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One knows the satisfying feeling of flipping through the glossy pages of a fashion magazine. Running your fingers over the images while admiring the extravagant clothes, shoes, and accessories makes one yearn to possess it, albeit at a lower price. A few years back this would not have been possible. Today, however, the ‘’fast fashion’’ industry has changed this scenario. The media spots a celebrity wearing a cropped top or puffed sleeves and it’s trending the next minute, making everyone want a similar dress, top, hat or even a bag. Our dreams are achieved with the help of fast fashion brands such as Zara, H&M, Forever21 and Gap. What exactly is Fast fashion? It is the technique that uses cheap labour, poor quality materials and a high volume of production to meet and possibly create new trends every two weeks, or for some brands even biweekly. It is needless to say that when fresh stock has to be brought in such a short period of time, there will be corner cuts when it comes to the environment, human welfare of the labourers and waste management.

Behind this world of glamour and glitter lies a dark reality. The Fast Fashion industry is the second most polluting one, after the oil sector. Even with the growing awareness, the dyes used still have toxic chemicals that are harmful to the producers, consumers and even the environment. Every year 5,00,000 tons of microfibers are released into the water globally, equivalent to 50 billion plastic bottles in the ocean. The contamination of water with mercury, arsenic, and lead not only deteriorates the quality of water but also suffocates and kills millions of aquatic animals yearly. Moreover, the use of water is immense. For example, the production of one pair of jeans takes around 2,000 gallons of water, while a cotton shirt needs approximately 700 gallons of water. The fast-changing trends and the desire of people to keep up with trends has resulted in the generation of tremendous waste, not only the garments but essential raw materials like water too.

There are various reasons as to why a whopping 18.6 million tons of clothing end up in landfills on an annual basis. The primary reasons include changing styles, poor quality of apparel due to fast and bulk production leading to quick wear and tear, and exclusivity. For example, Burberry wanted to maintain exclusivity for which it burned 20 million kgs of merchandise in 2018. The carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases released in this process are just one of the scandalous aspects of such trends. The exponential growth of demand in this industry is proportional to the waste generated. In 2014, more than 100 billion pieces of clothing were created which is around 13 new apparel for every individual.

The Fast Fashion industry makes use of cheap but labour intensive means to keep up with the massive demand. The production usually takes place in developing and poor countries like Bangladesh, India, and African countries where this technique can be used to the optimum level. The workers are paid “minimum legal wage’, and not the ‘minimum living wage’ as it is only one-fifth of what is required for a decent living. Along with such poor wages, they are forced to work overtime and that usually means that the average number of hours a labourer works for is 16 hours a day. Besides the physical exertion, the working conditions are also far from satisfactory. The buildings usually have no or little ventilation and there is also no security. This is why in 2013, Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza building collapsed, killing more than 1100 workers. The industry also promotes child labour as children are often forced to work as they have small hands, allowing them to easily pick cotton. Children are also considered to be obedient.

Fast fashion teaches you that fashion and sustainability cannot go together, but the fashion army proves otherwise. The glossy facades of fast fashion hide away a huge environmental cost, which can no longer be ignored. Sustainable fashion is the way forward. Brands and consumers need to acknowledge the problem and start taking steps. This process of fostering change needs to start in the conscious consumerism world. Buying only what is needed, and not everything that captivates the eye, with a preference of quality over quantity would be the first step. Sustainable fashion brands are generally small businesses that need to be promoted and should be preferred over the nearby shopping centre. The cause needs everyone to stand together. These brands are generally based on rental and second-hand clothing, which helps style vintage clothes and make them look trendy. The problem needs to be addressed from its roots, that is consumer’s use-and-throw behaviour, as only 1% has the capacity to get recycled. That fabric in your wardrobe doesn’t have to stay there if it isn’t required, and can be donated to ones in need or returned to the stores that accept second-hand clothing. Sustainable fashion needs the consumer to realise who the king is and be the trendsetter in the market. The world needs the consumers to start, the brands will follow.

Brands can also play a huge role in making fashion more sustainable. They can start by taking responsibility for the waste they are generating. Moreover, brands can pay attention to the quality of the garments, the supply chain, production processes, and product afterlife. With the industry alleged to be responsible for a shocking 4 to 10% of global greenhouse-gas emissions every year, it becomes crucial to address overproduction and pollution and waste generation. Brands must also ensure fair wages and safe working conditions for the workers. Starting with the basics, the brands must start using organic materials and biodegradable dyes that will protect our environment when it ends up in the landfills. Brands must also take steps to increase the life of a garment by emphasising on its quality. Furthermore, they can start accepting clothes back from their customers and redesign them to give them a second life.

With the concept of Thrift stores covering the headlines of the fashion weekly, a huge step towards sustainability is being taken. Thrift stores offer used clothing items in good shape at discounted prices. They promote the concept of vintage clothing and allow the consumer to have a unique wardrobe, which is already difficult to build with the trend-following fast fashion stores. They also help in reducing the carbon footprint of the industry on the planet. The phenomenon of thrifting has been around in the US for over a century with brands like Goodwill and The Salvation Army. People have found this concept interesting as it excites them to hunt and find unique pieces of clothing at lower prices. They offer designer products at a fraction of the original price, which can’t be a bad deal. Self-expression and creativity associated with the spirit of fashion are not compromised through sustainability but only enhanced.

While the Western countries have realised the importance of sustainability in fashion, India is yet to accept that its rich textile, motif and design heritage have the potential to lead the way for sustainable fashion. Indian history proves that the country believed in a sustainable form of living, but it couldn’t last as people started following the Western fast fashion trends with the increase in spending power. With the world celebrating the art of sustainable fashion, it’s time for India to take a journey to the good old days. Indian consumers have been recently introduced to the concept of ethical fashion and they’re welcoming it with open arms with the belief of ‘Less is More’ and the choice to use pre-owned clothing. They have again started donating their used clothes and buying second-hand clothes from stores. India’s rich craft traditions offer the solution of managing costs while ensuring sustainability. Businesses like B Label are advocating organic clothing, initiating the necessary shift. Thrift stores have also blossomed in the country in the last two years as they offer authentic high-end products and vintage clothing at affordable prices. With the numbers expanding, the consumer can always find what he/she likes and stay consciously fashionable.

The Fast Fashion industry is not only growing in terms of the number of stores and clothes produced but in profits as well. The profits are skyrocketing. The fast-fashion brand ASOS makes around Rs. 8,900 every second which accounts for a stunning 16% profit! This data pertaining to 2019 also reveals that they sold 348 million units in that fiscal year. The famous brand Zara makes around Rs.74,000 every second in the UK high street which is 56% profit for every second. So when the profits are flowing in not yearly, quarterly but by each second to the brands, then why are the environment and the workers suffering?

The average wage that a fashion industry worker gets in Bangladesh, working for these high-end fast fashion brands is Rs 5,500. Is this wage rate enough to sustain even a single person? Let alone the family which entails the spouse, children, security, healthcare and education which is like an unattainable dream for most. If Zara can report a 46% growth in the Indian market for the fiscal year 2020 then why cannot its workers grow with it?

These uncomfortable questions need to be asked. These concerns that pertain to basic human rights need to be raised. The financials of the companies are surely pretty, but behind their balance sheets are the snatched rights of the workers and dying breaths of the Earth. It is time that the profits are used wisely to create sustainable fashion. The problem is not the cost of saving the environment, it’s the want to do it. They have great power and means to prevent another 50 billion plastic bottles from entering the ocean and reducing the insurmountable carbon emissions, so what’s stopping them? The cost of production might increase and the profits might reduce, but saving humanity and the Earth is definitely worth it.

By Manavi Kumar and Sanya Madan


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