The Human and Climate Costs of Our Perpetually New Clothes- Part 4 (of 4)

PART 4—The Rise of Fast Fashion and Its Impact on People and the Planet; What Can You Do for Your Part?

Much of the history of clothing, and cotton in particular, has been a harsh one for both humans and the environment. The millennia-long slave trade was furthered for cotton production in the United States, followed by sharecropping and sweatshops that were often another form of indentured labor. The silk industry in India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Japan has played a part in the bonded labor of women and children in contemporary times. And China has detained and indentured Uyghurs in Xinjiang for cotton production and textile manufacture.

Poor wages and unsafe working conditions have long plagued the textile industry. One of the deadliest industrial disasters in U.S. history, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911in Greenwich Village in New York City, killed 146 workers. In 2012, 112 textile workers died in the Tazreen Fashions factory fire in Bangladesh; 150 were injured. Most of the casualties were women. In 2019, 43 workers were killed in a garment factory fire in New Delhi. In the deadliest incident in the textile industry, in 2013 in Dhaka, the Rana Plaza building collapsed and 1,134 workers were killed; 2,500 were injured. Garments for Bon Marché, Primark, Carrefour, Benetton, Inditex, JCPenney, Walmart, Store Twenty-One, C&A, The Children’s Place, DressBarn, Essenza, FTA International, Iconix Brand, and Mango are among the brands that had their garments made in the facility.

Rana Plaza collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh (source:

Injuries and workplace-caused illnesses affect an even greater number of textile workers. Though data is not centrally tracked, an estimated 27 million textile-related workers worldwide—from farmers to factory workers all along the supply chain—suffer from work-related illnesses and disease, and roughly 1.4 million workplace injuries occur in the industry every year. Ongoing exposure to toxic chemicals including pesticides, insecticides, herbicides, defoliants, bleaching agents, chemical dyes, methane, nitrous oxide, carbon dioxide and more cause both injuries and illness. Tiny fibers of lint and dust cause lung disease. Noise levels cause hearing loss. Low lighting conditions cause eye strain and permanently reduced vision. Old equipment and poor safety procedures add to the dangerous conditions. 

From the day we are born, we are clothed. But in most parts of the world that import the textiles and garments from areas where they are produced, the day-to-day world is set up so that we never even have to imagine the world for the workers who are producing our clothes. I didn’t see the history or the contemporary industry of the place I lived as kid. And the clothes I wore were provided to me by parents without much fanfare (except for the ones made for us by my mother for special occasions). Even as a young adult, it took me a while to start putting together the pieces about where I lived and the jobs held by me and many I knew. Still, my clothes were just that—clothes.

Eight or nine years ago I began working on the genealogy of my family. One of my maternal great-grandmothers was an orphan and though I finally was able to piece together the full identity of her birth family and something of their lives, it wasn’t until working on this series that it became clear to me that her mother, my great-great-grandmother, was one of those “shirtwomen” sewing in an apartment for bankrupt wages in the second-half of nineteenth-century Cincinnati and that probably related very directly to her having to give up my great-grandmother.

Clothes—we all wear them (source:

Sofi Thanhauser wrote in Worn: A People’s History of Clothing:

“The global supply chain that brings us our clothing can seem intimidatingly complex. But what if it isn’t? Clothing brands farm out the making of goods to whomever in the world can do it most cheaply, and divorce themselves in the eyes of customers from the facts on the ground. That’s pretty simple. The complexity only comes in when brands really need it to: to prove how many layers removed they are from the human lives being touched—sometimes lost—as a direct result of their purchase orders.”

As individual consumers, we too farm out the making of our clothes and divorce ourselves from the facts on the ground that surround their production. We do it conceptually when we don’t become conscious of the human and the environmental harm done under the conditions in which our clothes are made.

Do we stop to notice the devastation of places like the Aral Sea and the desertification around the world due to monocropping, water redirection for non-food crop irrigations, or streams and rivers saturated with pesticides and chemical dyes? Do we make the connection between the dramatically reduced number of birds in our own backyards related to the relentless spraying of pesticides as well as the decline in available food and water for the birds because of drought and extreme weather patterns?   

When we bemoan the climate crisis and the impending doom of our planet, how deep into our own roles are we looking? When we in western countries decry the treatment of workers as well as the persistent proliferation of coal-fired power plants in China and India, we are ignoring the reality that it is our demand for consumer goods—like our clothing—outsourced for production in China and India that plays the key “demand” role in this cycle. It is only through reducing our dependence upon these outsourced goods that western countries can take an active role in initiating a reduction in China’s and India’s coal-powered energy needs.

A continued rise in coal-fired power plants funded by China (Source:

China and India are no longer willing to be the world’s factories and the world can no longer afford it from an emissions standpoint. A paradigm shift relative to traditional theories and expectations of continuous economic growth is the path to a sustainable global energy future for all countries. Decreased demand for consumer goods, a prerequisite for phasing out coal in the battle to decrease CO2 emissions, will take a decade of visionary planning and execution. Even more than that, it requires a monumental change in what we as consumers believe we truly must have.

In the past several decades, the average consumer has quadrupled the number of clothing items purchased annually. According to the Wall Street Journal, in 2020 the average person will purchase 68 items of clothing and wear each item an average of 7 times before discarding it. That’s pretty much the perfect depiction of fast fashion. “Fast fashion” is the fashion industry’s current approach to business. It relies on cheap, fast production of low-quality clothes moved through the various retail outlets (department stores, boutiques, discount outlets, and online) in such quick cycles that new trends are perpetually changing and moving through the system. The term has been around since the early 1990s but the practice has only become more and more culturally embedded in the past 20 years.

In fast fashion, design, production, distribution, and marketing are all sped up to hyper speed without traditional quality concerns because the next round of trends and products will be right around the corner. With tremendous variety offered at low prices, it’s easy to see how consumption has escalated. And because of the poor quality and the limited-time trendiness, the consumer feels a very real need to replace these fast fashion pieces just as she/he feels the compulsion to purchase the latest version at a “deal” of a price. It’s a vicious cycle with enormous costs to the workers in the developing areas producing these products and to the environment around the world.

The fashion industry accounts for fully 10% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions and 20% of the wastewater created globally—that is, 93 billion cubic meters of toxic fluid from textile dying that must be dumped somewhere.  

Because many of the garments are made from cheaper synthetic fibers (petro-fibers), they will not bio-degrade. And yet they must be disposed of with great regularity in order to make room for the next fast cycle. It’s estimated that 20% of the clothing made each year is never even purchased, not to mention the purchased clothes that are quickly discarded as the product falls apart or the trend rapidly outdates itself. With an estimated 92 billion tons of textile waste accumulating around the world every year, the pressing question is: what to do with it?  

The natural beauty of the Atacama Desert (source:, photo by Alexander Schimmeck)

At the end of the second-hand supply chain, unusable clothing ends up in sewers and then in the sea. From there it washes up on the world’s beaches and is buried in the sand. If it didn’t wind up in the sewer and then the sea, it is dumped on illegal trash heaps around the world. From there it is incinerated and workers in the area are breathing in the toxic synthetic fumes. Every year, 59,000 tons of clothing from around the world ends up at the Chilean harbor of Iquique. Anything that can’t be used—as much as 40,000 tons annually of never-worn, still tagged garments—gets dumped in the nearby Atacama Desert. The Atacama is . . . . well, was . . . a pristine jewel, the only true desert to get less precipitation than the polar deserts while also being the world’s largest fog desert. And because the fashion brands have farmed out and divorced themselves from the whole process, they don’t discuss it, look for solutions, or own the problem in any way. Will we?

Clothes dumped in the Atacama Desert [Martin Bernetti/AFP] (source: Aljazeera)

Change has to happen at the national and international level for policy change and trade regulations. By way of example for international regulations, in 2021, a large consortium of NGOs sent a report to the European Commission. It advocated strongly for the cessation of the export of low-value discarded clothing. In addition to arguing first and foremost for a ban on the destruction of unsold clothing and on the export outside of the EU of clothing that either partially or fully consists of synthetic materials, the report made several specific recommendations for implementing these bans. It called for mandatory fines and the return to the exporters of any containers filled with low-value textiles, and for the implementation of a system that would require transparency on the part of the trade. At the national level, Chile’s new President Gabriel Boric has definitive plans for the climate and environment in his country.

But change must also happen at the individual level. People have always ascribed meaning to clothing. A garment can convey status and wealth or poverty and low rank. It can covey “hipness” or “cluelessness.” It can be fashion-forward or utterly devoid of style. And of course all of the things we imbue clothing with may be informed by whatever is a part of the gestalt within which the clothing exists, but it is always, in the end, purely subjective. That means that we have a choice relative to the meaning we ascribe to our clothing. So why not invest meaning into clothing that makes a positive difference in our world? Why no invest meaning into clothing that is not produced at the expense of the people involved or at the expense of the well-being of an already struggling planet?

“Slow fashion” is, obviously, the opposite of fast fashion. In the slow fashion approach, clothing is made with eco-conscious materials and a concern for the quality of the product as well as the condition for the workers. As the name implies, production generally takes longer but the clothes also last much longer, thus less waste is created. The entire philosophy of slow fashion is for the consumer to purchase less clothing and for the garments that are purchased to last longer. With this in mind, slow fashion designs are more timeless than they are trendy. Overall, slow fashion makes the connections between the materials used, the impact on the human labor involved, and the sustainability relative to the environment.

Basic Principles For Moving Away from Fast Fashion:

  • Shop less often
  • Repair and restore the clothes you have when possible, recycle or upcycle them otherwise
  • Buy less items of clothing
  • Simplify your wardrobe 
  • Stay away from fast fashion
  • When buying cotton or linen or wool, be sure to buy organic
  • When buying natural fibers, look for naturally dyed when possible
  • Buy well-made garments that will last   
  • Buy secondhand or vintage when you can
  • Buy from small and/or local producers and makers when possible
  • Stick with timeless designs
  • If you do order online, resist buying multiple sizes or colors with the idea that you will return all but the piece you like best; the clothes you return cannot be resold and will end up in landfills, the ocean, or places like the Atacama Desert
  • Wash your clothes less often, use cooler water, and line-dry whenever possible
  • If having to buy bigger brands, look for ones known to have ethical/sustainable practices (see apps for sustainable and ethical brands at the end of the References section below)

What About Wool?

The Beauty of Natural Wool (source:, photo by Haley Truong)

A quintessential natural fiber for slow fashion is wool, with some caveats. The wool must be ethically and sustainably sourced (that, is the animals are not mistreated and their maintenance is good for both them and the environment), and the production of the garment itself is not detrimental to the workers or the environment.

Wool has been spun and woven by humans since around 10,000 BCE. Since the middle of twentieth century, wool production has declined as acrylic, a less expensive synthetic fiber, has been used in the production of many items previously made with wool. Today wool makes up just a little over 1% of the world’s fiber market.

Wool has many highly-valued properties. Wool has an insulating ability to keep the wearer warm in the winter and cool in the summer. It is naturally hypoallergenic but also breathable. It holds its shape and is less wrinkle-prone. Wool is highly durable, even possessing some natural resistance to fire. It takes dye easily and, with good care, a quality wool garment can last a lifetime.

From a sustainability standpoint, wool has several characteristics to recommend it. Wool is a renewable material and it is highly recyclable. If untreated chemically{1}, wool is biodegradable, doing so in a matter of months. It can even be composted. Wool production is essentially done by the sheep so it requires less energy and has a lower carbon footprint than most other fabrics.

But there are also issues when it comes to wool’s sustainability. The biggest objection raised against wool from an environmental standpoint relates to the fact that sheep are ruminants. Like cows, their digestive processing of the grasses they eat emits methane, a greenhouse gas with 21 times the potency of carbon dioxide. Sheep also need plenty of room to graze. Deforestation often accompanies commercial sheepherding though letting the sheep range freely can eliminate the need for felling trees. A large commercial flock can also overgraze areas but keeping the flock size down and moving them strategically avoids this issue. So the sustainability of wool is very largely dependent on how the sheep are tended. Buying from garment producers that source their wool from small and/or local makers is the best way to ensure the sustainability of wool garments.

Free-range sheep in the northern New Mexico mountains

Buying from garment producers that source their wool from small and/or local makers also helps in guarding against some of the very real ethical concerns relative to wool. There are a number of painful practices (including tail docking, mulesing{2}, and castration) performed without pain relief and still being used in the handling of sheep by many commercial wool producers around the world. Shearing itself can be done very humanely, but many large-scale commercial operations pay their workers poorly and by-the-hour so the job is often poorly done and painful to the animal.

Alternatives to the wool produced by sheep include chianti cashmere from goats free-ranging in Tuscany and alpaca wool from alpacas ranging in the Peruvian Andes. These provide similar benefits to sheep’s wool without some of the concerns.

Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certification limits the use of toxic bleaching, dying, and other chemical processes during the production of textiles. GOTS-certified is a sign of the toughest international standard available. Going well beyond verifying just the organic farming process, it includes every step of the manufacturing processes as well. GOTS-certified organic farms produce wool at the highest sustainable and ethical standards available today.

Using recycled wool keeps wool garments out of the landfills, minimizes pollution from chemicals, saves water, and prevents harm to any additional animals. And buying second-hand wool garments has all the same benefits.

Concluding Tips

Where Your Clothing helps you learn exactly where your clothing was grown and made. For detailed instructions, check out:

Always look for organic but most especially if you are buying cotton. Many of the ills covered in this series relative to the current production of cotton garments are lessened with organic cotton.

  • Growing organic cotton consumes 91% less water than cotton grown with heavy pesticides.
  • Growing organic cotton uses 62% less energy.
  • Growing organic cotton produces 46% less CO2 emissions.
  • Growing cotton organically results in 26% lower soil erosion.

Look for jeans made with Candiani denim. Brands like Lee, Levi’s, Lucky Brand, Hugo Boss, JCrew, Stella McCartney, Diesel, Closed, and Outerknown all offer jeans made with this fabric. Conventional denim takes hundreds of years to degrade and Candiani denim degrades in six months. Read about the benefits here:


1—Wool is sometimes treated so that it can be machine-washed. This is a synthetic chemical treatment and the label will say SUPERWASH on it. If the garment’s wool has been treated in this way, it is no longer bio-degradable.

2– Mulesing is the practice of cutting away a 2- to 3-inch wide crescent-shaped piece from both sides of a sheep’s buttocks area and the stump of the tail when the lamb is 6 to 10 weeks old. The intended purpose is to create scarring over which the wool cannot regrow in order to prevent feces and urine from adhering to the wool and then attracting flies larvae that carry the parasitic infection flystrike (myiasis).

NOTE: Thank you to Michel Porro for his thoughts on the demands of western consumers creating the need for more coal-fired power plants and factories in China and India.


Astoul, Eva. 2022. How Sustainable and Ethical is Wool? (& Better Alternatives). Sustainably Chic.

Lai, Olivia. 2021. What is Fast Fashion. Earth.Org.

Newell, Andrea. 2016. Quenching Cotton’s Thirst: Reducing the Use of Water in the Cotton Lifecycle. Triple Pundit. 

Thanhauser, Sofi. 2022. Worn: A People’s History of Clothing. New York: Pantheon Books.

2021. Chile’s Desert Dumping Ground for Fast Fashion Leftovers. Aljazeera.

2022. It Takes 10,000 Litres of Water to produce One Kilogram of Cotton. The World Counts. 

2022. The Massive Dumping of Discarded Clothing in Ghana and Chile Must Stop. Plastic Soup Foundation.

Apps for sustainable and ethical brands:

Good On You – Ethical Fashion

Good On You is your trusted source of sustainability ratings for fashion. Join more than a million people worldwide using Good On You to shop better and…

Renoon: Sustainable Fashion

Renoon is your go-to app for responsible shopping: discover products and brands that match your sustainability values from multiple online shops – Renoon…

DoneGood: Ethical Shopping App

DoneGood makes it easy and affordable to get great products from brands that do good for people and the planet. With DoneGood you can quickly discover…

Tulle and Batiste

Ethically made clothing you’ll want to keep forever. Tulle and Batiste offers vintage inspired collections personally designed by Jannah and her team of…

Afends US

Afends is a sustainable brand leading the way in hemp fashion. Drawing inspiration from the environment, street and surf culture, our mission is to create…


THE BEST ETHICAL, SUSTAINABLE & CRUELTY-FREE FASHION, ACCESSORIES AND BEAUTY Shop the latest in sustainable fashion and accessories and cruelty-free…

Alpaka – Slow Fashion App

Is your closet packed with clothes and yet you never know what to wear? Solve this problem with the Alpaka app which calculates the cost per wear of your…


At Swipewise, our goal is to help reduce the impact of the fast fashion industry on our environnement and the workers. By providing a free and easy to use…


Miigle+ is a platform on a mission to re-engineer consumerism into a force for social good – we call it “cause-sumerism”. Over the past few years, we’ve…


Introducing the LATTELIER mobile app! Modern, authentic and timeless pieces are now at your fingertips. For people worldwide, we offer over 2,000+ styles…

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