The high price of our obsession with fast fashion

Sustainability sells, and brands have caught on
Last Updated : 26 December 2021, 05:30 IST
Last Updated : 26 December 2021, 05:30 IST
Last Updated : 26 December 2021, 05:30 IST
Last Updated : 26 December 2021, 05:30 IST

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Each month, Spoorthy* would set aside a third of her income to purchase clothes. “Clothing for me was a way to seem put together, showcase my confidence,” the 26-year-old IT professional from Hyderabad says.

Soon, the indulgence turned into a problem — all her closets were overflowing, yet she would get two or three packages delivered every week.

She would feel guilty about the waste, “but I would still feel like buying more,” she says.

As an environmentally conscious person, Spoorthy says she felt a little assuaged if she bought the garments from ‘sustainable’ clothing chains.

Many of today’s youth share Spoorthy’s partiality towards ‘eco-friendly’ clothing.

Sustainability sells, and brands have caught on.

However, most brands rely on vague definitions of labels like ‘sustainable’, ‘green’ and ‘eco-friendly’ to market their products.

A study by the Changing Markets foundation, which surveyed 50 of the world’s biggest brands found that nearly 60% of them indulged in some form of “green washing.” Most of them were not transparent about what exactly made their clothing sustainable.

These labels are vague by design — sometimes, only part of the clothing, like the lining or outer shell is recycled. Another source of misdirection is an effort to adopt more ‘sustainably sourced synthetics’. A majority of companies pledge to achieve recycled polyester targets from recycling polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles. However, less than 1% of all fabric used is recycled.

Textile scientist Sannapapamma K J from the University of Agricultural Sciences Dharwad says, “We don’t have the technology to completely recycle clothing. Only about 20-30% of an item can be made of recycled fabric.” The construction of the whole garment still requires the use of fresh resources.

The concept of sustainability is antithetical with the fashion industry, and the little good they do in no way balances out the harm they cause, explains Sumanas Koulagi, who has experience with cottage industries and manufacturing khadi.

“Their model, based on excessive consumption, has created the problem in the first place,” he says.

Until the mid-20th century, retail collections debuted during two to four seasons — Spring/Summer and Autumn/Winter. However, that changed with the growth in popularity of synthetic fibres — whose production overtook that of cotton starting in 2000 and accounts for 60% of all fabric produced worldwide now.

The popularity of fast fashion took off in the late 1990s, leading to the creation of ‘microseasons’.

Now, a retail employee at a store in Bengaluru attests that there are new styles that come in every week.

This has fundamentally changed the industry. On the one hand, clothes are more affordable now. But the amount of clothes that are manufactured has doubled since the 2000s; the average consumer buys more, but wears each outfit less, sometimes as little as seven times, like in the UK.

An abundance of waste

Once the cynosure of apparel stores, clothes of every shape, size and colour lie discarded in a heap at a Dry Waste Collection Centre in South Bengaluru.

Picking up a branded hat from the pile, Masoor Gous, the operator at the centre, says, “They could have just washed it and donated it to someone. People just don’t want to make the effort.”

Over half the clothes that come to the centre are usable but they end up being incinerated or sent to the landfills.

Mansoor says that just five to six years ago, this heap would barely contain 8-10 items of clothing in a day. “Now, of the two tonnes of waste that comes into the centre everyday, 10% are just clothes.”

Domestically, India discards one million tonnes of clothes every year as per data from the India Textile Journal. Apparel waste is also the third-largest source of municipal solid waste in the country.

Indiscriminate consumption is increasingly a big part of why India discards so many garments, according to Tanvi Bikhchandani, the co-founder of a slow fashion brand based in Delhi. “There is a shift in attitude even though India has a culture of hand-me-downs. This is also because of mass production of clothing at a rate where it has become ubiquitous,” she says.

More than 60% of all material input for clothes consists of synthetic fibres extracted from crude oil and gas and the textile industry as a whole contributes 10% to global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the World Bank.

With synthetic fibres, just doing your laundry can pollute the environment, with one estimate suggesting that microplastic equivalent to 50 million plastic bottles finds its way to the ocean each year.

Of the 53 million tonnes of fabric produced each year globally, about 70% ends up in landfills the same year, according to a report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a UK-based organisation that advocates circular economies.

In coming years, India’s tryst with fast fashion will only strengthen. With a rapidly growing middle-class population, the country will transition from being mostly a sourcing hub for fast fashion to one of the most attractive consumer markets for clothing brands.

A report by the Indian Chamber of Commerce predicts that by 2023, each person will spend Rs 6,400 on clothing, this is a sharp rise from 2018 when people spent Rs 3,900. And a 2019 McKinsey report suggests that around 300 international brands will open shop in India in the coming years.

Unethical manufacturing

Sucharita Biniwal, a faculty member at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad says the fashion industry can only maintain its breakneck pace by putting immense pressure on natural resources and labour. “It takes just 15 days for companies to go from the design stage to the sales floor. They have to cut costs somewhere,” she says.

To maintain their margins, fast fashion brands often outsource production to countries where labour is abundant and inexpensive. India is one of top five textile and apparel exporters to the EU and US.

But work conditions in the industry are often terrible, with constant struggle for basic rights like legally mandated wages. In Karnataka, garment suppliers are yet to clear pending wage arrears, despite clear directions from the High Court.

This, Scott Nova, Executive Director of the Worker Rights Consortium, believes is a “persistent and damaging abuse in the industry. The refusal of garment factory owners across Karnataka to implement the 2020 increase in the Variable Dearness Allowance is a perfect illustration, with more than Rs 370 crore stolen from workers, and counting,” he says.

After a decade and a half at a clothing company, Susheela*, a 41-year-old garment worker, regrets that she ever chose this line of work. While the job puts food on the table, it also brought with it several health ailments.

Unrealistic hourly targets mean that there is barely enough time to even drink water and she is virtually captive to the factory floor.

In 2004, at the start of the fast fashion revolution, Jayaram K R worked for a company that exported clothes. Back then, he had to sew and finish 60 garments in one hour. In two decades since, he says the target has nearly doubled without much innovation in the machinery. For the workers, this has meant unrealistic targets that increase every year, and a pressure to perform.

With the dissolution of limits like Multi Fibre Arrangements and Agreement on Textiles and Clothing in the mid-2000s that regulated the volume of exports from developing countries, and the advent of the fast fashion model, the primary motive seems to be efficient at the cost of the workers’ well-being and the environment.

“We must think of consuming consciously, with moral direction. We have a rich tradition of this. We should not forget it,” says Sumanas Koulagi.

(*Names have been changed)

What is fast fashion?

Fast fashion refers to a system where clothing designs move swiftly from fashion shows to the sales floor — and finally onto the landfill or incinerator. The fast fashion business model is fundamentally exploitative and is characterised by the use of inexpensive synthetic fabric and cheap labour.

While new collections only debuted twice or four times a year, fast fashion ensures that new designs hit the sales floor every week.

Published 26 December 2021, 02:55 IST

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