Some centuries ago, Earth’s land was covered in forests. A Spanish proverb says that a squirrel could go from south of Spain to the north only jumping through trees, never touching the ground. What happened? In a wide consensus of the scientific world, it can be assumed – humans.

Anthropocene defines the geological time when humans have made a significant impact on the planet’s ecosystems, that has been argued to have begun with industrial revolution of 1800s. (National Geographic, 2022) The textile industry was one of the first industries to use modern production methods. One of the driving forces of industrial revolution was mass production, on which the fashion industry still relies on today. And it is the industrialisation that still defines fashion, which originally could be considered an art and culture of clothes, and it is industrialisation of fashion that creates a tremendous impact on the earth’s ecosystems.

Anthropogenic pressures on Earth system, and especially land system change that is addressed in this paper, have been crossed reaching a place of uncertainty to all humanity. (Steffen et al., 2015) The impact of fashion industry on land system change, with focus on fast fashion, is investigated throughout the value chain from raw materials to wastelands. This paper investigates the impact of global fashion industry on the land system change. Critical questions are made: what must happen to ensure fashion and humanity has a lifeline in the future?

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Crossing one or more boundaries can have catastrophic impact, triggering abrupt environmental change within planetary-scale systems. They are interdependent. One of the nine boundaries (climate change, ocean acidification, stratospheric ozone, biogeochemical cycles of nitrogen & phosphorus, freshwater use, biodiversity loss, chemical pollution, atmospheric aerosol loading) is land system change, that in 2009 has been determined to be kept within the planetary limit when less than 15% of the ice-free land surface is under cropland. (Rockström et al., 2009) As of the updated 2015 definition this boundary has been crossed. The proposed boundary of land-system change declares that globally 75% of the area of forested land should be kept intact, in the form of original forest cover. This number is weighing average of biome boundaries and their uncertain zones. Tropical biome has the value of 85%, temperate biome 50% and boreal 85%. In 2015 only 62% of forests rested intact, clearly crossing the boundary. (Steffen et al., 2015)

Land systems consists of different land types: diverse forests around the globe, woodlands, savannas, grasslands, shrublands, tundra and wetlands and so on. (Steffen et al., 2015) Mostly lands are changed by humans to be used for agriculture: for food crops, animal husbandry, other agriculture like growing textile fibre plants, but also for tree farms, infrastructure and roads and urban areas. (Rockström et al., 2009;)

Land system change is driving decreasing biodiversity when natural ecosystems are converted into agriculture or urban areas. Modern agriculture, a driving force of land system change, has a dramatic impact on water flows and biogeochemical cycling of carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus as well. (Rockström et al., 2009) Soils, which themselves regulate critical Earth-system processes, indirectly contribute 80% of global anthropogenic land system change. (Kopittke et al., 2021)

A tremendous impact of land system change is on the already transgressed boundary of climate change, as much are climate change mitigating actions closely related to preventing land system change, relating to soil carbon sequestration e.g.. (Heinrichs et al., 2016) The biogeophysical processes in land systems, mainly forests directly regulate climate. The three biomes (tropical, boreal, temperate) defined for the boundary are important factors relating to climate change. The effects of those land-system changes influence climate beyond their regions, tropical forests especially having substantial feedback when converted to nonforested systems. (Steffen et al., 2015) 

The most immediate impact of land use change happens on a local level, but as it connects to and influences other planetary boundaries, the impact can we felt eventually on a global scale. The land system changes can be measured through the quantity of land, its function, quality, and spatial distribution. (Rockström et al., 2009)


Fashion industry can be divided into sub-industries that all have specific attributes and impacts on planetary boundaries: luxury fashion, fast fashion, slow fashion, handicrafts among others. But in a global sense a significant change has happened in the speed and volume of production and sales of fashion. Between 2002 and 2015 the production of clothing doubled globally, attributed to the growing middle-class across the globe and increased per capita sales in mature economies, fuelled by lower prices, increased change of styles and number of collections. What aids the speed of fashion is the decreasing use of clothes. Within the same time frame the use of clothing decreased by 36 percent. (EMF, 2017) These numbers demonstrate the rise of fast fashion, and how the impact of it to our planet has risen dramatically. 

How the industry operates in a linear way, puts more pressure to various planetary boundaries. This means increasing extraction of resources, non-renewable and renewable, to be used for clothes that have an increasingly shortening lifecycle. At the end of a products life, only 1% of all textile fibres are recycled into new textiles, most of them ending up landfilled or incinerated. Fast fashion industry pollutes, is wasteful, degrades natural environments and its ecosystems, and creates negative societal impact on local, regional, and global levels. (EMF, 2017)

According to Ellen MacArthur Foundation, on the current path, by 2050 more than 26% of the carbon budget associated with to 2°C pathway could be used by fashion industry. The amount of non-renewable material input would grow up to 300 million tonnes per year. (EMF, 2017)

In the business-as-usual scenario the negative impacts of fashion industry are to be catastrophic. Main problems are but not limited to the increasing extraction of raw materials, need of resources, pollution of plastic microfibres, landfilling and incineration of textiles. These result from overproduction, overconsumption, lack of recycling. (EMF, 2017) Generally the underlying mental models of fashion and capitalism are relying upon pushing new products to the oversaturated market, creating demand by marketing. 


In the global market in 2018 111 million tonnes of fibres were produced. Increase in global production of 30 percent in 2030, in business-as-usual scenario, is expected. According to WRAP report Valuing our clothes from 2012 that for the UK market alone 1.14 million tonnes of clothes are supplied yearly, for which 1.78 million tonnes of raw materials are produced. (WRAP, 2012) A significant impact to land-system change is created at the material sourcing phase.


Polyester has a leading market share of 52%, 14% of which is recycled, and 1% is biobased. It is made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which is derived from crude oil and natural gas. Synthetic fibres in total, including polyamide (5%) and others (5,7%), was around 63 percent of global fibre production in 2018, which accounts for 1.35% of global oil consumption. It is estimated that by 2030 73% of all fibre production globally will be synthetic. (Changing markets, 2021; Textile Exchange, 2020) 

Extraction of petroleum, a non-renewable natural resource, through drilling and pumping, disrupts ecosystems, damaging soil fertility and destroying wildlife. (Palacios-Mateo et al., 2021) The process is getting dirtier with fracked gas, and with even plans to produce polyester from coal. (Changing markets, 2021) During extraction oil is often spilled. (Palacios-Mateo et al., 2021)

Polyester fibre is not biodegradable but breaks into smaller particles over time. These microfibres pollute soils and oceans, finding their way there through landfilling and washing during a product’s lifecycle. (Palacios-Mateo et al., 2021)

Recycled PET plastic has been considered as a sustainable solution to polyester, reducing the need of virgin polyester production. Still, in 2019 the share of polyester of all recycled textile fibre was 14% by 2030 it estimated to decrease to 7,9%. Furthermore, polyester garments are not the source of recycled polyester, but plastic bottles, because of limited and inefficient options to recycle polyester fibre-to-fibre. (Changing markets, 2021) Recycling does not solve the problem of microfibres.

There are bio-based polyester solutions, and petroleum-based biodegradable on the market. Biobased synthetic fibres will require land use for crop cultivation, such as corn, but it can be made from agriculture waste materials too. Polyester can potentially be made from Co2, captured from biomass or air. It is considered a positive future scenario for synthetic fibres, even though these methods still require research to reach commercial stage (Palacios-Mateo et al., 2021)


Most used fibres depend on agriculture and land – like cotton with a market share of 23%. One quarter of that amount is considered preferred cotton with certifications like Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) or Fairtrade Organic among others. (Textile Exchange, 2020) 

Cotton grows in subtropical and dry tropical areas in northern and southern hemispheres. Main producing countries include China, the United States, Brazil and Pakistan, accounting to more than three-quarters of global production. (OECD, 2021) Pakistan alone is far beyond the boundary locally having only 5,1 percent of its land covered in forests, of which 54% are the main source of construction wood. (Nazir & Schmitt Olabisi, 2015) The land system change is a result of population increase and economic development, but also lack of national-level organization for land-use management. (Aziz, 2021) Pakistan ranks 113 of 140 countries in the world according to forest cover. (Nazir & Schmitt Olabisi, 2015) 

India is expected to grow its cotton production dramatically, 1,5% yearly, and globally cotton area is to expand 1% with yields increasing by 10%. The focus is on expanding yields more than areas, but climate change induced conditions of weather, insect pests and diseases diminish the potential. (OECD, 2021)

Growing population creates pressures to use land for food crops instead of cotton. Soils provide 98,8% of our food (Kopittke et al., 2021) In a country like Pakistan forests are used for biomass as well: wood for construction or for fuel. (Nazir & Schmitt Olabisi, 2015)

Cotton cultivation is very water consuming and poses a risk of draught to the surrounding areas of cotton agriculture. One famous example of cotton changing regional land system is the drying of Aral Sea because of cotton agriculture, exposed by NASA satellite images in 2014. More than 60 million people live around the sea basin with a completely changed landscape. (The Guardian, 2014)

Organic cotton differs from conventional cotton in that it uses fewer synthetic pesticides and fertilisers building a biologically diverse agriculture. The aim is to maintain soil fertility when conventional cotton cultivation essentially uses up the soil. Organic farming reduces soil contamination, increases biodiversity. (Menezes, 2008) It is argued that organic cotton farming to have a negative impact from the point of view of land-system change, as it produces less yields than conventional cotton. Nevertheless, soil regeneration of organic cotton is higher compared to conventional farming.


Man-made-cellulosic-fibres, that include viscose, modal and lyocell among others, had the market share of 6,5% in 2019, of which less than 1% is recycled. (Textile Exchange, 2020) 

Wood-based fibres directly impact land system change boundary. Up to 2,5-4,5 tons of trees are necessary to make 1 ton of viscose fibre. More than 150 million trees are supplied for the industry each year, while the viscose production is predicted to double in the next 8 years. The main source for the wood for the production stems from ancient and endangered forests, creating a high negative cultural impact, and a drop in biodiversity. (Canopy, 2019). Tree farms reduce forest biodiversity through monocultures. Forests that have a higher biodiversity are more efficient at capturing carbon. 

All MMCFs are biodegradable as a raw fibre, but their biodegradability of a textile product can be affected by the finishing on the fabric or yarns. 

There are nevertheless sustainable ways to manage forests, and some organizations like Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) offer fibre certification to guarantee better practices. Canopy is a non-profit organisation with the goal to protect 30-50% of the world’s Ancient and Endangered Forests working with companies from paper, packaging, and textile industries to transform their supply chains for better. (Canopy, 2022)

The future of MMCFs rely on cellulose-rich textile waste as raw material, reducing tremendously their impact on land systems. There are actors in the US Europe that are reaching a full capacity of commercialisation in the next years to produce MMCFs completely from chemically recycled textile waste origins, in a circular and closed loop system. (Fashion for good, 2022)


Wool fibres have less than one percent market share globally. (Textile Exchange, 2020) Nevertheless wool creates a great impact to land system change and the hectares per kg of fibres is larger to other fibres.

Researchers studying land degradation in South Africa noted, that large stock numbers of sheep cause vegetation change and soil erosion leading to heavily eroded areas. Patagonia was once a large producer of wool, but the soil erosion of their expanding practices triggered desertification, threatening 93 percent of the land according to officials estimate. (Petaa, 2022)

The international wool textile organisation (IWTO) argues still that the methods used for LCAs to does not tell the whole truth. Instead of using highly fertile cropping land, most land used for wool production is non-arable, arid, semi-arid or on slopes. The key is in light grazing as opposed to over-grazing, as has the potential to improve biodiversity. (IWTO, 2022)

Responsible Wool Standard (RWS) does not only ensure animal-welfare but also best practices in the management and protection of the sheep grazing land. (Textile Exchange, 2020) Recycled wool has a long history. It is a great option to reduce fashion’s impact on land-system change.


Luxury leather goods segment amounts to USD 74 bn in 2022 with expected market growth of 4,36 percent. (Grand View Research, 2022) It is estimated that hides and skins of over one billion animals are used for leather production annually. (Textile Exchange, 2020)

Husbandry of animals, whose skins eventually become leather requires vast lands for pasture, cleared of trees. According to Peta, 70 percent of the Amazon rainforest has been cleared for growing feed crops. (Petab, 2022) On top, the animal feed stock, namely soy, requires land as well, and is a major factor driving deforestation. 80 percent of global soybean crop goes towards animal feed (WWF, 2022)

One argument for the sustainability of leather refers to it as a by-product of food production without financial significance on its own. By this logic the land-system change impact of leather could be counted only for the food production part. But in reality, leather is more a valuable co-product. (Collective Fashion Justice, 2022)

The preparation of animals hides to leather, tanning, is very chemically heavy that could include, mineral salts, formaldehyde, and some cyanide-based finishes. (Petab, 2022) Although originally a natural product, leather is not biodegradable. It is because of the tanning process that all hides must go through to become leather goods, that essentially stops the degradation process, therefore detanning methods have been suggested to improve the biodegradability. (Dhayalan et al., 2007)

Recycled leather and leather alternatives are options to reduce fashion’s impact on land-system change. The leather industry produces around 800,000 mt waste every year. (Textile Exchange, 2020) Other alternatives are mylo leather

Faux leather, or so-called vegan leather, options are often petroleum-based, and offer therefore limited positive impact compared to conventional leather.


WRAP made an estimate that 350,000 tonnes of used clothes go the landfill in the UK every year. (WRAP, 2012) At the end of a products life, only 1% of all textile fibres are recycled into new textiles, most of them ending up landfilled or incinerated. (EMF, 2017) 

Textile waste landfilling creates an impact on land-systems through pollution. Big portions of the waste are of synthetic, non-biodegradable textiles. Furthermore, it is completely unnecessary, as all textiles could be collected and sorted, and used as resources for new textiles instead, reducing the need to use of raw materials. Especially polyester and other synthetic fibres accumulate in landfills, because they are not biodegradable, and through eventual degradation release harmful chemicals into the soil. (Palacios-Mateo et al., 2021) 

As a recently popularized example, clothing waste is polluting the Atacama Desert in Chile, a country that has been receiving secondhand clothing from China, Bangladesh, Europe or the United States to be sold in Latin America. 39,000 tonnes of clothing that cannot be sold end of as a clothing mountain in the desert. (Al Jazeera, 2021) 

It is considered that the solution of textile waste is to transition from a linear economic model to a circular one. To make words into action Global Fashion Agenda called the industry to commit into circularity with their Circular Fashion System Commitment, to which by 2019 around 12,5 percent of the global fashion market has signed on to. (GFA, 2020)

The efficiency of mechanical and chemical recycling of textiles fibres is on the rise. On a significant level they depend on efficient sorting, and collection of post-consumer textile waste. Cotton for example can be recycled mechanically, producing lower quality cotton, that requires other fibres to create a durable yarn, or chemically. Chemical recycling alters cotton fibre on a molecular level, and it becomes man-made-cellulosic-fibre.


Textile and fashion manufacturing leave a mark on the land-system as well. Firstly, textiles industry is very heavy on chemicals: from the use of fertilizers to processing of synthetics, these chemicals are harvested from the earth. Large viscose and polyester plants have an impact on their surroundings polluting land, air and waterways with harmful and toxic chemicals. The consequences are fatal, since they imply a threat for the surrounding ecosystems, contamination of water systems and local communities. Secondly, the industry requires large infrastructure on areas, that once used to be ancient forests. (Changing markets, 2019)

Even the logistics of global fashion industry drive land system change. The land system is changed to make roads and ports for trucks, ship, and air cargo. The transport of fashion requires an increasing amount of energy and fuel, for which non-renewable options are scarce.

Global supply chains can be fragmented from raw materials sourcing, preparations, mills, finishing, garment manufacturing to point-of-sales simply based on which suppliers help to push the price down. The supply chains are complicated, and sometimes even illogical, caused by the time pressures of the industry and market. Even the product development phase of fashion requires logistics for sending samples and prototypes sometimes around the globe several times to finalize a product. E-commerce puts another spin on logistics impact. Fashion online stores are infamous for especially free returns, allowing consumers to ship an item home to check the fit for example. Returns rate on apparel e-commerce channels sits on 25 percent. (McKinsey, 2021)

During use phase the impact of fashion arises from washing and the shedding of microfibres, that can pollute land and water. (Palacios-Mateo et al., 2021)


Mass-production and overconsumption are the keys drivers of land system change. The speed and growth of textile production has to halt. The planetary boundaries and the liveable conditions for humans on Earth depend on it. There is no magic button to makes the problem go away. No one action within the supply chains can be pointed out, cancelled, to stop and recover fashion industry’s impact on land system change, without truly addressing this main issue.

  • even if considered having a mild impact from land-system change point of view, the problems add up: non-renewable fracking of oil, microplastics
  • Ultimately there is no place for plastics in the wardrobe – future innovation on carbon capture is the ultimate way to go
  • when cultivation is done right, has soil regenerating impact, when done wrong creates regional devastation

  • potential to transition from devastating the land system change boundary to exists as a solution to clean up textile waste from never ending up in landfills

  • a traditional and slow fashion method stretched to its limits with overgrazing

  • acceptable when it is a by-product of food production, but even then, it is questionable: growing population cannot keep feeding on cattle stock and cultivating soy to feed the cows

Measuring the impact is relevant but must be done in the correct way. It should start with questioning for example the HIGG Index, that considers synthetic fibres to have a more positive impact than wool for example. (Mathews, 2020) What are the correct metrics to measure product life cycle from the Land system change perspective? A study from 2019 concludes that product Lifecycle Assessments are missing critical control variables for land-system change and propose a simplified model for measuring the impact of land use and land use change. (Bjorn et al., 2019)

The transition from linear to a circular economy in textiles and fashion is urgent. But it cannot be a sole answer before the burning question of overproduction and -consumption is answered and corrected. Nevertheless, the focus should be on keeping all textile fibres in circulation, reducing the need of virgin materials, and eliminating chemical pollution from textiles on soils by designing the products in such a way, that no harmful chemicals may bleed out during production, use or end-of-life phase.


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Päivi Eräpuu, July 22nd 2022, CC-license: CC BY-SA 4.0