The Fashion industry right now happens to be doing many jobs. It’s fulfilling a basic need, serving a purpose of expression, preserving cultures, producing a brilliant amount of carbon emissions and filling up all possible rivers with toxic foam. A subculture encompassed by the industry called Fast Fashion is the hardest working segment of all. Keeping activists on their toes, companies fostering this culture are making sure that besides sufficient ecological damage, an unhealthy environment for workers is also being created.
Fast fashion refers to the rapid production of cheap clothing, keeping in sync with high-street fashion demands. In the last two decades, this business model has seen immense growth. Clothing production doubled between 2000 and 2014 and garments purchased per capita increased by 60 percent. This trend has not gone unnoticed. Scrutiny around fast fashion is quite a few years old conversation now.
An average consumer throws away 60 percent of their clothes in the first year itself. The prevalent consumer perspective of constantly purchasing apparel to keep up with the trends has disallows the situation from improving. Keeping this in mind, companies prefer to invest in styles and designs rather than in raw materials. Retailers like Zara and H&M claimed that around 40-53 percent of their products in stock are less than 3 months old. Fast-fashion giant Shein, the largest online-only retailer in the world, releases about 700-1000 new items every single day, as stated by its CEO Molly Miao. This quantity over quality approach has given way to two major issues, one being the ecological damage and the other being the workforces’ exploitation.
The fashion industry is responsible for more than 10 percent of carbon emissions and consumes approximately 100 million tonnes of oil every year. Virgin polyester is a key part of these figures. The process for making a year’s worth of virgin polyester churns out the same amount of CO2 as 180 coal-fired power plants – which is around 700 million tonnes of CO2 annually. Reports estimate this could double again by 2030. The fashion industry put out as much greenhouse gas emissions each year as the economies of France, Germany, and the UK combined, as estimated by McKinsey researchers. The recent report by United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has made the discussion even more imperative, as it labelled climate change as a “red code for humanity.”
Apart from greenhouse emissions, manufacturing units release toxic water waste with high contents of phosphate into rivers. In Delhi, for more than 33 days in 2020, the level of ammonia in water remained above treatable levels, directly impacting over a third of Delhi’s water supply. Rural India plays a major role in the manufacturing and dyeing for a lot of clothing companies. These effluents pollute potable water for villagers and make the cultivation of crops difficult. Punjab’s water crisis with depleting groundwater levels is a recent issue, something Punjab is still going through, and such industries only make matters worse.
Not just production, disposal of these clothes is a mess as well. According to a report by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, if things keep moving the way they are, more than 150 million tonnes of clothing will end up in landfills or be incinerated in the year 2050. Every second, a garbage truck’s worth of clothing is dumped or burned.
This climate stifling system, to add to the misery, is built on the spine of workers working for long hours and meagre wages. The need to be competitive in the market motivates most companies to cut all possible costs, labour wages being an easy target. Companies make sure they pick locations with cheap labour costs and limited workers’ rights. Countries like China, India and Bangladesh make great options as a massive population paves way for extremely low wages for many, many hours of work. With unemployment being a major issue, this is a well-versed situation in India. Workers are employed all days a week and a lot of times denied overtime payment. The pandemic has only made the situation worse and without the government’s intervention, the future is grim.
The working conditions are another dreadful sight. Lack of ventilation, inhaling fibre dust and other toxic substances are a daily routine. Forced labour and child labour would make up another article altogether.
The voices around Fast Fashion’s exploitative economics, right now, are louder than ever. People’s concern has been growing around the lines fashion companies are working, and this has forced quite a few massive enterprises to speak up. Companies like Levi’s, Wrangler, H&M among others have started to spin in little efforts towards sustainability, piloting products with an increased amount of cotton hemp, detachable accessories and reducing water usage being some of them. Zara has also claimed to be using 100% sustainable fabrics by 2025. Though this should be just the beginning, with the end goal being fully adopting the concept of circularity; a system where we are no longer extracting any new materials from the earth.
Looking at the brighter side, a lot of new companies with better alternatives are coming into the textile space. A Delhi-based textile start-up ‘Aslee’ is making use of materials like nettle, hemp and bamboo to drive a change. ‘Harago’, ‘Amesh’ and ‘Petit Pli’ are some other sustainable brands to name.
As far as the working conditions are concerned, the Make in India initiative has given Indian workers more space and rights in this ruthless industry. But with the pandemic enveloping the entire globe, the situation has stumbled down a steep slope. The conditions are improving now, with increasing vaccinations most probably, but we still have a long way to go.
Getting back to pre-Covid conditions is not the goal, the bar is much higher. Workers’ rights, as mentioned above, are in dire need of attention and improvement. Also, the fashion industry is still heavily unregulated in terms of its allowance to impact the environment, which must be looked into. Society cannot wait for the dawn of realisation to fall upon capitalism, regulation is the only way, at least when it comes to the ecosystem.