Fast Fashion: What it Means and Why it Matters for Sustainability in the Workplace

April 12, 2023 in ,
By Perry Morton

Chances are you’ve opened your closet door recently and thought to yourself, “I need some new clothes.” Our bodies change, fashion trends evolve, and our personal preferences shift. Whether you dress in business attire, business casual, or your work attire also pulls double duty as workout gear, clothing is an integral part of your daily work routine, right up there with a solid WIFI connection, caffeine, and other tools for the job.

What is fast fashion?

Fast fashion is the business model of copying high-fashion designs and trends, mass-producing them at a low cost, and bringing them to retail stores as fast as possible while demand is still high. While the low production costs do benefit your wallet, the negative impact on the environment is simply enormous. According to the World Bank, the fashion industry is responsible for 10% of annual global carbon emissions; more than the shipping and aviation industries combined.

Other mind boggling metrics published by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation suggest:

  • Synthetic materials like polyester require an estimated 342 million barrels of oil every year – by comparison that’s more than the total annual consumption of Spain.
  • Every year, the fashion industry uses 93 billion cubic meters of water — enough to meet the consumption needs of five million people.
  • Around 20% of wastewater worldwide comes from fabric dyeing and treatment.
  • Every year, half a million tons of plastic microfibers enter the ocean, the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles.

On its upside, the fast fashion model has been celebrated for making high fashion accessible to the masses. But the model also clearly contributes to overconsumption: research from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation indicates that clothing production doubled between 2000 and 2015. This same time period also saw a nearly 40% decline in the number of times an item was worn before being thrown out. The overconsumption ultimately ends up in landfills, incinerators, or as the Independent reported last summer, discarded on beaches after failing to find a home in the second-hand market.

Impacts of fast fashion have been increasingly well-publicized over the last five years. Additionally, board rooms like those of Swedish retailer Hennes & Mauritz AB (H&M) and Zara have now clearly identified both the risk and opportunities posed by what analysts suspected was the more environmentally conscious Gen Z consumer. But as Bloomberg reported just this month, the industry is by no means experiencing a backlash, yet. Concerns about the environmental impact of fast fashion simply haven’t caught up to the industry’s bottom line.

So, what can we do now to help lessen the fast fashion industry’s impact on the environment? The World Bank suggests starting with these small steps:

  • Before buying, find out if the manufacturers used sustainable criteria to produce the clothing
  • Be creative in combining garments and recycle them after they wear out
  • Repair clothing
  • Donate what you no longer use
  • Buy only what you need
  • Consider quality over quantity – cheap clothing often doesn’t survive the wash cycle, meaning that in the long run you don’t save money compared with buying better quality garments
  • Buy second-hand clothing
  • Be a smart laundry manager — wash full loads and use non-abrasive detergents, for example

What is FMP doing?

In early May, FMP is sponsoring a clothing drive in support of Path Forward, an organization from Arlington with a mission to address homelessness. Check out the FMP FME and Hub for more details or reach out to to find out how you can support.

Perry Morton is a Managing Consultant in FMP’s Analytics, Technology, Transformation (ATT) Center of Excellence. As Chair of FMP’s Sustainability Committee, Perry also plays a critical role in FMP’s Environmental Management System by helping promote and maintain sustainable business processes and systems. Outside of FMP, Perry likes connecting with the environment through gardening, and hiking and camping with his two kids in Shenandoah.