business Editor's pick sustainability

10 scary truths about fast fashion’s impact on the environment

McKinsey & Company has released a new report outlining how important it is for companies in the fast fashion space to look to reduce social and environmental costs.

sustainability fast fashion environment mckinsey
Annual clothing production exceeded 100 billion for the first time in 2014

McKinsey & Company has released a new report outlining how important it is for companies in the fast fashion space to look to reduce social and environmental costs.

At the heart of the report is this simple line: “The fact remains that innovation in the way clothes are made has not kept pace with the acceleration of how they are designed and marketed.”

Thanks to falling costs, streamlined operations, and rising consumer spending, clothing production and consumption has soared since the turn of the millennium. The downside of that, of course, is the impact it has had on the planet accordingly. “Without improvements in how clothing is made, these issues will grow proportionally as more clothes are produced,” the authors ascertain.

Here are 10 facts they highlight before outlining a list of recommendations for steps companies need to take to start countering their increasing impact…

  • Annual clothing production exceeded 100 billion for the first time in 2014; resulting in nearly 14 items for every person on earth

  • Production has doubled from 2000 to 2014, with the number of garments purchased each year by the average consumer increasing by 60% over the same period

  • Making 1 kilogram of fabric generates an average of 23 kilograms of greenhouse gases.

  • Washing and drying 1 kilogram of clothing over its entire life cycle, using typical methods, creates 11 kilograms of greenhouse gases.

  • Across nearly every apparel category, consumers keep clothing items about half as long as they did 15 years ago

  • Some estimates suggest consumers treat the lowest-priced garments as nearly disposable, discarding them after just seven or eight wears

  • Zara offers 24 new clothing collections each year; H&M offers 12 to 16 and refreshes them weekly. Among all European apparel companies, the average number of clothing collections has more than doubled, from two a year in 2000, to about five a year in 2011

  • Nearly three-fifths of all clothing produced ends up in incinerators or landfills within a year of being made. Germany outperforms most countries by collecting almost three-quarters of all used clothing, reusing half and recycling one-quarter. Elsewhere, collection rates are far lower: 15% in the United States, 12% in Japan, and 10% in China.

  • While sales growth has been robust around the world, emerging economies have seen especially large rises in clothing sales, as more people in them have joined the middle class. In five large developing countries – Brazil, China, India, Mexico, and Russia – apparel sales grew eight times faster than in Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States

  • If 80% of the population of emerging economies were to achieve the same clothing-consumption levels as the Western world by 2025, and the apparel industry does not become more environmentally efficient, then the environmental footprint of the apparel industry will become significantly larger across carbon emissions, water and land use (as per the below graph)

mckinsey sustainability

McKinsey notes the fact 22 apparel brands belong to a coalition called Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals to improve and expand the use of nontoxic, sustainable chemistry in the textile and footwear supply chain. There’s also the Better Cotton Initiative, which involves more than 50 retailers and brands and nearly 700 suppliers in setting standards for environmental, social, and economic responsibility in cotton production. It goes on to further recommend several additional steps companies can, and indeed need, to take to start countering the impact fast fashion has:

  • Develop standards and practices for designing garments that can be easily reused or recycled. The Sustainable Apparel Coalition has created an index for measuring the full life-cycle impact of clothing and footwear products.

  • Invest in the development of new fibres that will lower the environmental effects of production and garment making. In 2016, the Walmart Foundation awarded grants of nearly $3 million to five US universities to support research on improving the sustainability and efficiency of textile manufacturing.

  • Encourage consumers to care for their clothes in low-impact ways. Washing garments in hot or warm water and drying at high heat or for longer than needed uses a lot of energy. Clothing makers and retailers can help steer consumers toward clothing-care practices that have a smaller environmental toll and keep garments in good shape for longer.

  • Support the development of mechanical- and chemical-recycling technologies. The fibres produced by mechanical recycling, for example, are shorter and lower in quality than virgin fibres and therefore less useful to apparel makers. Chemical recycling could improve on this as the technology advances.

  • Establish higher labour and environmental standards for suppliers and set up mechanisms to make supply chains more transparent. For example, the software company EVRYTHNG and packaging maker Avery Dennison have together launched an effort to tag clothing so consumers can trace how individual items were produced all along the supply chain.

  • Provide suppliers with guidance and resources for meeting new labour and environmental standards and hold them accountable for performance shortfalls. Walmart, for example, has made a public commitment that by 2017, 70% or more of the products it sources directly from suppliers will come from factories with energy-management plans. The company offers its suppliers software tools to help them find opportunities for using energy and other resources more efficiently.

You can read the full report via

By Rachel Arthur

Rachel Arthur is Editor-in-Chief of Current Daily, the leading news source for fashion, retail and innovation, and the co-host of its weekly Innovators podcast. She otherwise serves as Co-Founder and Chief Innovation Officer of Current Global, a transformation consultancy driving growth within fashion luxury and retail. By background she is an award-winning business journalist and consultant, contributing to titles including Wired, Forbes and Business of Fashion.

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