The Real Cost of Fast Fashion

In the period drama Downton Abbey, Lady Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess,

famously said, “Nothing succeeds like excess.” Perhaps she was prophesizing an age

of sartorial excess which would exist nearly 100 years later. Social media influences are

fueling the craze for ‘fast fashion’ – low quality, cheaply-priced clothes produced rapidly

after copying latest styles on international runways. It is also being called ‘single-use

fashion’ since many garments are worn only once before being discarded.

The environmental and social costs of fast fashion are enormous. The entire textile

supply chain, from raw material production to end-garment manufacturing (including

dyeing and finishing), transportation and disposal, is a significant contributor to carbon

emissions and wastewater production. Textile employees, majority of them women and

children, work long hours under inhuman conditions at appallingly low wages in

factories aptly called ‘sweatshops’.

Fast fashion mantra: ‘Keep ‘em coming’

The business model of the fast fashion industry thrives on launching new collections

rapidly. Instead of two primary fashion seasons – Spring/Summer and Fall/Winter – fast

fashion often has 52 ‘mini-seasons.’ Spanish retailer Zara is widely credited as inventing

the concept in the early 1990s. Other retailers, including H&M, Forever 21 and Uniqlo,

were quick to catch on. The craze for fast fashion also spawned a new breed of digital-

first retailers such as Fashion Nova, ASOS and Misguided.

Previous research from McKinsey highlighted that since 2000, the number of garments

produced globally every year doubled, crossing 100 billion garments for the first time in

2014. While this trend occurred worldwide, apparel sales in five large emerging

economies – India, China, Mexico, Russia and Brazil – grew eight times faster than in

the U.S., the U.K., Canada and Germany.

Western trends invariably make their way to India. Some of the country’s biggest

fashion brands, including Trent (Tata Group) and Madura Fashion (Aditya Birla Group),

are reportedly planning to churn out latest styles at a rapid pace, with 12-day and

monthly launches, respectively.

A 2017 pilot study among young Indians aged 20-30 found that “short lifecycles of

apparel product due to rapid fashion cycles” and higher purchasing power in urban

areas was generating significant amounts of postconsumer textile waste (used or

second-hand clothing). 68% of respondents shopped for clothes every month, and

nearly 53% preferred to discard old, unwanted clothes.

“Today’s trend ends up in tomorrow’s landfill.” (David W. Amram)

Without proper awareness (or even willingness) to recycle or reuse clothes, a significant

majority of them end up in landfills or are incinerated. And this is where the real problem starts. Depending on the material, it may take anywhere between a few months to a few

hundred years for clothes to decompose in landfills:

  • Lycra, polyester and other synthetics: 20 to 200 years

  • Leather: 25 to 40 years

  • Denim: 10 to12 months

As these garments decompose, they release methane, a deadly greenhouse gas more

potent than carbon dioxide. With the use of polyester and other synthetic fabrics

becoming extremely common in textiles, especially in fast fashion garments, the

situation is waiting to explode. There is also a double whammy in the case of synthetic

fabrics – their production from crude oil and other fossil fuels generates much higher

levels of emissions compared to natural fabrics such as cotton.

Changing the ‘buy more, wear less’ mindset

A 2017 report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation highlighted that globally, there was

a 36% decrease in clothing utilization – the average number of times a garment is

worn – compared to 15 years ago. In China, the corresponding decrease was a

staggering 70% over the same time period. Another study estimated that 20 new

garments were being manufactured per person each year, and consumers were buying

60% more than they were in the year 2000.

In India, many are not aware of fast fashion or its environmental and social impact.

Being in the early stages of the fast fashion revolution, Indian consumers have a great

opportunity not to repeat the mistakes of Western consumers. Although retailers such

as H&M are promoting sustainable and circular fashion, real change can come only

when mindsets are altered. The ‘buy more, wear less’ approach has to give way to a

‘buy less, wear more’ one.

This may seem daunting, but in fact it is not. Research from the Waste and Resources

Action Program (WRAP) found that “extending the average life of clothes by just three

months of active use per item would lead to a 5-10% reduction in each of the carbon,

water and waste footprints.” Although both textile reuse and recycling have a positive

impact on the environment, research has found that “textile reuse leads to greater

environmental benefits compared to recycling.”

The next time you have the urge to buy that trendy shirt or lycra tights, pause for a

minute and think if you really need it. Perhaps you may decide against buying it after all,

since you already have a shirt which has been worn only once. Such a simple act, when

replicated by a million consumers, can have a far-reaching impact. The choice is ours.

Gautam Mehra