Fashion Industry has a Waste Problem but it is Planned

It’s not news that the fashion industry generates tons of waste. In fact, in recent times, this problem has been highlighted by many environmental and sustainable activists. But we as consumers need to trace where does the problem truly arise and how much are we being manipulated to play a role in it?

Piles of discarded clothes creating waste
Image Source: BBC

To begin with, let’s put on a name on this planned problem. It is called Planned Obsolescence and some of you might be familiar with this term often used in economics or industrial design. As defined by Jeremy Bulow, the term refers to “a policy of planning or designing a product with an artificially limited useful life or a purposely frail design so that it becomes obsolete after a certain pre-determined period upon which it suddenly ceases to function, or might be perceived as unfashionable”. The idea behind it was to increase sales volume and cause repeat purchases.

Technology forms a clear example here with new models of iPhones being launched year after year and people rushing to buy them. Though here, functionality is not always the reason. People want a newer model even though the one they have is fully functional. Vance Packard termed this as obsolescence of desirability or psychological obsolescence. In this case, brands wear out a product in the consumer’s mind through their marketing and media.

The fashion cycle is the biggest example of perceived obsolescence where newer styles and designs are introduced season by season and sold. This is done solely by creating desirability in the minds of consumers. Seasonal trends and fashion weeks are some of the primary motivations behind fast fashion.

Image Source: The Sustainable Fashion Collective

Fast fashion is structured around the culture of disposability where companies depend on never-ending consumption in order to sustain their economic dominance. Sustainability clearly won’t be enough when the very foundation of the industry seeks to normalise the promotion of waste and to an extent rely on it to make money.

We see small shifts like the initiation of seasonless fashion by brands like Gucci or virtual fashion weeks but the truth is that the industry is propagating consumerism by inculcating the desire in the minds of people where they want things they don’t really need. Brooks Stevens, an American industrial designer who perpetuated the phrase Planned Obsolescence while speaking at an advertising conference defined it as — “ instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than necessary”.

Planned Obsolescence is often not limited to psychological manipulation but is sometimes done by achieving contrived durability. It is the strategy of shortening the product’s lifespan before it reaches the market by designing it such that the quality deteriorates quickly. Certain brands, especially fast fashion labels do this by using inferior or cheap materials. These materials might only cost you a few bucks but have a major impact on the ecosystem. Polyester and Nylon for instance are made using fossil fuels. You might discard those clothes after a while but it will take them hundreds of years to decompose.

Definition of Waste Led Design
Image Source: Slow Factory Foundation

Well known fast fashion brands like Zara make roughly 840 million clothes every year and many of them end up in landfills. According to Slow Factory Foundation, globally the fashion industry produces 150 billion garments per year and 20 per cent of those items go unsold and hence end up becoming waste. Add to that the garments consumers dispose of every single year. We are at a point where we have to come up with waste led designs but don’t stop to question that the need for it wouldn’t have arisen if we simply changed the culture that surrounds the industry.

We are sustaining colonialist culture without realising and allowing this endless cycle of production and consumption to go on. You can break it just by doing a few simple things.

  • Make good investments: Look at your denim jacket or jeans and think of how long they have been there with you. It’s not just a stroke of luck, it is because you invested in a material that is designed to last long. Find more such materials to invest in.
  • Don’t give up on your clothes just yet: Personally, as an Indian, I have seen garments that have been in the family for years and worn by generations. Evidently, they were pretty good investments as they still look as cool as they did back then. It doesn’t always have to be a generational or family thing. You can swap clothes with your friends or find somebody else who could use them instead of throwing them away.
  • Upcycle and Resale: Two things that play a key role in living a sustainable lifestyle are these. Upcycling or repurposing your clothes to continue using them extends their lifespan and significantly lowers your carbon footprint. Resale applies to you both as a consumer and seller. Thrift stores and resale sites are cropping up everywhere, you can sell the clothes you no longer need and get something new in exchange. This way you are updating your wardrobe without affecting the environment adversely.
Quote from Slow Factory Foundation talking about ecosystem over aesthetics
Image Source: Slow Factory Foundation

It cannot be emphasised enough that your fashion choices impact the world in more ways than you can imagine. The points mentioned above might seem of little importance but we have to think collectively if we want to solve problems that impact us all. I know imagining landfills and hearing about how you are being manipulated by brands isn’t exactly comforting. But honestly, when it comes to things that matter, if you have the luxury, discomfort to your mindset is good, a little uncertainty is okay and curiosity is more than appreciated.

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