Indonesia has undertaken a 7-year cleaning programme for addressing the issue of dirty water of a river called Citarum that causes widespread diseases among the people, especially children, living in the region. What has led to this phenomenon is fast-fashion.
Fast fashion is, in the simplest sense, the practice of replicating high end fashion products in mass amounts with lower cost. The fast fashion model has created a spiral where big brands outsource their production for reduced cost. Resultantly, factory owners from developing economies often have to cut corners by squeezing wages and safety regulations for their employees.
It has boomed in the past two decades. However, the realm of affordable clothing has provoked a problematic culture of overconsumption and disposal. This in turn has created excessive garbage, resulting in more environmental hazards.
Despite being home to four million garment workers, Bangladesh has drawn global attention through incidents like Rana Plaza collapse (2013) that defined image of the fast fashion industry. Since then, however, global fashion players are striving to uphold their social and environmental responsibilities.
Sustainable fashion, a need
On the other side of the coin comes the sustainable fashion movement that aims to counter fast fashion’s rapid growth. Companies that emphasise sustainable practices adhere to ethical sourcing and production techniques, such as using organic, recycled, or more durable materials. Further, the labour involved in the production of such garments receives decent wages and greater protection than its counterparts in the supply chain of the fast fashion industry.
Thus sustainable fashion advocates ecological and social sustainability by putting more emphasis on quality, not quantity. That’s why it is often called eco-fashion or slow fashion.
The global fashion companies have now made sustainable initiatives a significant part of their budgets. Consumers, too, are constantly raising the question: did we deliberately turn a blind eye or did we never even ask the question – “where do my clothes come from?”
Still, the slow fashion movement faces an uphill battle with cheap, knock-off designs mass-marketed in a world of increasing consumer appetite.
Therefore, government policies, reorientation of supply chains, and greater consumer knowledge are vital to level the playing field between fast and slow fashions. Leaders in the fashion industry have begun to reflect on the idea.
NawshinKhair, Country Coordinator and Member of Global Advisory Board of Fashion Revolution, said, “Since 2014, we have been organising Fashion Revolution Week during which we promote Sustainable Fashion through curated exhibitions and advocate transparency.” The Managing Director of the fair trade brand Aranya Crafts Ltd, she mentioned the necessity of innovation in Bangladesh.
“As a fashion designer, I’ve had the opportunity to attend workshops of prominent dye practitioners around the world. While the world strives to produce leather from fish skin, Bangladesh still lacks the sufficient knowledge, technical background and funding to carry out such research.”
“Sustainability is not an option but a must for Bangladesh’s apparel industry. Our company has already signed the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change which aims to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.” said MA Jabbar, Managing Director of DBL group. But, added, for sustainability to come, a safe environment in workplaces has to be the priority. “Garment factories of our country have ample opportunities to collaborate with knowledge partners. To stay competitive as suppliers, we have to ensure that our production facilities are both environment and worker friendly.”
As of June, 2020, annual garment wastes of Bangladesh is around 0.4 million tonmes which is estimated to be a business worth US$4 billion if reused and recycled. “Sustainability commitments worldwide have deepened during the Covid-19 crisis. So local garment factories must aim at reusing and reprocessing fibres and scraps in the most efficient way to achieve sustainability,” added Mr. Jabbar.
The decreasing price of fast fashion has given rise to overconsumption. According to ‘The True Cost’ (2015) documentary directed by Andrew Morgan, the world consumes around 400 per cent more clothing than it did 20 years ago. We now live in a society where clothes are considered disposable. A report published by the World Resources Institute highlights that up to 85 per cent of textiles go into landfills each year. Fashion has thus become the second largest polluting industry after oil.
So where is the light at the end of the tunnel?
Implementation in Bangladesh
In Bangladesh, garment industry accounts 83 per cent of the country’s exports. Such statistics suggest any sudden pause in fast fashion industry could hurt the whole economy. Also, implementation of slow fashion might see thousands of garment workers losing jobs. Hence, the approach needs to be careful.
Mr. David Hasanat, the CEO of Viyellatex Ltd, has been working with Sustainable Fashion for the past 15 years. Talking to this author, he said, “Sustainability goes much beyond environmentalism; rather it covers the three P's - planet, people and profit. For fashion to be sustainable, it has to be both slow and circular.”
According to American research firm Wealth-X, Bangladesh ranks 3rd in the list of 10 fastest-growing HNW (high net worth) population countries. “If this segment of the population can vote with their pockets, ethical fashion will go a long way in Bangladesh,” added Mr. Hasanat.
Nevertheless, he brushed off the common perception that slow fashion is a threat to mass employment. In his opinion, it’s nothing but an excuse to buy fast fashion.
“In an open-market economy like ours, everyone is in a rat race to make maximum profit. Hence, it becomes quite difficult to balance the three aspects of sustainability: economic, social and environmental. Given pollution monitoring and economic incentives, the government can encourage Sustainable Fashion to a great extent.”
The pandemic has made people realise that if they can live a few months without buying a new piece of clothing, then it can surely be done for longer. “Amid the pandemic, I am delighted to see an emerging group of millennials choosing ‘quality over quantity.’ If affordability is an issue, then we should at least upcycle, reuse and recycle our clothes,” said Mumtahana Elahi, founder and designer of Abayaholic, a Modest Fashion Brand in Bangladesh.
Eco fashion is often stereotyped as boring. Hence glamourising it to the youngsters is necessary since they are the early adopters of fashion trends. “It's easy to overlook the power we have as consumers or the impact our purchase makes. Hence, educating people through mass media should be given to the hands of experts and designers who have intensive knowledge on the topic,” says Ms Mumtahana.
A great advice on reducing fast fashion comes from Patsy Perry, senior lecturer in fashion marketing at the University of Manchester: “Less is always more.” This simple step of mindfully purchasing products will incite the fashion industry to focus more on durable clothing.
Naziba Ali is a third year student at the Institute of Business Administration (IBA), University of Dhaka.