The impact of the fast fashion industry on animals

Charlotte Xia

The fast-fashion market is described as having the following four characteristics: “short life cycles, high volatility, low predictability and high impulse purchasing”. Every day people receive many promotional emails from brands like Zara, H&M, Hollister, Brandy Melville, etc. At the same time, hashtags on social platforms such as #ootd further stimulate people to catch up with the fashion trend. As a result, people continue to purchase large amounts of clothes from these fast-fashion brands driven by their cheap prices and trendy designs. The clothing items from fast fashion brands are often of poor quality or quickly become outdated, so most of them are discarded after a few months. This is the current state of fast fashion brands in modern society. The fast-fashion industry has long been criticized for its destructiveness on the environment and sustainability. However, few consumers recognize its specific impacts on animal welfare.

Fast Fashion infographic © Greenpeace

Direct Exploitation of Animals

      The fast fashion industry has imposed many direct harms on various animals.

  • The wool industry caused the deaths of many sheep, goats, rabbits, and camelids. The harsh living conditions and painful treatment is responsible for that.
  • The fur and leather industry led to many animals being poached and traded for their pelts, including reptiles, kangaroos, ostriches, beavers, etc. They suffer from the pain of being trapped, caged and sometimes even skinned alive cruelly.
  • Many of these animals are actually endangered species listed on IUCN red list and some are already protected by law under the Endangered Species Act. However, since there is still demand for these textiles, illegal trade continues to threaten the lives of these animals.
  •  For more information about how the fashion industry threatens the health of animals, see the blog Vegan Fashion in the Clothing Industry

Indirect Impact on Animals

While the direct exploitation of animals is more recognized by people due to the campaign in recent years, we should also realize the impact of the fashion industry on the environment that indirectly harms the animals.

  • Microplastic & Microfibers  

Polyester is used in about 60% of cloth production nowadays due to its low price and accessibility. However, polyester is not only emissions-heavy during its production process, but also leaves behind many non-biodegradable pollutants. A stunning fact is that washing clothes emits nearly 500,000 tons of microfibers into oceans annually, which equals 50 billion plastic water bottles. According to the calculation of IUCN, 30% of ocean plastic pollution comes from microplastics due to the fast fashion industry.  

These microplastics can be easily ingested by aquatic animals, including lobsters, fish, turtles, penguins, etc. The microplastic not only contains toxic chemicals, but will also block the animals’ digestion tract and damage the stomach lining, leading to reduced feeding and starving to death.

  • Dyes Polluting the aquatic ecosystem

The production of clothing also requires the use of dyes, which use millions of gallons of water and pollute rivers all around the world. For instance, the dyes washed into the Buriganga River in Dhaka, Bangladesh made it one of the most polluted rivers in the world. In China, 70% of rivers and lakes are polluted by the 2.5 billion gallons of wastewater emitted by the textile industry. The dyes used in production are mostly artificial rather than natural, so toxins in them are killing wildlife in river and lake ecosystems. The biomagnification and biomagnification effect also cause the toxins to move along the food chain, and accumulate in the body tissue of larger animals. This will lead to the death of larger animals and even affect the health of human beings.

  • Degradation of grassland & forests

Due to the high demand for cheaper cashmere, overgrazing has become a severe problem on the Mongolian steppe. Since the 1990s, animals on the Mongolian steppe have increased by three times, causing a significant decline in the vegetation. Studies suggest that 80% of the 70% degradation of the grasslands is due to overgrazing. The degradation of grassland has threatened animals like snow leopard, corsac fox and bobak marmot, which rely on the grassland habitat for living.

Dissolving pulp is the base material for viscose and rayon, which are fibers widely used in the fashion industry. The bad news is that the pulp is often taken from trees in endangered or ancient forests. According to data, more than 150 million trees are currently logged for the clothing industry. Forests are biodiversity hotspots and important habitats for many species, including endangered ones. Thus, deforestation will threaten the lives of thousands of animals by depriving their food and shelter.


  • Reduction

There’s a dilemma between fast fashion and the use of leather, because many designers believe that using real leather can make the clothes more durable, otherwise they will be discarded the next season. In fact, people do tend to keep these leather garments longer. Nevertheless, due to the harm to animals in production, it is the responsibility of corporations to find textiles that are as durable as real leather. As consumers, one thing we can do is try to reduce consumption out of greed or impulse.

  • Be aware of greenwashing

Nowadays, many fast fashion brands are making green advertisements to demonstrate their environmental responsibility. These advertisements target consumers like us, who care about the environmental impact of the products. However, it is important for consumers to distinguish that there are actually many exaggerations and misleading information in these advertisements. Consumers need to be aware of the prevalence of greenwashing and support the brands that are truly eco-friendly.

  • Vintage & Recycled fashion

With the recent vintage movement, people have started to appreciate clothes that are old but classic. Instead of purchasing in a fast fashion store, many consumers now choose to shop in a vintage market, where they may get classic designer clothes at a low price. Moreover, second-hand cloth shops like Goodwill and Buffalo Exchange also allow consumers to donate or sell the clothes that they no longer want to wear but are still in good condition. The boom of the vintage clothes market is a significant step toward reducing fast fashion consumption. At the same time, some people find it difficult to accept vintage mainly because of resistance to second-hand clothes and hygiene concerns. Science communicators should spend more effort dispelling those myths.

In conclusion, besides the direct animal exploitation, the fast fashion industry is also polluting and exploiting the habitats of wildfires indirectly. As responsible consumers, we need to notice these exploitations, and make sustainable fashion choices, like reducing consumption and encourage recycled fashion. 

Sources: BBC Earth, Daily Sabah, Greenpeace, Leaders in Wildlife Conservation, Panaprium