The Perils of Fast Fashion: ‘They Belonged to a Dead Foreigner’ and Other Stories

Growing up in Kolkata, I always heard from my mother that the Park Street pavement hawkers sold ‘mora shaheb-er jama’ or clothes that belonged to “now-dead foreigners”. It was a part of a larger myth surrounding hippie-moksha searching white people coming to the city and dying of overdoses, murders etc and then their belongings being sold at cheap rates on the streets.

In reality, they were mostly factory rejects from when top US and UK fast-fashion brands first began getting their clothes made in developing countries for lesser-than minimum wage. India was still considered too poor to host most of these brands in a retail capacity. However, along with neighbours Bangladesh and China, India was actively involved in the production of it.

Of course, in recent years, these fast fashion brands made their way into India, and in the paradoxical nature typical of our country, our poorest were stitching branded clothes under dangerous and unsanitary conditions. The clothes were then being exported to big names and were returning white-washed for the middle class to consume with its typical consumerist appetite.

Fast fashion is a term used to describe a new accelerated fashion business model since the 1980s. It involves increased numbers of new fashion collections each year, quick turnarounds and lower prices.

Which leads me to my unhealthy obsession of scrolling through fashion apps on my phone. The range of clothing helps me calm down after a particularly tiresome news cycle (as a media scholar I cannot afford to ‘detox’ from the news as often as I want to).

Looking up ‘fast fashion psychology’ led me to a study in 2007 on the scientific effect of shopping on the brain that discovered that the happiness in shopping comes from the pursuit of goods, and then from the pleasure of getting a bargain purchase. The holy grail of the fast fashion industry is quick, cheap and new stuff.

And I am not the only one – a report by the urban land institute concluded that 45% millennials spend more than an hour each day looking at retail sites. A piece on the Atlantic, weighing in on all these studies, concluded that compulsive shopping is a form of looking at consumerism as entertainment.

Ergo, in this terrible time, we millennials enjoy window shopping as a cheap thrill of sorts, a quick endorphin fix to keep us powered through a constant onslaught of helplessness.

Also read: Will Fast Fashion Really Change Their Ways in a Climate Crisis?

But then, in the last decade, these fast fashion companies began to be pulled to the stand for their labour practices and more importantly the horrifying environmental impact such copious amounts of fashion produce was causing. Sustainability and slow fashion began to take up space, and millennials found themselves in another social-justice-requires-you-to-give-up-nice-things dilemma.

The consequent responses, I found, were studied best through the lens of feminist digital anthropology – the practice of positioning virtual spaces in mediating how an agency, power and social norms are produced on and through the internet as well as through the body, as intermingled spheres of cultural production and spaces of social and political resistance.

The biggest issues with fast fashion are its environmental impact and the fact that less than 2% of those working in this industry are paid minimum wage. Most of us knew this before the pandemic as well – Hasan Minaj’s Patriot Act has an excellent episode on it titled ‘The Ugly Truth Of Fast Fashion’ for starters.

However, as that One-Fashion-Blogger-Friend we all have pointed out to me, it took a pandemic to really turn us a bit more sustainable. It began with #payup, or the pay your workers movement, that originated after the Rana Plaza Collapse in Bangladesh in 2019.

But as COVID-19 disruptions dropped fashion-consumption drastically, the financial fallout was dropped squarely by expensive fashion brands on third-world garment worker factories. In Bangladesh alone, brands cancelled nearly $4 billion worth of completed and in-process orders, putting more than two million livelihoods at risk. GATWU reported nearly 40% of garment workers had lost jobs since the pandemic began, including an H&M factory in Srirangapatna, Karnataka where nearly 1,200 workers were laid off under the guise of the pandemic in an attempt to break the workers’ union there.

A coalition of labour and advocacy groups began to use social media mobilisation to put pressure on these billion-dollar brands, including H&M, Zara (Inditex), JC Penny, Adidas, Nike, Marks and Spencers. They got together with influencers, used chain mails, petitions, hashtags – all the ammunition in the social media movement arsenal. As of August 9, the workers’ rights consortium currently has an active list of nearly 19 companies, including Adidas, Nike and UNIQLO, who agreed to #payup under pressure, and 11 more that still have not.

Also read: Zara’s Fast-Fashion Problem in Focus

As Kalpona Akterm, a former child garment worker and current director of Bangladesh Centre for workers solidarity, said in an interview with journalist Tansy Hoskins:

“We need your support-buy clothes made in Bangladesh but give your voice for a living wage, for safe workplaces and a union voice. We need these jobs but we want them with dignity.” (One can find more information on this movement on, and @labourbehindthelabel )

Advocacy aside, while the onus of giving up on cheap clothes to save the planet should not be on us, as much as on the billionaires who profit from it, we can make some changes to our lifestyles for our own sakes.

Thrifting happens to be one such change that is back in style.

Back to my mother and to my mid-2020 limbo-time. I recently bought a pair of pants off an Insta-thrift page, after the blogger friend convinced me that it was indeed a thing in India and not a Nigerian prince scam.

My mother’s immediate reaction was, “You will get an infection!”

I patiently explained to her how store-bought clothes are also pre-tried and I do plan to wash my pre-loved clothes. She then, almost-in-tears, offered to buy me ‘new’ clothes if I could not afford them myself. I then told her it was about making a change to a more sustainable lifestyle that would cause less environmental harm. She frowned, unable to gauge why someone would willingly wear old clothes.

She chalked it up to one more thing about millennials that “no one understands” – her standard complaint is that we sisters have ended up politicising everything.

She is probably a 100% correct. We live under hyper-awareness of everything – both good and bad. A closer, more connected world means I see stories of lynchings and home-made momo trends side by side. We have to imbibe some sense of change – of doing something meaningful instead of performative actions – not because we belong to a more righteous brigade, as much as to assuage the sense of helplessness and guilt that doggedly follows us through it all.

Which brings me to how thrifting changed my fashion-app-obsession. Through my rose-tinted honeymoon phase sunglasses, here is what thrifting feels like in India, according to a 17-year-old artist, @-.-amaranthine, who collated an ultimate guide to thrift-shopping on Instagram:


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here’s your guide to thrifting in India… I started thrifting a few months back and it’s been a great change. Promoting sustainability along with fashion, what better could you ask for! •go check out part 1 & 2 if you haven’t• — some tips — • treat the site more like a mood board than a store and dont get too precious about your search, since availability changes quickly. Stay open to off-brand options or pieces that may need a little TLC. Give listings with “less-than-perfect photos” a chance since those are the ones that everyone will overlook. •another important thing is to give it time. Follow the pages and keep track of new releases/listings to make sure you are able to find pieces that you are interested in. 📎this is a three part series, with a total of 21 thrift stores I’ve picked after doing extensive research and reviewing over 60 stores. 🦋 share this on your story and make this post reach as many people as possible! Let’s promote sustainability in fashion 🙂 ✨ comment below any thrift stores you like… and something that sets them apart from the rest! 🍑 if you are a thrift store, comment below what kind of clothing/accessories/ shoes etc you sell 👼 follow me ( @_._amaranthine ) to stay tuned for more interesting art… . . . #thrift #thrifting #vintage #thriftstorefinds #thrifted #thriftshop #fashion #vintageclothing #preloved #secondhand #thriftstore #thriftedfashion #thriftfinds #vintagestyle #style #thrifter #thrifty #bhfyp #love #instagood #photooftheday #fashion #like4like#instagram #followme #style #follow #instadaily #life

A post shared by sumiran | 17 (@_._amaranthine) on

In short, take it up as a slow, moody, whimsical endeavour – a balm to our fast-fashion ravaged senses that break down a lot of our closely held prejudices – of money, luxury and how our everyday choices can be meaningful.

Sreemoyee Mukherjee is building a fortress of words in her home in the abyss.

Featured image credit: Fernand De Canne/Unsplash