Mother Nature is already paying the price for fast fashion — but there’s hope as varied practices and movements now aim to convince others to opt for sustainable and ethical fashion.
If there is an image that sums up one of the biggest concerns of our times, it has to be the photoshopped image of Jennifer Lopez by French writer and artist Thomas Lelu. While the original photo shows Lopez sashaying down the ramp in a Versace outfit at the Milan Fashion Week, Lelu cropped the Maid in Manhattan actress out of that setting and retrofit her against a backdrop of a climate change protest in France, as if she was leading the charge. The message hit hard, and the image, originally shared on Instagram, perfectly encapsulated the fashion industry’s environmental impact.
An industry known to be the second largest cause of pollution on the planet, it is now also established that ‘fast fashion’ is a major contributor to greenhouse gases, water, and air pollution, creating appalling levels of waste that cannot be managed. Call it a warning or a pink slip from nature, but the increasing rate of natural disasters across the world is just the beginning of an unprecedented apocalypse in waiting.
In an interview, iconic French designer Jean Paul Gaultier called it a ‘disaster’ and mentioned that big fashion brands are harming the planet by producing “far too many collections with far too many clothes”. He reiterated that labels must stop engaging in a “contest” to make so many clothes. According to a report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, if the fashion sector continues on its current trajectory, its share of carbon emission could rise to 26% by 2050 and will have a “disastrous” effect on the planet.
The heartbreaking photos of sea animals struggling with human waste that pop up on your social media feed are a startling reminder of the adverse effects of releasing industrial waste into the sea. And the problem is only set to get worse in the coming years. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) suggests that 35% of all microplastics — fine pieces of plastic that are non-biodegradable — come from synthetic textiles such as polyester and nylon. With the production of clothes almost doubling since 2000, nearly 5% of all landfill space is now consumed by textile waste.
Mumbai-based environmentalist and director of NGO Vanashakti, Stalin Dayanand explains the ill effects of mass-scale produced clothes. “One of the biggest harm done to humans is through chemically-produced clothes, as the micro-fibres, made of plastic, cause cancer and also have disastrous effects on water bodies. For example, a pair of denim uses tonnes of water during its multiple washing processes. Even the process of dyeing releases tonnes of wastewater. We should not adopt the ‘use and throw’ ideology popular in the West, as it eliminates harmful waste.”
The Problem of Plenty
Fast fashion, simply put, is clothes produced faster and in larger quantities, in comparison to the classic fashion system of four seasons.
Veteran designer Ritu Kumar feels that such fashion becomes an impediment towards conserving heritage classics. “People buy marketing manoeuvres as opposed to having their own personal instincts. Hence, mass-manufactured cheap goods get priority. These are easy to throw away and are generally nondegradable. These trends generally rely on people’s gullibility and need to be assessed seriously,” she says. Since such clothes are priced low, we don’t even think twice before buying it and as a result, there is a wardrobe full of clothes, highlights designer Medhavini of the label Resha by Medhavini. “More than 50% of fast fashion goes to a bin without even the tag being removed,” she adds. These clothes are produced at low costs in order to push customers to buy more week after week, explains Mahima Gujral, founder of Sui, a brand that’s aiming to promote and create awareness on green fashion.
Gujral highlights how cost-cutting by adopting unethical practices at the manufacturing level causes harm to the environment. “Let’s talk about a fabric like polyester. Its production process is extremely harmful as it’s made from petroleum products. This fabric cannot be naturally dyed, hence chemical infused dyes are used to colour the fabric. These dyes pollute our rivers and waterways due to unethical ways of disposing water waste,” she adds. How these clothes are made doesn’t hold up to scrutiny either. No matter how hard brands try to distance themselves from it, low-cost clothing companies make their money by exploiting resources, including human beings from South-East Asian countries in some cases. “Because of such quick trend cycles, a lot of unethical ways of production has become very common. Someone somewhere is paying the price — the Rana Plaza building collapse accident is an example of how fast fashion and competitive pricing can claim lives,” adds Medhavini. The Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh collapsed in 2013, killing more than 1,100 workers who were stitching clothes for the brand Primark.
Dressing the Problem
With the value of global fashion industry touching three trillion USD, and an estimated annual consumption of 80 billion pieces of clothing globally, it is high time we take responsibility for our actions and move towards sustainable ways.
Designer Anita Dongre believes in the need for educating designers on sustainable fibres and reducing fabric waste. As a part of a unique consumer engagement campaign, her brand in collaboration with grow-trees.com supported the planting of 25,000 trees as a part of Earth Day celebrations at Bassi Wildlife Sanctuary in Rajasthan last year. Even her brand outlets use LED lamps and 67% of the wastewater generated in her stores is recycled which is then deployed for toilet flushing and lawn irrigation. Recently, she even collaborated with Lenzing™ group to use their wood-based fibres Ecovero™ and Tencel™. Dongre says, “As a nature and animal lover, and vegan, I feel very strongly about our impact on the environment. The fashion industry is the second largest polluting industry in the world and therefore sustainability is the need of the hour. As a brand, we are striving to be sustainable and are making firm efforts to reduce our environmental footprint.”
Bengaluru-based designer Nupur Saxena of House of Primes has been working on creating yarns that are derived from milk proteins. She says, “Though khadi is the most organic and eco-friendly, fibres obtained from bamboo, banana, and eucalyptus plants (known as Lyocell or Tencel) are also being used to create clothes. We have yarns that are derived from milk and soy proteins to arrive at textures like silk and cashmere,” she says.
What we need is a change of perspective — to focus on the bigger picture than short-term monetary gains. “Manufacturing eco-friendly fabrics is always a more sensible choice. It creates more jobs from the farm to the finished stage,” says Nupur. When we talk about sustainability, it is important to understand how to reduce the pollutants.
Sreyashi Halder, head designer at TCNS Clothing, has collaborated with the Indian government to make her brand more sustainable. “Present-day consumers are more aware of sustainability. We have collaborated with the Harit Khadi mission that uses solar power-driven charkhas in the manufacturing process of the fabric as well as employs a huge number of women. We have also joined hands with the SU.RE initiative by the Ministry of Textiles, which is a step towards making a Sustainable India by 2025,” she explains. But the onus doesn’t only lie with the designer; it’s also the consumer’s responsibility to invest in sustainable clothing.
Senior designer Rina Dhaka feels consumers should make a conscious choice. “As a customer, I have a choice of a power loom mill made sari and a Kota sari which is for Rs 450 onwards. A handloom Kota takes the weaver minimum of 20 to 30 days and costs more. There is a world of difference in-hand feel and slow fashion helps in the preservation of the tradition.”
Reduce, Reuse and Repair
Even though certain brands have begun creating organic and environmentally conscious collections, we need to limit the volume of waste that fashion creates. That’s where recycling and reusing clothes come into the picture. Aditi Swain, founder of PETA approved vegan brand De Chevalerie en Rouge, points out the benefits of recycling, renting and repeating outfits. “Creating sustainable clothing and slow fashion is eco-friendly and works towards the welfare of the ecosystem. This reduces water consumption and waste. For developing high customer demand, creating a takeaway price concept works well. One-time retail visitors turn quickly into loyal customers, who are price-sensitive and have an urge to be fashionable according to the trend.” Similarly, renting clothes and repeating them multiple times instead of discarding after one-time wear is a rational way of curbing fashion wastage. Sanchit Baweja, the co-founder of online rental platform Stage3, says, “Women are increasingly opting for renting as it bridges the gap between accessibility and ownership. The idea of a conscious closet where you borrow items you will wear only a few times and embrace renting over owning is a great way to stay sustainable. It’s an option with a smaller carbon footprint and also allows you to get access to top designer outfits at just 10 % of the MRP.”
So far, government and industry self-regulators have failed to make significant progress in checking on fast fashion, but there are individuals who are opting out of fast fashion to save the planet. Bengaluru-based entrepreneur, Amulya Nagraj, chose sustainable clothing over fast fashion. She was able to get rid of artificial fibres from her wardrobe piece-by-piece. She says, “A few years ago, I attended an event about sustainable wear and discovered how man-made fibres are harming the planet. After that, I did decided not to buy clothes that are made using chemicals. I have been consciously buying clothes that last longer and are made of organic materials like cotton and khadi. Handmade garments are a bit more expensive to buy so you end up buying in limited number, and automatically stop following mindless trends. Now my mantra is to shop less but mindfully, and it keeps my carbon footprint in check.”
Although it is impossible to completely eradicate fast fashion, experts believe that planning the procurement of eco-friendly fabrics in advance and implementing the correct methods of clothes manufacturing will be integral to the fashion industry in the future. Well-known designer Ranna Gill calls fast fashion a “critical industrial trend” and believes that despite the consciousness about sustainable options, there will always be a market for cheap clothes and illegal practices. “The issue is that these clothes are quick to copy. The sad part is that these clothes don’t last very long and can be worn twice, and then you would want to get rid of the collection, which is no value for money. Yet people buy it, and the brands are thriving.”
With the pace with which the world is innovating, enhancing and improving what already exists, only time will tell whether fast fashion and sustainability will co-exist in the future.
Till then, dig the old wardrobe or raid your mother’s trunk to recycle a garment that you haven’t touched in years. You could be the next trendsetter in the ongoing sustainable drive —take your chance, be woke!...