Every month, Spoorthy* dedicates a third of her income to buying clothes. “Clothing for me was a way to look put together, and showcase my confidence,” says the 26-year-old IT expert from Hyderabad.
This indulgence quickly turned into a problem – her cupboards were all full, yet she was getting two or three packages delivered every week.
She would feel guilty about the waste, “but I still feel like buying more,” she said.
As an environmentally conscious person, Spoorthy says she’d feel some relief if she bought clothes from “sustainable” clothing chains.
Many of today’s youth share Spoorthy’s bias toward “eco-friendly” clothing.
Also read: From rags to riches: Indian designer finds sustainable way to haute couture
Sustainability sells, and brands have caught on.
However, most brands rely on vague definitions of labels such as “sustainable”, “green” and “eco-friendly” to market their products.
A study by Changing Markets, which surveyed 50 of the world’s largest brands, found that nearly 60% of them indulged in some form of “greenwashing.” Most of them weren’t transparent about what makes their clothing sustainable.
These labels are ambiguous by design – sometimes, only part of the garment, such as the lining or outer shell, is recycled. Another source of misdirection is the attempt to adopt more “sustainably sourced synthetics”. Most companies pledge to meet their recycled polyester goals from recycling PET bottles. However, less than 1% of all fabrics used are recycled.
Textile scientist Sannapamma KJ from the University of Agricultural Sciences Dharwad says, “We don’t have the technology to completely recycle clothes. Only about 20-30% of the item can be made from recycled fabric.” Building the entire garment still required the use of new resources.
The concept of sustainability is at odds with the fashion industry, and the little thing they do in no way offsets the damage it’s causing, explains Sumanas Kolaji, who has experience in cottage and khadi industries.
“Their model, which is based on excessive consumption, created the problem in the first place,” he says.
Until the mid-20th century, retail collections first appeared during two to four seasons – spring/summer and fall/winter. However, that has changed with the growth in popularity of synthetic fibers – whose production has surpassed that of cotton starting in 2000 and now makes up 60% of all fabrics produced worldwide.
The popularity of fast fashion spread in the late 1990s, leading to the creation of “mini seasons”.
Now, a retail employee at a store in Bengaluru is witnessing that there are new styles coming every week.
This has radically changed the industry. On the other hand, clothing is now very affordable. But the amount of clothing being manufactured has doubled since the 2000s. The average consumer buys more, but wears each outfit less, sometimes seven times less, as in the UK.
Abundance of waste
Once you ditch the clothing stores, clothes of every shape, size and color are dumped into a pile at a dry waste collection center in South Bengaluru.
They could have just washed it and donated it to someone. People just don’t want to make the effort,” says Masoor Gous, the operator at the centre, picking up a branded hat from the pile.
More than half of the clothes that reach the center are usable but end up being burned or sent to landfills.
Only five to six years ago, Mansour says, this pile of clothes barely contained 8-10 pieces of clothing a day. “Now, of the two tons of waste that comes to the center every day, 10% is just clothing.”
Domestically, India discards 1 million tons of clothing every year according to data from India Textile Journal. Garment waste is also the third largest source of municipal solid waste in the country.
Increasingly indiscriminate consumption is a large part of the reason why India neglects so much clothing, according to Tanvi Bekhchandani, co-founder of a Delhi-based slow fashion brand. “There is a shift in the situation even though India has a culture of underestimating restrictions. This is also due to the mass production of clothing at a rate that is becoming ubiquitous,” she says.
More than 60% of all materials used in clothing are made of synthetic fibers extracted from crude oil and gas, and the textile industry as a whole contributes 10% to greenhouse gas emissions, according to the World Bank.
Using synthetic fibres, simply washing clothes can pollute the environment, with one estimate saying that microplastics equivalent to 50 million plastic bottles find their way into the ocean each year.
Of the 53 million tons of fabric produced annually globally, about 70% ends up in landfills in the same year, according to a report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a UK-based organization that advocates for circular economies.
In the coming years, India’s experience with fast fashion will only get stronger. With a rapidly growing middle-class population, the country will transition from being a sourcing center for fast fashion to one of the most attractive consumer markets for clothing brands.
A report by the Indian Chamber of Commerce predicts that by 2023, each person will spend Rs 6,400 on clothing, a sharp rise from 2018 when people spent Rs 3,900. And McKinsey’s 2019 report indicates that around 300 global brands will open a store in India in the coming years.
Sucharita Peniwal, a faculty member at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, says the fashion industry can only maintain its fast pace by putting enormous pressure on natural resources and labour. “It only takes 15 days for companies to move from the design stage to the sales floor. They have to cut costs somewhere,” she says.
To maintain their profit margins, fast fashion brands often outsource production to countries where labor is plentiful and inexpensive. India is one of the top five textile and apparel exporters to the European Union and the United States.
Read also: The return of natural fabrics
But working conditions in the industry are often dire, with an ongoing struggle for basic rights such as legally required wages. In Karnataka, clothing suppliers have not yet settled their outstanding wage arrears, despite clear guidance from the Supreme Court.
Scott Nova, executive director of the Labor Rights Federation, believes that this is a “persistent and devastating abuse in the industry. The refusal of garment factory owners across Karnataka to implement the 2020 increase in variable benefit allowance is a perfect illustration, with more than Rs 370 crore stolen from workers, and that number is increasing.”
After a decade and a half working for a clothing company, Susheela*, a 41-year-old garment worker, regrets that she chose this type of business. While the job puts food on the table, it also brought with it many health ailments.
The watch’s unrealistic targets mean there’s barely enough time to drink water and it’s nearly captivated on the factory floor.
In 2004, at the beginning of the fast fashion revolution, Jayaram KR worked for a company that exported clothes. At that time, he had to sew 60 pieces of clothing in one hour. In the two decades since, he says, the target has nearly doubled without much innovation in the machine. For workers, this has meant unrealistic goals that increase each year, and pressure to perform.
With the abolition of restrictions such as the multi-fiber arrangements and the Agreement on Textiles and Clothing in the mid-2000s regulating the volume of exports from developing countries, and the emergence of the fast-fashion model, it appears that the primary motive has been cost-effective at the expense of workers’ welfare and the environment.
“We must think about consumption consciously, with moral guidance. We have a rich tradition in this. We must not forget that,” says Somanas Kolaji.
(*Names have changed)
What is fast fashion?
Fast fashion refers to a system in which clothing designs move quickly from the fashion shows to the sales floor – and finally to a landfill or incinerator. The fast-paced business model is primarily exploitative and is characterized by the use of inexpensive synthetic fabrics and cheap labour.
While new collections only appear two or four times a year, fast fashion ensures that new designs hit the sales floor every week.