Before we get into things, it’s important that I confess something: I really love shopping. It sparks joy like no other activity. So it makes sense that I used to be fully addicted to ASOS. Once a month, neat little black-and-white packages would arrive at my door, filled with skirts, turtlenecks, and plastic-wrapped packets of earrings that I still wear and love to this day. Why am I starting a blog on how fast fashion sucks by boldly stating that ASOS still owns a piece of my heart? The answer is simple: I see far too many articles on fast fashion where authors position themselves as morally superior to the reader. Oh, you like cheaply made clothing that ruins the environment and is terrible for garment workers, they seem to say, let me tell you why you suck as a human being. Not me. I’m writing this blog from one fast fashion ex-lover to another. If I went from buying monthly (and sometimes weekly) packages from fast fashion sites to quitting almost cold turkey, you can too!
What is Fast Fashion?
So what exactly is “fast fashion”? The term certainly gets thrown around a lot, but let’s make sure we’re on the same page before we go any further. Fast fashion refers to cheaply and quickly made clothing that draws inspiration from current fashion trends. Brands see the types of clothing that consumers want in that exact moment and make them as quickly as possible to capitalize on these trends. Though this model may seem like the obvious way that clothes would be produced, it’s important to note that this style of marketing and producing clothing hasn’t existed for that long.
Before the Industrial Revolution, what we know as “slow fashion” (which we’ll get into later) was the only type of fashion there was. Artisans had to get fabrics like wool and leather straight from the source before even beginning to make the clothes. Once the Industrial Revolution came around, new machinery allowed clothes to be made cheaply and much quicker than had previously been possible. Over the next few decades, clothing went from something that was relatively custom-made to the mass-produced system we know now, where companies sell thousands of copies of the same style in different sizes. But even during this time, companies were still working with a seasonal model, planning roughly a year in advance for what styles to sell each season. The seasonal model was faithfully used until the 90s and early 2000s, when retailers like Zara and H&M gained popularity by forgoing this system in favor of a much quicker one with 52 “micro-seasons,” taking designs right from the runway and producing them cheaply within a few weeks. But while fast fashion may allow us to express our individual style without breaking the bank, that ability comes with a cost.
How Does Fast Fashion Impact the Environment?
Environmentally, fast fashion sucks. There’s really no other way to put it. As it stands right now, the fashion industry is responsible for 10% of the world’s carbon emissions. That’s more than airlines and international shipping produce combined. And not only is the fashion industry pumping out more carbon emissions than a majority of other industries, but clothing production is also the second-largest consumer of the international water supply, a resource that is running precariously low.
Additionally, a majority of the clothing coming from fast fashion companies is being produced outside of the United States and has to be shipped, contributing even more to the amount of carbon emitted each year. Though the disastrous effects of fast fashion are bad enough on their own, things get even worse when you consider the fact that the people living near these factories (often far-removed from where the products are being shipped to and worn) bear the brunt of the environmental impacts, as dyes and other toxins are often dumped into local water supplies.
And it’s not just the production and shipping process that hurts the Earth. Fast fashion has led to exponentially higher levels of textile waste. Consumers are so used to buying things and moving on as soon as fashion trends have changed that the amount of discarded clothing and fabric in the United States has doubled in the past twenty years.
How Does Fast Fashion Impact Workers?
One of the easiest ways to keep costs down is for fast fashion companies to outsource production to lower and middle-income countries (LMICs) who often have fewer workplace regulations than countries like the United States have. Most people are aware that clothing production is outsourced to countries like Vietnam or Bangladesh, so I’m sure that’s not news that around 90% of clothing is currently produced in LMICs. It’s also a pretty well-known fact that garment workers are paid very little. But just how little they’re paid is something that no one really puts into perspective, so here you go: of the twenty-one top countries that export clothing to the United States, not a single one pays the average garment worker a living wage. Some wages are as low as 14% of a living wage, which is the equivalent of working in the United States for only $1/hour. In other words, the only reason you’re able to get cheap clothing from fast fashion companies is that the garment workers making it are essentially paid nothing and typically not given compensation for things like workplace injuries.
What is Slow Fashion?
“Slow fashion” is an intentional way of thinking about fashion and clothing production that, unsurprisingly, positions itself as the exact opposite of fast fashion. Slow fashion brands prioritize environmental impact and fair treatment of garment workers, making them considerably “slower” than fast fashion brands. What this means in practice is that these brands produce far fewer styles than their competitors, usually reverting back to the four-season model that was popular before the 1990s. In exchange for that slower production period, companies typically use more environmentally friendly materials and pay workers more fairly. Another staple of slow fashion is longevity. Unlike clothing from fast fashion brands, which is made to last for a few years, slow fashion is made to last, eliminating the need to buy new styles every year or so.
Read more: Sustainable Baby Clothes
Buying from slow fashion brands isn’t the only way to lower the social impact of your shopping. For one thing, slow fashion brands are often significantly more expensive than fast fashion, eliminating them as an option for many shoppers. And not only is it cheaper, but buying from thrift stores also ensures that you’re not contributing to the environmental waste that goes hand-in-hand with buying new articles of clothing. Buying second-hand reduces the water waste and carbon emissions you would get otherwise, while also helping to cut down on the ridiculous amount of textile waste that the US faces. With sites like Depop and ThredUp, you can thrift without ever leaving your house, making it just as easy as ordering off of fast fashion sites. While thrifting all our clothing isn’t the ultimate solution to our environmental problems, it does help to significantly reduce our individual carbon footprints and creates less of a demand for new clothing to be made.
Supporting Conscious Brands
So-called “conscious brands” have become more and more popular in recent years as consumers have demonstrated a desire for products that align with their environmental, social, or political views. But is it actually important to seek out and support companies with conscious missions? The short answer is yes. The slightly longer answer is that buying products from a brand is essentially giving them a little thumbs up. From a sales standpoint, you’re telling them to continue behaving the way they have been. For fast fashion brands, that means telling them that there is a demand for cheap clothes, even if the production of those clothes is hurting the environment and garment workers. For slow fashion and other conscious brands, buying their products is giving the fashion industry a nudge that they need to get on board with fairer wages, better environmental standards, local production, etc.
Now I’m not saying that everything you buy from here on out needs to align 100% with your ideal version of the future. (I’ll admit- I bought vegan mochi from Whole Foods just last week). But I am asking you to be more critical of the brands you are buying from. Where do they source their materials from? How do they treat their workers? Are they contributing financially to nonprofits or campaigns that you take issue with? If you find you don’t like the answers to these questions, do some research! See if you can find more conscious companies producing similar products at a price point you feel comfortable with.
Like conscious brands, the term “capsule wardrobe” is something that I had heard a lot, but didn’t really get until around a year ago. The ethos behind capsule wardrobes is simple. Sometimes it feels like we have so much stuff and nothing to wear. Sometimes it feels like we have so much stuff, period. Capsule wardrobes are about taking all that stuff and getting rid of the things you don’t wear or don’t really like, editing your wardrobe down to just your favorite pieces. Think of it like the Marie Kondo method of creating a collection of clothes. If you don’t love something, donate it, sell it or use the materials as scrap. What you’ll have in the end is a core group of clothing and accessories that encourage you to be intentional about your purchasing habits, rather than buying whatever is trendy. Proponents of the capsule wardrobe, like Courtney Carver of Project 333, argue for hard limitations on the amount of items in your wardrobe (Carver asks people to keep only 33 articles of clothing, jewelry and shoes per season), but even if you don’t follow these rules, a capsule wardrobe can still promote more conscious consumer habits while ensuring you’re always wearing something you love!
As much as it sucks to hear it, the best thing to do for the environment is to change your relationship with consumerism altogether. Consumers in the United States are buying too much, full stop. Part of resolving that definitely can go hand in hand with buying from slow fashion brands. Clothing from these brands will last much, much longer than fast fashion clothing, meaning you’ll buy less in the long run. However, the best thing we can do for the environment is really just to pause before we buy something and ask if we really need it. As much as we want to make ourselves feel better by thinking we can just recycle the packaging from these products, we need to be real with ourselves. Being mindful of where your waste goes doesn’t negate the fact that the initial production process creates waste as well- our recycling is often either not recycled or creates more waste. We can’t look to recycling or using recycled materials as a solution. The solution is simply buying less.
Kicking Your Fast Fashion Habits
Even if you’re a fast fashion addict like I used to be, there are still a ton of options to make sure you’re getting your fashion fix while minimizing the harm you’re causing to the Earth and garment workers. Buying from thrift stores or conscious brands will give you a similar rush of serotonin to the one you get from Shein, I promise. One important note before I finish this up: if you have the means to shop from conscious or slow fashion brands, that doesn’t mean that you have better morals than someone who may still order from fast fashion sites. We need to meet everyone where they are and that means that there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to ethical consumer habits. The most important thing is just that we’re all thinking critically about how we’re buying things and doing our best to hold onto clothing rather than tossing it as soon as a new style comes out.