In today’s age of fast fashion how to stay woke with sustainable choices?

Call it a warning or a pink slip from nature, but the increasing rate of natural disasters across the world is just the beginning of an unprecedented apocalypse in waiting. It’s a shame the way we treat our planet and take the environment for granted, and experts predict that very soon we won’t even have a viable atmosphere to exist if we don’t stop it right away. The biggest irony of it all, knowingly or unknowingly we all play a big role by hoarding clothes from fast fashion shops that contribute to 10% of humanity’s carbon emissions and happen to be the second-largest cause of pollution. According to a report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, if the fashion sector continues on its current trajectory the share of carbon emissions could rise to 26 percent by 2050 and will have “disastrous” effect on the planet.

Try to remember the heart-breaking pictures of sea animals struggling with human waste popping up on your social media feed, and now imagine yourself struggling with such scary situation in coming years as the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) suggests that 35% of all microplastics — very small pieces of plastic that never biodegrade in the ocean — come from synthetic textiles like polyester and nylon that are used to make clothes. As the production of clothes has almost doubled since 2000, the fashion manufacturers also cause water scarcity in many regions by polluting the water bodies with processes such as dyeing, multiple fabric wash, and cotton production.

Surveys also show that nearly five percent of all landfill space is consumed by textile waste, and if we don’t stop discarding textile waste it will eat up the land. Mumbai-based environmentalist and director of NGO Vanashakti, Stalin D, explains the ill effects of mass scale produced clothes and says, “The biggest harm done to humans is through chemically made clothes, the microfibers made of plastic cause cancer and also have disastrous effects on water bodies and earth. For example, a pair of denim uses tones of water as it undergoes multiple washing processes and while dyeing also the amount of waste water produced is released without proper treatment. We shouldn’t be imitating the use and throw ideology of the Western countries, because in the end they get rid of the harmful waste by dumping on developing nations causing long-term problems for people who have to live with polluted air and water.”

For Bengaluru-based entrepreneur Amulya Nagraj choosing sustainable clothing options over fast fashion was not an overnight decision, but she was able to get rid of artificial fibers from her wardrobe piece-by-piece. Sharing her story, she says, “A few years ago, I attended an event about sustainable wear and discovered how made-made fibers are collectively harming the planet. After that incident, I did a little more research and decided not to buy clothes that are made using chemicals because they harm the planet so much and since then I have been consciously buying clothes that last longer and are made of organic materials like cotton and khadi. Handmade garments are a bit more expensive to buy so you end up buying in limited number, and automatically stop following mindless trends that keep flooding the market every next month. Now my mantra is to shop less but mindfully, and it keeps my carbon footprint in check.”

Fashion Industry is filled with mindless copies of trends, they do not try to create something that can stay and it’s made to be bought in abundance. The price is cheap enough so you don’t even think twice before buying it and as a result, there is a wardrobe full of clothes which we don’t need, highlights designer Medhavini of the label Reshabymedhavini. She mentions the root cause of the fast fashion cycle and says, “More than 50% of fast fashion goes to a bin without even the tag being removed. We do not think twice before buying it and discarding it either. Because of such quick trend cycles, a lot of unethical ways of production has become very common. It’s not free; someone somewhere is paying the price — Rana Plaza building collapse accident of Bangladesh is an example of how fast fashion and competitive pricing can claim lives to such an extent. The solution lies in the way our parents use to dress, they used to buy fewer clothes but those were tastefully picked and designed. The entire process of buying and using a garment was also eco-friendly.”

Fast fashion in the simplest terms is clothes produced faster, in larger quantities while also churning collections on a bi-weekly basis, in comparison to the classic fashion system of four fashion seasons. At the same time, these clothes are also produced at low costs – to be cheaper for consumers, and to also push them to buy more week after week, explains Mahima Gujral, founder of Sui. She opines, “It’s harming the fashion system – to make these clothes faster and in larger quantities, you need to bring down your costs while pushing garment workers to work hard long hours. That is why many brands produce in developing countries, where the minimum wage is low. This ends up, in garment workers working hard to meet demand, yet barely making a living in working conditions which are not the best due to the low costs. Let’s talk about a piece of fabric like polyester for example – the production process of making polyester is extremely harmful as it’s made from petroleum products. At the same time, polyester cannot be naturally dyed, hence being forced to use chemical infused dyes to colour the fabric. These dyes pollute our rivers and waterways due to unethical ways of disposing water waste.”

With the value of global fashion industry touching 3 trillion USD, an estimated annual consumption of 80 billion pieces of clothing globally, the fashion industry is the major polluter in the world. It is high time we take responsibility for our actions and move toward sustainable ways, cautions Bengaluru-based designer Nupur Saxena of the label House of Primes. She says, “Eco-friendly essentially means safe on the environment with least carbon footprint, fabrics which are either biodegradable or could be recycled. Though khadi is the most organic and eco-friendly fabric, fibers obtained from bamboo, banana, eucalyptus plants (known as Lyocell or Tencel) are also being used to create clothes now. We also have yarns that are derived from milk proteins and soy proteins that are being worked on to arrive at textures like silk and cashmere. What we need here is a change of perspective, to focus on a bigger picture than short term monitory gains. Manufacturing eco-friendly fabrics is always a more sensible choice as it also creates more job opportunities from farm to the finished stage.”

Whereas, Aditi Swain, founder of PETA approved vegan brand De Chevalerie en rouge, vouches for sustainable ways of producing clothes by supporting the slow fashion movement. She points out the benefits of recycling, renting and repeating outfits and says, “Creating sustainable clothing and slow fashion production is eco-friendly and works towards the welfare of the ecosystem. This will also reduce water consumption and waste. For developing high customer demand, creating a takeaway price concept works well. One time retail visitors turn quickly into loyal customers, who are price-sensitive and have an urge to be fashionable according to the trend. This also works out well, during a specific selling season, looking into the consumer’s perception of the brand concept.”

To tackle the problem of plenty, the onus doesn’t only lie with the designer; it’s a consumer’s responsibility also to mindfully invest in an ethically made and sustainable piece of clothing. Speaking about the business aspect of promoting slow fashion among masses, Manjula Tiwari, CEO of Future Style Labs- Ancestry, shares her insight and says, “In the Indian fashion market, the consumption of fast fashion is still quite low as compared globally. The responsibility to promote eco-friendly fashion is not just with the brand but the consumer also needs to be mindful of the low carbon footprint of the product. Even from the business angle, producing in excess and discarding it without consumption is not profitable so a brand that’s manufacturing more than demand is running the risk of loss. In India, we still value the handloom and techniques that use natural vegetable dyes for creating garments. The idea also provides job opportunities for the weaver and the artisans that work to create a one-of-a-kind garment that is not produced in masses.”

When we talk about sustainability, it is important to understand how to reduce the pollutants or the processes to make the world a better place for our future generations, remarks Sreyashi Halder, head designer at TCNS Clothing Co. ltd.  Speaking about the initiatives undertaken by her brand in collaboration with the Indian government, she mentions, “Present-day consumers are more aware of sustainability and it has become a necessity of the fashion industry today. To adopt sustainable ways in the mainstream, we have collaborated with the Harit Khadi mission which uses solar power-driven charkhas in the manufacturing process of the fabric as well as employs a huge number of women. We have also joined hands with the SU.RE initiative by the Ministry of Textiles, Government of India, which is a step towards making a Sustainable India by 2025.”

Although it is impossible to completely eradicate fast fashion from the system, experts believe that planning well in advance the procurement of eco-friendly fabrics and implementing the correct methods of clothes manufacturing would be an integral part of every fashion industry in the future. The pace with which the world is innovating, enhancing and improving what exists, it would get clear with time that fast fashion and sustainability are not choices but both will support each other and co-exist in the future. Till then, dig the old wardrobe or raid your mother’s trunk to recycle a garment that you haven’t touched in years. You could be the next trendsetter in the ongoing sustainable drive — take your chance, be woke!