In recent years, there's been a shift in consumer mindset toward sustainability.
Despite being a buzzword, sustainability is precisely what we need across every industry, including fashion.
The reason for this? Fast fashion.
What is fast fashion?
- The mass production of cheap quality and inexpensive clothes.
We have witnessed an era of increasing supply and demand for clothes.
To combat this, retailers resort to using the cheapest & most hazardous resources to produce clothing in bulk.
Unfortunately, the environmental impacts of this are plenty.
- Fast fashion brands are known for their exploitative labour practices.
Garment workers are poorly paid and extensively overworked.
The ethicality behind the entire production process is questionable.
This cheap labour drives down the production costs of making clothes, enabling fast fashion companies to increase their profits.
- Increase in the number of collections launched in a year.
Fashion walks the catwalk and onto the shelves of our stores very quickly.
The increase in the number of designs creates a system where there is always something new to buy, propagating a culture of mindless consumerism.
These factors, coupled with the social media age, create a paradigm of shopping out of want rather than need, desire rather than necessity.
Coined by the New York Times, "Fast fashion" has been attractive to the average consumer as clothes have been readily available and inexpensive in the recent past.
The Environmental Impact of the Fashion Industry
It is estimated that by 2050, the fashion industry will eat up 25% of the world's carbon budget. This trajectory puts it on the path to becoming one of the most polluting and damaging industries in the world.
The clothing industry is a high-impact industry. It significantly contributes to environmental degradation by:
1. High water usage.
2. Water pollution from chemical treatments used in the production of fabric & dyeing.
3. Disposal of excess clothes at landfills.
To cut costs, fashion brands produce clothing from fabric that is not biodegradable, leading to an environmental crisis.
The time and duration a garment is used also profoundly influence the environmental impact of fashion.
With the current system, garments have half the lifespan they used to as compared to 15 years ago.
A garment used frequently for a long time has a lesser impact than a garment used once and then discarded in a landfill.
Fast Fashion brands measure their success at the cost of our planet's natural currency, that is, our resources.
According to the United Nations, the fashion industry is to be held accountable for rising micro-plastic pollution. Microplastic pollution impacts oceanic ecosystems and kills marine life.
Synthetic fabrics are composed of microfibers that are polluting the Earth's waters.
These microfibers or microplastics are tiny threads shed from fabric.
A study found that around 35% of microplastics present in the ocean come from the clothing industry, and the majority of them consisted of polyester and elastane.
Wastewater treatment plants cannot capture the microfibers due to their small size, causing them to enter our natural water systems.
The fast-fashion business model has an insatiable appetite for synthetic fibers such as polyester.
Synthetic fibers are produced from fossil fuels, primarily oil and gas.
The production of polyester leads to annual emissions of greenhouse gases equivalent to 180 coal power plants.
On the current path, this number is projected to nearly double by 2030.
Many retailers mix polyester with other materials such as cotton and bamboo.
However, mixed fibers cannot be easily separated to be recycled or composted, causing problems in textile waste management.
Curbing polyester production is the only way forward.
The social impact of the fashion industry
When it comes to social issues, labor in the fashion industry is highly scrutinized.
Two historical events were the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in 1911 and the 2013 Savar building collapse at Rana Plaza, Bangladesh.
These tragedies brought labor issues in the industry to the forefront.
Communities located close to the production sites bear the burden of the environmental impact more.
It is now well known that water and land pollution from toxic chemicals used to produce fabrics and dyes negatively affect the people living nearby.
On a larger scale, the fashion industry is one of the biggest drivers of climate change.
The consequences of this will not spare anyone.
Consumers have realized that this current system bleeds red.
They understand what is at stake: in terms of our planet and from the standpoint of Human Rights violations.
The solution? Sustainable fashion.
What is sustainable fashion?
Sustainable fashion addresses the whole system, from the social, cultural, financial aspects to the ecological and environmental factors.
The production of clothes picked up speed with the Industrial Revolution, bringing us the 'Sewing machine' and factories.
Before this, clothes were made slowly and to order.
We have come a long way from weaving yarn and stitching our clothes to ordering whatever we want from our phones.
When did the sustainable fashion movement start?
The 1950s marks the birth of a consumer society characterized by unprecedented consumption rates thanks to marketing.
This new way of living was questioned by rebellious movements such as the Hippie, Punk, and Goth movements.
They rejected the fashion status quo and were anti-fashion.
The late 1980s also saw anti-fur motions taking place.
The sustainable fashion movement emerged in response to a very unsustainable industry.
Sustainable fashion had arrived at the scene.
In the early 1990s, at the Rio Earth Summit, "green issues" made their way into fashion and textile publications.
Featured in the journals was the work of well-known companies such as Patagonia and ESPRIT.
These companies brought environmental concerns into their businesses.
They were witness to environmental degradation due to overproduction, overutilization, and overconsumption.
They commissioned research into the ecological impacts of their production process and were pioneering companies in the fashion sustainability movement.
Sustainable fashion brands aim to reduce the impact of this industry on the planet by
1. Careful and efficient usage of resources.
To better preserve our precious ecosystems, harmful fabrics and toxic dyes are avoided.
2. Better quality products are produced, thereby increasing the endurance and longevity of the garment.
3. Alternatives to plastic packaging.
4. People are encouraged to buy locally sourced products to reduce unnecessary shipping.
5. Upcycling and attention to the 3 Green R's – Reduce, Reuse and Recycle.
6. Transparency throughout the supply chain and attention to factory workers' rights.
Fashion, the Economy, and India
Do we need sustainable fashion brands in India?
There is no doubt that this system of fashion has had a significant economic impact.
However, it's at the cost of our environmental and social standards.
India is set to become the world's sixth-largest apparel market by 2022. As a result, the country plays a dual role in being a manufacturing hub and a primary consumption market.
According to a report given by McKinsey&Company, the average consumer bought 60% more clothing in 2014 than in 2020 but kept each garment half as long.
India's Sustainability report, launched by the Voice of Fashion, helps us understand the current mindset of Indian consumers and the future of sustainable fashion brands in India.
This study included a quantitative survey conducted in five Indian cities- New Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Kolkata, and Ahmedabad.
Some of the statistics obtained from the survey,
- 40% of the entire respondent pool said they only shop from eco-friendly platforms.
- 65% of respondents in the city of Bangalore said they ordered online from eco-friendly platforms that did not use plastic or any other non-biodegradable packaging.
- 22% of the respondents said that they would not repeat a garment or accessory many times even if it were in usable condition.
In comparison, 36 % said that their purchase decisions are linked to creating a good impression on their peers and social circles.
- When it came to understanding people's knowledge about eco-friendly practices amongst brands, 83% confessed to having no such awareness.
Responsible shopping is a concept that must resonate in every consumer's mind.
It is necessary to encourage people to seek out brands that use biodegradable fabric while also encouraging them to shop less and use a garment till its actual death.
The definition of being a "sustainable fashion brand" is hazy, but greenwashing must be curbed by asking retailers and brands to be transparent about their production process.
There has been an increase in the number of sustainable brands. However, if we are to see a tangible change, due emphasis and pressure must also be placed on existing retailers to move toward sustainability.