The high price of our fast fashion obsession
Each month, Spoorthy * set aside a third of her income to buy clothes. “Clothes for me were a way to look put on, to show my confidence,” says the 26-year-old IT professional from Hyderabad.
Soon, indulgence turned into a problem – all her closets were overflowing, yet she was getting two or three packages delivered each week.
She would feel guilty about the waste, “but I would still want to buy more,” she said.
As an environmentally conscious person, Spoorthy says she felt a little appeased if she purchased the clothes from “sustainable” clothing chains.
Many young people today share Spoorthy’s preference for “green” clothing.
Also Read: From Rags to Wealth: Indian Designer Finds Sustainable Way to Make Haute Couture
Sustainability sells and brands have spread.
However, most brands rely on vague definitions of labels such as “sustainable”, “green” and “ecological” 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 engaged in some form of “green laundering”. Most of them weren’t transparent about what made their clothes durable.
These labels are vague by design – sometimes only part of the clothing, like the lining or the outer shell, is recycled. Another source of misguidance is an effort to embrace more “synthetics from sustainable sources.” A majority of companies are committed to meeting the targets for recycled polyester from the recycling of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles. However, less than 1% of all fabrics used are recycled.
Textile scientist Sannapapamma KJ from Dharwad University of Agricultural Sciences says, “We don’t have the technology to completely recycle clothes. Only 20-30% of an item can be made from recycled fabric. The construction of 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 outweighs the damage they cause, says Sumanas Koulagi, who has experience with cottage industries and the khadi making.
“Their model, based on binge drinking, created the problem in the first place,” he says.
Until the mid-20th century, retail collections debuted for two to four seasons – spring / summer and fall / winter. However, that has changed with the growing popularity of man-made fibers – the production of which surpassed that of cotton from 2000 onwards and currently accounts for 60% of all fabrics produced globally.
The popularity of fast fashion took off in the late 90s, leading to the creation of “microseason”.
Today a retail worker at a Bengaluru store attests that there are new styles coming in every week.
It fundamentally changed the industry. On the one hand, clothes are more affordable now. But the amount of clothing manufactured has doubled since the 2000s; the average consumer buys more, but wears less with each outfit, sometimes as little as seven times, as in the UK.
An abundance of waste
Once the focal point of clothing stores, clothes of all shapes, sizes and colors are dumped in a dry waste collection center in southern Bengaluru.
Taking a branded hat from the pile, Masoor Gous, the operator of the center, said: “They could have just washed it and given it to someone. People just don’t want to put in the effort.
More than half of the clothes that arrive at the center are usable but end up being cremated or sent to the landfill.
Mansoor says that just five to six years ago this pile contained just 8 to 10 clothes a day. “Now, of the two tonnes of waste that enters the center every day, 10% is just clothes. “
Nationally, India throws away one million tons of clothing each year, according to data from the India Textile Journal. Clothing waste is also the third largest source of municipal solid waste in the country.
According to Tanvi Bikhchandani, co-founder of a Delhi-based slow fashion brand, indiscriminate consumption is increasingly one of the reasons India is throwing away so many clothes. “There is a change in attitude even though India has a workforce culture. It is also because of the mass production of clothing at a rate it has become ubiquitous, ”she said.
More than 60% of all materials used in the manufacture of clothing are made from synthetic fibers extracted from crude oil and gas and the textile industry as a whole contributes 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the World Bank.
With synthetic fibers, just doing your laundry can pollute the environment, an estimate suggesting that microplastic equivalent to 50 million plastic bottles ends up in the ocean each year.
Of the 53 million tonnes of fabric produced worldwide each year, about 70% end up in landfills in the same year, according to a report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a UK-based organization that advocates circular economies.
In the years to come, India’s rendezvous with fast fashion will only grow stronger. With a rapidly growing middle class population, the country will primarily shift from being a supply hub 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 clothes, this is a big increase from 2018, when people spent Rs 3,900. And a report McKinsey from 2019 suggests that around 300 international brands will open in India in the coming years.
Sucharita Biniwal, a faculty member at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, says the fashion industry can only keep up its hectic pace by putting enormous pressure on natural resources and the workforce . “It only takes 15 days for companies to go from the design phase to the sales area. They have to cut costs somewhere, ”she said.
To maintain their margins, fast fashion brands often outsource their production to countries where labor is abundant and cheap. India is one of the top five exporters of textiles and clothing to the EU and the United States.
Read also: Natural fabrics are making a comeback
But working conditions in industry are often dire, with a constant struggle for basic rights like legally mandated wages. In Karnataka, clothing suppliers have yet to settle overdue wage arrears, despite clear instructions from the High Court.
This, according to Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, is “persistent and damaging abuse in the industry. The refusal of garment factory owners across Karnataka to implement the 2020 hike in the variable cost allowance is a perfect illustration of this, with over 370 crore rupees stolen from workers, and it continues ” , he said.
After a decade and a half in a clothing company, Susheela *, a 41-year-old textile worker, regrets having chosen this profession. As work puts food on the table, it has also brought several health issues.
Unrealistic hourly goals mean there is barely enough time to drink water and she is practically a prisoner in the factory.
In 2004, at the start of the rapid fashion revolution, Jayaram KR worked for a company that exports clothing. Back then, he had to sew and finish 60 clothes in an hour. In the two decades since, he says the target has almost doubled without much innovation in the machines. For workers, this has meant unrealistic goals that increase every year and pressure to perform.
With the dissolution of limits such as the Multifiber Agreements and the 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 main motive seems be effective to the detriment of the well-being of workers and the environment.
“We have to think about consuming consciously, with moral direction. We have a rich tradition of it. We must not forget this, ”says Sumanas Koulagi.
(* Names have been changed)
What is fast fashion?
Fast fashion refers to a system in which clothing designs quickly move from fashion shows to the retail floor – and finally to the landfill or incinerator. The fast fashion business model is inherently exploitative and characterized by the use of cheap synthetic fabrics and cheap labor.
While new collections only debut two or four times a year, fast fashion ensures that new models hit the sales floor every week.