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Flagship blog - eng

Fashion Retail Sector

Sector Deep Dive
Welcome to our ESG deep dive, a series of articles highlighting the key impacts and risks of major business sectors on people and the environment.

If you would like to know more about the specific ESG impacts and risks in your sector and the important upcoming legislation that will affect organisations in this area, please contact us. We can develop an overview analysis and discuss the key ESG areas your business should focus on.
For many years the world has been discussing fast fashion and the increasing consumerism trend that sees not only customers wanting more and wanting it faster but also the parallel development of mass production to satisfy the need. One of the industries that have contributed towards this never-ending loop is the fashion retail sector. The United Nations names the fashion industry as the second most polluting of all industries (right after oil & gas), resulting in 8% of all carbon emissions and 20% of all global wastewater. Between 1996 and 2012 the number of clothes bought per person in the EU increased by 40%. And while the number of clothes we own is increasing, around 50% of our wardrobes have not been used for at least a year.

And the biggest issue? The current fashion business model is almost completely linear. A process intense on virgin materials, it creates products that are seen as perishable goods, and the equivalent of one garbage truck full of clothes is burned or dumped in a landfill every second. The incredible volume of clothes production is enabled by cheap synthetic fibres - mostly polyester, which is found in over half of all textiles produced.

Currently, these are the biggest impacts of the fashion retail industry on the environment and the people living in it:

Labour, gender and poverty

One in six workers in the world is employed in the fashion industry, and around 85% of those are women. With labour concentrated in low-income Asian countries where women workers are particularly socially and economically vulnerable, worker rights violations and sexual abuse are commonplace. Textile workers are often forced to work long hours in appalling conditions. An Oxfam 2019 report found that 0% of Bangladeshi and 1% of Vietnamese garment workers earned a living wage.

Raw materials

According to Textile Exchange, global conventional fibre production reached an all-time high of 113 million tonnes in 2021. Conventional cotton is considered especially problematic, as it needs huge quantities of land, water, fertilisers and pesticides. And while more items are produced, shifts to lower-impact materials have stagnated. For example, recycled textile waste fibres make up less than 1% of the global market.


The fashion industry is the second highest user of water worldwide. The textile sector contributes towards global water scarcity through its excessive use of freshwater and substantial contribution to water pollution. To produce one cotton shirt requires 2700 l of water - the amount a person drinks in 2.5 years. Furthermore, dyeing can require up to 150 l of water per kg of fabric.

In developing countries, where most of the production takes place and where environmental legislation is not as strict as in the EU, the wastewater is often discharged unfiltered into waterways. Wastewater from the production of synthetic fabrics, which requires 70 million barrels of oil per year, releases lead, arsenic, benzene and other pollutants into water sources.


Around 92 million tonnes of textile waste is created each year. Every second, the equivalent of a rubbish truckload of clothes is burnt or buried in a landfill. From cut-offs, left over after the patterns have been cut out, packaging, tags, hangers and bags to unsold leftover products, the industry’s total fashion waste is predicted to reach 148 million tons by 2030.

Overall, plastic packaging is estimated to make up 26% of the total volume of plastics created a year, and 72% of this is thrown away. Approximately 180 billion polybags are produced every year to store, transport and protect garments, footwear and accessories but less than 15% of all polybags in circulation are collected for recycling.


The fashion industry is one of the major contributors to plastic microfibers entering our oceans and bodies of living organisms. About 16-35% of microplastics released to oceans are from synthetic textiles. Between 200,000 and 500,000 tonnes of microplastics from textiles enter the global marine environment each year. One load of laundry of polyester clothes (also nylon and acrylic) can discharge 700 000 microplastic fibres, which release toxins into the environment and can end up in the human food chain.


Globally, less than one percent of all materials that are used in clothing are recycled back into clothing. The key issue is a lack of technologies for sorting the collected clothing, separating blended fibres, separating fibres from chemicals including colour during recycling, and establishing which chemicals were used in the production in the first place.

Most recycled content in clothes today does not originate from textile waste but from packaging waste. Recycled polyester mostly comes from PET bottles which, instead of being recycled into bottles, are downcycled into fibres. This way, many clothing companies are downcycling and breaking the loop of a material which could stay in the loop for much longer before becoming waste.

Carbon emissions

The increased production, manufacturing and transportation of clothing emit massive quantities of carbon into the environment. It has been widely reported that the fashion industry accounts for 4-10% of greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, the move towards relatively cheap materials like polyester also adds to the increase in carbon emissions.

Jana Pavelková