Second-hand clothing and the environmental impact of the fashion industry


October 17, 2023


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environmental impact of the fashion industry

In a world dominated by fast fashion, our clothing choices have far-reaching consequences. The fashion industry, with its constant churn of trends and tons of disposable garments, is a major contributor to climate change, resource depletion and environmental degradation. From excessive water use to a massive carbon footprint, the toll on our planet is undeniable.

As consumers, we hold the power to drive change. By understanding the implications of our choices, reevaluating our consumption habits, and embracing seemingly small actions in our daily lives, we can work to mitigate the harm caused by the fashion industry. Choosing durable gear, practicing clothing care and repair, and opting for second-hand options are all steps toward a more sustainable future. Join us in exploring the fashion industry’s impacts and discovering how, together, we can make a positive difference.

In this article, you will learn more about the fashion industry’s environmental impacts and how second-hand clothing and sustainable habits can drive positive change:

  1. The Environmental Impacts of the Fashion Industry
  2. Second-hand Clothing and Climate Change
  3. Second-hand Clothing and Raw Materials

The Environmental Impacts of the Fashion Industry

Every year, the fashion industry emits over one billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which is as much as all the combined emissions from global air and sea traffic. It is indeed one of the world’s largest polluters, second only to the oil industry. Vast amounts of resources and over 15,000 different chemicals are used for the production and transformation of clothing, resulting in soil degradation and high levels of pollutants being released into the environment. Transportation also plays a significant role in the fashion industry’s carbon footprint, with most items being produced in one part of the world and then shipped to another for sale; a pair of jeans, for example, can travel up to 1.5 times around the world before reaching its final destination. 85% of all clothing produced thrown away every second.

The Fast Fashion Problem

While traditional clothing brands create an average of four collections per year, fast fashion companies release up to 36, mass-producing thousands of items in the quickest, most cost-effective way possible – at the expense of the environment. With fast fashion, an ever-increasing amount of resources are used, more CO2 is emitted into the atmosphere, and more pollutants end up in the environment. In other words, the fashion industry already has a significant environmental impact, and fast fashion multiplies it.
Another issue is that when fast fashion companies prioritize volume, profit, and speed, they often neglect important aspects of the production and transformation processes. This can result in overlooking things like raw materials sourcing, chemical products usage and disposal, waste management and the overall quality of the clothing. So, along with polluting the air and water and having a very high carbon footprint, fast fashion garments don’t last long in the hands of consumers because they are simply not made to last. They are practically disposable, bought in masses and discarded in record time because they quickly deteriorate or go out of style.

Second-hand Clothing and Climate Change

Embracing second-hand clothing is a small but potentially powerful way to take action against climate change and toward the reduction of our individual and collective carbon footprint. When we opt for second-hand clothing, we contribute to extending the lifespan of garments and reducing the need to produce new ones. According to ADEME’s carbon database, choosing to purchase one used garment instead of a new one can save up to 56 kg of CO2 emissions – about the same as a 500 km car trip. This means that by choosing pre-loved clothing, we can collectively make a significant dent in the fashion industry’s carbon emissions. Second-hand shopping also promotes a more circular economy, where clothing is reused, repurposed, and sometimes reimagined, fostering sustainability and a reduced strain on our planet’s resources.

Second-hand Clothing and Raw Materials

When we opt for second-hand clothing instead of buying something new, we help conserve the resources needed for production and transformation, and we contribute to reducing the amount of pollutants that end up in the environment.

Synthetic Materials

Most synthetic fibres that go into the composition of clothing today are made from petroleum, a non-renewable, highly polluting resource. Polyester is the most commonly used material, accounting for 70% of all synthetic fibre production. The process of transforming oil into textile products generates a great deal of pollution, with the chemicals used in this process being one of the primary sources of water pollution from the textile industry. Polyester fibres also release microplastics in the water when they are washed, further contributing to the contamination of our waterways. This effect does tend to lessen over time – which is one more reason to favour second-hand clothing and recycled materials.

Natural Materials

Unfortunately, even natural fibres can have negative impacts on the environment. The fashion industry, let alone fast fashion, creates a huge demand for raw materials, which leads to producers using intensive farming practices to increase crop production rates and yields. Cotton, for instance, can grow just fine with moderate amounts of water, but cotton crops used for textile production are immersed in water to increase their efficiency and growth speed. As such, it takes about 2,700 litres of water to make just one cotton t-shirt – that’s enough water to quench one person’s thirst for at least three years. Considering that cotton accounts for a quarter of all textile fibres produced globally, it’s no surprise that the fashion industry is the second-largest consumer of water in the world.

Taking Action

Choosing second-hand clothing is a sustainable alternative that goes against the fast fashion model and current unsustainable practices of the fashion industry. As conscious consumers, there are other steps we can take in this direction as well.

A good starting point is to value the resources and labour put into creating the clothes we already own and strive to make the most out of our current wardrobes. We can do this by taking care of our clothes, making sure we maintain and wash them properly, learning how to mend and repair them, and finding helpful tips to keep them in good condition for longer. Rather than automatically discarding a clothing item or accessory that seems to have reached the end of its life, we can explore alternative uses for it and find ways to repurpose or recycle it. And if an item no longer serves us, we can extend its lifecycle by passing it on, loaning it or selling it to someone else who can continue to use it.

For further inspiration, it’s always helpful to brush up on the 5 Rs of zero waste and look for ways to incorporate these principles into our daily lives. Even when we must buy new clothing or accessories, we can still aim for responsible consumption by questioning our habits and choices, seeking out quality, durability, and repairability, focusing on eco-friendly brands and reliable sustainability certifications and labels, and asking ourselves if the items we are considering genuinely meet a need in our lives.


What is the impact of textiles on the environment?

What is the problem with fast fashion?


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