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Fast fashion: ruining the world one crop-top at a time

Updated: Jun 15, 2023

What cost does the Earth pay for the low cost fashion you buy?

Fast fashion by Nitya Doshi

What is Fast Fashion?


Fast fashion is the mass production of cheap, poor-quality, and disposable clothing. It is an extremely profitable business method that focuses on rapidly producing high volumes of clothing at a low cost. Initially, the fashion industry produced clothes on a season-to-season basis; but now brands produce a new collection almost every week. Today, it is a $3 trillion global industry spearheaded by brands like H&M, Zara, and Forever 21.


Fast Fashion is environmentally damaging and resource-intensive. Fashion production accounts for 10% of total global carbon emissions and remains the second largest industrial polluter, second only to oil. The fashion industry is also the second biggest polluter of freshwater resources on the planet. A quarter of the chemicals produced in the world are used in textile production and the water leftover from the process is dumped into rivers. In fact, the factories where cheap clothes are produced are killing off some of the world’s most important rivers.


The clothing industry is depleting non-renewable resources, emitting huge quantities of greenhouse gases, and using massive quantities of energy, chemicals, and water. The synthetic fibres often favoured by fast fashion brands could take up to a thousand years to biodegrade; it is the developing countries that are disproportionately affected. Garment-producing countries like Bangladesh and Vietnam bear the brunt of the pollution and environmental consequences of the consumption of products far away in the global west.


Furthermore, garment workers toil for over 100 hours or more per week and yet do not earn enough money to sustain themselves, all while battling life-threatening health standards. The recent #PayUp Campaign highlighted the plight of these workers- insufficient wages, sudden unemployment, and missing salaries. In fact, it was estimated that garment workers in Bangladesh were owed $500m for the first three months of the pandemic alone. Moreover, they are often forced to work over 16 hours per day throughout the week in unsafe buildings with no ventilation, leading them to breathe in toxic substances and fibre dust to manufacture the clothes. Most workers face verbal and physical abuse daily and aren't even allowed to drink water or take bathroom breaks, all while being cheated out of their wages.



The Advent of Fast Fashion in India


In the last decade, fast fashion brands have forayed into India at an alarming pace. India’s fashion market will be worth $59.3 billion by 2022, making it the sixth largest in the world, on par with the U.K. and Germany. The Indian middle class is expected to expand at 19.4% a year over the same period, outpacing China, Mexico, and Brazil.


Given these dynamics, it is no surprise that more than 300 international fashion brands were expected to open stores in India by this year. However, the Indian market offers two challenges to these fast fashion brands. Firstly, the apparel business in India is still largely unorganized due to the culture of getting clothes traditionally tailored or handed down. Formal retail will likely account for only around 45 per cent of sales by 2025, which is a low proportion. Moreover, there is an ongoing conversation about preserving our crafts and sustaining livelihoods. A Nielsen study from a decade ago showed that Indian consumers were already becoming more conscious about environmentally friendly fashion practices, and this awareness has only grown.


Already, global giants are pitching themselves to Indians as eco-friendly brands. Sanjeev Mohanty, Levi’s managing director for South Asia says that Indian consumers are aware of the importance of sustainable practices and are more likely to shop from brands that make clothes ethically. H&M too has responded to the prevalent customer demand and pledged to sell more eco-conscious products, along with launching recycling and sustainable sourcing projects in India.



The Way Forward?


Regardless of all these initiatives, the business model of the fast fashion industry itself is flawed. “Slow Fashion” offers an alternative to fast fashion. Slow fashion emphasizes mindful manufacturing, fair labour rights, and lasting garments. It encourages putting a stop to excessive production and mindless consumption by utilizing locally grown materials that are domestically produced or sourced on a relatively small scale. Thus, the solution would be to encourage consumers to buy fewer, well-produced, and more durable garments. Brands like Patagonia have already implemented this ideology, by using high-quality material and offering to mend customer’s garments to extend their life.


Back home, labels like Maati, InSom, Upsana & No Nasties, among others, have already begun to integrate slow, sustainable fashion in the Indian markets. Along with this, thrifting has started to gain momentum. The Covid-19 lockdown led to a lot of teenagers launching their own thrifting platforms on Instagram, which have since gained immense popularity. Moreover, In India, there is already a prevalent culture of getting clothes tailored, or buying directly from artisans at exhibitions. Thus, as fast fashion expands into India, brands have the chance to redefine commercial fashion, and we, as consumers have the opportunity to demand better, ethically sourced, and environmentally friendly products from them.



References

30 Shocking Figures and Facts In Global Textile and Apparel Industry |


I., Balchandani, A., Beltrami, M., Berg, A., Hedrich, S., & Rölkens, F. (2019, February 7). How India’s ascent could change the fashion industry. McKinsey & Company. https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/retail/our-insights/how-indias-ascent-could-change-the-fashion-industry


Chua, J. M. (2018, February 27). Why Is It So Hard for Clothing Manufacturers to Pay a Living Wage? Vox. https://www.vox.com/2018/2/27/17016704/living-wage-clothing-factories.


Conca, J. (2015, December 3). Making Climate Change Fashionable - The Garment Industry Takes On Global Warming. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesconca/2015/12/03/making-climate-change-fashionable-the-garment-industry-takes-on-global-warming/?sh=48abcc0e79e4.


Fast fashion quick to cause environmental havoc. (2018, November 14). Sustainability - University of Queensland. https://sustainability.uq.edu.au/projects/recycling-and-waste-minimisation/fast-fashion-quick-cause-environmental-havoc


Magazine, P. (2017, October 4). How your cheap clothes are costing the earth. Pebble Magazine. https://pebblemag.com/magazine/living/cheap-clothes-cost-the-earth-river-blue-fast-fashion-doc


McFall-Johnsen, M. (2019, October 18). The fashion industry emits more carbon than international flights and maritime shipping combined. Here are the biggest ways it impacts the planet. Business Insider. https://www.businessinsider.in/science/news/the-fashion-industry-emits-more-carbon-than-international-flights-and-maritime-shipping-combined-here-are-the-biggest-ways-it-impacts-the-planet-/articleshow/71640863.cms


Segran, E. (2019, January 31). These 1.3 billion people could test brands’ addiction to fast fashion. Fast Company. https://www.fastcompany.com/90293591/these-1-3-billion-people-could-test-brands-addiction-to-fast-fashion


Winterstein, I., & Miedema, C. (2021, March 11).The garment industry is ignoring the plight of its workers. Opinions News | Al Jazeera. https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2021/3/11/the-garment-industry-is-ignoring-the-plight-of-its-workers#:%7E:text=They%20are%20desperate%2C%20starving%2C%20unable,lip%20service%20to%20their%20plight.



Chamberlain, G. (2017, December 2). India’s clothing workers: “They slap us and call us dogs and donkeys.” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/nov/25/india-clothing-workers-slave-wages.


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