The 10 Biggest Problems in the Fashion Industry

The fashion industry, celebrated for its creativity and innovation, hides a darker side characterized by environmental devastation and worker exploitation. It’s a sector where style often overshadows substance, and cost-cutting measures jeopardize both the planet and the people who make our clothes. In this article, we explore the significant environmental consequences and labor issues that afflict the fashion industry, shedding light on the urgent need for change.
You might wonder, “I live in Estonia, why should I care about these issues?” Well, because we live in a globalized world, and our consumer choices have far-reaching consequences. Our Zara shirt can turn rivers red in China, contribute to factory collapses in Bangladesh, and even lead to the shrinking of what was once the largest lake in Asia. We are all part of One World.


Environmental Catastrophe

The fashion industry’s environmental footprint is massive and destructive. From the production of textiles to the disposal of garments, it leaves an indelible mark on the planet.

1. Ecosystem Destruction: The cultivation of cotton and the manufacturing of synthetic fibers have led to habitat destruction and biodiversity loss. In some cases, entire ecosystems have been decimated to make way for cotton fields. The Aral Sea, once one of the world’s largest inland lakes, has lost about 90-95% due to extensive water diversion, primarily related to cotton farming. This catastrophic reduction in the size of the Aral Sea is one of the most severe environmental disasters of our time.

The shrinking Aral Sea. Once the world’s fourth largest body of inland water is now almost completely gone.


2. Microplastics in the Ocean: When we wash clothes made of materials like polyester or nylon, tiny plastic fibers are released into the wastewater. These microplastics eventually find their way into rivers and oceans and soon enough entering the ocean’s food chain and posing a serious threat to ecosystems. Unfortunately, we consume these fish, allowing the plastics to enter the human body as well.

A 2017 International Union for Conservation of Nature report estimated about 35% of the microplastics that enter the ocean come via the synthetic textiles.


3. Toxic Chemicals: Textile dyeing and treatment processes release a cocktail of hazardous chemicals into waterways, poisoning aquatic life and contaminating drinking water. Even producing viscose in India has caused serious health problems to humans living close to the factories. The indelible “blue rivers” of India are a haunting testament to this issue because of blue indigo dye. Rivers have turned red in China and Bangladesh because of textile dying. 

Jian River in Luoyang, in north China’s Henan province, turned red from red dye that was dumped into the city’s storm water pipe network in December 2011.
A man walking through colored rainwater past a dyeing factory in Shyampur in June 2018. Its waste is dumped into the Buriganga river in Dhaka, Bangladesh.


4. Landfills in the Third World: What the first world discards, often ends up out of sight and out of mind in massive landfill sites in regions like Africa and South America. Unsold or discarded clothing, often made of synthetic materials that don’t biodegrade, fills these landfills at an alarming rate. Unfortunately, these landfills are not the end of the story. Rain and improper waste management practices can wash this waste into rivers and, ultimately, the ocean.

View of used clothes discarded in the Atacama desert, in Alto Hospicio, Iquique, Chile, on September 26, 2021


5. Recycling Challenges: Some fabrics are composed of complex blends, with percentages like 60% of one material, 20% of another, and so on. The more intricate the fabric, the harder it is to recycle. Unfortunately, the textile industry’s recycling capabilities remain limited.  Fibers lose quality with each recycling round, becoming weaker and generating more waste in the process.

Fibres from torn jeans.
Fibres from torn jeans.


6. Overproduction and Overconsumption: Overproduction in fashion leads to excessive waste as unsold items are often discarded, contributing to environmental problems. Overproduction leads to bigger sales to get rid of the standing stock which leads to unthoughtful purchases which clients may not need. It is then easier anyways to throw that item away, if you do not love it.

A protester crashes the runway at the Louis Vuitton spring 2022 show on the final day of Paris Fashion Week.


7. Destroying new items: Burning standing stock or landfill disposal are said to be the most cost-effective way for luxury brands to protect exclusivity and avoid devaluing their image. Brands like Louis Vuitton, Burberry, Coach, Michael Kors, Juicy Couture, and even retailers like H&M, Nike, and Urban Outfitters have been associated with this practice.

The practice had been justified as a move to preserve Burberry’s “brand value” by preventing unwanted items being stolen or sold at a significant discount.


Garment Workers Pay the Price

Behind the shimmering facade of fashion, the industry often exploits workers, especially in developing countries where labor regulations are loose.

8. No Union Rights: Workers being denied the right to form unions or have contracts is a severe violation of their labor rights. Without the protection of unions, they may struggle to negotiate for fair wages and safe working conditions. Harassment and long hours become rampant in such environments, making it crucial to advocate for workers’ rights and safe workplace practices.

Rana Plaza factory collapsed in Bangladesh in 2013 where 1100 workers, mostly women, died and 2500 left injured.


9. Low Wages: The issue of low wages is not just about financial hardship; it often forces workers into deplorable living conditions and deprives them of access to healthcare and education. It perpetuates a cycle of poverty, limiting their opportunities for personal and professional growth. Addressing low wages is essential not only for the well-being of workers but also for creating a fair and just fashion industry.

Relatives of Bangladeshi workers who lost their lives in the Rana Plaza collapse gather with banners and placards in Savar on June 29, 2013, at the site of Bangladesh’s worst industrial disaster.


10. Health Risks: Working in textile factories involves exposure to numerous toxic substances that can lead to severe health problems, including respiratory issues, skin disorders, and, in some cases, fatal conditions. The lack of proper safety measures and protective gear exacerbates these risks. Protecting workers’ health must be a top priority in the fashion industry to ensure their well-being and dignity as human beings.

Factory workers making our garments.


Conclusion: We Need to Demand for Change

The fashion industry’s dark side cannot be ignored any longer. It’s time for a radical transformation, driven by conscious consumers who demand sustainability, ethical practices, and transparency from brands. By choosing quality over quantity, supporting eco-friendly and fair-trade brands, and raising awareness about the environmental and human cost of fashion, we can collectively change the industry’s trajectory.



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