Spilling a Little Tea on the Fast Fashion Industry13 July 2020
So, yesterday, I saw a Facebook post that said, ‘Sis, you still crying over a guy with only four sets of clothes?’.
Umm, yes, I am.
For I am the girl with four sets of clothes too! To be honest, my minimalist journey didn’t start with thoughts of saving the planet, but as a hard-learnt lesson in late November 2018. I’d just returned to my dorm room, drugged with painkillers after an emergency appendicitis surgery. I was welcomed by pizza boxes, soda cans, and cup noodles resting on a pile of my clothes. The table was clustered with candy bars and ‘this is so cute-s!’ from Daiso. I had so many things that cleaning the room felt overwhelming, and I did what we do with overwhelming tasks: put them in the nation of procrasti where they collect dust. The dust all over the mess in my dorm room caused an infection over the surgical wound that put me straight back in the ER. After 3 more days in the hospital, I returned, and swore:
I, Shaira, am done with this consumerism bullshit.
So, after packing most of my clothes in three suitcases to take back home to Dhaka and donate, I bought 4 sets of clothes from Uniqlo. My girlfriends were not invited to this shopping spree because it was my mission to buy (a) Clothes that would last me at least 2 years, (b) Clothes that fit perfectly and made me feel comfortable and confident, and (c) Clothes that did not need much attention. I then solemnly swore that I wouldn’t buy myself any more clothes till November 2019. So, it began.
Waking up to a squeaky-clean room every day without having to invest much time or effort gave me an instant mood lift. I was aware of exactly where my things were located, and how many of them I had, which gave me a sense of control over my daily life. I had a clear and concise morning routine. As I dressed every morning, I could pick up any of my 4 sets of outfits and know I would feel confident and comfortable in it. Gradually, I started questioning every brand I bought because I wanted to make sure the brands I supported, believed in ethical living too. So, I went off to surf the waves of the internet and… brace yourself for some dark hot tea in the fast fashion industry.
Throwaway culture, which is triggered by pricing clothes so low they become single-use purchases, contributes heavily to climate change. In 2015, it was calculated that the fashion industry produced 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2– more than all international flights and shipping combined. Estimates show that 20 new garments are manufactured each year per person, and that our consumer culture of buying 60% more clothes than in the early 2000s allows such numbers. Each garment now is worn less, and made more affordable and less durable, accommodating to the tastes of a growing middle-class. Furthermore, 60% of textiles used in the clothing industry are manufactured in countries such as China and India, where power plants are still fueled by coal. The amount of emissions also depends on the materials used; polyester, the most used fabric in clothing, is made from crude oil. But the catch is that we can’t support cotton either because it is a thirstaaay crop that causes much land and water damage.
And don’t nod your head with ‘just recycle, dude’ because less than 1% of the material used to produce clothes is recycled. Most fabrics, like cotton and Tencel, are a mix of different kinds of threads, and there are no commercial-scale facilities that separate and reprocess them. Such limited recycling options sends more than half of all clothing produced into landfill within the first year. Clothing stores with recycling services to show their ‘green side’ are in fact, aware of these numbers, and strategize to drop guilt onto consumers’ shoulders.
Given the growing tensions around climate change, Samantha Dover, senior retail analyst at Mintel, says nearly half their consumers claim to prefer clothing from companies trying to reduce their environmental impact. However, she points out that though people are more interested than before in knowing exactly where their products come from, and how they are manufactured, their major interest lies in price and style. Companies hence use stats and expert opinions to conveniently adapt their marketing model and say pretentious stuff like:
“The youthful demographic of our customer means that education is key, and we use our huge reach across social channels globally to help share ideas of how a garment can be utilized in their wardrobe again and again.”
– Boohoo, while selling their signature disposable $3 dresses.
Levi’s seems to be super keen on climate change issues, and even launched a ‘Look hot while discussing global warming’ campaign. They boast that their carbon footprint is around 80,406 tonnes, claiming they have achieved such a low footprint through renewable energy purchases in Europe. Conveniently, they do not include the 4 million tonnes produced by their raw materials, assembly, finishing, transport and distribution, or the 3.3 million tonnes needed to clean and iron their finished product (Pearse, 2012, p.55).
Patagonia, who boasts of being transparent about their climate impact, and publishes almost scholarly essays on their website about climate change and sustainability, only disclose the carbon emissions they produce per pair of jeans. They do not produce a report of their total annual carbon footprint, meaning consumers cannot monitor their ‘success’ in their green initiative (Pearse, 2012, p.56).
Inditex- one of the biggest names in the fashion game- has more than 4600 retail stores in 77 countries. If you visit their popular child, Zara, you notice the store relaxes you with vague assurances, such as that because one of their main goals is to reduce greenhouse gases, they use greener vehicles, and have solar panels on their logistical centers. Then, you receive the wholesome news that Inditex is planting trees in the Sierra Gorda biosphere reserve in Mexico. By this point, you might be sold, but this is exactly when you must question: where is their annual report on carbon footprint? Because then, you would find out they only take responsibility for the emissions produced during the transportation of their products, and not during manufacture (Pearse, 2012, p.57).
These brands prove sociologist Erik Olin Wright’s proposition that, “Capitalism has a systematic bias towards consumerism”. He argues that almost every company has a capitalist agenda over the planet and will trick consumers into a carefully crafted greenwashing scheme. So, to fight back, whenever you buy anything, anything at all, question not only the product but also its entire life cycle:
- How were the raw materials for the product sourced?
- How durable is the product and will I use it till its maximum durability?
- How will the product be disposed of?
But most importantly, ask yourself,
Do I really, really need this?
Pearse, G. (2012). Greenwash: Big brands and carbon scams. Black Inc.