Fast fashion is a term that’s growing to be dangerous with time. To the people who introduced it, it is a tale of literal rags to riches. To understand how it came into existence, we need to go back in time. In the 1990s, a sleek and dramatic Spanish retail store opened its doors to the American public on Lexington Avenue, New York. The New York Times used the phrase “fast fashion, merchandised in a coordinated style” to describe its formula, one that would transform consumer culture entirely and have many other businesses follow in its footsteps. Today, many luxurious boutiques, with looking glass for walls, carry four letters synonymous with its legacy as the pioneer in fast fashion- ZARA.
So, what is fast fashion? It is inexpensive, trendy clothing that samples high-end fashion (at times, they even rip off ideas from small, independent designers) and makes its way into shelves at astounding speeds. In a way, you could call it the copy-catwalk. Luxurious fashion houses in Milan, Paris, and London run on four seasons a year, with high costs of production, owing to their high-quality design and materials. As each season draws to a close, they heavily discount and sell the clothes that didn’t fly off the shelves. Fast-fashion brands tear this model down- every week is a whole new season.
Brands like ZARA, H&M, MAX, and Forever 21 steal and innovate new trends all year round, churning out massive amounts of garments like freshly-baked bread. And like bread, it gets stale pretty fast. So customers rush to stores before their favorite designs get sold out or even worse, go out of style. How else do clients escape their treacherous fate than to buy them right there? After all, they are cheap. Surely, buying a summer dress or a suede jacket once every two weeks wouldn’t hurt. Right? Wrong.
The problem with fast fashion is that it isn’t durable. Gone are the days when that shirt you bought three years ago would still greet you when you opened your closet. Fast fashion thrives on quantity over quality. Since when did repeating wardrobes become a crime? The problem isn’t with the people who buy the clothes and is actually with the system in place. To truly understand how gigantic the effects are, we need to look at some stats. Fast fashion emits 1.2 billion tons of CO2 per year, more than air travel and shipping combined. It is also estimated to be one of the leading polluters of microplastics in our oceans. Fast fashion consumes a mind-boggling amount of natural resources- from billions of liters of water to millions of trees being cut up to make the fibers. From the initial design sketches to our closet, every step hurts our planet as well as the people involved.
You may be surprised to learn that a seemingly harmless t-shirt causes irreversible environmental damage. Fast fashion brands use toxic dyes, dangerous chemicals, and non-degradable synthetic fibers to make their products, and the impacts aren’t just limited to the environment. In truth, they hurt both the workers as well as the consumers. Countless sweatshops operate in Vietnam and Bangladesh under pathetic, hazardous, and inhumane conditions. Surrounding them are lakes filled with poisonous dyes- lakes that should be filled with fishes instead. An occasional landfill peppers the backdrop with fabric the size of a mountain. In the factories, garment workers work around the clock under physical abuse and the risk of the factory crushing them at any moment t support their family. The humans who make these clothes for us are underpaid, underfed, exploited, and worked to the bone. Long hours expose them to toxic chemicals that jeopardize their health and well-being, all the while making them more susceptible to terminal illnesses and infertility.
The problem doesn’t end there. What next? You buy the t-shirt from a store near you, your face beaming from your newest purchase. While school teaches children that clothes are meant to protect the body, the horrifying truth is that these clothes contain dangerous amounts of lead and synthetic chemicals that increase your chances of heart attacks, cancer, and hormone-related diseases. These substances enter our bloodstream through our skin and cause further complications. Moreover, washing these clothes releases dangerous substances like dyes and microplastics into water bodies. The problem doesn’t end here either. Your t-shirt colors fade, and in six months, it reaches the dustbin, full of lead and other chemicals. It retires to a landfill spending the rest of its existence releasing these toxic chemicals in the air, seldom breaking down.
Today, the fast fashion industry is comparable to the airline and the oil industry in terms of carbon emissions. Fast fashion brands never air their dirty linens in public, hiding all their unethical practices behind their models and mannequins. Accountability goes out the window when parcels with two-day shipping arrive at our front doors. For thirty years, we have become materialistic machines that hoard coupons and stay up till midnight waiting for online sales. But all hope is not lost. India can still veer away from the dangerous trajectory we’re currently on. Since the fashion industry still mostly is fast fashion, it can be difficult to dissociate yourself from it completely. Here are some ways to help-
Of course, nothing can be achieved at the drop of a hat. The only way to deal with the issue is by tackling it one purchase (or lack of one) at a time. It’s high time we hold the people responsible for this toxic system accountable. After all, the bottom line is that, as consumers, we have the power to change the system. So the next time you see a fast-fashion brand retailing a t-shirt that says ‘Save the planet’, just remember that they aren’t doing anyone any favors.