By Alana Liriano, C2ST Intern, Loyola University
Fast fashion is a manufacturing and marketing method used to rapidly produce high volumes of clothing with a focus on replicating trends and keeping prices inexpensive with low-quality synthetic materials. At first glance, fast fashion stores may seem appealing with their racks of cheap and trendy clothes and the newest pop music playing. Online-only fast fashion stores are also popular and may seem even more attractive by allowing you to casually scroll through hundreds of pages of clothes from your home.
However, there is a dark reality behind the curtain of convenience and trendiness. Fast fashion companies often contribute to climate change while sometimes violating the basic human rights of their workers. While fast fashion entices people with trendy, never-ending options, there are several more sustainable and ethical ways to express your style.
Production of fast fashion is environmentally damaging. For example, producing one pair of jeans takes around 2,000 gallons of water. This water is used in the dying process and is full of toxic chemicals and microplastics. This wastewater pollutes the ocean and winds up in the fish we eat. Once produced and purchased, the clothes have a short lifespan and are quickly discarded. The US threw out 17 million tons of textile waste in the form of used clothing in 2018. The majority of these discarded clothing items end up in landfills, contributing to climate change by releasing about 8% of annual greenhouse gas emissions.
Many of these fast fashion companies have a “Made in Brazil, Bangladesh, India, Turkey, or Vietnam” label. The US Department of Labor reports that the factories in these countries violate workers’ rights by paying low wages for excessively long working hours and lacking basic safety protocols for garment workers. Additionally, some factories employ forced labor and/or child labor. These companies prioritize profit over human welfare and operate as sweatshops.
Further, the increasingly rapid trend cycle pressures consumers to stay up to date on all the “trendy new styles.” However, these clothes are thin, the color bleeds, and are overall low quality. Consequently, consumers end up buying more clothes, more often. This is why some fast fashion companies release multiple new collections a week, ultimately leading to cyclical issues in over-production and impulse-purchasing. The culprit is the industry itself, which promotes the culture at large and protects the manufacturers and distributors from facing any real repercussions.
There are alternative methods that the fashion industry can implement to become more sustainable. The World Resources Institute released a report calling on companies to maximize material efficiency, accelerate the development of innovative materials, and shift to 100% renewable electricity. Better legislation is needed to hold these brands accountable so they enact new, more sustainable, and ethical practices.
However, as a consumer, you have the option to stop supporting these environmentally and socially destructive companies. For example, consider minimizing your frequency to and the amount of clothes you purchase from these stores. Or opt to stop purchasing them entirely.
An alternative to purchasing fast fashion is visiting second-hand or thrift stores, where new life is given to pre-loved clothing and items. Thrift stores are composed of unique vintage pieces which are gently used and will make your closet and home personalized. Thrift stores sell more than just clothes, some have large sections of shoes, household items, furniture, electronics, and decor, all perfectly usable. Often, these items are much cheaper than retail prices.
Some local Chicago favorites are the Green Element in Edgewater and The Brown Elephant in Andersonville (pictured), where you can purchase everything from clothes to tables, framed artworks, cooking utensils, and unused notebooks! Thrift stores have a vast selection of items – there is bound to be something that catches your attention and prevents further degradation of planet earth and our shared home.
While second-hand stores may also have some runoff from the fast fashion overproduction, it saves the items from the fate of the landfill for a bit longer. Purchasing from second-hand stores recycles items that have already been produced, allowing for reuse. This, in turn, reduces the rate of new product production and means that there is less new resource consumption.
Shifting to a “quality over quantity” mindset is another sustainability approach. For example, consider how long you will realistically use an item and reduce impulse buying based on cheap pricing. Consider mending your clothes instead of immediately purchasing a new one, then you can keep your favorite items even if they rip! Ultimately, you can use second-hand thrifting as an opportunity to repurpose pre-existing items, preserve our limited resources, and contribute to ethical and sustainable shopping practices.
Fast fashion is a complex topic with many more factors that come into play, therefore individual research to make informed decisions is key. If you want to learn more, one great resource which goes into depth is “The Conscious Closet: The Revolutionary Guide to Doing Good While Looking Good” by Elizabeth L. Cline.