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 was a stark reminder of the dangers of fast fashion on the planet. According to AFP, 39,000 tonnes of clothes were left over from fast fashion.
Every year, Chile imports 59,000 tonnes of secondhand, unsold clothing from China and Bangladesh. It has also passed through Europe, Asia and the United States. The majority of these clothes end up in the desert landfills, according to the report.
“Chile’s Atacama desert is in a pitiable state. It has been transformed into a dump because of the excess production 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 of fast fashion
Fast fashion, in simple terms, is clothing that is mass-produced at a low cost to meet the latest trends and high-fashion design. In the last few decades, fast fashion has seen a steady increase in popularity due to cheaper and more labor-intensive manufacturing. According to a 2019 United Nations report, global clothing production has doubled since 2000.
“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”.
Fast fashion poses environmental dangers
UN reports revealed that 20 percent of global water waste is caused by clothing industry. Discarded clothes, which are often left in deserts like the Atacama, take hundreds of year to biodegrade, polluting water and the environment.
“Things like excessive use of water, use of synthetic materials causes plastic microfibers to enter larger water canals and oceans. More plastic is a lot more carbon-intensive 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 effects of fast fashion
Fast fashion is not only harmful to the environment but also harms the lives of millions who are involved in its production. 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.
Workers are not only underpaid and overworked but also have to work in unsafe conditions, which can threaten their lives. Rana Plaza, a garment factory with eight floors, collapsed in 2013. It killed 1,134 workers and left more than 2,500 others.
What the fashion industry has to offer
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. Management must take all necessary precautions to protect workers from potentially dangerous 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). Fair wages should be guaranteed for all your employees KarigarsThis is even if it means you have to increase your prices or lower 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. Mixing and matching, being creative in styling, can help save a lot. It is important to choose clothes made from natural and eco-friendly materials. They will be more skin-friendly, breathable, and will help reduce waste. You don’t have to throw away a single piece of clothing that is not in good condition. It can be repaired and re-used. 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 that consumers be more aware of the consequences of their purchases. “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.”
It’s possible to do a lot of good for the environment and society by being mindful when you shop.