Fast fashion: Not so ‘trendy’ for the environment and apparel workers

By Nethmi Dissanayake

Globalisation has had a profound impact on the fashion industry. It has shortened the time period of the production cycle drastically and also made fashion more accessible to people all around the world. The “on trend” clothes that were at one point only accessible to the rich, urban fashionistas are now available to a wider range of consumers at affordable prices. With society becoming more and more accepting of fashion trends and these trends becoming more accessible financially, we have seen the rise of “fast fashion” affordable trend-driven fashion that is made to be worn by customers (from mass market to high-end) for a short period of time before being replaced by a new collection that follows a different trend. 

While fast fashion drives a great sense of personal style and aesthetic and gives people a chance to express themselves through their clothing in an affordable manner, there is a dark side to fast fashion, most notably on an environmental and social level. It is wasteful and promotes a culture of obsolescence. Consumers are constantly purchasing new clothes to stay “trendy”  and constantly disposing of old clothes and textiles to make room for their new, trendier clothes. Companies are also mistreating employees and disregarding responsible business practices in order to meet demands and timelines to get this constantly changing fashion out to consumers. 

Fast fashion has seen the necessity for a counter-movement, sustainable fashion a conscious cry for quality fashion that is not wasteful, can be worn longer, and that is made ethically, in that it doesn’t harm (or minimally impacts) the environment and doesn’t exploit labour to meet tight deadlines and small profit margins. 

Brunch spoke with a few people who promote sustainable fashion through their labels and try their best to educate people on the importance of eco-conscious living. 

Sustainable lifestyle brand House of Lonali Founder and Designer Lonali Rodrigo spoke to us in detail about the harm caused by the fast fashion industry to the environment and how we should be smart consumers. “From the very time a clothing brand designs an item,  this process of being sustainable or not starts,” she explained. “Designs, raw materials, and the resources used from manufacturing to retail, and then with how you market your product and how the consumer decides to use it, all matter for a fashion brand. How a brand initiates this process with the least amount of impact to the environment and building in positivity is what I believe makes a brand eco-conscious and sustainable.”

Sharing some context on the fashion industry and environmental impact, Rodrigo said that the fashion industry is the second-largest environmental polluter in the world. “The world population is 7.7 billion and more than 150 billion clothes are made annually. During the last 20 years, the lifespan of clothes has reduced greatly due to cheap quality fabric and manufacturing and the trends created for fast fashion. Every three months there comes a new trend, and especially in countries like ours, where they have no seasonal changes, shops have to change the racks to keep up with the often unnecessary changes that keep coming in fashion.”

The effect of fashion on climate change is profound, yet most people are unaware. Rodrigo shared, for example, that just one kilogram of cotton used to make clothes requires about 2,700 litres of water. Polyester, a man-made fabric that is used in most clothes, ends up in our oceans and landfills as microplastics and takes about 4,000 years to fully decompose. She also shared that one truck of used clothing ends up in landfills every second, not to mention how much clothing manufacturers contribute to carbon emissions and global warming. “Educating people to make this connection between clothes and the harm they cause, is important for both consumers and brands,” Rodrigo said, adding that fast fashion also creates complex social problems, with the apparel workers not being given fair wages or safe working conditions. “Fast fashion has created a higher demand for cheap clothes, sales, and discounts; this leads to cheap labour. Brands and manufacturers try to keep the cost competitive and end up paying less for the makers and having unbearable working conditions.” 

Speaking on clothing brands being sustainable, Rodrigo explained there are different aspects to sustainability, ranging from being vegan to using organic raw materials, to building components of ethical manufacturing and fair trade into the brand, to adhering to animal rights and not using animal fur, leather, or testing on animals. Using local resources as much as possible is also a way of achieving sustainability. “Supporting local craftsmanship is crucial at a time like this, and this contributes to helping the economy as well. It is very important to find our sources, develop resources, and make and sell our products locally, which will also help in keeping the carbon footprint low. Due to consumer demand, there are many small businesses who import clothing and retails.”

The impetus is not just on the brand alone when it comes to sustainability, as Rodrigo shared that customers too have a responsibility to be smarter and change and create demand towards local products. “Be conscious of your clothes the same way you are conscious about your food,” Rodrigo urged. “Ask the question ‘where were these made?’, ‘are they safe?’, ‘did they use toxins?’. Also, ‘who made your clothes?’ and ‘what’s in your clothes?’ And make sure your clothing doesn’t end up in a bin. Small steps matter.”

Environmentalist and sustainability, slow fashion, and low waste advocate Alina Fernando (known on Instagram as @ecoconsciouswarrior) shared her views on the issues caused by fast fashion. “The buzzword ‘fast fashion’ has gained a lot of momentum in the environmental justice movement and has brought newer movements into the spotlight such as the slow fashion movement. Fast fashion is ‘fast’ in a number of senses: the rate of production is fast; the customer’s decision to purchase is fast; delivery is fast; and garments are worn fast, usually only a few times before being discarded. It is a model that is entirely unsustainable,” Fernando explained. “Fast fashion changes how you think about clothes. ​​​​​When we buy cheap clothes, even though there’s no planned obsolescence the clothing isn’t designed to fall apart (though some have alleged that it is) we don’t expect it to last. We don’t invest much in it monetarily or emotionally; it’s just to fill the gap (something to wear to that party Friday night). Many people toss away so much clothing because we no longer bother to repair a lost button or add a new sole to a worn-out shoe. If clothing feels cheap, fast, and disposable, that’s how we treat it.”

The need for sustainability has brought about another issue in the fashion industry “greenwashing”, which is where brands try to convey a false impression or provide misleading information about how a company’s products are more environmentally friendly. 

Fernando outlined a few ways to identify greenwashing. One is consistency, if a brand comes out with a single conscious or sustainable line, and bombards with you emails about their other newer non-sustainable items and collections, you can tell that its dedication to sustainability is vapid and limited. If brands are only committed to sustainability on special days like Earth Day, Earth Month, World Environment Day, etc., it is likely not a true commitment or long-term brand value.

“If they are truly committed to being more sustainable, they will enclose information on their website or their social media channels. Terms such as eco-fashion, ethical fashion, and fair fashion are words associated with the sustainable fashion industry,” Fernando shared. Explaining the difference between these terms, she added: “Eco-fashion is another term for sustainable fashion, and first and foremost, people need to understand what sustainable fashion actually is. Sustainable fashion could mean producing clothes in an environmentally sustainable way, but it can also be about sustainable patterns of consumption; for instance, secondhand, rentable clothes, high-quality and timeless designs, upcycled or recycled textiles and certified materials, or closed-loop systems. It can also be in regards to ethical practices. Ethical fashion or fair fashion are umbrella terms used to define ethical fashion design, production, retail, and purchasing. It’s often concerned with animal and human rights. It’s made locally, empowers women and artisans, and protects cultures and people of colour.”

On how customers can be allies of slow fashion, Fernando explained that slow fashion isn’t just buying sustainable clothing; there is a lot more that it entails. “One way to increase the interest in slow fashion, which has already become quite apparent on Instagram, is promoting the purchasing of secondhand, preloved clothing. An easy, simple way to create interest is by hosting a clothing swap. Reducing your fashion footprint includes DIY methods to upcycle clothes, such as turning old and torn shirts into bandanas or converting old t-shirts that you no longer wear into fringe tops, etc. It also includes buying only what you need, limiting your laundering, outfit repeating, investing in quality, shopping mindfully, and taking care of or showing love for the clothing you do own.”

She also shared a few tips on how to uphold eco-friendly values and still look fashionable: “You can be fashionable and develop and find your authentic style by following the slow fashion movement. Shopping less and investing in timeless pieces which typical sustainable fashion brands follow in their brand models is a great way to uphold those values and still be fashionable. We have been told that there are certain trends and places we should be shopping from to be fashionable. Trends and these assumptions were created to allow the fast fashion industry to thrive. You can come up with so many different outfits if you have staple and versatile pieces in your closet instead of it only consisting of one-off patterns and the latest trends that go out of ‘style’ within a month.”

Derana by Tara Founder Amega Wickremasinghe also spoke with Brunch about the unethical side of fast fashion and the importance of upcycling. “Fast fashion, in a nutshell, is overproducing, marketing, and selling fashion items at a really low cost, encouraging consumers to buy inexpensive but trendy items. The fast fashion industry is solely focused on driving profits in every way possible. For this particular reason, fast fashion brands source the cheapest and the lowest quality material and cheap, toxic chemicals for their production. This explains why the product quality is low and the durability is unbelievably poor, which makes the fashion items almost single-use. Did you know that 4% of global landfills are made out of fashion items? And that the fashion industry is responsible for about 20% of industrial water pollution? You might have bought something and thought ‘wow, this is cheap’; well, we and our planet are and will be paying the price. Additionally, to reduce the cost of goods, fast fashion brands underpay their factory workers. 85% of these factory workers are women from developing countries who work long hours in unsafe working environments.” 

Wickremasinghe further explained how one can still look stylish without supporting the fast fashion industry. “Thrifting decreases demand for new retail items and is budget-friendly, and upcycling the clothes you already have is another option. You can even thrift fast fashion items. Upcycled fashion supports a circular economy and reduces fashion waste while creating unique/one-off pieces.”

Sharing what upcycling means, she said that it is reusing something in a way that gives it a higher value than it had in its original form. Typically, discarded material, or, simply put, trash is upcycled. The reason for upcycled products to have a minimal impact on the planet is the fact that it gives “trash” a longer life cycle while also decreasing the demand for raw materials.

Letting fast fashion become the new normal is dangerous for various reasons. It might appear to be the simple solution to appease our desire for novelty, but we should not turn a blind eye to these issues discussed above and most importantly local brands. As sustainability pledges grow more common around the world and even the biggest brands are moving their needle towards sustainability, consumers should be environmentally friendly with their purchases.