The Problems with Fast Fashion and How We Can Fix Them
Fast Fashion: The Sparkly Monster
Growing up in an Indian middle-class home, the idea of disposables was quite alien to me, despite being born post 2000. Using something once or twice and throwing it into the bin seemed absolutely wasteful to me and many like me. However, it was being normalized and disposables were even being promoted as more ‘hygienic’. I accepted this explanation for the continued use of disposables, closed my eyes, buried my conscience and kept living my life until… clothes began to be treated as disposables!
My parents bought clothes for me and my brother only during festive occasions – 3-4 times a year. Frequent shopping was not acceptable (some exceptions to this rule were the purchase of towels, night clothes and innerwear) and the concept of shopping as a pastime was unknown. When we had outgrown those clothes, they would be donated to the less fortunate, provided they were in a usable condition. If not, they’d be washed properly and repurposed as rags for the kitchen, for dusting and for cleaning the car.
When I went to boarding school in the beginning of high school, I noticed that some of my friends from upper middle-class homes rarely wore the same outfit twice and kept purchasing new clothes, shoes, bags and jewelry. I was shocked because I didn’t even know that such practices existed. Later, I started noticing this trend in alarmingly high numbers and that is how I came face to face with ‘Fast Fashion’.
What is fast fashion? Is it really that bad?
To put it simply, fast fashion is a business model based on replicating high-fashion designs and mass-producing them at low costs. But to put it bluntly, Fast Fashion is a monster that is overeating the resources of our planet, exploiting the workers who are helping it grow and excreting more waste than the planet can handle! Let me explain the truth in my statement.
The impact of fast fashion on the environment and society
1. Overeating of resources
Clothes can be made of three types of fibres – natural fibres like cotton, semi-synthetic ones like viscose and synthetic ones like polyester.
Cotton is the most popular natural fibre. While it sounds harmless, we need to know that cotton is a resource-intensive crop and is grown using a lot of water, fertilizers and pesticides. The pesticides used in cotton production have been linked to the decrease is pollinator (eg. Bees) populations. While organic cotton is relatively harmless, it is also expensive – an unsustainable alternative for an industry whose only focus is to make profits by cutting costs wherever possible in the supply chain.
When it comes to semi-synthetic fibres like viscose, they are usually made using cellulose, a structural component abundant in plants. Usage of such materials in the clothing industry has led to large-scale deforestation, often of endangered and ancient forests. However, fast fashion retailers continue to use it because it feels like silk without being as expensive as silk. And of course, cost-cutting is most important.
However, Synthetic fabrics seem to be the most popular in the fast fashion world. Duh, they’re cheap! Synthetic fibres are derived from non-renewable fossil fuels. From raw material extraction to manufacturing to washing and disposal, these fabrics are a nightmare for the planet. They contribute to microplastic pollution and are degrading the health of our marine ecosystem. These will eventually end up in our bodies through the food chain!
2. Exploitation of workers
The fast fashion industry is infamous for the way it treats its workers. Most of the garment workers for this industry come from low-income countries like Bangladesh, China and India. Of these workers, many are women. These people are hardly paid a living wage, are more often than not, overworked and have reported facing sexual abuse in their workplace. These workers are not allowed to form unions and aren’t even given sufficient bathroom breaks. As a result, some women develop bladder infections. Emphasis should be laid on the fact that the workers don’t get to work in a safe environment. The collapse of the Rana Plaza in 2013 shook everyone awake to this reality. What is most upsetting, is the fact that the industry also relies on child labour to fulfil its need for low-skilled labour. To put it bluntly, this industry still relies on the practice of slave labour.
3. Excretion of too much waste
From the type of raw materials it uses to its finished goods, things don’t exactly play out the eco-friendly way in the fast fashion industry. Since the industry aims to capitalize on trends and consumers’ insecurities, it produces an enormous amount of clothing in a short while, that is not only low in cost, but also quality. This means that the clothes will not be usable after a few washes and you’ll have to throw them away. This is perfect for the fast fashion industry because by then, it would have come out with a new collection. In a nutshell, this industry’s contribution to the landfill is enormous. Also, its obsession with synthetic fabrics is disastrous for ecosystems, especially the ocean. Every time we wash a piece of clothing made of synthetic fibres, it releases at least 20,000 bits of microplastic into the ocean (this is because synthetic fibres are plastic!), which are mistaken for food by certain marine organisms. This is how plastic enters our food chain while also causing these animals to die a slow, painful death.
4. The effect on mental health
Apart from the problems mentioned above, there is also this often overlooked side to consumption of fast fashion – the effect on consumers’ mental health. Some fast fashion brands are said to come up with up to 52 seasons of clothing a year, which translates into a new trend every week! This aggravates the Fear Of Missing Out among consumers who want to stay up-to-date with everything. Also, since these brands keep coming up with new trends and offers and keep prompting the consumers to buy what they don’t actually need, shopping addiction is on the rise among consumers of fast fashion. What’s worse? These brands are now available online or have their own apps which makes fast fashion accessible to the consumer at a few clicks.
Science has proven that shopping leads to a dopamine surge in our brains, not unlike the dopamine spike when using drugs or having sex. Dopamine is a happiness hormone and we are pleasure-seeking, pain-avoiding creatures. The ease with which fast fashion is accessible now makes it easier for our brain to attain that level of pleasure. And so we find ourselves checking out new trends on these platforms and before we even realise it, we would have purchased something that we don’t actually need.
So what’s the deal with being happy with the help of impulsive shopping? Well, you feel the need to buy something new, you buy it, it gives you happiness for a few days, then the thing doesn’t give you so much happiness anymore, now your brain is craving for a dopamine surge again and before you know it, congratulations, you’ve bought another item that you don’t need and this cycle continues. This constant spike and drop in dopamine levels is said to cause anxiety and depression. Needless to say, we’re on our way to financial distress by subscribing to a culture that treats even items like clothes as disposable.
Do a quick Google search and it’ll reveal the names of fast fashion brands. Are you a regular customer for any of those brands? Feeling guilty? Fret not! We’ve got you covered.
How can we fight this monstrous culture called fast fashion? Here are 10 useful things to keep in mind:
1. Research more about the dangers of fast fashion: Read, watch, discuss
The first step is awareness. By being aware that the damage caused by fast fashion is real, you can embark on the journey of giving it up altogether. If I haven’t been able to convince you about the effects that fast fashion has on this planet and its people, I request you to watch the documentaries, ‘The True Cost’ and ‘River Blue’. Each Documentary is about an hour and a half long. But trust me when I say that it’ll save you so much more time (and money) in future.
2. Ask yourself: “Do I really need this much stuff?”
The second step is realization. Take a moment and look around. Take a couple of moments more to get up and walk around your home for a bit. How many things do you own? How did you come to own them? Do you use each of those things everyday or at least once a week? If not, what are they doing in your home?
This simple reflection will make you realize that you don’t really need so many things to live, to live happily. We spend on things because we are told we need them. By who? By people around us and by propaganda that we call advertisements. Maybe, if we spend less on things that we are told we should spend on, we would have more money to spend on things or experiences that we need to spend on.
If we are on the same page regarding the first two points, we can proceed to the next few.
3. Go Marie Kondo on your wardrobe: Keep what makes you happy, donate the rest
Take out the clothes that you don’t use anymore from your wardrobe.
Split them into 3 piles: Ones that are in very good condition and can be sold to second hand shops, ones that are in good, usable condition and can be donated & ones that are beyond repair and cannot be used anymore. Sell the first pile to a thrift store (a simple google search can help you find your nearest ones), donate the second pile to anyone in need or to organizations who help people in need and finally repurpose the clothes in your third pile (they can be used to make doormats, kitchen rags etc.). This will help keep the pressure off landfills.
4. Put on your creative hat
Use what you already have, for as long as you can. If you don’t like your outfits to look repetitive, you can get creative, do some mixing and matching and style them differently.
5. Attend clothes’ swaps or organize your own
Clothes’ swaps are essentially events where people bring their pre-loved outfits, that are also in good condition, to be exchanged for something they like from someone else’s pre-loved collection. This way, we’ll be justifying the resources that went into producing that garment while also ensuring that resources are not overused. What’s more? You’ll end up with a fresh wardrobe every once in a while without actually spending money!
6. Be thrift-y
When you actually need to buy something, try to find it in a thrift store. Although they contain pre-loved items (both used and unused), thrift stores sell quite many items of good quality. Many people have found treasures in thrift stores (well, not literally!).
7. Sustainable fashion for the win
If you cannot find it in a thrift store, get it from slow-fashion brands that produce sustainable, durable clothing using ethical means. There is no dearth of such wonderful brands in our country!
8. Did you know you can rent clothes? Now you do.
If you are on the lookout for partywear that you’ll probably not wear more than a couple of times, rent it. Honestly, the easiest method is to borrow it from a friend who already has it but won’t be needing it anytime soon!
9. Don't fall for the gimmicks
Ensure that the items in your wardrobe reflect your personal sense of style and not what ‘being stylish’ means to someone else. This also means, don’t fall prey to trends and let profit-hungry fast fashion brands determine what you have to wear and for how long you can wear it. A ‘timeless classic’ is a piece of clothing (in this context) that you will feel comfortable wearing anytime. Having a few such items will make you want to repeat your outfits because you love the way you feel in them. For instance, short kurtas paired with palazzos are my timeless classic and I don’t mind repeating them a gazillion times, regardless of the season!
10. Be comfortable in your own skin
Although this tip is implicit in most tips given above, it isn’t going to harm anyone to reflect on this separately. This is so fundamental to combating the damage caused by fast fashion and ensuring that no further such damage occurs. We fall prey to trends and keep buying what others think we should have only to silence a sense of inadequacy in us. I don’t know who fed the lie to you that you aren’t enough and that you need to own so much to be loved and accepted and just ‘enough’. But I am here to refute that lie with a profound truth- “You are enough!” And you don’t really have to go bankrupt and wreak havoc on this planet, trying to live a lie, before you realise this truth!
I hope you enjoyed this article and that it has been worthy of your time. Sending immense strength your way, to do what you feel is right.