Cause and Effect | Fast fashion is cheap on the pocket, costly on the planet

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Cause and Effect | Fast fashion is cheap on the pocket, costly on the planet

In the fall of 2022, Spanish luxury fashion brand Balenciaga debuted a bag made out of leather that looked like a Lay’s potato chip packet. While one packet of chips cost $4 in the US, the leather handbag cost $1800.

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The business model of fast fashion brands depends on tempting consumers to keep buying clothes endlessly at ultra-cheap prices. (AFP)

The handbag caught the attention of many, months after the fashion house launched a “Trash Pouch” made of calfskin leather in August, and a caution-tape dress and credit card earrings, both worn by Kim Kardashian.

A lot of attention, mostly on social media, also went towards the excesses of these “fashion” accessories: Not only over the use of leather, but also how expensive, and how unusable these items seemed to be.

In recent years, as clothing brands turned from two-year trends to 52 micro seasons a year, fast fashion has emerged as an ugly contributor to climate crisis.

Fast-fashion is termed so because it changes quickly (at the time of writing Zara had 490 new products listed for women on the Indian version of its mobile application, HnM 282), the rate of production is high (India produced 622 million tonnes of textiles in 2022-2023), consumers are quick to make purchasing decisions, and the garments are worn fast (in most cases, just a few times before they are discarded).

The business model of fast fashion brands depends on tempting consumers to keep buying clothes endlessly at ultra-cheap prices. The role of social media and influencer culture is undeniable in this shift.

But apart from the economics and probable human rights violations at the sweat shops, fast fashion comes at a great environmental cost.

The fashion industry is responsible for 8-10% of global emissions, more than both aviation (2%) and maritime industry (2.8%) combined.

Take a pair of jeans for example.

According to UN estimates, a single pair of jeans requires a kilogramme of cotton. Producing this kilo of cotton requires 10,000 litres of water. This is equivalent to 13 years’ worth of drinking water for a person.

In India, 12 million hectares of land was under cotton cultivation in 2021-2022, according to the ministry of textiles.

According to UN estimates, a single pair of jeans requires a kilogram of cotton. (Sanjeev Kumar/HT Archive)

In a 2015 report, jeans manufacturer Levi’s Strauss said that the brand’s iconic 501 jeans is responsible for 33.4kg of carbon dioxide equivalent over its lifecycle, emissions equivalent to “69 miles driven by the average US car”.

While all this only accounts for cotton, the fast fashion industry is heavily dependent on synthetic fibres such as polyester. These fibres, made of processed petrochemicals, help brands keep a low-MRP but high environmental price-tag. And let’s not forget the human cost.

Synthetic fibres require an estimated 342 million barrels of oil every year. Additionally, textile dyeing uses toxic chemicals that subsequently end up in the ocean: around 20% of the wastewater worldwide is attributed to this. The dyeing process also uses enough water to fill two million Olympic-sized swimming pools each year.

The textile dyeing process uses enough water to fill two million Olympic-sized swimming pools each year, which is then released into water bodies a toxic fluid. (REUTERS)

And then the final product, packaging, transport and retail account for further emissions.

Once the product reaches the consumer, water use from washing machines, and the final disposal in landfills is another issue.

Clothes from synthetic fibres dump nearly 35% of all microplastics into the ocean. As there are hardly any measures to clean the water, they end up in the food chain.

Last year, a study detected microplastics in human blood of almost 80% of the people tested.

But the saga still doesn’t end.

According to the Indian Textiles Journal, over 1 million tonnes of textiles are thrown away every year. Globally, this number stands at 92 million tonnes. Textile waste is also the third largest source of municipal solid waste in India.

A garbage truck full of clothes ends up on landfill sites every second, the BBC said in a 2020 report.

The waste piling up at landfills takes years, if not decades to decompose, adding to emissions. (Shutterstock)

The waste piling up at landfills takes years, if not decades to decompose, adding to emissions.

Recently, a dump of unused clothing in Chile’s Atacama Desert became so huge that it featured in satellite imagery from space.

If not the landfills, most of which are unsurprisingly in the global south, these clothes end up in the incinerator.

But, even as this goes live, most of us would be returning to the mid-year sales that mark the end of another fast fashion season.

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