Fashion Designer Vivienne Westwood once said, “Buy less. Choose well. Make it last. Quality, not quantity. Everybody’s buying far too many clothes.”
Although Westwood said this in 2013, her wise words still apply today. Fast fashion, the mass production of clothing at an inexpensive price, has become more popular than ever in recent years. The low prices that the clothing is advertised at is attractive to consumers, so they choose not to acknowledge the low quality, environmental and inhumane costs that come along with it. According to “Fast Fashion” from Investopedia, fast fashion production is estimated to grow 7% by 2023. This increase is concerning if you consider the detrimental effects of fast fashion on the environment, human rights, and wasteful consumer behavior. A former MOR member, Eleanor Zwart, wrote a similar article about second-hand clothing a couple years ago. However, in this article, I hope to give you insight on the actual effects of fast fashion and ways to shift to more sustainable consumerism. Many Oyster River community members are passionate about educating others on fast fashion and its alternatives, so continue reading to hear from them.
Evy Ashburner (‘22) explained the initial rise and intent of fast fashion. “During the 1930’s, 50’s, and 60’s was the start of fast fashion and ‘off the rack’ clothing was becoming popular. During the 1950’s we saw the 4 season clothing becoming a thing, like winter, summer, fall, and spring clothes, so there’s only 4 changes [to a clothing line] in a year.” She continued, “but the fashion industry continued to change and become bigger and bigger so we see trends going in and out of style faster, and in the 90’s the 4 season clothing turned into 6 season clothing leading…over the decades, the fashion trend cycle and seasons have gotten short and shorter and fast fashion was built from this.” Companies essentially created the concept of fast fashion to keep up with the short trend cycles as well as produce massive amounts of clothing to suffice for all consumers of it. Ashburner also similarly summarizes, “fast fashion is the trend cycle and how quickly it’s [clothing] made to keep up with that cycle.”
According to “Fast Fashion Explained” from Vox, the leading companies in fast fashion, such as H&M and Zara, feed into environmentally unfriendly and fast manufacturing practices like Asburner mentioned. These companies manufacture clothing at a quick pace to meet consumer demand. For example, in 2012, Zara was able to design, produce, and deliver a new garment in just 2 weeks, Forever 21 in 6 weeks, and H&M in 8 weeks. And as of 2020, most fast fashion companies are able to put out 4o new pieces of clothing a week. The fast turnaround for clothing production leads to obscene amounts of waste whether it’s actual materials or carbon emissions.
However, Zara and H&M are not the only companies that produce trend-cycle based clothing. Many of our favorite inexpensive clothing brands such as Shein, Fashion Nova, Zaful, and Boohoo, are all guilty of producing fast fashion.
Now, why exactly are these companies “bad” for giving in to fast fashion? Fast fashion production takes an unbelievable toll on the environment. According to an article called “The fashion industry emits more carbon than international flights and maritime shipping combined. Here are the biggest ways it impacts the planet: from Business Insider, fast fashion makes up 10% of global carbon emissions. At this rate, the carbon emissions coming from fast fashion is estimated to increase to 26% by 2050 leading to the severity of global warming to increase as well.
As for the actual production of fast fashion, the Quantis International report from 2018 took note of three main drivers to the fashion industry’s global pollution. The study showed that the biggest contributors were dyeing, yarn preparation, and fiber production. The study also found that fiber production had a huge impact on freshwater withdrawal and water waste.
To understand exactly how much water waste we are talking about, according to “Fast Fashion Explained” from Vox, the fast fashion industry is the second largest consumer of water, requiring about 700 gallons of water to produce one cotton shirt. Although not considered a non-renewable resource, it’s still crucial to conserve water whenever possible. However, fast fashion companies clearly don’t feel the same way. Additionally, many brands use synthetic fibers like polyester and nylon which take hundreds of years to biodegrade. The process of also making these fibers into textiles is an energy-intensive process that requires petroleum which is dangerous to the workers unsustainable.
Another negative byproduct of fast fashion is human rights. According to an article called “By the Numbers: The Economic, Social, and Environmental Impacts of Fast Fashion” from the World Resources Institute , 80% of apparel is made by young women between the ages of 18-24. A 2018 Department of Labor report found evidence of forced and child labor in the fashion industry in many different countries. Forced labor includes things like physical violence, restriction on workers’ freedom, and withholding their wages. The rapid production of clothing with no regard to human welfare signifies the importance of sales and profits to these companies.
Ashburner says, It’s important to realize that $5 for an entire set [of clothing] is just not realistic and you should be cautious buying [firsthand] clothes that are under $3-5…I’ve taken a couple sewing classes and I know the process of sewing a garment. I’ve sewed a couple dresses and it’s really difficult. Sewing is not something that happens really fast, it takes a lot of time.”
Based on Ashburner’s experience sewing a garment, the production of clothing is clearly laborious and timely. Clothing factory workers should be receiving wages equivalent to their time and hardwork in livable conditions which is not the case in many clothing factories.
Sustainability Coordinator of ORHS Maggie Morrison expanded on this and said, “as a consumer, it’s important to think through who made that [piece of clothing] and educate yourself on the working conditions and recognize that there is a human cost to you having inexpensive clothing…there are so many other hidden costs to fast fashion.”
We’ve established that fast fashion is harmful to the environment and uses unethical practices, but it also drives wasteful human behavior. Many fast fashion companies sell their clothing at extremely low prices. Asburner said, “you can probably buy a whole outfit under $7 dollars.” Poor and cheap quality materials are the cause of these low prices which many consumers don’t realize. However, once they buy a shirt and it rips within a month, that shirt is going straight to the trash, as its condition is probably not good enough for second hand use. Because the shirt was purchased for so little, consumers also don’t feel as guilty for simply throwing it away and will continue this behavior in the future. Additionally, if an article of clothing is no longer trending, fast fashion consumers are quick to discard it and buy the newer and trendier clothing that is being advertised by fast fashion companies. This eventually leads to a cycle of unnecessary waste from just clothing.
Now that we’ve gone over the environmental and humane effects of fast fashion, why would people continue to purchase from those companies? The extremely low prices are attractive to consumers who want to buy as much trendy clothing as they can afford. Sarzosa spoke on this, “for economic reasons, it’s [fast fashion] a more affordable option for many but I’ve seen people on TikTok brag about making SHEIN [a popular fast fashion company] orders that are over a $100 and I think that if they’re able to spend that much money on their purchase, why couldn’t they have spent it on a smarter and more ethical brand?”
Fortunately, a good amount of consumers are shifting their attention and buying from more sustainable and ethical brands when financially possible. Some of the leading brands right now are Patagonia and Reformation, but many companies are on the rise of becoming 100% eco-friendly in upcoming years. To find out whether a brand is sustainable or not, simply reading the “About” section on their website is a good place to start. Look for information on the materials they use for their clothing (100% organic cotton, recycled cotton, recycled polyester, etc), the labor laws (if not available, the store is most likely not abiding by them), and their future plans for becoming more eco-friendly. Another helpful resource is the website Remake where you can search your favorite brands and learn whether or not they are truly eco-friendly.
Sofia Sarzosa (‘22) explained what to look out for while trying to purchase sustainable clothing. She said, “when looking for alternative stores, it is important to also check if the brand may be greenwashing.” According to Oxford Dictionary, Greenwashing is the term for when a company presents itself as environmentally responsible when in reality they aren’t. Greenwashing can also include when a company claims to be sustainable but doesn’t abide any labor laws and regulations.
Ashburner gave an example of this. “H&M recently announced they were becoming more eco-friendly by using better materials for their products but actually it was found that they still use forced labor and things like that.”
However, the brands I listed above, like Patagonia, are on the expensive side, which many people cannot afford to buy from frequently. For those in that situation, Ashburner suggests buying from thrift stores. She said, “ I think it [thrifting] is really awesome because it shows that ‘being trendy’ isn’t necessarily buying from big brands…instead it [being trendy] can be sustainable and affordable.” She continued, “thrifting is a great way to find sustainable, inexpensive, and also really unique and personalized things.”
Like Ashburner, Sarzosa also advocates for buying second-hand clothing, “[second-hand clothing] can give you the opportunity to find unique or vintage items.” However she explained the issues that come with the resale industry. “Depop, for example, is extremely popular but in many cases people will use it to make good profit by selling lightly worn items close to or higher than retail value and essentially fuel the buying of disposable clothing once again.”
When thrifting on large online stores like Depop or Thredup, it is important to look out for the sellers that are trying to make profit. This can simply be done through a Google search and finding the item’s original price.
Ashburner also advocated for shopping locally as well, and said, “supporting local business [is really important] and downtown Portsmouth has great boutiques.”
Clearly, there are many alternatives to fast fashion but it’s important to still be cautious to not give into deceiving brands that claim they are sustainable as well as second-hand clothing that’s being sold equal to retail price. However, Sarzosa understands that it’s difficult to switch to a more eco-friendly lifestyle. She said, “in today’s times and with our generation specifically, people are being more perceptive to how we’re harming the environment, but it’s still difficult to have people stop supporting their favorite brands like Nike, Zara, Urban Outfitters, and all those other big players. Consumer habits and the mindset to ‘buy in bulk’ need to change for people to be less wasteful and think more ethically.
Shifting to this mindset and acting upon it isn’t only going to positively impact the environment but eventually also your wallets. According to “How you can help make sustainable fashion more affordable” from Harper’s Bazaar, if people start buying sustainable clothing when they’re able to, it will soon lead to lower prices in a similar manner to what has happened with organic food where average prices are dropping as more certified items are available in stores.
Dropping prices of sustainable clothing takes a nation-wide effort from people who are able to afford it. Obviously, this would be a long-term thing but eventually it would lead to a more sustainable fashion industry that more and more people could afford to support.
This change could begin with you shifting your mindset and making more environmentally responsible decisions when shopping. Like Westwood said, “quality over quantity” is the mindset that people need to achieve in order to make a difference on the planet.