The high price of our obsession with fast fashion

Each month Spoorthy * saved a third of his income to buy clothes. “Clothing for me was a way to look put together, to show my confidence,” says the 26-year-old IT professional from Hyderabad.

Soon, the indulgence turned into a problem: all of his closets overflowed, yet he received two or three packages delivered each week.

He’d feel guilty about the waste, “but I’d still feel like buying more,” he says.

As an environmentally conscious person, Spoorthy says she felt a little reassured if she bought the garments from “sustainable” clothing chains.

Many young people today share Spoorthy’s bias towards “eco-friendly” clothing.

Read also: From rags to riches: the Indian designer finds the sustainable way to high fashion

Sustainability sells and brands have caught on.

However, most brands rely on vague definitions of labels such as “sustainable”, “green” and “eco-friendly” to market their products.

A study by the Changing Markets foundation, which interviewed 50 of the largest brands in the world, found that nearly 60% of them engaged in some form of “green wash”. Most of them weren’t transparent about what exactly made their clothing sustainable.

These labels have a vague design: sometimes, only part of the clothing, such as the lining or the outside, is recycled. Another source of misdirection is the effort to adopt more “sustainably sourced syntheses”. Most companies are committed to meeting recycled polyester goals from recycling polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles. However, less than 1% of all the fabric used is recycled.

Textile scientist Sannapapamma KJ of Dharwad University of Agricultural Sciences says, “We don’t have the technology to fully recycle clothes. Only about 20-30% of an item can be made with recycled fabric “. Building the entire garment still requires the use of fresh resources.

The concept of sustainability is antithetical to the fashion industry and the little good they do in no way compensates for the damage they cause, explains Sumanas Koulagi, who has experience with craft industries and the production of khadi.

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

Until the mid-20th century, retail collections debuted in two or four seasons: spring / summer and fall / winter. However, that has changed with the growth in popularity of synthetic fibers, the production of which has surpassed that of cotton since 2000 and accounts for 60% of all fabrics produced in the world today.

The popularity of fast fashion took off in the late 1990s, leading to the creation of “micro seasons”.

Now, a retail clerk in a store in Bengaluru attests that there are new styles arriving every week.

This has radically changed the sector. On the one hand, clothes are now cheaper. But the amount of clothes that are produced has doubled since the 2000s; the average consumer buys more, but wears less of each garment, sometimes up to seven times, as in the UK.

An abundance of waste

Once the celebrity of clothing stores, clothes of all shapes, sizes and colors lie discarded in a pile at a dry waste collection center in south Bengaluru.

Taking a branded hat from the pile, Masoor Gous, the operator in the center, says, “They could have just washed it and given it to someone. People just don’t want to make the effort.”

More than half of the clothes that arrive at the center are usable but end up being incinerated or sent to landfill.

Mansoor says that just five to six years ago, this pile barely contained 8-10 items of clothing in one day. “Now, of the two tons of waste that arrive at the center every day, 10% are just clothes”.

Nationally, India discards one million tons of clothing every year according to data from the India Textile Journal. Clothing waste is also the third largest source of municipal solid waste in the country.

Indiscriminate consumption is increasingly an important part of why India discards so many garments, according to Tanvi Bikhchandani, co-founder of a Delhi-based slow fashion brand. “There is a shift in attitude even though India has a second-hand culture. This is also due to the mass production of clothing at such a pace that it is ubiquitous, “he says.

According to the World Bank, over 60% of all input material for clothing is made up of synthetic fibers extracted from crude oil and gas, and the textile industry as a whole contributes 10% to global greenhouse gas emissions.

With synthetic fibers, just doing laundry can pollute the environment, with an estimate suggesting that microplastics equivalent to 50 million plastic bottles make their way to the ocean every year.

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

Over the next few years, the Indian appointment with fast fashion will only get stronger. With a rapidly growing middle-class population, the country will go from being primarily a procurement center for fast fashion to one of the most attractive consumer markets for clothing brands.

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

Unethical production

Sucharita Biniwal, a lecturer at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, says the fashion industry can keep its dizzying pace only by putting tremendous pressure on natural resources and jobs. “It only takes 15 days for companies to go from the design phase to the sales phase. They have to cut costs somewhere, “he says.

To maintain their margins, fast fashion brands often outsource production to countries where labor is plentiful and inexpensive. India is one of the top five exporters of textiles and clothing to the EU and the United States.

Read also: The return of natural fabrics

But working conditions in the industry are often dire, with a constant struggle for fundamental rights such as statutory wages. In Karnataka, apparel suppliers have yet to settle outstanding wage arrears, despite clear indications from the High Court.

This, Scott Nova, executive director of the Consortium for Workers’ Rights, believes it is a “persistent and harmful abuse in the industry. The refusal of the owners of garment factories across Karnataka to implement the 2020 increase in the indemnity. Variable allowance is a perfect illustration, with more than Rs 370 crore being stolen from workers and still counting, ”he says.

After a decade and a half in a clothing company, Susheela *, a 41-year-old textile worker, regrets ever choosing this type of job. While work puts food on the table, it also brings several health ailments with it.

Unrealistic hourly goals mean there’s barely time even to drink water and she’s practically a prisoner on the factory floor.

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

With the dissolving of limits such as the Multi Fiber Arrangements and the Textile and Clothing Agreement in the mid-2000s regulating the volume of exports from developing countries and the advent of the fast fashion model, the main reason seems to be efficient at the expense of the well-being of workers and the environment.

“We have to think about consuming consciously, with a moral direction. We have a rich tradition in this. We must not forget that, “says Sumanas Koulagi.

(* Names have been changed)

What is fast fashion?

Fast fashion refers to a system in which clothing models move rapidly from fashion shows to the point of sale and finally to the landfill or incinerator. The fast fashion business model is fundamentally one of exploitation and is characterized by the use of inexpensive synthetic fabrics and cheap labor.

While the new collections only debuted two or four times a year, fast fashion ensures that new designs arrive every week.


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