Global Impacts of Fashion

All humans wear clothes. Clothes are amongst the few staple elements of human culture, all around the world. Our ancestors used fibers, animal skin, etc., to survive and to cope with the different challenges the environment threw their way; to maintain body temperature during cold winters or to block harmful ultraviolet radiation from the skin in harsh arid climates.

Through the help of technology, techniques, and evolution of fashion textiles have ballooned into a $3 trillion-dollar industry3. In present society, the industry is a titan of resources.

Assessing a whole industry is no small effort. Part of the reason why environmental impacts are often discussed in vague, inaccessible terms can be attributed to the difficulty in measuring and quantifying impacts. The sheer size of the industry adds complexity in assessments of impacts—from farming operations to factories for processing down to the retail storefronts saturated with this season’s trends. This massive, globally distributed supply network employs 4% of the world’s population1: 300 million people.

Accompanying this enormous industry, as with all others, are externalities and impacts transferred to local and global environments. 20% of wastewater worldwide2 can be traced back directly to fabric dying and treatment, composed of potentially toxic chemicals, abrasive compounds and microplastics.

Beyond wastewater, the operations of supply chain entities all over the world contribute to making the fashion industry one of the most polluting industries in the world. The industry accounts for 10% of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions2—more than maritime shipping and international flights combined.

There is no way around it, these are daunting facts. One of our most important challenges as stewards of this planet is to constantly review and innovate the ways we do things, in order to secure the blessings of resources for those that come after. The fashion industry presents significant opportunity for innovation. To wrestle with questions like “how do we deliver the same function and value sustainably?” or “how do we create an industry that benefits all life on the planet?” is a worthy challenge for human brilliance.

Where would you start to improve fashion’s supply chain?


  1. Gazzola, Patrizia et al. “Trends In The Fashion Industry. The Perception Of Sustainability And Circular Economy: A Gender/Generation Quantitative Approach”. Sustainability, vol 12, no. 7, 2020, p. 2809. MDPI AG, doi:10.3390/su12072809.
  2. “How Much Do Our Wardrobes Cost To The Environment?”. World Bank, 2019,
  3. Maloney, Carolyn. THE ECONOMIC IMPACT OF THE FASHION INDUSTRY. U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee, Washington, D.C., 2019. Accessed 11 July 2020.
  4. Park, H., Kim, YK. An empirical test of the triple bottom line of customer-centric sustainability: the case of fast fashion. Fash Text 3, 25 (2016).

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