There is a common misconception that when we talk about climate change we talk about the future of the planet, about remote places we will never get to where glaciers are melting and complex policy decisions beyond our control. Climate change is here, it is at your doorstep, and you have the power to impact what your life will look like in the years to come, irrespective of decisions made at intergovernmental summits. If you are wondering where to start, look no further than your closet.
What we wear and how we shop has changed dramatically over the course of one generation. At the heart of this change is the phenomenon now referred to as ‘fast fashion’ — retail chains watch fashion runways closely and replicate both trends and actual designs at scale very rapidly, flooding the market with versions of designer wear that is affordable enough to be worn merely a couple of times before it is discarded.
Market leaders of fast fashion such as Zara and H&M have new arrivals every week, so effectively instead of the traditional two seasons, the fast fashion industry has well over 50 micro-seasons in a year.
Our Shocking Consumption Patterns
The average American woman buys 64 items of clothing in any given year, most of which are worn three times or less. Compare this with the 1980s, when an average American bought no more than 12 pieces of clothing annually, and the impact of fast fashion becomes apparent. If you look around, you are bound to see that this growth in consumption is by no means confined to America — the average consumer across the world is buying 60 percent more items of clothing in comparison with the year 2000. You might also notice that the rate of growth is showing no signs of slowing down.
The second driver of this paradigm shift is social media, and its impact is two-pronged. Both anecdotal evidence and research shows that more and more of us are buying outfits both influenced by what we see on the ‘gram as well as to wear for the ‘gram.
Influencers are collaborating with brands and egging us on, and the algorithm is primed to ensure we see advertisements of products we are most likely to buy over and over, until we give in and make that purchase. While driving demand on the one hand, social media has also boosted supply — any number of fast fashion retailers offer even cheaper clothing online that can be bought with a simple clickthrough from social media platforms themselves.
The Price We Pay For the Democratisation of Fashion
The ability to do away with brick and mortar stores and sell directly to consumers digitally has led to the mutation of fast fashion into ultra-fast fashion. Take the example of China-based retailer Shein that recently overtook Amazon as the most installed shopping application in the world. The retail giant has cut the time taken from creating the design to finished product in half compared to erstwhile fast fashion giants such as Zara and launches new products almost every day. The pricing is cheaper, and the algorithm of the application is constantly being tweaked to incentivise buying in multiple ingenious ways.
The price we pay for this democratisation of fashion is vastly more than what is on the label.
The apparel industry’s production impacts on climate change increased 35 percent between 2005 and 2016, and are projected to rise steadily in 2020 and 2030, because the more we consume, the more brands are incentivised to produce.
The supply chain of fast fashion is complex, and at every stage has a detrimental effect on the environment.
From the production of yarn to the final packaging of the finished product — the industry depletes energy and water resources, generates a massive carbon footprint, and utilises toxic chemicals in creating and processing fabrics that pollute land and natural water resources, and take a serious toll on the health and lives of those who live around the factories.
Most of these factories tend to be in developing countries, and transportation across the world adds exponentially to the carbon footprint of the industry. In fact, it is estimated that if 3 percent of garment transportation shifted from ship to air cargo – a growing trend in the industry – it could result in over 100 percent more carbon emissions than if all garment transportation was by ship.
We Are Not Just Buying More, We Are Also Dumping More
Perhaps the best way to stress the importance of the aforementioned facts is to illustrate them. Take the example of viscose — a popular synthetic material that is in huge demand within the fast fashion industry. Toxic dump from cheap production of viscose has led to cancer and birth deformities in areas of Madhya Pradesh and turned the water of Poyang Lake in Jiangxi province of China black, killing fish and shrimps and stunting crop growth.
Perhaps, the most gruesome example is that of the Citarum river in Indonesia. Textile factories that are key players in the supply chains of global brands such as Zara, H&M, Gap, and Adidas, dump no less than 20,000 tons of waste and 340,000 tons of wastewater into the Citarum river giving it the dubious distinction of being the world’s dirtiest river.
Close to 25 million people, who depend on the river for their subsistence, end up paying a heavy price for the global lust for cheap and trendy clothing.
It gets worse. Ever increasing production of clothes, choices of materials and a manufacturing process designed to maximise profits at the expense of workers’ rights and environmental protection is just one side of the coin. We are not only buying more clothes than ever, we are also dumping more clothes than ever. The average American dumps about 80 pounds of clothes annually. Multiply that by 350 million people and you still only have the waste from just one country. Of all the fabric used for clothing, 87 percent ends up in a landfill or is incinerated.
Why Choice of Fabrics By Fast Fashion Houses Worsens Climate Crisis
The kinds of fabrics being used by fast fashion houses is once again an aggravating factor. More than 60 percent of fabric fibres are now synthetics, so when our clothing ends up in a landfill, it does not decay. The same goes for synthetic microfibers that find their way into the ocean, sea, freshwater and on to glacier peaks.
Fast fashion brands are acutely aware of the growing concerns over their practices but, by and large, instead of taking effective steps, have opted to lull consumers into a fall sense of comfort by ‘greenwashing’ their products.
Words and phrases such as eco-conscious, green, ethical, and sustainable are used to market select lines, but given that these terms have no legal or industry standard definition, the claims are dubious, to say the least, without a full and reliable disclosure of what they stand for in any given context.
What Can We Do Differently?
This brings us to the only thing we can control — our own consumption patterns. The per capita emissions related to the estimated global consumption of clothing were 442 kg of CO2 in 2016. This is equivalent to a 4,100 km-long continental flight. Likewise, the apparel industry’s annual per capita water consumption tallies up to an estimated 23,900 litres, which is akin to taking approximately 150 baths.
The upside is, even small changes can go a long way. Wearing a garment for a few more months or buying just one item of clothing second hand will bring your carbon footprint down a couple of notches.
But perhaps, an even simpler commitment to make is to earmark some of the time you spend on doomscrolling on reading and researching more on this so you can make your own assessment of the severity of the situation and set your own goals. The gratification might not be instant but it is bound to last much, much longer than the vinyl jeggings you have been eyeing and will almost certainly regret buying next season.
(Pragya Tiwari is a Delhi-based writer. She tweets at @PragyaTiwari. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for them.)
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