Years ago, shopping for new clothes or other fashion accessories were confined majorly to big regional festivals and new years, major family functions, birthdays and when the need arose. So, that accounted to 4-5 times a year of purchasing of garments or other fashion accessories and shopping was fun! The fun was not only in getting new clothes or other fashion accessories but also in shopping with family members.
There used to be a certain camaraderie between the shopkeeper/seller and the longtime client, which led to selling of quality item at the right price. And since number of clothes purchased were less, the consumers' didn't mind paying a higher price for a quality item which they knew were going to last longer.
However, with years as frequent changes in fashion trends took place on the ramp, the fashion retailers, in order to stay ahead in competition and earn more profits by bringing the fashion from the ramps to the streets as quickly as possible, started speeding up the manufacturing of latest fashions using lower quality materials and selling them at lower prices.
And thus entered fast fashion....
Why is fast fashion a concern for the environment?
From the production perspective...
Fast fashion means use of rapid and cheap production processes to produce newest fashion pieces so that they get on the market as soon as possible. This means usage of cheaper fabrics (viz. Synthetic fibers - polyester, acrylic, elastane/lycra/spandex, nylon/polyamide; Natural fibres - cotton), poor working conditions of workers (who are mostly from poorer countries and mostly women), low wages, burning of more fossil fuels with factories running overtime, usage of lots of water, and using a plethora of low grade and toxic chemicals for further processing of garments which eventually end up in polluting the water bodies.
Polyester, synthetic polyester to be more precise, is one of the most commonly used fabrics used in clothing globally because it is cheap, durable, lightweight and easier to maintain.
However, polyester is a polymer which falls within the PET (polyethylene terephthalate) or plastic category and around 70 million barrels of oil a year are used to make polyester fibres used in our clothes. A polyester shirt has double the carbon footprint than a similar cotton shirt.
Since, polyester is a PET category material, it takes hundreds of years to decompose and releases microplastics/microfibres into the environment. This is also true for the stretchy elastane, nylon as well as acrylic which is used in making warm clothes. Given the nature of these fabrics, they are not readily recyclable, not readily decompose-able and hence, they increase the environmental impact further.
This is not to say that natural fabrics, like cotton, are environment friendly or sustainable either. Cotton uses huge amounts of water, pesticides and dyes for clothing production. Though organic cotton does not use chemical pesticides, the requirement of water still remains.
[The impact of cotton on the environment for fabric production can also be found in my previous article Fast Fashion and the Environment: The Denim Story The 90% shrinkage of Aral Sea in the last 50 years due to increase in water consumption and chemical contamination in order to irrigate cotton crops on account of rising fast fashion cannot be overlooked. ]
According to the BBC,
From the consumers and consumerism perspective...
As more and more affordable fashionable garments and other accessories became available to the common man, shopping for garments/accessories became more about staying up-to-date with the recent fashion trends than about the need.
With the frenetic pace at which the trends in the fashion industry are encouraged to change, more and more clothing and other fashionable accessories hit the market. And as soon as a new trend hits the market, consumers are prompted to purchase them to stay on-trend, irrespective of quality and comfort. Additionally, more money in the hands of people meaning increased purchasing power, increase in choices of clothing irrespective of sizes, increased popularity of television and other media has allowed people to observe the trends, crave for them and purchase more.
As a result of this, consumers, in the enthusiasm to stay on-trend, update their closets more often which leads to more and more 'out-of-style' yet wearable clothes ending up in the landfill. This leads to more greenhouse gas emissions and generation of microplastics.
And then Online Retail followed!!....
Having started its journey in the early 1990s, as fast fashion gained momentum, online retail started to take baby steps in the mid 1990s and began to gain momentum in the mid 2000s.
With the increase in popularity of online retail, fast fashion sales took a leap further as buying became easier for consumers with more options on a single screen and without having to move out of the comforts of home.
Rise in Consumerism - Cause and Effects
Among various other products, the consumers are provided with a wide range of clothing items (manufactured nationally as well as internationally) to choose from, and often at considerable discounts which are often not available in the brands' stores - by the various online retail giants like Amazon, Alibaba, Walmart, Flipkart, or others. They provide the consumers with the advantage of buying products, that are unavailable locally, or for which they would otherwise have to travel a bit far from home to procure, at their fingertips without moving out from the confines of home. All these have made the buyers spoilt for choice and they tend to buy more.
Additionally, the social networking sites like Facebook and Instagram often act as a big source of fashion inspiration to young and old alike as they can view all types of people (working professionals, homemakers, social media influencers, celebrities) of all ages and physiques wearing trendy clothes and looking good in them. This influences the consumers to buy trendy fashion garments, often which they did not intend to buy previously, thus leading to purchase beyond their needs. Moreover, the more we began documenting our lives in the public domain and felt the need to be seen, the more we felt the need to showcase our clothing, our style sense, our fashion accessories; and hence arose our need to purchase more and repeat less as we felt that already displayed garment in the social media cannot be repeated.
According to a Facebook insight published in November 2017,
In a survey of over 6,000 people across six countries, we found that more than half of people who use Instagram, and four in ten Facebook users, say that they've discovered fashion inspiration on the platform in the last three months. And with three out of five people surveyed admitting to having been tempted to buy a fashion item that they didn't intend to buy, the opportunity to influence and advise potential fashion buyers on Instagram and Facebook is huge.
Probably all these have led the social networking sites like Instagram and Facebook to push further into launch of e-commerce portals where consumers can interact - with their favoured brands or small businesses online, and also with other buyers to exchange product reviews and make the buying process easier. 'Word-of-mouth' or rather 'word-of-chat' from the product users or influencers play an important role in decision making about any particular fashion item. Also, the fashion brands use the social networking sites to promote fashion events, announce about their new fashion lines and often release photos, videos, style stories about these events and releases thus luring consumers to feel more connected to these brands and make purchases from them as soon as a new trend hits the market.
Furthermore, as these online retails sites and social networking sites continue to evolve with various customer experiences, many of them have deployed AI (Artificial Intelligence) to influence purchase decisions of the consumers in addition to automating a host of behind-the-scenes tasks. These AIs often help in pushing fashion brands (preferred by any individual customer) for advertising in social media and engage their target market thus influencing consumer decisions and impelling them to buy more.
Apart from the aforementioned, with the COVID-19 raging throughout the world and people being forced to stay indoors, the past two years have seen a further surge in online sales (especially fashion) with shopping becoming more of a therapeutic activity for many, even if temporarily.
However, it often gets overlooked or we often forget, that our growing consumerism and our appetite for convenience, i.e. getting anything at our doorstep with just some clicks or touches on the laptop or phone, is torturing the environment.
We may argue or pacify ourselves with the thought that since we are shopping from the confines of our homes without commuting, we are polluting less as there are lesser vehicular emissions. However, we cannot be more wrong!
How does online retail and consumerism impact the environment?
What cost this new way and wave of consumerism the environment is paying - it is for all of us to introspect.
Digital involvement has become so much a part of our lives and made our lives so much easier that we can't not be thankful for it. However, like everything in this world, excess of anything is bad.
Also everything has it's good and bad effects and that applies to online shopping as well.
Let's look at the various aspects of online retail through a consumers perspective in regards to fast fashion.
As discussed earlier, the online retail and e-commerce portals provide with a much wider choice of latest fashion trends and other fashionable accessories without the consumers having to move from their seats. So the time and energy wasted to commute from their houses to the shops and back, or from shop to shop is absent.
Online shoppers don't need to withdraw cash from ATMs or use our cards in public, so lesser as well as safer work in one way.
Since the online shoppers don't have to leave their homes to go shopping for the things of their choice, they can take pride in the fact that they are not adding to the pollution. However, that would be a misguided pride...
The shoppers can make informed decisions about various items from price comparisons and also from the reviews of other consumers.
It's easier to send gifts through online shopping portals as it reduces hassles.
With online retail, the retail space or physical store space reduces along with the cost of physical infrastructure (overhead, rent, utilities, maintenance, and other operating costs). With lesser store spaces, the energy consumption also lessens.
Purchased goods are easier to return or exchange through online retailers.
Online retail can remain open 24*7 without the need for any personnel to look after the goods and products. Also, it helps consumers to shop at any time of their liking.
Shoppers can get their goods delivered, even from areas far off from their locality, as fast as possible, even next day through rush delivery.
While there are many advantages of online shopping (which are mostly restricted to individual shoppers), we also need to look into the impacts it has on the environment.
First and foremost, online shopping generates huge amount of packaging wastes (majorly plastic and cardboards) as products often come with extra packaging to prevent damage.
While shopping online, customers often make lesser purchases at a time, knowing that they can purchase things any time without much effort. This leads to increase in the number of deliveries at the same location which adds to more vehicular emissions and also increases the number of packaging wastes instead of consolidated packaging.
According to a publication by the Centre of Science and Environment:
E-commerce packaging and the disposal of waste have huge environmental costs. At present, e-commerce packaging comes in multiple layers, which is made of plastic, paper, bubble wrap, air packets, tape and cardboard cartons.
Moreover, the toxic chemicals used in the production of these packaging materials are bound to affect human health as they enter our food cycle. Some of these chemicals are brominated flame retardants, polyvinyl chloride and Bisphenol A, which is an endocrine disruptor.
With the options for rush shipping or next day delivery as compared to delivery at a later date, consumers obviously prefer the quicker delivery. But that comes at a cost of huge carbon emissions.
For e.g., let's consider that you've ordered two products A & B through Amazon and you've opted for rush shipping or say, next day delivery. Say, product A is located at a store which is near your locality and product B is located somewhere across the country far from you. Now since you've opted for next day delivery, product A is immediately shipped and it reaches earlier than product B. Now for product B, since it is far off from your locality, it also gets dispatched immediately via air (Aeroplanes give out 7-8 times more carbon emissions than a truck) and reaches the warehouse near the airport at your locality. From that warehouse a delivery truck is immediately dispatched, even if it is not completely packed with products to be delivered (i.e. even if it is half empty), so that the product is delivered at your requested timeline. So the supply chain logistics cannot work efficiently or optimally in this case, thus leading to more and more emissions.
[Also watch the video in this link to understand the impacts of rush delivery better]
Online fashion buying also has high return rates since the shoppers cannot try on the products or check the products for defects before buying. Since the companies offer free returns, the shoppers can easily return or exchange defective or wrong-sized or unsuitable items to the source. However, on their return back, the products are not put on sale again but thrown away, which eventually ends up in landfill or are burnt. This is because the companies find it more profitable to throw away the product than to clean them and put them up for sale again. So that adds to the vehicular emissions due to double trips as well as landfill loads and eventually increases carbon emissions.
Again there are certain items which are non-returnable. And if a buyer receives a wrong product or a product they are not satisfied with, it ends up useless in their homes and eventually ends up in the landfill.
Further as consumerism rises due to the convenience on e-commerce platforms, there will be increase in delivery vehicles which will further lead to increase in vehicular emissions as well as traffic congestion.
What changes could lead to improvement or reduction of the impacts?
Improvement or changes can only be brought about if both the online retailers as well as the consumers start making some conscious environmental friendly choices.
Leading E-retailers like Amazon, Alibaba, and Zalando are making efforts to decrease the environmental impacts their businesses create through processes such as logistics efficiencies, delivery with electric vehicles and use of recycled packaging materials.
For example, Amazon is building electric delivery vans in order to reduce its carbon emissions to zero by 2040.
Recently, Amazon has also started a 'free Amazon day delivery' option so that the orders are delivered in fewer packaging boxes.
Despite these, fast shipping, free and easy returns, and discounted prices are the e-retailers' ways of encouraging the consumer culture so that they can run their businesses profitably. So it is up to us, the consumers, to bring about environment friendly changes by making sustainable choices and better judgements by thinking not only about ourselves but also about the collective good of the society and the environment.
To do so, some practices that may be adopted are as follows:
The best option is to buy less clothing and not get swayed by the temptations of the social media and the e-retailers. Or as the Swedes would say that we need to practice 'Lagom' i.e. the approach of having 'just enough' i.e. not to little and not too much, as we used to do years before.
The next best option is to make a conscious decision to move towards slow fashion, and opting for sustainable and ethically sourced clothing. Also choosing higher quality clothing, wearing them more often, and keeping them for longer will reduce the carbon footprint of our garments. We should invest more in those fashion pieces that are timeless and can be worn with different styling for a longer period of time.
If we cannot control our temptation to buy clothes, we can opt to buy vintage or second-hand clothing; Instagram and Facebook provides numerous options to these vintage or second hand sales.
We should make ourselves more conscious about the fabrics and make proper choices of buying clothing made of fabrics that bring lesser harm to the environment like tencell, organic cotton, organic hemp etc. [For a detailed idea about the fabrics that are sustainable you can visit this link.]
Cutting down on frequent washing also helps in reducing carbon footprint.
Whenever we choose to buy online, we can go for bulk orders so that there are fewer packages and fewer delivery transports.
Instead of opting for rush delivery, we can choose for normal delivery that is convenient and efficient for the e-retailers, or we can choose options for delivery that ensures consolidated packaging like the 'free Amazon day delivery'.
Once the useful life of clothes are over, we can recycle/up-cycle them for further use in a different manner so that they don't end up in the landfill.
It is us who can slow down fast fashion and change the future of fast fashion. As Mahatma Gandhi had said, "Be the change you want to see in the world".