If you're big on shopping, your Instagram account is probably flooded with trendy and hip clothing brand ads trying to get you to buy a designer top or dress for dirt cheap prices. This has become a common phenomenon ever since sites such as Shein and Romwe arrived in India. In the past years, they have blown up for their aesthetic fashion and attractive prices - who wouldn't want that Rs 300 sequined dress? With these fast fashion brands, the fashion industry is thriving on social media as Gen Z and the Millennial generation spend most of their time scrolling endlessly on these platforms.
But young consumers such as Millenials and Gen Z aren't blind to the dark side of fast fashion. They are more concerned about political, social, and environmental issues than previous generations. In fact, they’ve been quite vocal about their favourite brands such as H&M and Zara have been in the news for mistreating their workers, paying minimum wages to workers in and wasting natural resources.
According to a report by Mckinsey, a management consulting firm, Millennial, and Generation Z consumers believe companies have a responsibility to address environmental and social issues. Along with environmental concerns of fast fashion, they also want the spotlight on socio-economic issues faced by sweatshop workers employed by big fast-fashion retailers.
The views of Millennials are critical as they form 426 million of India's 1.38 billion population. They also constitute a large chunk of the working-class population in the country, meaning their consumer decisions can significantly affect brands.
Another telling report by Mckinsey stated that two-thirds of consumers worldwide say they would switch, avoid, or boycott brands based on their stance on controversial issues. So, should you drop your favourite brands and look for a more sustainable option? Where would you even start? Before answering these questions, let's discuss what is fast fashion and why people are critiquing it now.
What is fast fashion and what's wrong with it?
Fast fashion is cheap, trendy clothing that takes inspiration from fashion shows, celebrity culture, and quickly turns them into affordable garments for working-class customers. The idea is to keep inundating the market with the newest styles as fast as possible so shoppers can keep with the latest fashion trends. The clothes are often worn at the peak of their popularity and then discarded after a few wears as they are often made of poor quality. It perpetuates the idea that outfit repeating isn't cool or a fashion faux pas so people must constantly shop at these fast fashion labels to sport the latest looks.
With stores such as Forever 21, Zara, and H&M entering the Indian market, fast fashion has crept its way into our lives. We are allured by their stylish clothes that come at temptingly low prices. The brands also draw us further in with their discounts, exclusive collections that come in every week. So, the consumer feels compelled to update their wardrobe and buy something new to wear. It's a hit in India as it has all the qualities we desire as shoppers, it is cheap, quick, and easy access.
But what is wrong with cheap fashionable clothing? Well, there's a price to be paid for wearing a leather skirt that looks like it's straight off the ramp, it's just that you're not paying for it. The women who work in fast fashion factories are the ones who are essentially paying the cost. There have been several reports which have found that fast fashion retailers pay low wages to their workers despite making them work for long hours.
This industry is also devasting to the environment - according to Greenpeace, a typical pair of jeans takes 7,000 liters of water to produce. For a t-shirt, it takes 2,700 liters of water to make just one – that’s the amount of water an average person drinks over the course of 900 days!
The organization also states that each year, over 80 billion pieces of clothing are produced worldwide, and after its short lifespan, three out of four garments will end up in landfills or be incinerated. Only a quarter will be recycled. After reading this, fast fashion will probably not appear that cheap to you.
Should we stop buying clothes from Zara and H&M?
Activists often suggest that millennial customers should take their business away from these fast-fashion retailers and spend their money on sustainable fashion. In an interview with Homegrown, young Indians explain how they made the switch and what their experience has been with it.
Mahima Gujral Wadhwa, a 28-year-old founder of SUI, a green label based out of New Delhi, says that switching to sustainable fashion was the best decision of her life. She adds, "I now wear a lot of my own label Sui – we work with hemp fabrics and organic cotton so all these clothes are tailored and made to order at our workshop in New Delhi."
For those who can't afford sustainable clothing, she suggests them to try second-hand clothing as it prevents the piece of clothing from ending up in a landfill. "I picked up a really cool denim jacket from a thrift store in the states and I don’t think I would’ve been able to find something like that anywhere else. I’ve also adopted conscious shopping – I really do think before I get something new, I’m working towards a wardrobe that is functional and classic. And yes, mixing and matching clothes, repeating outfits all these are a part of life now!”, she says.
Saloni Sinha, an entrepreneur curating artisanal products from different parts of the country for her website, explains that switching from fast fashion to slow fashion requires a change of mindset. People might be put off by the high prices of sustainable fashion but people need to understand that while fast fashion is so much cheaper - it will not pay off in the long run.
She feels people in India are not aware of the evils of fast fashion and there needs to be more talk and action against it. When people realize that it comes at a great cost to our economy, to the welfare of workers and our wallets, they might consider alternatives.
She adds, "Also, it’s scary because we’re one of the producers of fast fashion and our resources and rivers are fast depleting or dying as a result. But with the growing millennial population and awareness about ethical fashion, slow fashion surely has great potential.”
As a millennial, I can attest that my urge to shift to sustainable fashion has been strong. But as a middle-class Indian, I find it hard to spend over Rs 2000 on a single piece of clothing when I can get it for much cheaper elsewhere.
Yes, this is a possible way of persuading brands into solving their manufacturing process but it is too much to ask from people who can't spend a lot of money on their clothes. It isn't fair to blame the consumer here.
For example, after non-essential services opened in the UK, there were people lining up at Primark, a fast-fashion retailer, to buy new clothes. They were criticized for shopping during the pandemic and that too at a fast-fashion retail shop. However, many people defended the shoppers saying that many don't have the means to shop online or don't want to pay for the delivery fee when they're already spread thin financially.
Ayesha Barenblat, founder and CEO of the non-profit conscious consumer movement Remake, adds, “People lining up outside fast-fashion stores are just a symptom of the problem. Let's not pit the working classes who are buying fast fashion against the garment worker’s plight. Why don’t we talk about the billionaire owners instead?”
In other words, the blame shouldn't be put on shoppers but a model that's built on exploitation to make profits. While they are providing affordable clothing, they are also creating a toxic system of mistreatment of workers and overconsuming in society.
How can fast fashion brands improve?
Big fashion brands, operating worldwide, have the ability to address these issues. Campaigners suggest that first, more importance needs to be placed on social responsibility, particularly considering the impact that the pandemic has had on garment workers.
Second, they want companies to provide liveable wages to workers, not just minimum wages that don't account for inflation. A recent survey by the Clean Clothes Campaign found that up to 93 percent of brands don’t pay a living wage to their suppliers. Building on this, the campaigners have launched a website called Fashion Checker, a tool that allows you to see what commitments retailers have made. The initiative hopes that all brands will pay garment workers a living wage by 2022.
Another way of bettering worker conditions is by allowing workers to unionize so that the voices of garment workers can be heard. In an interview with Vogue, Orsola de Castro, co-founder of campaign group Fashion Revolution adds to this by saying, “Workers would be better protected from incidents like non-payment of orders in an unionized workforce.” She further suggests the companies need to change their outlook on workers and instead of promoting exploitative labour laws, they need to provide safety nets, social security protection, and healthcare for workers.
After crossing that bridge, companies also need to rethink their cost to the environment, and if mass production is the way to go. It is estimated that 150bn garments are produced annually but around 87 percent of the material used for clothing production ends up being landfilled or incinerated. De Castro comments, “The reality is that a system of excess growth does not bring prosperity, or if it does, it brings prosperity only to the very top of the pyramid. This is not something we can continue to ignore. It’s bringing environmental degradation, but the human exploitation and indignity suffered by people in the supply chain who make cheap clothing is something we need to address.”