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It has been three years since Dongaa bought any new clothes from a fast fashion outlet. Her wardrobe is mostly an amalgamation of hand-me-downs from her mother and uncle, and if she feels the need to shop, she prefers second-hand clothing from flea markets and vintage stores.
“I have always preferred hand-me-down clothes from my family and cousins or thrift buys,” said Dongaa. “I like to think that it was a practice that was always present but abandoned as fast fashion became low cost. But as we learn the impact of fashion on climate change, we feel the need to be sustainable. I would also like to think that my sense of style did not have a good relationship with the conventional metropolitan fashion and I ended up mostly being the odd one out.”
Dongaa, who runs an online store that sells thrifted vintage clothes, represents a push back against the ‘fast fashion’ trend that is sweeping not just the world but also Nepal.
Most Nepalis have at some point in their lives worn clothes handed down to them from their elder siblings or parents. But what was long a right of passage for the middle class has quickly disappeared. With the expansion of the middle class, fed largely by remittance, and the easy availability of cheap clothing, primarily from China, it has now become more opportune to buy clothes rather than pass them down. ‘Fancy shops’ selling clothing, lingerie, and accessories have mushroomed across the country, signalling a newfound demand for apparel that is fashionable yet cheap.
These clothes are Nepal’s version of ‘fast fashion’, a business model where high-fashion trends are reproduced quickly and cheaply for sale to the masses. Fast fashion brands like H&M, Zara, and Forever21 have made billions but have also been on the receiving end of much criticism, particularly for their planned obsolescence, promotion of consumer culture, and their lasting effects on the environment.
A 2018 report by the United Nations Environmental Programme points out that the fashion industry produces 10 percent of the world’s carbon emissions and 20 percent of global wastewater. In the book Fashionopolis: The price of fast fashion and the future of clothes, author Dana Thomas points out how fast fashion contributes not just to climate change but also reinforces practices such as sweatshops and a lack of workplace standards.
Fast fashion might dominate the world but there is a small but rising movement against this fashion trend. The tragic Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh brought the dismal working conditions of many fast fashion brands to global attention and heralded a pushback against such brands.
In Nepal too, young Nepalis like Dongaa are aware of the consequences of fast fashion trends and see them as antithetical to their ethical and environmental concerns.
“Our culture of wearing hand-me-down clothes since when we were kids is an ethical practice that we can still follow,” said Dongaa. “The clothes get a new life when we go ‘pre-loved’ or wear hand-me-downs. Even ethical brands leave a large carbon footprint when producing that piece on display.”
To cater to environmentally conscious Nepalis like Dongaa, a range of conscious clothing lines has recently appeared in Nepal. Sourced from eco-friendly natural materials, these ‘conscious clothing’ stores provide an alternative to fast fashion along ethical and environmental lines. These stores claim to source their raw material ethically and in environmentally safe ways, while also providing their workers with a fair wage.
One such store is Lagom Nepal Atelier, which uses environmentally friendly material such as cotton, linen, bamboo and hemp.
“These fabrics are environmentally friendly even after they go to the landfill,” said Hana Rai, who owns and operates Lagom Nepal. “We make sure that our fabrics, from harvesting to making yarn, are sourced from ethically conscious suppliers. Our employees involved in production are also fairly and equitably paid.”
Satisfying these conditions is part of a burgeoning ‘slow fashion’ movement, a term coined by the writer Thomas, that aims to use local material that is sourced ethically. But slow fashion clothing such as the ones from Lagom Nepal take longer time and cost more. Each piece takes up to a week or more to craft, said Rai, who is in her 20s.
Alongside the establishment of ethically conscious fashion brands like Lagom, there has also been a corresponding rise in online thrift shops that resell second-hand clothing. For instance, Dongaa’s online store, myamaworethat, sells carefully selected second-hand clothing while Dohoran Nepal is another popular online thrift store that has around 9,000 followers. There are other, smaller stores like antidote.go, thriftmandu, vintage treasure, that have dedicated followings in the few thousands.
“The thrift scene in Nepal is booming and it is reaching out to a more diverse audience,” said Rai.
However, Rai feels that the stigma of wearing second-hand clothes still lingers. While wearing hand-me-downs might be a very Nepali thing, many still hesitate to purchase and wear second-hand clothes from strangers.
“I feel that there is a certain stigma attached to sustainable practices such as second-hand clothing and slow fashion. People view second-hand clothing as dirty and only for people who can’t afford new clothes,” said Rai. “Mending and reusing clothes is the first step to ethical practice and it is something that we Nepalis have been doing for such a long time.”
While buying second-hand clothes or conscious clothing might be an antidote to the proliferation of low quality, cheap apparel, there are those who believe that consumption itself is the problem.
On her blog ecoholique, Shally Sarawagi writes about the links between climate change, sustainability and fashion, pointing out that while ethical clothing is a positive step, mass consumption still contributes to a larger environmental footprint.
“Ethical fashion does not mean you have to buy fashion at all. If you don't buy new clothes you are already supporting ethical fashion. That costs nothing. Or you could buy second hand, that way you are supporting fashion, that is very cheap,” said Sarawagi.
According to Sarawagi, being fashionable does not always have to come with a hefty price tag but also that a choice of clothing should not affect the planet.
“Use what's already in your wardrobe,” she said. “Swap with your friends. Buy second hand. Then, if you really need to, buy from a brand that sells durable clothes and use that item of clothing for a long long time.”
Aishwarya Baidar Aishwarya Baidar is a fashion blogger and a media studies student at Kathmandu University.
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