With each fashion season, the outfits we see on runways at various Fashion Week events depict and decide what is in trend for that particular season. The garments in runway collections are usually very expensive and are limited in stock which makes them out of reach for those without deep pockets. Fast fashion manufacturers mass-produce similar runway looks, using cheaper fabrics and labour, and on a bulk scale and sell the garments produced at a fraction of the cost of the original, making the latest fashion trends accessible to all.
Let's start with what goes on in the manufacturing process as this is where the problem begins. To make cheap and easily available clothes, the raw materials and the final fabrics used to make the clothing need to be cheap too. These cheap fabrics are made from non-renewable fossil fuels and are called petrochemical textiles. They require an immense amount of energy and resources to be produced. Petrochemical textiles are preferred over textiles like cotton and other plant-based textiles because they are comparatively cheaper to manufacture, are stronger and can be modified microscopically. The end result is fabric like polyester, polyurethane, rayon, spandex, nylon, and so on. Fast fashion has increased the demand for petrochemical textiles by at least 30 percent in the last decade. This is concerning because the reserves of fossil fuels are depleting at an alarming rate—faster than nature can replenish them. Burning of fossil fuels accounts for over three-quarters of the United States’ allowed carbon emissions. The annual global emission by the textile industry is 1.2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide—10 percent of humanity’s carbon emission.
However, that isn't the only problem with synthetic fabrics. Many of the chemicals used to manufacture these fabrics are toxic and some are even considered carcinogenic. The microscopic nature of these chemicals means that they can have a detrimental impact on both humans and the environment. Since human skin is porous, these chemicals are able to easily seep into the skin and cause dire health conditions. They are also highly polluting and toxic to the environment.
The other rising concern is the fact that petrochemical textiles are mostly plastic. Out of the 8 million metric tonnes of plastic that ends up in our oceans every year, about 1.5 million tonnes is "microplastic". Microplastics are plastic particles smaller than 5 millimetres. Due to their size, they can easily pass through filtration systems and into our oceans. According to a 2017 study by IUCN, around 35 percent of these microplastics originate from petrochemical textiles. These microplastics are the fibres which get separated from synthetic fabrics when they are washed. They can then end up in the bellies of marine animals and consequently in the bellies of those who consume these animals, including humans.
Eating fish isn’t the only way microplastics can enter our bodies. As drinking water comes indirectly or directly from oceans, scientists have found that microplastics are being consumed via drinking water as well. Being light in weight, microplastics can also be carried by the wind and, yes—this means humans have probably been inhaling them too. Industrial estimates state that humans consume anywhere between 39,000 and 52,000 microplastics every year.
Assuming for a moment that we don’t care about cancer or marine life if we can look like our favourite influencers, there is yet another very concerning problem in the manufacturing process.
There are 52 “seasons” in the fast fashion industry annually—which simply means that trends change every week. There are clothes being made at a rate unfathomable to us. Reports suggest that the fast fashion industry produces 1 billion clothes annually. The factories that make these clothes or “sweatshops”, as they are rightly called, are operated mainly in developing countries and have over 40 million workers (the true numbers with informal sector workers are not counted.) Most (85 percent) of these workers are women. With over 3000 hazardous chemicals being used to manufacture fast fashion fabrics, it’s terrifying to imagine the impact on workers. In addition to being exposed to toxic chemicals in unsafe environments, workers also have to work long periods (up to 16 hours) at a stretch. One of the worst known cases of unsafe working environments was the Rana Plaza incident in Bangladesh, India, where 1134 people died due to the collapse of a building that was known to be structurally unsafe. While that was certainly a wake-up call world over and did lead to scrutiny of the industry and creation of the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, unethical practices continue to exist today.
A more recent incident is one that took place in Tamil Nadu, India’s southern textile hub. In order to increase workers’ production capacity, about 100 women working for a certain fast fashion company were given unlabelled drugs to make them work through period pains. The women were not informed about the side effects and many reported health issues like UTIs, miscarriages, fibroids, depression and anxiety. Most of these women cannot afford to let go of their jobs as they have a family to support and nowhere else to go.
When it comes to the distribution and post-distribution process, the clothes are distributed all over the world by brands like H&M, Zara, Forever 21, Asos, Topshop and Mango—these are just a few of the most popular fast fashion brands known globally. Most of these clothes end up in the trash if they aren’t sold or when a new trend pops up (by the next week). Globally, over 38 million-tonnes of textile waste goes to landfill or is incinerated per year.
One could say that the solution to this huge amount of waste would be to recycle, just like any other waste; however, the textiles used in fast fashion are mostly modified and blended petrochemical or synthetic textiles. This makes recycling them heavy on technology as well as on the wallet. The main difficulty with recycling these types of fabrics is that they are often made with fibre blends that are incompatible with each other when it comes to the recycling process. Different fibres require different recycling methods and most of the time, textile blends are made with little thought about the recycling process. Only one percent of textile waste is recycled and most of it ends up being handled like other types of waste—dumped in a developing country. Countries like Kenya and India buy these clothes in an effort to sell them. However, many-a-times, retailers and consumers realise that the clothing is of low quality and the clothes then end up in landfills.
Textile waste is estimated to rise by 60 percent by 2030 and dumping it is not a solution. Nor is just replacing petrochemical fabrics with natural or plant-based ones as they too use a huge amount of energy and water in their production. Cotton, for example, takes around 10,000 litres of water per kilogram of fabric.
The solution lies in countering fast fashion by embracing slow fashion. The core of slow fashion is to avoid falling into the trap of fast fashion by using already owned clothes to their full potential. Fast fashion entices us to throw away our "old" clothes once new trends come in. Slow fashion aims to counter the belief that we need a continuous supply of new clothes in order to be trendy. This does not have to mean we wear the same clothes over and over again, it just means we have to be more conscious and mindful about our consumer-culture and find solutions that are lighter on our planet and all those who inhabit it.
One solution that’s on the rise is swap-shopping, a currency-free way of shopping where people swap clothes they already own with the clothes of others. Events that support swap-shopping are popping up in cities across the world.
Another solution to reduce the effects of fast fashion is to live by the concept of mend, repair, and reuse. Loved clothes last, we just have to practice restraint and be aware of the conditioning that drives us to believe one hole in our garment means the entire garment is no longer of use. A garment can be mended and it doesn't have to look "ugly" or unwanted. The Japanese have traditionally practised a technique called sashiko to mend or repair their clothes by stitching decoratively by hand. Along with repairing the garment, the technique also makes the garment more beautiful than before and gives it a new lease of life.
If the garment is beyond fixable, upcycling is the solution. There are countless DIYs to make absolutely anything we want with our old, torn clothes. Upcycling helps to make use of the old garment instead of throwing it out and saves money in the process.
If buying a new garment is absolutely necessary, look for plant-based textiles. Across the world, there has been a rising demand for clothes made from traditional textiles like jute and linen and also from new plant-based textiles like hemp. Although some of these textiles are still relatively new to the market and hence more expensive than synthetic textiles, the method of upcycle, reuse, and recycle can be applied to them too, to make them last longer.
Countering fast fashion starts with awareness about how the industry works and where our clothes are coming from. The fast fashion industry is completely dependent on its consumers. The more people that reject fast fashion in favour of slow fashion, the more positive change we will see. Slow fashion has already been seen as a threat by major fast fashion players and is currently making at least a handful of them take a step in the direction of sustainable fashion. Be it Zara's new sustainability project or H&M's "Climate Positive" pledge, one thing is certain, the sustainability movement is gaining traction. And although it will take an immense amount of time for real, measurable change to take place, it has to start somewhere. Let it start with us, the consumers. In the words of American comedian, Hasan Minhaj, “If everyone bought one used item this year instead of new… that’s equivalent to removing half a million cars off the road for a year.”