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Fast Fashion Is Cheap But It Costs The Earth – OpEd

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By Ranvir S. Nayar*

Showing off “Shein hauls” is one of the latest trends on Instagram and TikTok. There are hundreds of videos of people with the clothes they have just bought from Shein, a Chinese fast fashion company that has been causing jitters for senior managers at Zara, H&M, Uniqlo and many others.

While other fast fashion companies have been around for nearly half a century and have already revolutionized the global garment industry by cutting both prices and the time taken for new designs to move from the catwalk to the customer, the Chinese upstart has further cut the timeframe and its prices, making even the most competitive rivals look expensive.

Despite campaigns about the dangers of overconsumption and accusations that fast fashion is nothing but overconsumption, the carbon footprint of the global textile industry has been rising rapidly, along with the amount of waste generated, as most fast fashion garments are thrown away by consumers and end up in landfill long before their life cycle has ended.

The textile industry is one of the most polluting in the world, with a significant footprint right from the production of raw materials — whether cotton or man-made fibers — through to manufacturing and transport. For instance, in 2015, the global textile industry consumed 79 billion cubic meters of water, as against the 266 billion used by the entire EU economy and its 446 million people in 2017.

Textiles continue to pollute even after the products have reached consumers, accounting for 20 percent of global wastewater production. As much as 35 percent of all primary microplastics that end up in the oceans are produced due to the washing of clothes. A single laundry load of polyester clothing can discharge 700,000 microplastic fibers that can end up in the food chain. Overall, about 10 percent of global carbon emissions can be laid at the doorstep of the textile industry.

Garments and other products like shoes that are often thrown away too soon also contribute in a major way to the mountains of waste that have come to envelope the world that we live in today.

Due to low prices, buyers are definitely spending more on garments. According to estimates, the amount of clothing bought in the EU per person has increased by 40 percent since 1996. An average European uses nearly 26 kg of textiles and discards about 11 kg of them every year, with up to 87 percent either incinerated or ending up in landfills.

If this is the situation in a part of the world that prides itself, with some justification, on following the greenest of all norms around the world, then one can only wonder about other parts of the world, especially the rich world. There, waste generation has been rising each year despite a growing awareness about the need to cut down on carbon emissions, which can only happen if consumers become responsible.

There is little evidence of this, as can be seen from the amount of solid waste generated each year. About 2 billion tons of municipal waste is currently produced each year, with the rich countries, which account for only 16 percent of the global population, producing 34 percent of the world’s waste. By 2050, municipal solid waste generation is set to rise by 70 percent to 3.4 billion tons, outpacing population growth.

Bad consumption habits are at the core of this waste heap. Besides fashion and food, both of which are significant producers of solid waste, a relatively new component of solid waste is electronic waste, which has been perhaps the fastest-growing among all major categories of waste. This is again linked to the production of cheap, short-life products that are bought by billions and dumped by millions each year. In 2019, the world produced about 50 million tons of electronic waste and this is set to rise to 70 million tons before the end of the current decade.

Similarly, across the board, the generation of almost all kinds of solid waste is set to rise between now and 2050, and in almost every single region of the world.

While low-income countries can justify the increase in their waste generation due to rising consumption, fueled by higher incomes and strong population growth, rich countries will find themselves in a corner when attempting to justify the growth in their waste generation over the next two decades. The amount of waste produced by rich countries is far higher than the world average, which is 740g per person per day. The global range is immense, from 110g to 4.54kg per person per day. No prizes for guessing which part of the world is generating more waste per person per day.

Coming back to the EU, its total solid waste generation has been growing and is set to continue to grow for the next three decades. Taken together, Europe and Central Asia accounted for 392 million tons of municipal waste in 2016, and this will rise to 440 million tons in 2030 and onwards to 490 million tons in 2050. This is despite an aging and declining population in most countries in these regions, especially the EU.

Beyond the EU, there is not a single region that can boast of even stabilizing its waste generation, let alone cutting it.

While businesses and governments have a share of responsibility in cutting solid waste production to meaningful levels in an effort to prevent the world from continuing down the path to certain climate catastrophe, consumers need to do their bit too. Until consumption habits become more responsible and people begin to at least recycle and reuse the products they buy, or keep them for longer periods, there is little that can save the Earth from doom.

  • Ranvir S. Nayar is managing editor of Media India Group, a global platform based in Europe and India, which encompasses publishing, communication and consultation services.

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