Fast fashion's mental health impact: How sustainability, upcycling can help reduce environmental, psychological stress

While the fashion industry aims to target and exploit one end of society by encouraging high-spending behaviour, it demands the exploitation of another end of society with inhumane labour practices.

Ruchita Chandrashekar March 28, 2021 11:46:24 IST
Fast fashion's mental health impact: How sustainability, upcycling can help reduce environmental, psychological stress

Representational image via Twitter/@HymersA

Fast fashion is a term used to describe clothing that transitions from the runway to the stores at a swift rate. Its production and disposal demand a high environmental cost since clothing production requires a considerable amount of environmental resources, fabric dyes can contain toxins that contaminate fresh water and with trends changing rapidly, waste generation is also extremely high. But what kind of impact does fast fashion leave on psychological health?

Consumer spending depends heavily on manipulative marketing techniques employed by advertisers. Advertisers rely on emotional content that is inspired by warmth, happiness, aspiration and hopefulness, and thus all of this gets associated with the brand. Consumers become influenced because many decisions made by humans are based on the foundation of emotion.

Think about the idea of retail therapy. With influencer marketing and social media marketing on the rise, consumers are bombarded with updates about new collections, sales, offers and more, consistently. It’s overwhelming. Additionally, factors that influence the virality, shareability or even aspiration associated with the advertisement are also guided by the representation of the models, fit and style of the clothing and the emotion the advertisement is trying to sell. Beauty and fashion advertisements have the power to spark feelings of insecurity, inadequacy, shame, guilt and anxiety in consumers.

Read: In era of hyper-consumption and in midst of climate change crisis, fast fashion must address its failings

Society and media create limits for what is acceptable and what is not. Worth is decided on the basis of "you are too fat for this, you are too short for that, your legs look weird in this" and other such commonly used trial room talk. The standards shift quickly. Skinny jeans were in today, boyfriend jeans are the trend tomorrow; bermuda shorts have taken over on the day after that.

There is no keeping up with what is the ‘right fit’ for your body type and then enters ‘anti fit’. There are 50 ways to hide your fat to look more like the model on the runway wearing the brand’s clothes; then there are eight other bloggers who tell you how you need to dress for college by wearing "what’s in" and what’s not "so 2010". Body image concerns, health risks caused by disordered eating and body dysmorphia, financial distress, peer pressure and other psychological health concerns are heavily amplified by fast fashion.

The definitions of beauty, style and fashion are ever-evolving, and if you’re not keeping up with it, you’re falling behind. Manufacturers, retailers and designers will not only have their subjective standards, they will also tweak them from time to time. What was size 6 in Zara’s Spring Summer collection could be size 8 for Autumn Winter. Also, what was size 10 in a GAP collection could be a size 6 in another brand’s collection and thus influences buyer behaviour because of vanity sizing, where a consumer feels better about buying a smaller size. Clothing is a strong element of individual presentability. This encourages a culture that makes individuals feel like their self-worth is conditional to the size of their clothing. Additionally, problems with fitting can determine one’s individual perception of one's body. To problematically remedy this, the fashion industry creates more apparel as ‘solutions’ — push up bras, shapewear, etc.

Additionally, while the fashion industry aims to target and exploit one end of society by encouraging high-spending behaviour, it demands the exploitation of another end of society with inhumane labour practices. Fast fashion brands benefit from cheap labour that they extract from low-income countries like India, Bangladesh and China. The modern slavery practices employed by fast fashion brands don’t ensure a livable wage for the labourers working in the garment industry. They demand 14-16 hour work days for 7 days a week. During the peak season, they demand overtime that workers cannot refuse, take a sick day or even a bathroom break.

Many factories are also verbally and physically abusive with employees working in risky and unhealthy situations that involve poor ventilation, inhalation of toxic substances, injuries and risk for disease. The frequent use of child labour, forced labour and prohibition of worker unions are also oppressive ways in which fast fashion corporations benefit from the exploitation of labourers. These experiences are deeply traumatic. They increase the risk for anxiety, lowered self-worth, PTSD, difficulties with appetite, sleep and social relationship, stress-related diseases, somatic implications, repercussions of violence and an increased numbness and desensitisation that disallows marginalised communities from addressing the physical and psychological health concerns of working in these conditions. The accessibility to mental health resources is also extremely poor and coupled with deep stigmatisation, furthering more roadblocks to care.

Fast fashion is driving our planet to an environmental and health disaster. The industry’s water consumption, carbon dioxide emission, textile waste, use of chemicals increases waste generation. The industry is snatching community resources, affecting marginalised communities severely and creating a long-term impact on the psychological health of consumers, labourers and communities directly impacted by the caused environmental distress.

Also read: Indian artists design comic strips to raise awareness about water consumption in the fashion industry

An emphasis on sustainability, upcycling, thrift store shopping has increased. These measures are useful not only in reducing the generation of waste but also in building community, encouraging discourse about the detrimental effects of the fast fashion industry, giving creators their true credit and improving accessibility to fashion that isn’t determined purely by trends. Buyers are educating themselves better and talking to business owners directly instead of corporations. The process is starting to become more collaborative where the consumers are providing feedback, learning more about the history and skill that went into making a piece and feeling proud of themselves for ensuring that their money went to the right cause. This reinforces a positive cycle for sustainability and also assists in increasing feelings of self-worth and community work. The absence of manipulative marketing, transparency and accountability on social media, access to information from the right sources and other factors help to make this happen.

— Ruchita Chandrashekar is a behavioural health researcher and a psychologist

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