Stitch, sew or throw?

Can we please start to see if the clothes we purchase are environment-and-people-cruelty-free too?

By Jhilam Gangopadhyay

For the past five months in lockdown, I have been constantly telling myself that the situation we are living through is temporary. But as more and more time passes, I’m being forced to reconcile with the fact that things may never be the same again. Actually, scratch that. They should never be the same again. 

I read somewhere that this pandemic is what we all deserve – not morally, but ecologically. It is also considered to be  a ‘trigger moment’ in history- when there are massive changes in every sphere, and things that we believed weren’t possible before  rapidly become the way of life. Five months of confinement has indeed made me question whether there is another way to ‘do’ life. And the answer is yes. There is another way- a more sustainable, inclusive, and responsible way. 

A few weeks back, I left my home, and I saw street vendors selling home-made masks. I came home and found out that Taylor Swift had just dropped a new album within a year of her last one. A close friend has turned into an influencer on Instagram while another is juggling four internships. The way we adapt to this pandemic reflects a lot on how we’ve capitalized on the time we have spent at home. The only difference is that for a lot of people it is a choice, while for others, it is a necessity. 

Like many others, my family too had been struggling financially when the pandemic hit. As I was preparing for my move to Switzerland, I realized I would need  warm clothes. However, I need not have worried, because as soon as the lockdown rules relaxed in India, all clothing brands announced ridiculously massive discounts on their websites, often up to 70%. It worked out for both the consumers as well the brands: the latter needed to get rid of their stocks which hadn’t been sold for months, and the consumers, slowly recovering from the economic crisis, scrambled to take advantage of the sales. 

Unfortunately, the picture isn’t so optimistic for all, especially the garment workers. Because  the fashion and luxury industries have been some of the worst hit by the pandemic, thousands of garment workers in India and Bangladesh have been underpaid or laid off overnight. Familiar brands  such as Gap, H&M and Zara (owned by Inditex) have cancelled orders from their suppliers, or refused to pay for the already manufactured products by using emergency provisions in their contracts.

Factories are thus simultaneously unable to sell the products to the customer who ordered them and cannot pay the workers who made them. On the other hand, garment factories which overnight turned into PPE and mask-manufacturing units have their own challenges . Unlike their counterparts, they can continue production and expect some kind of revenue. But, at the same time, they are putting their labourers at risk, who often find themselves in situations where the rules of social distancing are impossible to follow.

Capitalism does it again! 

Most of us claim to be part of this socially ‘woke’ generation. But let’s face it, we have our share of flaws as well. And in this case, the villain is named Instagram, or social media in general, where god forbid you post a picture wearing the same outfit twice. If you do so, your dream of becoming an influencer goes down the drain. For many of us, posting as much as possible has become a compulsive need because for some reason we believe that our online pages define who we are. Yet many  of us are students with limited incomes, so the only solution is to turn to fast fashion brands. These brands have capitalised on this very need to provide whatever  is fashionable at the moment at low prices, thus creating customer loyalty. Unfortunately, we tend to treat the cheapest clothes as disposable, and throw them away after a couple of wears.

Fast fashion is so called because of its super-fast production period. For instance, Zara can transform sketches into clothes in a matter of two weeks, while H&M offers 12 to 16 new clothing collections each year and refreshes them weekly. The production of garments has become so cost-effective that brands would rather over-produce by 30-40% than risk running out of stock. 

Of course, this sounds too good to be true. And it is. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, the fast fashion industry produces 20% of global wastewater and 10% of global carbon emissions- more than all international flights and maritime shipping. Textile dyeing is the second largest polluter of water globally and it takes around 2000 gallons of water to make a typical pair of jeans. Every second, the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is landfilled or burned. Every year half a million tonnes of plastic microfibers are dumped into the ocean. Worst of all, garment workers are often underpaid and forced to work long hours in terrible working conditions, and there are often cases of child labour as well. 

Most of us want to do what is right by the environment and by others but, it often seems like we just cannot afford to. Unfortunately, sustainable clothing has been marketed as expensive and elitist which isn’t really the whole story. We shouldn’t be buying as many clothes as we do now anyway, especially considering the environmental and human cost. So in a way, that one-time investment on sustainable brands makes sense, since these clothes last much longer than the low-quality, cheap clothing that  does not live through too many wash cycles. 

It is certainly the responsibility of brands to adopt sustainable means of production. But as long as we keep buying from them at the rate at which we do now, they won’t be forced to do so.  The pandemic has only accelerated the impulse  to sell clothes at a discount in order to get rid of the inventory, which is only making matters worse. 

There is a need for stricter legislation all around the world, and fortunately change is coming. In March 2020, the United Nations Alliance for Sustainable Fashion was launched. This initiative supports coordination between international bodies working in fashion and promoting projects and policies that would allow the fashion value chain to contribute to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals’ targets. 

We have a chance here to do better. A chance to hold brands accountable, and to hold ourselves accountable because if things continue the way they are, it has been predicted that by 2030 the fashion industry will exhaust 25% of the world’s carbon budget. Considering the economic crisis, it is natural to give in to the inexpensive prices of fast fashion while not considering as much the crusade for sustainable and ethical fashion. But here’s the thing: it’s just going to make matters worse for the garment workers, who at this point are willing to work at any cost just to get two square meals a day. And fast fashion brands, who have been facing enormous losses, will be waiting to take advantage of that. 

Often these brands use ‘greenwashing’ as a marketing gimmick, where they portray their brands to be more sustainable than they actually are. This appeals to consumers who can then continue to shop without feeling any guilt. 

As malls and stores begin to re-open, our generation is the first one to step through the doors, simply because we believe that we are the least susceptible to the virus. So, here’s a few things we can do. 

Preferably, we should buy from brands which have used sustainable methods to manufacture their garments, who pay their employees well and provide a safe environment to work in. #WhoMadeMyClothes is an ongoing campaign by Fashion Revolution, which aims to achieve exactly the things mentioned in this article and more, by advocating for positive change in the industry and holding brands accountable online to be transparent about their manufacturing practices to ensure they do not cause exploitation.  Moreover, we have to learn to recycle our clothes by combining them in new and innovative ways instead of using them once or twice for the ’gram.

Repairing clothes as well as  donating or exchanging them are other great options. Buying clothes second-hand  is the most preferable option because it extends the life of things that already exist. There is  growing support for buying directly from small manufacturers who manufacture responsibly. Choose natural materials such as hemp, linen or organic cotton and try to avoid synthetics. In addition,  buying from brands which have been certified from organisations like Fair Wear Foundation provide some guarantee of fair wages. Also, one can always look up sustainable brands online for guidance.

All of this is not going to be easy and requires a change in our mindset –  one that favours quality over quantity and moves beyond the superficial world of social media. In some countries, more than one-third of the clothes bought are never used. So, simply buying what one needs instead of wants is certainly a good start. Washing garments in hot/warm water and drying at high heat or for longer than necessary uses a lot of energy. It is advisable to wash full loads and use non-abrasive detergents.

We check if our cosmetics are animal cruelty-free. Can we please start to see if the clothes we purchase are environment-and-people-cruelty-free too? 

Jhilam Gangopadhyay is a Master’s student in Anthropology and Sociology at the Graduate Institute. She is perpetually interested in demystifying ideas of gender, culture and power through her research and writing. Currently, she is obsessed with reading books on post-colonialism and immigration. 

Photo from rawpixel.

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