We’ve all seen and heard the buzz around “fast fashion” and the threats it imposes on a potentially sustainable future. 75% of fashion supply chain material ends up in landfills, amounting to “the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles per second”, according to the Pulse of the Fashion Industry 2018 report.
Fast fashion is designing, manufacturing, and marketing, focused on rapid production and high volumes of clothing. It replicates popular trends using low-quality material minus the hefty price tag, encouraging mass consumption at the cost of harmful impacts on the environment, garment workers, and, ultimately, their own wallets.
The sustainable lifestyle
Sustainability advocate and model for sustainable, conscious businesses Alina Fernando (@ecoconscious.warrior) defined sustainability in terms of business practices taking into account what is famously known as the three pillars of sustainability: social, economic, and environmental, otherwise known as the triple bottom line.
Sustainability is not just environmentalism; it also concerns social equity and economic development, she noted.
The fast fashion problem: A two-way street
The widespread chain of fast fashion is fed through unsustainable and unethical practices undertaken by fashion companies and prolific customer buying behaviour.
Speaking to writer and sustainability advocate Nadeesha Paulis (@nadeepaws), we learnt that there is considerable positive change that could be made through observing consumer purchasing behaviour. She noted that Sri Lankans are often very fixated on buying new things and not so keen on concepts such as reusing.
“The amount of people flocking at clothing stores is massive, especially during the festive seasons. However, if we go back 50 years, we as a country reused quite a lot. Maybe it was fuelled by the closed economy at the time, as sanctions on material were imposed. I remember my grandmother used to make underskirts out of my old school uniforms. Rather than buying something new, we made do with what we had. Siblings wore each other’s clothes and hand-me-downs. There were not many readymade clothes and everyone had to sew what they needed – which meant less waste through mass production,” Paulis explained.
To meet customer demand, companies would introduce seasonal and even monthly clothing line collections. As much as it is important for companies to be mindful of their production practices, the very top-down goal of a company in the consumerist society is making profit. This is noted as the biggest reason why sustainability advocates place more emphasis on cultivating mindful lifestyles within customer bases than urging the mammoth fast fashion industry, which requires systemic tackling.
“The most influential thing you can do to help people and the planet is to vote with your wallet. When you give your money to a certain business, you are essentially supporting them and their practices,” added Fernando.
“We should all be moving towards conscious consumption. It’s not about quitting fast fashion, it’s about buying less; it’s not against a handful of brands, it’s the entire system that’s flawed; it’s not about completely boycotting, it’s about purchasing more mindfully. It’s not about being perfect, it’s about trying our best.”
Corresponding with fashion enthusiasts’ opinions
In conversation with multiple fashion enthusiasts, The Sunday Morning Brunch uncovered diverse clothing purchase habits and other related concerns that reflect the societal perception of fashion, and whether or not they are aware of the concept of “fast fashion” and it’s detriments.
“I have always loved shopping. My shopping habits range from that of a window shopper to a compulsive shopper almost instantaneously. I love to have variety in my wardrobe, so shopping is something I’d consider a part of my self-care routine,” shared custom clothing store Raghee Founder Aishi Ragawan (25).
Being a fashion entrepreneur herself, Ragawan expressed that she aspires to take her designs to a wider clientele who sees value in clothes that are locally made and not mass-produced.
“In my opinion, the future of fashion and trends relies on how sustainable it is environmentally and ethically. With this realisation, there is an increase in demand for locally sourced, natural-based, eco-friendly brands,” she added.
University undergraduate Himaya Perera (20), who shops once a month or once in two months, shared that she is familiar with fast fashion and the environmental damage it causes, and noted that most Sri Lankans aren’t aware of the consequences.
“Sustainable and ethical clothing is a privilege to indulge in, when, in reality, it shouldn’t be. Such clothing tends to be more high end and expensive and out of the spending bracket of the middle class. I think this is the reason why people find it easier to buy from places like Shein and call it a day,” explained Perera.
She suggested that donating, buying at thrift shops, or even sharing clothes as better alternatives to the fixation on sustainable fashion which is unrealistic in terms of the economic brackets of most people in Sri Lanka.
Ragawan, however, expressed that she does not think that it is difficult for Sri Lankans to embrace ethical purchasing practices.
“We are an island with boundless environmental resources, natural yarns, and traditional weaving styles. We have amazing local designers who can and who already have amalgamated these elements into producing creative, innovative, and unique fashion – I most certainly see a growing demand for ethically sourced sustainable fashion.”
University undergraduate Gethmi Adikari (20) noted that she shops when there’s a special event coming up or due to social media.
She believes that consumers are not familiar with the concept of purchasing sustainable clothing and that she has hardly ever seen a local fashion chain promoting the concept. She added that she is not familiar with shopping in second-hand stores and thrifting, as she has always doubted how their clothes will turn out.
University undergraduate Dunali Wanasinghe (20), who mostly shops online and buys once a month or so (one or two items), shared: “For Sri Lankans, the resistance to deviate from their routines around fast fashion is far greater than their sense of ethical responsibility,” she shared.
University undergraduate Ranuli Palipane (20), who shops every six to eight months only when an item needs to be bought, believes that fast fashion should never be encouraged.
“Influencers who promote these brands should be aware of the damage they cause to their environment because I think a lot of people’s shopping habits are based on what influencers buy. Fashion companies should be more transparent about their activities.”
Sonal Randeny, a student (17), claimed that he is lucky enough to be informed on the unethical practices in the garment industry, in both fast fashion and high-end apparel.
He said he asks himself the following questions before he purchases any item of clothing: “Do I like the piece, or is it only fulfilling a temporary trend? Can I work it into my closet? Can I wear this for at least seven years? What is its quality? What do I know about the producers?”
“Some people cannot afford sustainable or higher quality brands and resort to fast fashion. We cannot judge or condemn anyone who has no choice, but those of us that are privileged enough and have accessibility to sustainable brands always have
the choice to make better decisions,” stated sustainability advocate Fernando.
The slow fashion revolution
Slow fashion is the counterfeit to fast fashion, bringing forth an argument for reducing excessive production, overcomplicated supply chains, and mindless consumption. It is quality-based rather than quantity-based, and combines a brand’s practices with a customer’s shopping habits thus forth, inculcating a holistic solution. The movement works towards creating an industry that benefits everyone and the ecosystem.
In addition to more popular sustainable local brands such as House of Lonali, Selyn, and Buddhi Batiks, second-hand buying and thrifting are some slow fashion favourites that make sustainable fashion accessible. It aids in lowering demand to buy new clothes and pushing fast fashion brands to change their course.
Through the numerous exchanges The Sunday Morning Brunch had with individuals from a diverse range of backgrounds, it was noted that most of those in urban Colombo were also unaware of the realities of the world of “pre-loved” clothing.
“There’s a taboo surrounding thrifting. It’s not a ‘poor people thing’. If you take the time to look around in thrift stores, you can find some really unique designs,” Paulis, who works closely with thrift store initiatives such as “Thrift and Thrive” (@thriftandthrivelk on IG), remarked.
German language teacher and screenwriter Deepthi Jayasinghe (38), with her experience in living in Europe, shared that she is a fan of thrifting.
“In Europe, second-hand shops don’t look run down and unappealing. They look trendy and it’s very popular amongst western countries,” she pointed out as something thrift stores in Sri Lanka can consider.
Why should you care?
Not only is the apparel industry one of the biggest contributors to Sri Lanka’s economy, studies show that a considerable portion of our apparel workers are responsible for making the very clothing brands fast fashion thrive on. As much as we wear Sri Lanka’s internationally recognised apparel employee standard as a badge of honour, the suffering endured by them is unheard and unknown by many.
“There are enough clothes at the moment in the world to sustain everybody, but it is not being circulated enough,” concluded Paulis, adding that rampant awareness of this subject is vital.
Instagram handles as recommended by Fernando that are great in educating ourselves on the much neglected issue are @whomadeyourclothes, @cleanclothescampaign, and @labourbehindthelabel. The True Cost on Netflix, The Next Black, Bitter Seeds, and Riverblue are some recommended documentaries to stay up to date.
The Chakre Shop: Be a part of the cycle
To introduce our readership to a prime example of aiding the slow fashion revolution, The Sunday Morning Brunch spoke to two young entrepreneurs Kumarini Pathirana and Tiffahny Hoole, Co-founders of The Chakre Shop (@chakre.shop on IG), a semi-profitable retail business working towards reducing the demand for fast fashion through the sale of second-hand clothing. It incorporates various other elements distinguishing it from your everyday online clothing store.
As true believers of the mantra “you get what you give”, Pathirana and Hoole created a business model that is able to generate profit and channel it back to the community.
“Upon realising we had more clothes than we knew what to do with, our wardrobe was the starting point of our venture. Additionally, in an effort to give back to the community, we decided that manufacturing masks for those who may be unable to afford them was a good way to start,” explained the Co-founders.
The name “chakre”, as derived from the Sinhalese language, means “cycle”. This symbolises recycling the clothes the shop receives and reselling it to customers, through which a portion of the profit earned is used to manufacture cloth-based products (essentially the cycle of cloth).
Upon a two-stage approval process, the shop accepts clothes from third parties and through each sale, the initial owner will be paid a nominal commission. Furthermore, a portion of the pool of profit earned will be allocated towards a charitable cause. The Chakre Shop’s current project is manufacturing protective facemasks for homeless people who may not have the necessary means to buy themselves a new mask as often as they need.
The Chakre Shop also employs a zero-waste form of packaging, where newspapers are utilised, with the aim of removing the stigma that using newspapers is a “cheap” and “lazy” form of packaging, redefining it as “cost effective”, “trendy”, and “appealing”.
Pathirana and Hoole shared that the response from the public has been overwhelmingly positive.
“We make sure the clothes fit perfectly for each customer, we make sure all commissions are paid promptly, and the clothes are as affordable as possible to build trust with our consumers. Any suggestions for our future venture are welcome and can be sent to us via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.”
Did you know?
- Some popular fast fashion brands: Boohoo, Pretty Little Thing, H&M, Urban Outfitters, Fashionnova, Missguided, Zara, SheIn, Mango, Topshop, Primark, and GAP.
- H&M and Shein introduce new styles as often as every two weeks.
- Fast fashion customers actually lose more money in the long run: The quality of clothing is a lot cheaper and wears out a lot faster than clothing purchased for three times the price from a non-fast fashion brand.
- According to the United Nations (UN), the fashion industry contributes about 10% of carbon emissions, as much as the European Union (EU), and 20% of wastewater worldwide.
It dries up water sources and pollutes rivers and streams, while 85% of all textiles go to dumps each year. Even washing clothes releases 500,000 tonnes of microfibers into the ocean each year, the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles.
- The fashion industry is the second largest consumer industry of water, requiring about 700 gallons to produce one cotton shirt and 2,000 gallons of water to produce a pair of jeans.
- According to a documentary released in 2015, The True Cost, the world consumes around 80 billion new pieces of clothing every year, 400% more than the consumption 20 years ago. Additionally, more than half of fast fashion clothes are disposed of within a year. In the process of making clothes, plastic additives such as antioxidants, dyes, or fire retardants are added to the virgin microfibers. Fabric dyeing and treatment accounts for 20% of wastewater worldwide, and rising fast fashion demand could increase the leakage of these dangerous chemicals into the ocean.
- Workers at Boohoo were allegedly forced to work in cramped spaces during lockdown (2020) to keep up with the demand, and were paid £ 3.50 per hour. In 2020, 738 workers who made clothes for Mango in Burma were fired for requesting drinking water.
- H&M burned 60 tonnes of brand new clothing in 2013, Burberry made $ 3.6 billion in 2018, and destroyed $ 36.8 million worth of clothes. They admitted that destroying their clothes was part of their strategy to preserve exclusivity.
- Major brands like Forever21, Fashionnova, J.C. Penny, Zara, Levis, Topshop, GAP, Free People, and many others were withholding $ 3 billion from factories in Bangladesh for orders that were already shipped, leaving 4.1 million workers to suffer.