Let’s dive into the facts and statistics about fast fashion and the industry behind the ever-changing garments that won’t stop flying off the shelves.
Hard fast fashion facts and statistics
Fashion has a huge impact on people and the planet, and fast fashion owns a large and growing share of the problem. The most successful fast fashion brands use influencers and other ploys to push trend-driven items at ridiculously low prices, all while producing new clothing collections as often as every two weeks. Yikes. That all comes at a huge cost to the lives of the workers who make the clothes and the environment.
Fast fashion retailers have made their name by giving us a chance to buy cheaply made pieces that look like designer clothes for next to nothing. But their sales techniques are having a drastic impact on consumer behaviour around the world. In particular, it changes our perception of the lifespan of the garments we buy and tries to convince us that outfit repeating is a faux pas when we know it’s a sustainability must-do.
Read on to discover some facts and statistics about fast fashion and the industry behind it—we guarantee you’ll put down that $10 t-shirt and back away slowly in case it bites.
1. “93% of brands surveyed by the Fashion Checker aren’t paying garment workers a living wage” (Fashion Checker, 2023)
Many fast fashion production facilities are located in countries with emerging or developing markets. Fast fashion retailers employ thousands of people from Bangladesh, India, China, Indonesia, and other low- and lower-middle-income countries (LMIC) as cheap workforce. Not only do these people have to work exhausting hours, but the payment they get is far from fair.
Fashion Checker is a campaign by the Clean Clothes Campaign, funded by the European Union, which helps track which apparel and footwear brands pay their workers a living wage. The campaign found that 93% of 311 brands it surveyed aren’t paying garment workers a living wage. The 2023 Fashion Transparency Index came to a similar conclusion with “99% of major brands and retailers do not publish the number of workers in their supply chains paid a living wage”. We also dug into the rich data here at Good On You, fashion’s most rigorous and comprehensive ratings system: 86% of the world’s most profitable fashion brands we have rated either don’t disclose anything about living wages or are confirmed to not pay living wages at any stage of the supply chain.
The reality is there’s no evidence that the vast majority of major brands pay living wages.
2. “Clothing production is the third biggest manufacturing industry after the automotive and technology industries. Textile production contributes more to climate change than international aviation and shipping combined” (House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee (UK), 2019)
While this statistic refers to the fashion industry as a whole, it’s important to remember that fast fashion is the big driver of this overproduction and its impacts. The main goal of fast fashion giants is all about lowering production costs. This is precisely why they neglect the sustainability aspect of production, from using non-biodegradable fabrics that are fully processed with chemicals to throwing production waste into water streams, lakes, and oceans.
3. “A mere 12% of fashion companies, down from 15% the previous year, disclose the quantity of products produced annually” (Fashion Transparency Index, 2023)
According to Fashion Revolution’s latest transparency index, a stunning 88% of the fashion industry does not disclose their annual product volumes despite an endless, echoing call from advocates, citizens, and executives for fashion to reduce its negative impact. As mentioned above, fast fashion brands, and especially ultra fast fashion brands, are the main culprits of overproduction. In spring 2022, for example, an infographic about SHEIN’s “incomparable churn” sent shock-waves through social media. SHEIN had reportedly uploaded more than 300,000 individual new styles to its website year to date, Business of Fashion reported. This data (originally compiled by analytics platform EDITED to help fashion decode the brand’s ultra fast business model) highlights the tension between certain industry leaders who see numbers of such a scale as a mark of business success and others who condemn the practice as an irresponsible affront to a planet in crisis.
4. “Videos tagged with #haul on TikTok have cumulatively been viewed more than 49bn times as of writing, and that number increases every minute” (Good On You, 2023)
As the fast fashion industry grows, our ideas on what is fresh and socially acceptable to wear also face a massive transformation. “When you scroll through fashion hauls, you see countless examples of consumption on steroids”, says Good On You’s editor-at-large JD Shadel. Life in a world where our wardrobes can be upgraded with a couple (or a hundred) new pieces for the price of breakfast makes us neglect the terrible reality of fast fashion.
5. “Fast fashion brands like SHEIN, REVOLVE, and Romwe all score less than 10% on the Fashion Transparency Index” (Fashion Transparency Index, 2023)
Sustainable fashion cannot exist without transparency. Transparency is a key precondition for industry action to eliminate human rights violations, treat workers and communities with respect, and eliminate or reduce pollution and unsustainable resource use.
You should be suspicious of any brand that is not prepared to fully account for where and how it makes the clothes it wants you to buy. Of course, transparency by itself is not enough—we need brands to commit to high standards and effective assurance systems to know if brands and their suppliers are actually delivering on their commitments.
6. “The fashion industry is responsible for 8-10% of carbon emissions” (UN Environment, 2019)
Some of the main sources of carbon emissions along fashion supply chains are things like pumping water to irrigate crops (like cotton), the harvesting machinery, general transport, and those pesky oil-based pesticides—all of which are inevitably increased in the notoriously overproducing world of fast fashion. By that score, we know that purchasing fast fashion items directly contributes to the global polluting machine that is to blame for 8-10% of the world’s carbon emissions.
7. “45% of the large brands we looked at had set greenhouse gas emissions targets covering at least some of their direct operations or supply chains, but only 21% of large brands had science-based targets” (Good On You, 2022)
Our report on fashion and climate inaction, which analysed over 4,000 brands (fast fashion and not), revealed the targets set by brands are not all they’re made out to be. Brands are rushing to set impressive-sounding targets to show their customers how concerned they are about the climate. 45% of the large brands we looked at had set greenhouse gas emissions targets covering at least some of their direct operations or supply chains, but only 21% of large brands had science-based targets. What’s more, 51% of large brands with greenhouse gas emissions targets do not state whether they are on track to meet them.
8. “The textile sector still represents 10-20% of pesticide use.” (The State of Fashion, McKinsey, 2020)
Cotton especially poses some significant issues. It’s one of the most commonly used fabrics when it comes to the fast fashion industry. By now, it’s probably easy to guess that the conventional cotton fabric most often used in the fast fashion industry is made unethically. Combined with open-loop cycles, cotton production within the fast fashion industry poses a significant threat to health and wellbeing for agricultural workers, for ecosystems, and ultimately, for all of us. Looking for lower-impact fabric options is integral for improving the impact of the fashion industry.
9. “Each year millions of tonnes of clothes are produced, worn, and thrown away. Every second, the equivalent of a rubbish truck load of clothes is burnt or buried in landfill.” (Ellen McArthur Foundation)
To understand fashion’s unprecedented overproduction crisis, you only need to survey the landfills. The fashion industry has a clear misinformation problem, which means we don’t know exactly how much clothing is actually sent to landfills. But the mountains of clothing waste dumped on countries from Ghana to Chile make clear the problem is only getting worse.
Clothing has become more readily available than ever, triggering our consumer behaviours to change for the worse. By thinking of the garments we wear as short term tools rather than long term investments, we contribute to wasteful consumption patterns that inevitably lead us towards drastic climate change.
10. “16 out of 21 items from 10 fashion brands donated through their take-back schemes were either destroyed, left in warehouses or exported to Africa, where up to half of used clothing are quickly shredded for other uses or dumped.” (Changing Markets Foundation, 2023)
Between August 2022 and July 2023, Changing Markets tracked 21 items from 10 fashion brands through their take-back schemes. Garments were donated to H&M, Zara, C&A, Primark, Nike, The North Face, Uniqlo and M&S stores in Belgium, France, Germany and the UK, or posted them to a Boohoo scheme. “Despite the slogans, three quarters of items (16 out of 21 or 76%) were either destroyed, left in warehouses or exported to Africa, where up to half of used clothing are quickly shredded for other uses or dumped. A pair of trousers donated to M&S were scrapped within a week” reported Changing Markets Foundation.
Some have argued that some take-back schemes may simply be tokenistic gestures. Having in-store collection bins and encouraging shoppers to bring old clothes back isn’t enough to counter the detrimental environmental impacts of encouraging over-consumption and over-production—especially if consumers are given discounts or vouchers to use towards a new purchase, perpetuating the vicious cycle. Take-back schemes are great if they are part of a greater plan to move to a circular business model that doesn’t keep pushing shoppers to consume, and if the brand behind it is fully transparent about what happens to donated clothes (and often, they’re not).
11. “Three out of five of the 100bn garments […] will end up in landfill within a year” (Clean Clothes Campaign, 2019)
Recycling is, unsurprisingly, a massive problem in the fast fashion industry. We rarely think about where our clothes go when we don’t need them anymore. Fixing your clothes instead of throwing them away can make an incredible contribution to the reduction in global pollution.
12. “The production of synthetic fibres for the textile industry currently accounts for 1.35% of global oil consumption. This exceeds the annual oil consumption of Spain. ” (Changing Markets Foundation, 2021)
Crude oil is incredibly damaging to the environment, and it goes into a huge amount of garments produced for fast fashion. The resulting polyester AKA plastic-based materials also introduce the increasingly worrying issue of microfibres.
13. “Plastic particles washed off from products such as synthetic clothes contribute up to 35% of the primary plastic that is polluting our oceans. Every time we do our laundry an average of 9 million microfibers are released into wastewater treatment plants that cannot filter them.” (Ocean Clean Wash, 2023)
14. “Synthetic fibres have dominated the fibre market since the mid-1990s, when they overtook cotton volumes. With around 72m tonnes of synthetic fibres, this fibre category made up approximately 64% of the global fibre production in 2021” (Textile Exchange, 2022)
As terrifying as it sounds, well over half of clothes are made with synthetic textiles derived from oil, like acrylic and nylon (AKA polyamide or PA), but mostly polyester. Fashion brands love them because they are cheap, durable, readily available, and easy to adapt to many purposes. But those synthetic fabrics shed large amounts of microfibres, especially when machine washed with detergent, but also while being manufactured, and even just worn.
It goes without saying, fast fashion poses a huge threat to the planet and all of its inhabitants and is one big trigger for climate change. To put it simply, buying cheap items that will only be worn twice means contributing to the mistreatment of humans and nature. Thankfully for us conscious consumers, there are countless brands doing their bit to transform the fashion industry for the better.