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Tearing Apart the Seams of the Fashion Industry—Sustainability and Fast Fashion

In recent years, the term “fast fashion” has gained prominence after the environmental impacts of the textile production industry were brought to the forefront due to the climate change awareness movement worldwide. So, what does this term mean? Simply put, fast fashion involves the quick production of large quantities and varieties of garments at a low manufacturing cost which inevitably hurts the environment and the energy sector. Moreover, the fast-fashion business model offers huge profits to clothing companies and is hence widely adopted. As a result, today’s socially well-connected audience witnesses new items dropping in every week of the year. This translates to fifty-two “micro-seasons” in the world of fashion, where once four seasons was the maximum.

Luring customers with the promise of a discount in a clothing shop. Source: Letter E Blog

How It Impacts the Environment

Clothing production is responsible for about 10% of global carbon emissions and about 20% of wastewater. Fabric dyes pollute water bodies, and the stretchy elastane found in jeans is derived from plastics (including polyester, nylon, and acrylic) that make them less recyclable. Dyeing and finishing, yarn preparation, and fibre production are examples of processes within this extremely resource-intensive industry that lead to depletion of non-renewable resources and heavy energy and water usage. To provide some perspective, the fashion industry consumes more energy than the aviation and shipping industries combined.

The goal of a fashion house or brand in today’s digital age is to produce a wide variety of trendy garments within the shortest time possible and offer products to consumers at a reasonable price. In 2012, Zara was able to bring to the market a new garment every two weeks. Other popular brands like Forever 21 and H&M took about six to eight weeks to add more styles to their already huge collections. The speed at which the market changes is incredible, particularly when compared to the time taken by actual designers (instead of business moguls commanding the replication of popular styles) to produce new designs, which usually takes months.

The average consumer now has more reason to shop for new clothing regularly, adding new pieces to their wardrobe now and then. According to The True Cost, a documentary released in 2015, the world consumes around 80 billion new pieces of clothing every year, 400% more than the consumption 20 years ago. It is clear that to meet this demand and maximize profits, brands have to resort to cheaper and quicker manufacturing processes. At this point, one can ask the question: are profit-minded companies the core of this problem, or is it the shift in the attitude of the masses in recent years? This trend has inevitably caused adverse environmental effects of the production processes to skyrocket, showing no signs of stopping anytime soon.

 

Environmental impact of the fashion industry.  Source: DW

However, this story does not end when the consumer has bought the product. Washing garments release 500,000 tons of microfibres into the ocean every year, which is the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles, resulting from using cheap raw materials for making the item. Furthermore, the fast-fashion model encourages regular disposal of “last season” or “out of style” items by perpetuating the slogan of “being on-trend”, leading to about 85% of all textiles produced landing in dumps annually. Clothing containing plastic derivatives, like the aforementioned elastane, can take hundreds of years to biodegrade. Clearly, this model is the epitome of the consumerist culture that prevails in today’s world, heavy on our wallets and the environment.

Behind the Scenes of the Fashion Industry

Unethical working conditions, dilapidated work buildings, verbal abuse, sexual harassment, illegally lengthy working hours, lapses in payment, and if a salary is provided, much below the minimum wages— these are just some of the struggles a garment factory worker has to face on a day-to-day basis. In 2017, customers in Zara stores in Istanbul found messages for help hidden within the pockets and creases of the clothing on sale. These cards read, “I made this item you’re going to buy, but I didn’t get paid for it!”

Many call such workers the sufferers of modern-day slavery— an analogy not too difficult to understand once their conditions are made clear. Many brands source their products from external suppliers instead of independently making them. These suppliers further subcontract manufacturing factories where these workers are employed. These factories recruit women and children from low-income families with promises of sufficient wages and education, which are ultimately never kept. With all their time spent working under inhumane conditions out of helplessness and the need to support themselves and their families, these children never get a chance to get educated and gain the skills needed to get employed elsewhere, thus trapping further generations as well. In addition, women are often the victims of terrible verbal, physical and sexual abuse. These workplaces are called sweatshops, and working hours here far exceed the maximum limit imposed by the governments of countries where these factories are found. The daily production goals to be met by each worker are unreasonable and exhausting.

Sweatshop workers in Bangladesh hold up signs in protest. Source: Shakti Collaborative

After gaining some insight into this situation, an important question arises: who should be held accountable for such a gross abuse of human rights? Since brands themselves do not employ these workers but place orders for products, can they be blamed? Perhaps not. However, brands can be coerced to take greater responsibility for ethically sourcing their items if the consumers pressure them to do so. An effective solution can be the independent manufacture of items by brands buying factories themselves. In addition, gaps in the efficient implementation of labour laws in countries such as Bangladesh, Thailand, and India must also be addressed to stop exploitation at the manufacturing level.

Can Every Consumer Afford to Support Such a Movement?

One of the many short-term advantages that fast fashion retailers can offer to consumers is affordability. Customers can buy pieces that look almost the same as those seen on runways or celebrities for half the price, enabling them to make more purchases later on, as and when the trend changes. Only by using cheaper production methods and raw materials can such a low price point be achieved. Unfortunately, these ingredients-for-success usually tend to be non-renewable. In addition, producing such fabrics requires an immense amount of energy, further increasing depleting fossil fuels and ramping up carbon dioxide emissions.

Fashion shows where the latest designs are showcased, and cheap imitations are made at half the price. Source: Knapton Wright

Production of sustainable fashion may involve using renewable energy sources and recycled raw materials and producing high-quality pieces that are meant to last for a long time, hence breaking the chain of buying and discarding items regularly. So, if companies are to produce clothing more sustainably, it goes without saying that the production processes will become more expensive, and so will the end product. A consumer prefers buying the cheaper variant of the same style and doesn’t necessarily pay much heed to the ‘sustainably produced’ tag on the more expensive garment. If these products are ignored, the company faces huge losses due to the increased production costs and low profits and is discouraged from pursuing such a venture. In such a scenario, it becomes clear that shifting the market towards the inclusion and successful retail of sustainably produced products would take much more than mere advertisement campaigns or indication of lesser wastage on clothing tags.

Rising Awareness Among the Public in Recent Years

Most can agree that the main propagator of the consumerist lifestyle is social media. However, the same platforms are now being used to spread awareness about the impact of fast fashion, the poor conditions of factory workers, and their mistreatment by huge brands. Searching for ‘#sustainablefashion’ displays about 10.7 million posts on Instagram, where people share their new finds, be it clothing made from recycled materials or the new thrift store that’s opened up in town. It can be said that a sort of rebellion against our own consumeristic habits is gaining traction, and everyone wants to take part. As a result, several brands indicate that they are trying to incorporate environment-friendly techniques in their manufacturing processes. Advocating for sustainability has become a major part of advertising campaigns, which has led to a rise in awareness among the general public. However, it is unclear if brands invest more time and funds into developing technology to utilise the resources involved to the maximum extent and reduce wastage.

Greenwashing is a term used to denote how companies use buzzwords like sustainability and ethical fashion to favour the socially more aware generation without actually providing a clear explanation of how their products are made. Identifying and verifying the morals of a brand hence gets more confusing and overwhelming for the everyday consumer. In response to the protests made by unpaid workers, Zara’s parent company Inditex set up a hardship fund after partnering with other brands like ‘Mango’ and ‘Next’ to compensate for the losses endured by the most vulnerable among the protestors. However, this could not cover the losses of every worker, and hence they remained unsatisfied.

Mission Thrift is a volunteer-driven store where people can donate their secondhand clothes. Source: Bloomberg

‘Depop’ is an example of an online thrift store, where users can buy second-hand items and sell clothes as well as other items they own. Such initiatives provide ease of shipping items to customers and help bridge the gap between sellers and potential buyers, making it simple for users to sell items they no longer need that are still fit for use. Various other types of thrift stores with different themes have opened worldwide, both in-person and online, and are being popularised. An example of such a store in India is the ‘Bombay Closet Cleanse’. Thrift stores are an important step towards reducing the immense wastage of clothes taking place every year.

Every consumer must recognise their power to contribute to reducing one’s carbon footprint and subvert this ethically unjust system by choosing to shop and discard more consciously and less frequently than before. The development and incorporation of technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI) and blockchain in the fashion industry have helped make the production processes (from sourcing raw materials to shipping and reuse) more transparent. In addition, better implementation of workplace rules and regulations and responsible consumption by citizens can overcome the disastrous trend of fast fashion, guiding us towards a more sustainable future.

Featured Image credits: Firstpost

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