Fast Fashion: A Toxic Trend and The Path to Sustainable Change

In today's fast-paced world, the fashion industry has embraced a model known as "fast fashion," characterized by quick production cycles and low-cost clothing. However, beneath the surface of trendy and affordable garments lies a dark reality - fast fashion's toxic impact on both human health and the environment.

Low-tox living is always in season, and wearing toxic chemicals is never in style.

It’s time to slow down when it comes to fast fashion. Fast fashion, a term that describes the rapid production of inexpensive clothing by mass-market retailers, has been under scrutiny in recent years. While it may provide consumers with trendy, affordable options, the cost to our health and the environment is alarming. A deep dive into the world of fast fashion reveals a cocktail of toxic chemicals used in the production process, some of which are known to have detrimental effects on human health. Say “adios” to Adidas, SHEIN, and Zara. Say “hola” to a healthier planet…and self. 

Fast Fashion Environmental Impact

Save the planet and your health before saving a few dollars. Fast fashion clothing can be toxic due to the use of harmful chemicals during the production process. 

shopping for fast fashion

This includes the application of synthetic dyes, which often contain heavy metals and other toxic substances, and finishes that may use chemicals like formaldehyde. 

Moreover, the use of pesticides in cotton farming and petroleum in polyester production can also contribute to toxicity, posing potential risks to both human health and the environment.

As they say on Project Runway, “In fashion, one season you’re in, the next season, you’re out.” Unfortunately, the “out” is in our environment. 

Of the over 100 billion new clothes produced each year, around 92 million tons of these items will end up in a landfill [1]. The clothes sit in the sun, where they start to break down, contaminating our air and water.  

Synthetic fabrics like polyester and nylon are essentially types of plastic. When they break down, they contribute to microplastic pollution, which can harm marine life and eventually enter our food chain [2].

Clean the Closet, Clean the Home

With terms like, “stone-washed” and “pre-shrunk,” it’s easy for many to believe that harmful chemicals used in the manufacturing process of garments are thoroughly washed off during the creation, dyeing, and finishing stages. However, this is not always the case. 

washing blue jeans

Some chemicals can be pretty persistent and remain as residues on the clothing. Furthermore, some substances are intentionally applied to last for an extended period, like the dyes used on materials such as polyester or PFAS used in water-resistant clothes [3]. 

Recent studies from Duke University have revealed that these dyes can find their way into the dust within our homes from the polyester textiles we introduce into our living spaces [4]. This dust can be breathed in or even enter our bodies through our mouths.

Dust and wet mop regularly to minimize dust in your home. Weather permitting, try to air out your house daily by opening windows and doors. Also, consider looking for lower-toxic clothing options when you are ready to replace your current ones. 

These Toxic Chemicals Are So Last Season

Be ahead of the latest trend. Limit your exposure to toxic chemicals in the fast fashion industry. Slow things down by being aware of these hazardous chemicals used in fast fashion.

toxic chemicals in fast fashion

Brominated Azobenzene Disperse Dyes

Brominated Azobenzene Disperse Dyes, or as they call them in the industry, “azo dyes,” are responsible for the vibrant hues we see in polyester clothing. Polyester is one of the most widely used polymers in the clothing industry due to its durability, wrinkle resistance, and ability to retain shape. It's often used in various types of apparel, such as pants, shirts, and suits, either by itself or as a blend with other materials. 

While azo dyes may look good, they may not make you feel good. Research shows azo dyes may cause skin irritations [5]. 


Research has found that clothing sold by popular fast fashion brands may contain dangerous levels of toxic chemicals, including bleach. These chemicals pose potential risks to human health, such as cancer, developmental issues, skin problems, and gastrointestinal problems.

white t shirt in mail delivery

Moreover, the wastewater from the fashion industry, which often contains bleach and other toxins, contributes to water pollution and can harm ecosystems.

Heavy Metals

Heavy metals are often used in the fashion industry for various purposes. They play a crucial role in different textile processes, such as dyeing and printing. 

Metals like antimony, cadmium, lead, mercury, and chromium are commonly used in the dyeing process [6]. For instance, chromium is used in leather products, and antimony is used in making synthetic fabrics. 

Moreover, lead has been discovered in clothing dyes and can be used to produce vibrant colors. However, it's important to note that these heavy metals, while useful for certain aspects of production, can be harmful to human health and the environment.

Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS)

If you thought diamonds were forever, wait until you learn about Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances, or PFAS. PFAS are extremely persistent compounds known as “forever chemicals.”

Need proof they’re tough? PFAS makes clothing waterproof, stain-proof, and flame-proof. 

According to a University of Toronto investigation, approximately one in five items out of the 38 samples of children's, adult's, and maternity clothes and accessories tested had elevated levels of chemicals such as lead, PFAS, and phthalates [7]. These chemicals are also commonly found in a variety of items, including waterproof rain gear, hiking clothes, yoga gear, and more. 

While you should still participate in the activities you love, there's growing concern over the potential health risks associated with PFAS. These chemicals are considered toxic and can accumulate in the blood [8]. Limit your use of these products whenever possible to reduce your exposures. 


Phthalates are a group of chemicals often used in the fast fashion industry as plasticizers, making plastics more flexible and durable. They are commonly used with rubber to print images onto garments and to soften materials.

However, phthalates have been linked to several health concerns. They are known as endocrine disruptors and have been associated with ADHD, asthma, diabetes, and breast cancer, along with a number of reproductive issues [9].

Volatile Organic Compounds

Inhale fresh air, not toxic compounds. Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are often used in the production of dyes as solvents. Solvents can dissolve other substances to create new ones, which is an important factor in developing colors for textiles. 

These chemicals can be inhaled when we’re wearing clothes that have been treated with them. Benzene is a common type of VOC that’s a known carcinogen, yet is still used in the production of plastics, dyes, detergents, drugs, and pesticides [10]. 

There is an increasing trend towards the development and use of low VOC dyes, which aim to reduce the environmental impact and potential health hazards associated with traditional dye production.


Formaldehyde is primarily used to create resins that make fabrics easy to care for, and it's found in a range of textiles. These formaldehyde-based resins are particularly useful in enhancing wrinkle resistance, especially in clothing made from cotton [11]. 

Treat yourself to a low-toxic shopping experience with smart shopping. If you see clothing marketed as “antifungal” or “antimicrobial,” it may have been treated with formaldehyde. Formaldehyde plays a significant role in preventing mildew during transportation and minimizing color fading.

Long-term exposure to formaldehyde can lead to various respiratory problems and skin irritation. It is also a known carcinogen [12].

Nonylphenol Ethoxylates (NPEO)

Balance your hormones by saying “N-O” to NPEO. Nonylphenol Ethoxylates (NPEO) are used as a cleaning agent in the textile industry. They are used as surfactants or emulsifiers, typically in the apparel and footwear industries. NPEOs also serve as detergents and auxiliaries in wool scouring, highlighting their widespread use in the industry.

However, NPEOs have raised significant environmental and health concerns. They are highly toxic to aquatic life4 and are recognized as endocrine disruptors that can interfere with hormone systems, leading to various health issues [13].

There is hope! In January 2016, the European Commission published a regulation limiting the use of NPEOs in textiles. Similar restrictions have been enforced on washable textiles, where NPEO is frequently used as a washing and cleaning agent. However, NPEOs are still regularly used in other countries and are extremely prevalent in the leather industry. 


Cotton farming often involves the use of high levels of pesticides to protect crops from pests and diseases, ensuring higher yields and maintaining the quality of the fibers. However, this practice comes with several concerns:

Using pesticides to grow cotton can lead to the contamination of soil, water, and air. This contamination can harm biodiversity, reduce fertility, and cause diseases among farmers. 

cotton farming

Pesticides also pose risks to human health, including potential links to cancer, infertility, and birth defects [14]. Furthermore, exposure to pesticides can have detrimental effects on various species, including birds, small mammals, insects, and fish. 

The Unknown Chemicals and Toxic Dyes

Beyond these known toxic substances, there lies a murky world of undisclosed chemicals. Only 1% of the 85,000+ commercially-used chemicals have been tested for human and environmental safety efficiently [15]. 

Many dyes used in the fashion industry are derived from petroleum and are notoriously harmful to the environment. These synthetic dyes often find their way into water bodies, causing pollution and harm to aquatic life.

Sustainable Clothing Fibers

Strut the runway in good (eco-friendly) conscience. There are more and more sustainable clothing alternatives emerging. 

Sustainable clothing fibers are materials that have a minimal impact on the environment during their production and lifecycle.

To ensure these fibers remain non-toxic, they should be dyed with low-impact, fiber-reactive dyes, which do not contain heavy metals or other known toxic substances, and have a high absorption rate into the fabric, resulting in less wastewater.

Let’s get camera-ready by looking at some of the best materials for your next fashion show.

Organic Cotton

Organic cotton is a more sustainable alternative to conventional cotton. It's grown without harmful pesticides, using farming practices that conserve soil health, biodiversity, and human well-being.


Linen, made from the flax plant, is one of the most sustainable textile fibers as it requires less water and pesticides than cotton. 

Organic Hemp

What’s old always becomes new in the world of fashion, including the use of hemp in clothing. This textile was one of the first our ancestors used and is making a fashionable comeback today. 

Hemp is an eco-friendly material that grows quickly, doesn't exhaust the soil, uses little water, and is grown without pesticides in the United States.

Alpaca Wool

Alpaca fiber is a highly sustainable and ethical choice for clothing. Alpacas are low-impact animals, requiring less food and water than other livestock, and their soft hooves are gentle on pastures, reducing soil erosion. 

Alpaca Wool

The fiber is naturally hypoallergenic, lightweight, breathable, and warmer than wool. Alpaca farming also promotes biodiversity and supports rural Andean communities [15]. Therefore, choosing alpaca fiber for clothing can be a step towards a more sustainable wardrobe.

Less Toxic Clothing Fiber Options

We know that switching to different materials can be challenging, especially with such a limited field of options to choose from. Here are some clothing materials that are less toxic than common chemicals used in fast fashion but not as eco-friendly as the sustainable options above. 

sustainable clothing options

Sheep Wool

Think fast fashion is “baaad?” Switch over to renewable resources, like wool. When ethically sourced, where the animals producing it are well-cared for, wool can be a sustainable clothing option.

Wool's sustainability attributes include its rapid renewability, recyclability, and potential for organic production. Moreover, wool is usually biodegradable, meaning it decomposes readily, much like cotton and other plant-based fibers. This allows for the composting of woolen garments at the end of their life cycle.

However, it's worth noting that while wool fabric can be sustainable, most of its ecological impact comes from the raw material sourcing stage, including industrial livestock grazing. Therefore, how the wool is sourced plays a crucial role in determining its overall sustainability.

For some, wool might be too itchy or hot. In addition, some of the detergents and auxiliaries used in scouring are eco-toxic and may disrupt your hormones. It’s essential to learn about a brand’s processes before making clothing purchases. 


Modal is a type of rayon, a semi-synthetic fiber made by spinning reconstituted pulp from trees. The production of modal involves breaking down the wood into pulp and then reconstituting it into fibers with chemicals like carbon disulfide, sulfuric acid, and sodium hydroxide. 

While these chemicals can be toxic, the closed-loop production process used to make modal means that up to 99% of the chemicals are captured and reused instead of being released into the environment [16].

As for the final product, the modal itself is not toxic and does not contain harmful chemicals. However, it's worth noting that the dyeing and finishing processes used on modal can introduce toxic chemicals unless they're specifically labeled as using eco-friendly practices.


TENCEL is a cellulose fiber derived from sustainably harvested trees and contains lyocell and modal fiber. 

The production of TENCEL is done using a closed-loop. That means over 99% of the non-toxic solvent used to break down the wood pulp is recycled and reused.

Detox while you get a sweat-on. TENCEL is popular for its softness, breathability, elasticity, and wrinkle resistance.


Pandas aren’t the only ones who look cute hanging out in bamboo. Bamboo is emerging as a popular choice for sustainable clothing due to its fast growth and minimal need for water or pesticides. Its natural antibacterial properties make it an excellent choice for activewear, as it can help reduce odor. 

Bamboo fabric is known for its softness, breathability, and moisture-wicking properties, making it comfortable to wear in various climates. However, it's important to note that the processing of bamboo into fabric often involves chemical treatments, so it's best to look for brands that use closed-loop systems to minimize environmental impact.


Silk may feel luxurious, and it could come at the price of the planet. The sustainability of silk is a complex issue with mixed viewpoints. On one hand, silk is a natural, biodegradable material that doesn't shed microplastics into the environment while being washed. 

Additionally, silk production requires less water and chemical dyeing than fabrics like cotton.

However, according to the Higg Index, silk has the worst environmental impact among all textiles, even synthetic ones. This is due in part to the energy-intensive process of silk production and the potential ethical concerns related to farming silkworms. 


Cashmere is made from the fine undercoat fibers of cashmere goats and is known for its softness and warmth. This clothing fiber is often considered a luxury fabric. However, its sustainability credentials are complex.

On one hand, cashmere is a natural, renewable material that biodegrades over time. It's also long-lasting, which means cashmere garments can be worn for many years, reducing the need for fast fashion consumption.

On the other hand, the increasing global demand for cashmere has led to overgrazing and desertification in Mongolia, where much of the world's cashmere is produced [17]. This environmental impact, combined with the fact that it takes one goat about four years to produce enough cashmere for one sweater, makes the sustainability of cashmere a nuanced issue. 

Therefore, while choosing cashmere can be a more sustainable option than synthetic fibers, it's crucial to consider the source and production practices of the cashmere you buy.

Sustainable Clothing Dyes

Nature is beautiful and can be reflected in your clothing. Natural dyes can be extracted from a variety of plant, animal, and mineral sources:

natural dye colors for clothing fibers

  • Red: Hibiscus, beets
  • Pink: Avocado pits, madder root
  • Orange: Pomegranate rind, onion peels
  • Yellow: Tamarind, turmeric
  • Green: Spinach, leafy greens
  • Blue: Indigo plant, spirulina
  • Violet: Cochineal beetles, grape skin
  • Brown: Coffee, tea leaves

Slow Down with Non-Fast Fashion Brands 

In the face of fast fashion and its tremendous impact on our planet, a new wave of brands is stepping up to offer sustainable alternatives. These companies are committed to ethical sourcing, responsible manufacturing, and creating high-quality pieces that stand the test of time. They use eco-friendly materials, employ fair-trade practices, and strive to reduce their carbon footprint. The following list features such trailblazing brands that are redefining fashion with their commitment to sustainability and social responsibility. Let's explore these brands and see how they are weaving a better future for our planet, one thread at a time.

  • Patagonia is a well-known brand that promotes sustainable and ethical practices. They use organic cotton, recycled polyester, and other eco-friendly materials to make their clothing. They also have a program called Worn Wear, which encourages customers to repair and reuse their clothing instead of buying new items.
  • Reformation is a brand that focuses on sustainability and ethical practices. They use eco-friendly materials such as modal, linen, and organic cotton to make their clothing. They also have a program called RefRecycling, which encourages customers to recycle their old clothing.
  • Amour Vert is a brand that focuses on sustainable fashion. They use eco-friendly materials such as organic cotton, Tencel, and modal to make their clothing. They also have a program called Plant a Tree, where they plant a tree for every T-shirt sold.
  • People Tree is a brand that focuses on fair trade and sustainable fashion. They work with fair trade producers to create their clothing and use eco-friendly materials such as organic cotton and Tencel.

How to Shop Sustainably for Clothes

If you find a brand that's unfamiliar and has unusually low prices, it's worth being cautious. These could be signs of an ultra-fast fashion brand that prioritizes speed and low costs over ethical and sustainable practices.

Read the tags to see if they have any of these certifications.

reading clothes labels

GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard)

The GOTS certification is recognized as the world's leading processing standard for textiles made from organic fibers. It defines high-level environmental criteria along the entire organic textiles supply chain and requires compliance with social criteria as well. Compared to OEKO-TEX, GOTS is more stringent and has broader criteria, including environmental and social aspects.


The OEKO-TEX certification is a globally recognized testing and certification system for textiles. Products with this certification have been tested for harmful substances and are deemed safe for human health. The certification covers raw materials, fabrics, and textiles, as well as ready-made goods like apparel, accessories, and home goods. However, it's important to note that while OEKO-TEX limits the toxins allowed in the final products, it is not as stringent as GOTS.


The Bluesign certification system evaluates the use of chemicals, materials, processes, and finished textiles against five sustainability criteria: resource productivity, consumer safety, water emission, air emission, and occupational health and safety. Bluesign APPROVED fabrics are tested for consumer safety against a long list of chemicals. This certification ensures that textiles are produced using sustainable practices, evaluating the entire supply chain.

Making Healthier Choices

As consumers, we have the power to drive change. By choosing to support brands that prioritize sustainable practices, we can reduce our carbon footprint and encourage a shift away from toxic fast fashion. Look for certifications like Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) or bluesign® when shopping to ensure you're purchasing sustainably made products.

While the fast fashion industry's toxic practices are concerning, they do not represent the only path forward. By making informed choices and supporting sustainable practices, we can enjoy fashion that doesn't compromise our health or the health of our planet.