Sustainability issues in the fashion industry – what we stand up against

The products we use in our daily lives can leave significant environmental footprints and impose health burdens if we are unaware of their manufacturing origins and processes. The fashion industry, in particular, harbors numerous sustainability challenges that adversely affect both people and the environment.

Plastic bags impact

Annually, the plastic bag industry consumes as much as 2 billion barrels of oil, resulting in a substantial carbon footprint and posing critical health hazards to both people and natural ecosystems. But why is this a problem?

Environment: Plastic bags contribute to plastic pollution and environmental degradation. When these bags reach the end of their life cycle and are improperly disposed of, they can end up in landfills or find their way into the environment, including rivers and oceans. An estimated 13 million tons of plastic leak into the ocean each year, disrupting ecosystems and biodiversity as well as impacting human health (State of Plastics, 2018).

Non-Biodegradable Nature: Most plastic bags, including fashion accessories, are made from non-biodegradable materials like polyethylene or polypropylene. Consequently, they persist in the environment for hundreds, even thousands of years (Bell & Cave, 2011), exacerbating pollution.

Microplastic Generation: Plastic bags degrade over time into smaller fragments known as microplastics. These pose risks to ecosystems and may enter the food chain, contaminating soil and water.

Resource-Intensive Production: The production of plastic bags, including those for fashion accessories, involves fossil fuel extraction and energy-intensive processes, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions and resource depletion.

Limited Recycling Options: There are challenges involved with plastic bags used in fashion accessories, especially related to recycling, due to the complexity of the materials used and potential contamination from other substances. For example, chemicals added to plastic polymers and products made of mixed materials make recycling difficult and expensive. This limitation results in a significant portion of these bags ending up as waste.

Waste Management Challenges: Improper disposal of plastic bags, including fashion bags, can lead to litter and clog drainage systems, contributing to waste management challenges and environmental hazards. The ever-increasing plastic production, consumption, and waste generation pose a threat to marine and terrestrial ecosystems. We can use most plastic materials only once. For example, plastic packaging materials cover half of the world’s plastic waste (UNEP, 2018). Asia contributes to the major amount of plastic waste, however, America, Japan and the European Union produce the highest per capita plastic waste in the world.

It’s alarming that only 9% of 9 billion tons of plastics have been recycled (UNEP, 2018), since the non-biodegradable plastic breaks into tiny particles known as microplastics, a leading cause of marine pollution. If we continue our current plastic consumption pattern, there will be around 12 billion tons of plastic litter in landfills and the environment by 2050.

Plastic waste management has considerable damage to the global economy. Plastic litter associated with tourism, shipping and fishing industries costs $1.3 billion per year in the Asia Pacific region. In Europe, it requires $ 630 million to clean plastic waste from coasts and beaches. The economic damage to the world’s marine ecosystem caused by plastic is estimated at around $13 billion every year.

Impact on Wildlife and Human Health: Plastic bags endanger wildlife through ingestion and entanglement. Marine animals and birds may mistake plastic bags for food, leading to ingestion-related issues, and plastic bags left in natural environments can be harmful to terrestrial wildlife. The toxic substances added to plastic production get absorbed in animal tissues and contaminate the human food chain (State of Plastics, 2018).

Misleading Advertisement on Biodegradable/Biobased Plastics: While petroleum-based plastics dominate the market, there is another type of plastic known as biodegradable or biobased, produced from renewable resources. The term ‘biodegradable’ is misleading for customers, who often assume these bags are suitable for composting and natural breakdown in the environment. However, the truth is that the majority of biodegradable plastics require very high temperatures to break down, only achievable in incineration plants, not in the natural environment (State of Plastics, 2018). Incineration also contributes to global warming and climate change. Additionally, plastics derived from renewable resources such as corn starch, cassava roots, or sugarcane do not degrade in the environment automatically. Another major concern is that the increase in biobased plastics production can negatively impact food crop production.

Plastics can also be produced using a combination of petroleum and biobased resources. Some biobased polymers, such as polyethylene from bio-ethanol, are not biodegradable. Improper disposal of such plastics can make recycling more difficult and expensive. Customers can avoid confusion if there is a clear distinction between home compostable and industrially compostable plastics. The term ‘biodegradable’ should clarify under which conditions biodegradation occurs. If users and consumers have access to clear, comprehensible, and accurate information, they can make informed purchasing decisions. This initiative would help protect our environment from further degradation caused by the greenwashing practices of biodegradable plastic industries.

Water consumption

The fashion industry significantly impacts water consumption. It is estimated that the fashion industry drives 7% of global freshwater extraction, equal to 93 billion cubic meters of water. The fashion supply chain contributes to water scarcity and water pollution in the following ways:

Leather Production: The global leather market stood at $27.21 billion in 2021 and has been expanding over the past five years (Statista, 2021). Leading leather-producing countries exhibit enormous leather water footprints. The annual water footprint of the tannery industry in China is estimated to be around 1.4 hundred million cubic meters. In Brazil, water consumption in the leather industry equals that of 5.5 million residents per year.

Textile Production: The cultivation and processing of natural fibers, such as cotton and hemp, and the production of synthetic fibers, like polyester and nylon, require substantial amounts of water. Water is used for irrigating crops, dyeing, and finishing processes, among other textile manufacturing steps.

Wet Processing and Dyeing: Dyeing and finishing processes in textile production are water-intensive. The process involves immersing fabrics in large quantities of water with chemical dyes and additives to achieve desired colors and properties.

Washing and Pre-Consumer Waste: Garments and textiles undergo washing and finishing processes before they reach the consumer. These processes involve considerable water usage and can contribute to pre-consumer waste.

Water Pollution: Apart from water consumption, the fashion industry is also responsible for water pollution. The release of chemical dyes, finishing agents, and other pollutants from textile production can contaminate water sources, affecting both ecosystems and communities that depend on clean water.

Unsustainable Sourcing Practices: The fashion industry’s demand for rapid production and low costs often leads to sourcing textiles and garments from regions with water scarcity issues. Unsustainable sourcing practices can exacerbate water stress in already water-stressed areas.

Cotton impact

The fashion industry’s cotton usage has a significant impact on the environment, society, and economies. As one of the most widely used natural fibers in the fashion sector, cotton production and consumption contribute to various environmental problems:

Water Consumption: Cotton is a water-intensive crop. Its production requires significant amounts of water, leading to water scarcity in regions where it is grown. The overuse of water for cotton cultivation can deplete water sources and harm ecosystems. For example, The Water Footprint Network reported that 1 kg cotton production in India requires 22,500 liters of water, though the global average is 10,000 liters for a kg of cotton production.

Pesticides and Chemicals: Conventional cotton farming relies heavily on pesticides and chemical fertilizers, which can pollute soil and water, harm biodiversity, and pose health risks to farmers and surrounding communities.

Land Use and Deforestation: Expanding cotton cultivation can lead to deforestation and the conversion of natural habitats into agricultural land, impacting biodiversity and contributing to climate change.

Soil Degradation: Intensive cotton farming practices can degrade soil quality, leading to erosion, loss of fertility, and reduced agricultural productivity.

Chemical consumption

The fashion industry has a significant chemical consumption impact throughout its supply chain, from fiber production to dyeing, finishing, and garment manufacturing. The extensive use of chemicals in various processes poses several environmental and human health concerns:

Fiber Production: Chemicals are used in the production of synthetic fibers, such as polyester, nylon, and acrylic. Petrochemicals and various toxic solvents are employed in these processes, which contribute to environmental pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

Dyeing and Printing: Dyeing and printing fabrics involve the use of numerous chemicals, including synthetic dyes, fixatives, and pigments. The dyeing process generates a significant amount of wastewater that can contain harmful substances, such as heavy metals and toxic chemicals.

Finishing: To improve fabric properties, finishes like water repellency, flame resistance, or wrinkle resistance chemicals are applied. Some finishing treatments contain per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which are persistent and harmful to the environment.

Textile Treatment: Textiles may undergo treatments like antimicrobial, stain-resistant, or mothproofing processes, which often involve the use of chemicals that can adversely affect human health and the environment.

Leather Tanning: The leather industry uses various chemicals in tanning processes. The conventional chrome tanning method employs chromium salts, which can be harmful if not managed properly.

Hazardous Waste Generation: The fashion industry generates hazardous waste from chemical usage, which can pose risks to workers, nearby communities, and the environment if not disposed of properly.

Environmental Pollution: The release of chemicals into waterways and soil during dyeing and finishing processes can lead to water pollution and soil contamination, affecting aquatic life and agricultural areas – and ultimately presents a major threat to global food security.

Leather: Chrome-tanning impact

To ensure the durability of leather, tanning of the hides is necessary. The majority of the leather industry employs chrome in this process, as it is much faster and hence more economical than the traditional ecological tanning alternative. However, this practice also renders it highly controversial due to the chromium salts used in chrome tanning, which pose risks of carcinogenicity and persist in the environment.

Figure 1. Tannery chrome effluent propagates through the environment, infiltrating water bodies, affecting aquatic ecosystems, and subsequently seeping into the soil. This contamination extends its reach to trees, crops, and animals to ultimately culminate in a significant health hazard for humans.

Critical impact: Chrome tanning has adverse effects on both the environment and human health. Chromium is found in nature in two oxidation states: Chromium (III) and Chromium (VI). Chromium (III), in the form of chromium salt, is mainly used for leather tanning. The chromium salt solution can contain Chromium (VI), a more toxic form of chromium, if an error occurs during the salt production process. If Chromium (III)-contaminated effluent discharges into water bodies, some can oxidize to Chromium (VI) by other agents such as manganese dioxide, hydrogen peroxide, and hypochloric acids, which is hazardous to the environment.

The chromium-rich and non-biodegradable effluent can damage the ecosystem and cause loss of agricultural land, thus affecting all the surrounding living organisms, including microorganisms, aquatic life, human beings, and terrestrial flora and fauna (Elahi et al., 2020).

Chromium has been linked to higher levels of morbidity around South Asian tannery areas. Chromium (VI) can create acute and chronic toxic effects, including dermal and respiratory damage to tannery workers, and gastrointestinal effects if drinking water is contaminated with chromium. Chromium exposure can lead to allergic reactions and various skin diseases. Human exposure to Chromium (VI) can also cause genetic disorders, birth defects, kidney malfunction, liver damage, cancer, vomiting, and hemorrhage.

A high rate of cancers such as lung cancer, testicular cancer, soft tissue sarcoma, pancreatic cancer, and bladder cancer was reported among tannery workers in Hazaribagh, a major tannery area in Bangladesh (GoB, 2018).

Waste generation: The leather tanneries generate considerable quantities of solid and liquid waste and also gaseous wastes (Shaibur, 2023). It is estimated that one ton of raw hide processing can produce 200 Kg of dry leather, together with 250 Kg of tanned solid waste. The processing can also produce 350 Kg of non-tanned waste, where 100 Kg is lost as wastewater.

The generated solid and harmful wastes can contain Chromium. The composition of solid hide waste includes fleshing (56-60%), chrome leather shaving, chrome splits and buffing dust (35-40%), skin trimming (5-7%), and hair (2-5%). Among these wastes, chrome leather shaving can contain 2.5-5% Cr depending on the process.

The solid wastes are dumped on the landfill sites and contaminate the surrounding environment. For example, the solid tannery waste decomposes fast during the summer and causes serious air pollution with a pungent bad odor. The toxic liquid wastes are dumped into the natural water bodies directly or indirectly without any treatment. In such a case, the water resources become unsuitable for public use when mixed with untreated toxic effluent generated from leather industries.

Tanning industries have been driving the economic growth of Bangladesh from the very beginning of industrialization (GoB, 2018). Most tanneries in Bangladesh are located in the capital city Dhaka. Large amounts of tannery wastewater and solid wastes are discharged into surface water bodies and low-lying areas in Bangladesh (Shaibur, 2023). The colored water is normally discharged into the river, and the continuous discharge of it turns the river water blackish/bluish with a chronic bad smell. The toxic components of the waste can reach the bottom of a river and can contaminate both the surface and groundwater used for cooking, bathing, swimming, and irrigation. The chromium-containing waste can also seep into the soil and reach groundwater aquifers and contaminate the vital drinking water sources of the surrounding communities.

The contamination can also build up in fish, a common source of food, and can pose serious health hazards for people. For example, high bioaccumulation of Cr was detected in the fish body of the Buriganga River located in the capital of Bangladesh (GoB, 2018). The high Cr concentration is linked to the disposal of tannery wastes for a long period in the river. The consumption of such fish with high concentrations of Cr ultimately affects human health. It was also reported that tannery wastes are damaging fish eggs and floral and faunal composition in two major rivers-Buriganga and Dhaleshwari in Dhaka.

The colored tannery effluent prevents light penetration into the water, which decreases photosynthesis. Low light penetration also destroys Phytoplankton, the primary producer of an aquatic ecosystem. Phytoplankton transfers energy and food into the food web. Primary consumers Zooplankton consumes Phytoplankton. Small fishes and insects rely on Zooplankton to thrive in water bodies.

The discharge of organic materials such as rawhides and skin, leather parts, fats, etc. requires high dissolved oxygen (DO) for the decomposition process, which reduces the DO concentration in the water body to a critical level. The low DO will reduce the fish community and aquatic organisms such as Phytoplankton and Zooplankton.

When the contaminated river water is used for irrigation purposes, the soil in agricultural land gets polluted. Therefore, there is a chance of Cr-bioaccumulation in the cultivated crops as well. The Cr can accumulate in animals when they consume plants. Cr is required in human health in small amounts as an essential trace nutrient, though it becomes toxic at higher concentrations (hexavalent ion Cr+6, Solomon, 2006).

The intake of higher Cr by the plants also causes reduced yields and crop quality, which decreases the amounts of usable food produced. Therefore a toxic level of Cr can build up in the human body through the ingesting of fish, plants, and animals. The solid wastes produced in tanneries are disposed of by burning the materials releasing chemicals into the atmosphere (Hakansson et al., 2022). This results in an increase in Chromium levels in the environment, Ozone damage, and an increase in greenhouse methane gas from hydrogen sulfide.

Leather: Sourcing impact

The fashion industry’s impact on sourcing leather raw material, particularly from animals such as cattle, sheep, goats, and other livestock, has several significant implications for the environment, animal welfare, and local communities. Some key aspects of the fashion industry’s impact on leather sourcing are:

Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Livestock farming contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, primarily methane and nitrous oxide, which are potent contributors to climate change. FAO estimated that industrial livestock production contributes to 16.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions. This is a higher percentage than all the gas-burning cars, trucks, ships, and planes in the transportation sector. Methane is estimated to be more than 80 times more potent compared to Carbon (Hakansson et al., 2022). It makes up 20% of global emissions and is responsible for 0.5 degrees Celsius of the 1.1 degrees Celsius of warming since the 19th century. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change uses global warming potential over a 20-year time frame to understand the effect of methane in comparison with carbon. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization stated that industrial animal farming is one of the most significant contributors to methane emissions and serious environmental problems.

Water Usage: The leather production process, especially chrome tanning, involves significant water consumption, potentially leading to water scarcity and pollution if proper wastewater treatment is not in place.

Water Scarcity and Water Pollution: Besides, cattle produce a significant amount of waste in a confined farming system. For example, a castrated bovine can excrete 34 kg of manure on average each day in the cattle industry. This large amount of waste can enter nearby waterways of farms and feedlots through runoff and soil erosion. The nutrient-enriched fecal waste can contaminate water and cause eutrophication, where dense algal bloom happens due to excessive richness of nutrients. Eutrophication leads to oxygen depletion in the water and creates a ‘dead zone’ where aquatic life cannot survive. Dense algal bloom or eutrophication can also happen when fertilizers and pesticides, used in pasture and monoculture crop production, reach water bodies and contaminate water resources such as through run-off. Added to that, erosion and sediment run-off occur and contaminate water due to increased deforestation for cattle ranching. For example, in Queensland, Australia, sediments generated from cleared land plunge into the Great Barrier Reef, where it diminishes sunlight to seagrasses, coral and other reef organisms.

Deforestation: The expansion of grazing lands and cattle farming for leather production can drive deforestation, particularly in regions like the Amazon rainforest, leading to loss of biodiversity and habitat destruction. Forests cover almost a third of the global land area and inhabit most of the earth’s terrestrial biodiversity. Therefore United Nations Environment Program emphasizes forest protection to safeguard habitats and biodiversity (Hakansson et al., 2022). However, 15 billion trees are cut down each year. The destruction of unharmed forests is devastating for biodiversity. Agriculture poses the biggest threat to destroying biodiversity and the extinction of valuable species. For example, cattle production is responsible for 73% of all deforestation and land clearing in Queensland, Australia. Koalas are considered an ‘endangered species’ in Queensland linked with intense habitat destruction. Similarly, 80% of Amazonian deforestation is happening across Brazil, Peru, and Bolivia by cattle farming.

Destruction of Soil Resources: The commercial rearing of cattle for meat, dairy, and leather causes soil erosion, leading to the destruction of soil productivity and biodiversity (Hakansson et al., 2022). The overgrazing of cattle in major hide-exporting countries such as Australia and the United States erodes soil, leaving it less nutritious and reducing plant cover, microbial growth, and the soil’s ability to sequester carbon from decaying plant matter. Overgrazed land also experiences soil compaction, reducing drainage and water infiltration rates. Soil plays a critical role in combating the climate crisis by storing carbon. Soil stores more carbon than all plant biomass on Earth. However, industrial cattle farming is deteriorating soil quality, adversely impacting the carbon sequestration process.

Environmental Racism: Wealthy countries outsource vast amounts of Chrome-tanned leathers from the countries of the global south and export pollution problems there in the form of environmental racism. Tanneries in wealthier countries are highly mechanized to recycle substances effectively, while it is not the norm in the leading leather manufacturing countries, which lack the proper infrastructure to prevent environmental risks such as water pollution.

Fashion brand’s economic pressure on suppliers

Global fashion brands source their products from countries around the world. Factory workers of developing countries involved in production are paid poor wages, while the corporations have huge profits. These people are losing jobs and getting reduced wages due to the following reasons:

Exploitative Pricing and Profit Margins: Global fashion brands often demand low production costs to maximize their profit margins. This can lead to suppliers operating on slim profit margins, affecting their financial viability and ability to invest in better working conditions or sustainable practices.

Unpredictable Orders and Seasonal Demands: Fashion brands’ ever-changing demands and seasonal fluctuations can create uncertainty for suppliers. They may face challenges in managing inventory, workforce, and production schedules, leading to inefficiencies and financial instability.

Pressure for Fast Turnaround: Fast fashion and quick delivery demands from global brands can result in suppliers being forced to prioritize speed over quality. This can compromise the craftsmanship and overall durability of products, leading to lower customer satisfaction.

Inadequate Payment Terms: Some global fashion brands negotiate long payment terms with their suppliers, delaying payments for completed orders. This can strain the suppliers’ cash flow and hinder their ability to pay workers on time or invest in essential improvements.

Labor Rights Violations: To meet tight production deadlines and low-cost demands, some suppliers may resort to violating labor rights, such as excessive overtime, inadequate wages, and poor working conditions. Workers may be subjected to unsafe environments and lack access to proper health and safety measures.

Lack of Transparency in Supply Chain: Global brands may not always have full visibility into their supply chain, making it challenging to monitor and ensure ethical practices at every stage of production. This lack of transparency can result in abuse of labor rights or environmentally harmful practices by some suppliers.

Overproduction and Waste: Global fashion brands’ emphasis on fast production and low prices can lead to overproduction and excessive waste. Unsold inventory often ends up discarded, contributing to environmental pollution and wastage of resources.

Environmental Impact: The fashion industry’s environmental impact extends to its suppliers. Brands may not always prioritize sustainable practices, leading to excessive water usage, chemical pollution, and carbon emissions during production processes.

Supplier Dependency: Suppliers that heavily depend on a single global brand for their business can become vulnerable to the brand’s business decisions. If the brand reduces orders or switches to another supplier, it can lead to financial instability and job losses for the supplier.

Subcontracting and Informal Labor: To meet cost demands, some suppliers may resort to subcontracting work to smaller, less regulated factories or informal labor settings. This can result in worker exploitation, lack of proper safety measures, and reduced accountability.

Workers conditions in the fashion industry

Low-paid factory workers in the industry are encountering occupational health hazards and life risks while being dependent on an unsustainable production system. Many of such items are being produced in an environment, where workers frequently encounter health and safety risks due to badly built manufacturing infrastructure (GoB, 2018). Here are some key impacts on workers in the fashion industry’s supply chain:

Labor Rights and Working Conditions: In many cases, workers in the fashion supply chain face challenges related to poor working conditions, long hours, low wages, and lack of proper health and safety measures. Violations of labor rights can occur, including child labor, forced labor, and lack of freedom of association.

Job Opportunities and Economic Empowerment: The industry’s competitive nature and cost pressures can lead to outsourcing and subcontracting work to factories or regions with lower labor costs. This can result in workers being paid minimal wages and facing job insecurity.

Seasonal and Contractual Work: Many fashion brands operate on a seasonal or fast-fashion model, resulting in fluctuations in production demand. Workers in the supply chain may be hired on temporary contracts or subjected to precarious employment, making it challenging to secure a stable income.

Health and Safety Concerns: Some factories may prioritize production speed and cost-cutting measures over worker safety. This can lead to accidents, injuries, and exposure to harmful chemicals, particularly in poorly regulated or informal manufacturing settings.

Education and Skill Development: In less responsible settings, workers may not have access to proper training and skill enhancement programs, limiting their chances for career advancement and personal development.

Unionization and Collective Bargaining: In regions with weak labor laws and enforcement, workers may face challenges in forming unions or advocating for their rights, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation.

Living Wage and Income Inequality: Income inequality is prevalent in the fashion industry’s supply chain. Some workers may struggle to earn a living wage, which is sufficient to meet basic needs and support their families.

Fast fashion impact

Fast fashion is a business model characterized by rapid production and quick turnover of fashion collections to meet current trends with cheap prices. As cheap and disposable fashion items are becoming both more popular and more available, products such as clothes and bags are becoming outdated quickly. Here are some key impacts of fast fashion:

Environmental Impact: Fast fashion’s rapid production cycles contribute to excessive resource consumption, water usage, and waste generation. The use of cheap and low-quality materials often leads to the disposal of large quantities of garments, adding to environmental pollution.

Labor Exploitation: To keep costs low and production fast, fast fashion brands may outsource manufacturing to countries with low labor costs. This can result in labor exploitation, poor working conditions, and inadequate wages for garment workers.

Over-consumption: Fast fashion encourages frequent shopping and impulsive buying due to the constant introduction of new styles. This fosters a culture of over-consumption and contributes to a throwaway mentality, where clothes are quickly discarded after limited use.

Short Product Lifespan: Fast fashion garments are often made with low-quality materials and construction, leading to short product lifespans. This contributes to a cycle of constant buying and discarding.

Green-washing Practices

The increased awareness of the climate and biodiversity crises has created a demand for green products and consumption. Now many fashion brands are taking strategies to communicate their sustainability commitments. However,  brands are promoting vague information, empty green claims, exaggerating impacts, misleading visual images, dubious certification etc. to attract customers.

For example, certification especially to verify harmful chemical use and ethical standards doesn’t guarantee deforestation, or assess environmental impacts such as methane emission, biodiversity destruction, etc. that can change consumers’ perception of the leather industry.

Another example is the heavy advertisement of “recycled plastic fashion”, involving synthetic fibers like polyester, nylon and acrylic, as a great option for environmentally friendly consumption. However, given their non-biodegradable nature, what’s not mentioned is that they contribute to microplastic pollution in the environment. This means that they stay in the environment for hundreds of years and accumulate as waste in landfills, contributing to our planet’s waste management crisis.


There are multiple adverse impacts that the fashion industry has on the environment and people, and therefore, the need for sustainable fashion is crucial in improving the lives of both the planet and its inhabitants. The Poli was founded on this awareness, and you are invited to share this journey with us.

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