Fast fashion: From environmental damage to poor wages, the dangers of this rising industry

A picture showing thousands of tonnes of discarded clothes dumped in Chile’s Atacama desert, the driest desert in the world, shook the internet recently. It stood as testimony of the dangerously high cost of fast fashion on the environment. As per a report by AFP, the 39,000 tonnes of clothes are leftovers from the fast fashion industry.

Every year, approximately 59,000 tonnes of secondhand and unsold clothing reaches Chile from China and Bangladesh, after passing through Europe, Asia or the United States. Of these, the majority ends up in landfills in the desert, the report stated.

“Chile’s Atacama desert is in a pitiable state. It has become a dumping ground because of the overproduction of fast fashion and its consumerism. This is an alarming sight as well as an alarm for all of us around the world to pause and rethink what and how much we need,” designer Gautam Gupta, creative director, Asha Gautam, said.

The rise in fast fashion

In simple terms, fast fashion is inexpensive clothing mass-produced in response to the latest trends and high-fashion designs. With manufacturing becoming cheaper and abundant in labour, there has been a steady rise in fast fashion in the last few decades. As per a United Nations (UN) report, published in 2019, global clothing production doubled between 2000 and 2014.

“With rapid globalisation and increasing urbanisation and digital technology, mindless consumerism is at an all-time high and already planet earth is paying a grave price for this excessive materialism,” designer Shruti Sancheti highlighted.

She added “excessive, mindless fast fads are the norm and acquisitiveness has increased, plus the fact that irresponsible production practices and careless speed of fast fashion are detrimental to the planet”.

Environmental dangers of fast fashion

The UN report elucidated that the clothing industry is responsible for 20 per cent of water waste on a global level. The discarded clothes that are often left behind in deserts such as in the Atacama take hundreds of years to biodegrade, polluting the environment and water.

“Things like excessive use of water, use of synthetic materials causes plastic microfibers to enter larger water canals and oceans. More plastic means far more carbon emissions than cotton. The fashion industry has caused a substantial amount of damage to our environment,” Suman Chowdhury, co-founder and COO, Clovia, said.

Agreed Meghna Goyal of Summer Somewhere, and said, “The fast fashion industry is the 2nd largest polluter in the world and is still a growing industry. It is our responsibility to educate our consumers and everyone else around us on the environmental and social impacts of the fast fashion industry.”

“The more ‘affordable’ fashion becomes, the higher the impact. By this, I don’t mean that we need to buy expensive items, but we need to be more aware of whom we’re buying from, what their value is and what their impact is socially and environmentally,” she added.

Gupta highlighted that increasing textile waste is a big concern as, after all the environmentally-damaging production processes, the clothes are not utilised to their full potential and discarded after a few uses, adding to the dumping ground. “These clothes don’t even disintegrate into the soil easily as they contain a lot of chemicals and toxins.”

Social impacts of fast fashion

Fast fashion is not just environmentally hazardous but also detrimental to the lives of millions of labours involved in the production process. As per a report by the US Department of Labour, published in 2018, there’s evidence of forced and child labour in the fashion industry in Argentina, Bangladesh, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Philippines, Turkey, Vietnam and others.

“Affordability (of fast fashion) comes at a cost, a cost of resources. Not just the materials that make up the garment but also the conditions and wages paid to the people making these very garments,” Goyal explained.

“The workers are underpaid and overworked as the cost of production is low and the demand is high,” Gupta added.

Not only are the workers poorly paid and overworked, but they are also forced to work in poor working conditions, threatening their lives. In 2013, an eight-floor garment factory, Rana Plaza, collapsed, killing 1,134 workers and leaving more than 2,500 injured.

What the fashion industry can do

While sustainable fashion practices are slowly catching up, there’s a long road ahead for the industry to tread on to eliminate these risks of fast fashion.

“Introduction of sustainable practices throughout the supply chain and a shift in consumer behaviour to reduce the amount of new clothing being purchased and increase garment lifetimes are important. It is essential that the management takes the necessary steps to protect workers from potentially hazardous situations. Brands should ensure that their workers can be rotated within jobs so that they are not faced with continuous noise and chemical exposure for a long period of time,” Chowdhury said.

Sancheti called for the industry to be “judicious in their mode of operations to preserve the sanctity of the planet”. “Designers need to be prudent in planning and production and use responsible methods which do not cause harm to the climate. Sustainable practices like using chemical-free dyes or at least azo-free dyes, reducing consumption of environmental damaging raw material, upcycling, fair wages, non-toxic working conditions, preservation of craft and slow fashion and creating season fluid, versatile looks are the need of the hour.”

“Ethical fashion also means looking into HR practices of fair wages, no child labour and women empowerment and employ welfare,” she added.

Asking the industry to give back proceeds of their profit to an environmental cause that they care about, Goyal said, “If you are sourcing sustainable fabrics, always verify it with paperwork (GOTS Certification). Ensure that you are paying fair wages to all your karigars, even if this means you need to increase your pricing or lower your profit margins. Be transparent with your customers on your materials, your labour practices, margins, etc.”

What you can do

While the fashion industry needs to look into their practices, it’s important for consumers to shift their shopping practices because our consuming patterns determine the fashion industry’s production pattern.

“Shoppers can beat fast fashion and still be fashionable if they choose their clothes wisely and start pairing and styling them. Being experimental in styling, mixing and matching can save a lot of textiles from being wasted. Consciously choosing clothes made out of natural and eco-friendly fabrics will not only contribute to the cause but will also be skin-friendly and breathable. Instead of discarding a minor defect piece, it can be repaired and used again. The ones not needed can be donated and even be given back to the stores that accept their brand old clothes and recycle them,” Gupta said.

Goyal asked for consumers to be more aware of the impact created by their purchase decisions. “We need to start practising “buy less, choose well”. This, in turn, would mean that the fast fashion industry too would have to start to adapt to these changes.”

By being a little more mindful the next time you go shopping, you can do enormous good to the environment and society.

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