Fast Fashion: Fun or Evil?

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Here in New York, as well all over the world, fast fashion stores like Zara, H&M, and Topshop continue to appear like a fast spreading rash. While the fast fashion model is fun, allowing us to constantly experiment with new trends and appearances for ourselves cheaply, it also presents a dark side that the low costs don’t represent.

Fast fashion has grown because retailers figured out that high volume, low cost models can be 2x more profitable than traditional fashion retail models. It works because fast fashion preys on impulsive and wasteful decision making, which feels neurologically pleasurable and is sparking a race to the bottom for, yes, prices, but also labor conditions, product quality, and environmental resources. The most guilty of these brands are H&M, Forever 21, ASOS, and Zara.

But the cheap prices on these garments don’t reflect a larger issue of exploited labor, waste of resources, and appalling working conditions. You might have heard of the factory collapse in Bangladesh which killed over 1,000 people – they were forced to sew cheap clothes in a factory that was reportedly falling apart. It seems crazy that a thousand people should lose their lives so Westerners can keep buying their $10 shirts.

And we aren’t alone in our thinking. Many don’t think of fashion as an industry that can promote sustainability. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that every year Americans throw away 12.7 million tons of textiles; this amounts to sixty-eight pounds per person. And 88% of this waste (11.2 million tons) goes directly to a landfill near you rather than being recycled. Not surprising when you consider that even eco-conscious consumers often don’t feel guilty about or even realize the harm that comes from fast fashion clothes.

So, how can you save the world through your closet?

  • Do your research - Buy from companies that source from ethical labor and sustainable materials. Brands like Patagonia, Maiyet, Everlane, and Ten Thousand Villages, all take massive steps to empower the communities that make their clothes.  

  • Buy better - Invest in fewer, but higher quality pieces that will last.

  • Buy used clothing - It’s fun, it’s green, and thrift stores are inundated with too many clothes.

  • Take a photo of your closet before shopping – Do this to avoid buying repeats and also see a visual representation of areas your wardrobe lacks in or has too much excess

  • Know what you want to buy before you go shopping - Plan shopping trips when you know you're in need. For example, lay out a map of stores you want to visit, and tell yourself, "I need new dress shirts for work." Resist making purchases outside of your goal.

  • Wait 3 days before buying - Sit out the impulsive desires and tell yourself you can go buy what you want if you still want it three days later.

  • Imagine three outfits you can wear with something before you buy it - If you can't think of at least three, it'll likely end up sitting unused in your closet.

  • At the start of the season, turn all of the hangers in your closet around - Flip them when you actually wear the item off the hanger. After a couple months, identify the clothes that you never wore and ask yourself if they still belong in your closet.

And on a side note: made in USA doesn’t necessarily mean without sweatshop labor. The shirt could have been assembled in USA, but the fabric could have been made with exploited labor.

How can we save the world together?

  • Take action! While changing your own habits is important, pressure governments to create better organized inspection groups that talk directly to the workers. Brazil has a powerful model that works because the inspectors are more like consultants who are paid well and not overburdened with too many factories to assess.

  • And pressure corporations to be transparent about their labor practices. In April, participate in Fashion Revolution Day where consumers take to Twitter to ask companies about their sourcing habits. If they don’t want to tell you, or they don’t even know themselves, they’re probably participating in the fast fashion model that is destructive and wasteful.