Fast Fashion – A Threat to Environment?

‘Fast’ seems to be the new buzzword in our modern life. For example, fast food, fast fashion etc etc. Fast food is junk food not good for health. But what about fast fashion? Should we avoid fast fashion just like fast food? Let’s examine and explain the whole thing.

Fast fashion is a new phenomenon. But truly speaking, it has been sweeping the young generations off their feet. Unfortunately, like fast food, fast fashion is a monster in disguise. It exploits workers and endangers animals and planets, with only a few of us being aware of it.

Modern world is hungry for everything, from food to fashion or anything else that is served on platter at an affordable price. Fashion is just like food as both are for consumption. With their dream to look, talk and walk like silver-screen stars, sports personalities and social media influencers, people are now more into fast fashion. Demand compels manufacturers, retailers and suppliers to overstock their stores as they first trigger the ‘purchase on impulse’ syndrome in consumers and then surrender themselves to consumers’ whims. Within a fortnight, products are sold at high discounts or dumped into dustbin to make room for the latest trends.

Fashion industry has four macro seasons but fast fashion has introduced innumerable micro seasons in between. Could you believe that nearly 80 billon new pieces of clothing is up for consumption around the world? It is a clear 400% increase since 2000. And it is coming at a heavy price. The effect of continuously spiralling appetite to stay on the top of the trends is causing rusts and ruins to the environment.

A Reality Check on Fashion

Gone is the time period when shopping was a necessity and neither a luxury nor a recreation. People used to shop during festive seasons and whenever they needed something. A term ‘Impulsive shoppers’ was yet to be born. But things went for a change nearly a couple of decades ago. The word ‘affordability’ was redefined and trend cycles experienced a brief life. Shopping graduated (or demoted) to a hobby from a necessity. Technological progress and internet’s permeation in our private lives fanned the fire of desire.  

Globalization has brought the big brands at our doorsteps. High street fashion and online shopping have became a part of our life. The question is why some people talk about fast fashion in a negative way? How does it harm human beings, animals and planet?

The Y2ks’ kids, youths and elderly people waked up to a new world where new and established brands came out with cheap, use-and-throw stocks and we got trapped forever. You could easily buy fashionable wears and apparels with your loose changes. These fast fashion items did not have a long time span but the word ‘affordable’ was enough to get peopled hooked to the brands’ tentacles. People suddenly started believing they could afford to dress like their favourite silver screen or soccer stars or walk like the supermodels and look hot in the outfits the celebrities wear on the catwalk.

It took a long time for the common folks to realize that their dream had come true only at a heavy price. The realization dawned upon them after the infamous collapse of Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza clothing manufacturing complex. It killed more than 1,000 workers. The consumer world came in for a shock and grew sceptical about fast fashion. Still, many people are in the dark about the demonic side-effects of fast fashion. They don’t understand that each marginal spending on fast fashion is actually taking the world a little closer to destruction. They are either ignorant or nonchalant about the plights and exploitation of the workers engaged in the fast fashion industry.

A Definition of Fast Fashion

Fast fashion is a short-lived trend that comes with the gimmicks of ‘cheap’ stuffs imitating the ideas of catwalk cultures and celebrity wears. These copied things are available at high street stores and sell like hot cakes. The purpose is to bring the latest styles in the market, hang a low price tag and sell them as soon as possible before a new trend sets in. The time gap between two trend cycles is not more than a few months. And when things are cheap, these are not great in quality. ‘Wear and Throw’ – that is the mantra.

Brands have smartly promoted the idea of smart fashion. You cannot look smart with an out-dated wear or watch. You must don the latest launch. They are hiring celebrities to sell their products and convince the consumers that they can look, walk and talk like those they admire most. In this world of consumerism, consumers are gaslighted to believe they need to sport the newest looks to stay relevant.

More demands mean more supplies and it has created a nefarious cycles that pressurizes the workforce for overproduction. The result is labour exploitation and environmental pollution. Fast fashion is not restricted to the traditional cycles of collections. A constant drive to give out more always keeps the fast fashion brands on wheels.  

Tracing the Root of Fashion

Prior to 1800s, fashion was in its embryonic shape. People needed to procure leather or wool, prepare them and weave them for cloth making. Hence, all clothes were handmade and homemade. Each piece used to take a lot of time to finish and so, was expensive.

The industrial revolution happened in Europe during the time of European renaissance in the 19th century. Elias Howe invented lockstitch sewing machine. It became easier and quicker to make clothes; price came down. Tailoring shops started mushrooming to cater to the burgeoning demands, a lion’s share of which came from the middle classes.

Many of these shops used to hire a team of home workers who knew cutting and sewing. The reality of sweatshops emerged around this period and safety issues became a concern. The first accident in the garment industry happened in 1911 when fire broke out in Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. It killed 146 workers, mostly female migrant workers.

By the 60s and 70s, a new trend started. Clothing was promoted as an extension of one’s personality. However, fast fashion and high street were yet to develop as a merged concept.

Low-cost fashion achieved a new height by the late 1990s and 2000s. Online shopping revolutionized the shopping scenario and several renowned fashion retailers took over the high street. They borrowed the ideas from the elite fashion brands and recreated the magic. The outputs lacked originality but sported the same style and look at a fraction of what the branded products cost. The fever caught on and continued. The copycat brand stores are now favourite go-and-get destinations both online and offline as buyers can easily avail the new launches.

How to Identify Fast Fashion Manufacturers

Some threads common to all fast fashion brands are:

Plenty of styles, each of which is a copy of the latest trends exhibited by the supermodels, celebrities or social media influencers

Very short time gap between an apparel or accessory launched on the catwalk, in movies or in fashion media and when it is found on the shelves

Offshore manufacturing, huge churns, labourers working on low wages in unsafe conditions, unsafe supply chains with almost no visibility beyond the first tier

A limited quantity of a particular launch – an idea pioneered and popularized by Zara. With the latest stocks flying off the shelves in a few days, shoppers are always in a hurry so that they don’t miss a chance.

Low-quality, cheap materials, like polyester cause degradation after a few wears! A few ‘wear and wash’ and they are thrown away! Microfiber shedding is another issue!

How Does Fast Fashion Harm Us?

Fast fashion is a multi-fanged, invisible monster. It harms us in multiple ways. Let’s take a look at how it is slow poisoning our planet.

It pollutes our planet: Fast fashion exerts heavy damages on our environment. The continuous pressure to minimize production time and costs means less environmental concerns. Fast fashion is the largest polluter of our environment. Use of cheap, toxic fabric and textile dyes pollutes water, which in turn, harms the agricultural sector. This is the reason why Greenpeace has been running detoxing fashion campaigns and asking brands to eliminate toxic elements from their supply chain.

Cheap textiles are a part of fast fashion. In fact, fast fashion has pushed and popularized polyester obtained from fossil fuels. It is one of the biggest contributors to global warming. Polyester sheds microfibers that add to the already threatening plastic waste on our sea beaches.

Even natural fabric, though not harmful, could pose a threat to environment if it becomes a part of fast fashion. Traditional cotton requires both water and pesticides in huge quantities, especially if we are talking about the scenario in developing economies. These requirements put a heavy pressure on water basins as both local communities and companies need water for different purposes. Exploitation of any natural resource causes a cascade of environmental damages, exerting ill effects locally as well as globally.

The constant demand for the latest fashion speeds up the manufacturing process, degrading soil quality, biodiversity and land clearing. Processing of leather is another serious issue affecting our environment. The fact that 300kg of chemicals are added to every 900 kg of animal hides for tanning gives you a fair idea about how much our earth suffers due to fast fashion.

Fast fashion has a brief cycle between an old trend falling out of favour and a new trend setting in. This means more disposable clothes and accessories. It creates a mass of textile waste. Does it bode well for environment? NO.

Fashion contributes to a tenth of carbon footprints every year. Levi Strauss & Co. claims that the amount of carbon emission caused by manufacturing a pair of jeans can drive a car 80 miles. However, it has the most devastating effect on freshwater supplies. A pair of jeans requires 2, 000 gallons of water and textile dyeing needs 20 per cent of global freshwater. In fact, fashion is the second most water-polluting agent. The wastewater pollutes streams and rivers, risking the lives of both people and animals in the locality.

Fast fashion contributes to piles of wastes. The disposable clothes are enough for a landfill within a few seconds. Fast fashion is causing landfills worth $183 million every year. This massive landfill happens because of the clothes that are fine, wearable and not bad outfits but have gone out of fashion. These clothes are burned sometimes, which also raises environmental pollution. A few companies including Blueberry are talking highly about their standard practices of unsold garment burning at the end of a season instead of selling them at heavy discounts.

Every year, we invest $460 billion for wearable clothing and this amount gets wasted because we are bitten by fast fashion bug. Non-bio gradable micro-plastics enter the human water supplies and food chain, causing a big, still uncalculated, risk to both human life and animal.

It exploits workers: Fast fashion is detrimental to not only environment but also human lives. To those who were not aware of the unsafe condition that the cheap labourers work in, the infamous Rana Plaza incident in Bangladesh bared it all. In fact, these workers labour in dangerous environments and on very low wages. They don’t have even the most basic fundamental human rights.

Down the supply chain, the situation gets worse as farmers work with hazardous chemicals without wearing any safety jackets, gloves or other must-wear safeguards that can save them from toxic effects of raw or processed materials and brutal practices. Nearly 90 per cent of the world’s clothing is manufactured in the underdeveloped and developing countries. About 40 million workers suffer poor and unsafe working conditions and get unfair wages.

Continuous and heavy exploitation of workers inflicts devastating and lingering effect on their physical health and mental wellbeing. A documentary titled “The True Cost” has been made to highlight the inhuman treatment meted out to them.

Extremely poor health standards, life-threatening working condition and workplace accidents are major concerns for garment industry workers. They are regularly  and heavily exposed to fibre and dust from textiles due to little air-flow in working spaces. Working in such an unhealthy condition for a long time causes reproductive issues, severe lung diseases and even cancer. Repetitive works add more strains on the workers.

It harms animals: As well as with human lives, there is a devastating impact of fast fashion on animal life. The continuous or intermittent release of microfibers and toxic dyes in waterways is consumed by both land and marine life and the dangerous effects harm all animals in the food chain. Animal products including fur, wool and leather are directly used in fashion, putting animal welfare at risk.

There are rumours, all of which are not unfounded, that the real fur is passed off as faux fur to unsuspecting shoppers. Real fur is expensive but as a large share of it is produced under inhuman conditions, it comes cheaper than faux fur.

It coerces consumers: Fast fashion promotes and encourages a “throw-away” culture. There are two obvious reasons for it – the products are designed not to be durable and the accelerated emergence of new trends. Fast fashion tries to convince us that we should go with the flow of time and trend. It promotes ‘impulsive purchase’ by creating an artificial need and “never satisfied” syndrome.

The trend has drawn flaks from celebrity designers who allege the retailers of encroaching on their intellectual property. Designer creations are always a few and far between and hence, mass production is in clear violation of their intellectual copyrights.

The Big Fishes

Many big players in the industry, including H&M and Zara, started as small shops around the 1950s. H&M is the oldest giant in the world of fast fashion. They started as Hennes in Sweden in 1947 and then landed in London in 1976 before reaching the American shore in 2000.

Zara followed the footprints, having opened its business in Northern Spain in 1975. People got familiar with the term “fast fashion” when Zara expanded to New York at the starting of 90s. New York Times coined the term to describe Zara’s mission to welcome the latest trends to their store within a fortnight.

Other big players in the industry are GAP, UNIQLO, TopShop and Primark. Interestingly, these brands, which were praised for making fashionable clothing available at radically cheap prices, are now challenged by cheaper disruptors like SHEIN, Zaful, Fashion Nova, Forever 21 and Boohoo. These ultra-fashion brands are polluting our environment and most importantly, playing with buyers’ psychology, who are now gaslighted to believe that “the more, the merrier” is the key to happiness.

A sinister ploy to make more profit!

Fast Fashion Going Green – Truth or Myth

Social media campaign and environment activists are creating awareness about the ill effects of fast fashion. An increasing number of unsuspecting buyers, who always keep their logic on suspension, are fortunately ready to listen to what these people have to say about fast fashion. The big players are definitely keeping a watch on the ground realities coz we can now see emergence of a new term “green fashion”.

An increasing number of retailers have taken ethical and sustainable initiatives, which are popularly known as recycled schemes. These schemes are encouraging customers to use bins for their unwanted items. However, reports claim that only 0.1% of all clothing that different take-back and charity programs collect is recycled into fresh fibre. Hence, the much touted ‘green fashion’ is not that green at all!

Speed is the real villain in the entire scheme of fast fashion. The rapidity, with which the trend changes and things are reproduced, puts pressure on both human and environment. It also causes harm to animals. Recycled, eco-friendly, green clothing alternatives can hardly challenge the “wear and throw” culture, the growing strain on natural resources (not all of these are repleshinable) and several other issues parented by fast fashion. The entire system is poisonous and requires a heavy, sustainable blow to break.

Future of Fast Fashion

In recent times, some favourable changes have been happening in the fashion industry. Though it is happening at a slow pace, it gives us hope. The Rana Plaza collapse, which killed 1134 workers and injured many, raised alarm across the world, especially in the low-income and mid-income countries. Even the brand loyalists raised their concerns about unfair treatment to workers. “Is my cheap T-shirt really cheap”? “What is the real cost of these low-cost products”? “What is about the hidden tears behind every make”? These are some uncomfortable questions fast fashion brands are facing. These brands, in order to push their profit margin to the point of infinity, are corrupting people’s mind and destroying our planet.

Fashion Revolution, a famous global organization, that took the initiatives to raise awareness about the pathetic business ethics, talks about Rana Plaza accident as the inspiration behind their activism. This organization is seeking noticeable changes in fast fashion industry for the betterment of both environment and human.

With zero responsibilities towards the nature, environment, human and animal, these brands are playing every shot that can only keep their coffers tinkling. It would be better if these brands are shown the doors but it is not going to happen even in remote future coz they can read common buyers’ psyche and play with it whereas, buyers dance to their tune without being aware of the fact that each purchase they make hits them hard with a heavy price. The label ‘cheap’ is so misleading!

Some people claim that the Gen X is smart in their thoughts and actions and cannot be tricked into subscribing their logic to mindless consumerism and it could force manufactures and retailers to adopt ethical, liberal and more inclusive practices. But these people sound too much hopeful – a fact that gets evident from SHEIN’s sales curve that is only going up. The teenage and young brigade is the easiest prey for these brands.

One can see a shift in interest towards a more circular production model in textile industry, which involves using recycled material if and whenever possible. ‘Sustainable Fashion’ is the new buzzword adopted by the big fashion houses who announce their big plans every year but then there is always a big gap between preaching and practicing.

Our Responsibility

We cannot leave everything to these brands and sit idle. The first thing we should do is “buy less, choose well, make it last”, a famous quote by British designer Vivienne Westwood.

Impulsive purchase is a big culprit. Buy when and what you really need. Love your old clothes so that it gets difficult to part your ways with them. You can flip or experiment with your old clothes for different styles. Turn your old Denim jeans into unhemmed shorts; these will look really trendy and smart. You can make a crop out of a baggy old jumper. Why not give a new lease of life to your faded jeans and turn them into fashionable bags. A capsule wardrobe is a nice thought and could be integral to your journey towards more ethical fashion.

Right choice is the next step. High-quality, eco-friendly garments should be on our list of priorities. There are advantages and disadvantages of all types of fabric; so, we should gravitate towards the purchases that have the least side effects. We should buy from the brands committed to sustainable fashion.

Finally, we should take proper care of our clothes so that they last longer. Instead of throwing them away after a few wears, wear them until they are no longer worth wearing. Mend them if possible and if it makes them last longer. Responsible recycling will stretch their life in a different way; so, why not to try it?

Last but not the least, you should always check if a particular brand is really committed to sustainable products or just offering lip service. If they claim to have used recycled materials for production, check if the percentage is mentioned. Using a tiny amount of recycled products is not enough. Check if the brand uses any renowned third-party organization’s environmental emblem to verify their pompous claims. Most certifications are based on specific criteria. Therefore, even a third-party emblem is not a guarantee that the entire process from manufacturing den to store house to shops is actually done through an ethical and environment-friendly way.

Final Words: Straight-off-the-ramp trends without heavy price tags are fostering fast fashion which is carefully promoted and marketed through online shopping, social media advertisements and words of mouth. Emergence of non-organic fibres and advanced textile technology has led to mass production of environment-damaging fabrics. The temptation to look fashionable and trendy sows the seeds of dissatisfaction in buyers. Everything is just a few clicks away and readily delivered at your doorsteps. All these come at a staggering effect on human lives, animal and the environment. Every time you buy from a fast fashion house, it comes at the expense of labour exploitation, environmental pollution and animal plights.