers are exploited. By contrast, sustainable clothing brands prioritise creating a safe workplace and ensuring fair wages for workers.

How can the fashion industry be more sustainable? 

Sustainable fashion follows different principles from traditional fashion. The fashion industry can become more sustainable by adopting these principles and reducing their impact on people, the planet, and animals. Firstly, sustainable clothing brands are all about fair-trade and ethical fashion. 

What this means is that the activities they conduct are considerate of the individuals working in the garment industry. This includes ensuring equal gender rights, safe and hygienic working conditions, fair wages, the prevention of child labour, and all other various social justice aspects. 

Sustainable fashion clothing companies are built on advocating for green and environmentally conscious fabrics and materials. For instance, replacing plastic-based fabrics with biodegradable, natural, and eco-friendly fibres like hemp, organic cotton, and mushroom leather.

Most of these brands are also passionate about providing cruelty-free and vegan pieces. This means manufacturing products without using materials of animal origin or that are associated with animal cruelty. For instance, not contributing to commercial animal farming and their exploitation in the fashion sector. 

Given how desperately we need to move to a circular economy, it should be no surprise that many of these brands are engaging in upcycling. This is a practice whereby textiles, materials, and clothing are repurposed and reused to re-create fashion. This form of garment creation is becoming rather popular amongst celebrities and fashion designers and is even starting to be regarded as a new form of high-end luxury fashion.

Along with upcycling, circular fashion is also a big component of sustainable fashion and clothing. The phrase refers to manufacturing strategies or ‘closed-loop’ processes that intend to recover discarded or wasted materials and fabrics and repurpose them for use in manufacturing. The most common form of circular fashion currently involves  brands recycling polyester and other plastic-based fabrics and reusing them to create new fashion items.

In addition to embedding the principles of sustainable fashion or clothing, fashion businesses also must educate themselves on what it means to operate sustainably. They must gain an understanding of what sustainability is, why it is important, what sustainable fashion is, and how it encompasses more than greening products. It is also about striving for social sustainability and assessing your operations to see where you can make changes to build a more eco-conscious organisation.

Our comprehensive online course in business sustainability enables businesses, big and small, to take action on sustainability now. With our programmes, you can gain the tools, practical insights, and expert knowledge you need to introduce sustainability and climate action into your business. Fashion brands that want to be more sustainable should also avoid engaging in greenwashing. This term refers to a deceitful practice whereby an organisation falsely advertises how sustainable it is. 

Unfortunately, greenwashing in this industry happens all the time, and customers are increasingly suspicious of it. Additionally, some brands do it completely by accident without realising the impact of these actions. Instead of engaging in greenwashing, take the time to look at your strategies, operations, and products and identify how you can contribute to genuine climate action. 


The term “fast fashion” describes a business model where brands mass-create low-priced versions of high-fashion trends and designs. From this point, they bring them to retail stores quickly while the demand is at its highest. 

Whilst this screams convenience for customers, the overproduction of fashion items at such a low cost contributes to a significant amount of waste, carbon emissions, exploitation, and much more. 

Championing a sustainable fashion brand greatly helps in driving social justice, and climate action. It also encourages customers to implement more sustainable lifestyles and be part of the solution.


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