Think - when was the last time you bought clothes? Probably not too long ago - maybe a month? Maybe just before lockdown? And where did you buy them from? H&M, Zara, maybe Forever 21, and until not long ago, Shein. Now, while all these brands are separate entities, there’s something that they all have in common - they’re all fast fashion brands, which means they’re actually rather similar to one another - production practices, quick releases, unethical procedures - they all have these in common.
You’ve probably heard two terms a lot in recent times, and these are ‘fast fashion’ and ‘sustainable fashion’. The problem, and the solution. We’ll start with the problem - what is fast fashion, why does it exist if it’s so problematic, why is it problematic?
The first question - What is Fast Fashion?
Fast fashion is defined as the cheap, trendy clothing imitating ideas of expensive luxury brands and celebrity culture, which places emphasis on quickly making such trends accessible to customers.
Fast fashion culture has transformed the fashion industry. Where there were once 4 fashion seasons in a year, there are now - wait for it - fifty-two, with fast fashion retailers coming out with several new designs every single week. Where fashion designers once spent months on a few designs, the fast fashion industry churns out dozens in a span of days.
So, we’ve covered our very first question, which brings us to the next.
Why does it exist?
The ever-increasing consumerism that we see today had its roots in the Industrial
Revolution, which allowed for the mass production, and at extremely low prices. Contrary to the famous saying, quantity became more important than quality. Cheap, mass produced products became the new normal.
According to Hasan Minhaj on The Patriot Act, in the 1980’s, the average American bought 12 new items of clothing a year. Just a few decades later, that number has skyrocketed to sixty-eight - that’s right - sixty-eight pieces a year. And it’s not just America - walk into H&M on a weekend in India itself, and the queues speak for themselves. To aid this drive for consumption - what do we need? That’s right, something to consume. Something cheap, something trendy. And so, we turned to fast fashion, where we could buy so much more, for so much less.
Here’s the catch - it sounds too good to be true. Fashionable clothes, low costs; where’s the downside?
What exactly makes fast fashion so problematic?
Recently, the world has begun realizing that where they don’t bear the cost of the clothes, its weight has fallen on the shoulders of others in the form of the indirect costs of fast fashion.
These include the price paid by the environment, and the inhumane working conditions and low wages of the people making your favourite ‘Nirvana’ t-shirt. And yes, it’s probably worse than you think.
Let’s start with the environmental impact.
According to a Business Insider report, the fashion industry produces more carbon than international flights and maritime shipping - combined. It’s also the second-largest consumer of the world’s water, and a big player in polluting the oceans with microplastics (which, when we consume seafood, eventually end up in our own systems).
It’s one of the major polluting industries in the world - and the limited lifespan of every item doesn’t help. The industry uses textiles that require thousands of gallons of water, with just one cotton shirt taking up to 3000 litres of water to produce. What’s more, up to 85% of textiles are dumped every year!
And then, there’s the matter of unethical labour practices. Human rights violations, like child labour are seen in the industry, with many children working in factories in India and Bangladesh to satisfy demands in the western world. There’s also the matter of crippling working hours and dangerous and inhumane work environments. According to an article by Sustain Your Style, workers can end up working 15+ hours a day, every day of the week, and still earn wages that are impossible to live on.
The 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza, which killed over 1000 garment workers, is one of the few instances where incidents of unacceptable working conditions have been exposed, when in fact, abuse, toxic environments, and forced labour are sadly common in the industry.
Now, this only barely scratches the surface of the negative impact of the industry, but let’s move on. After all, talking about the problem and stating data doesn’t make much of a change. So how can we combat fast fashion?
This question brings us to the solution - the second word - sustainable fashion.
So, what is sustainable fashion?
Well, the answer is right there in the name - it’s sustainable. It refers to clothing that is made ethically, keeping in mind the ethical treatment of workers, fair wages, and environmental impact. It’s the movement to use environmentally friendly textiles and treatment methods, hire and treat workers ethically, and focuses on promoting socially and ethically conscious production and consumption. Sustainable fashion has become a pretty big buzz-word in recent months, but it too has its pros and cons.
Why is it Taking so Long to Become Popular? See, there’s a reason it isn’t as popular as fast fashion. When the efforts to minimise the environmental and human cost increase, so does the actual cost of the product. Paying workers fair wages, sourcing materials ethically, ensuring high-quality work environments, etc - all these things are expensive, and therefore, so is the clothing. While the concept of ‘thrift shopping’, or buying secondhand clothes is a significantly cheaper, and the most environmentally friendly way to buy clothes in the western world, many of us in India still depend on either relatively cheap brands like H&M, for the sustainable alternatives are far too expensive for any student or new professional to afford. Recently, I decided to make an effort to stop buying clothes from fast fashion brands, but that left me with a problem - where would I buy my clothes from now? While Anokhi, Nicobar, and Good Earth all have beautiful clothes, I couldn’t afford to spend thousands of rupees to buy a few garments. And then I discovered exactly what I needed. While India doesn’t necessarily have many in-person thrift stores, hundreds of people sell secondhand clothing online via Instagram. In fact, the rise of online thrift stores has already begun, and have seven shops for you to check out!
There’s no denying it, fast fashion is difficult to give up. It’s inexpensive, accessible, trendy. It requires very little effort to find. However, shopping secondhand gives you the chance to build a completely unique wardrobe, filled with only one-of-a-kind pieces! While a stigma around wearing secondhand clothing may exist, buying from reputable sources ensures your clothing will be hygienic and good quality. So, the next time you buy an unnecessary amount of clothing from Zara or go on a shopping spree at H&M, think to yourself - if I have a better alternative, why not use it?
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Tishya Doraiswamy, Content Writer @ Skyshot Media