The latest fashion designs can be dreadfully hard to resist, especially when they come daily in your inbox, festooned with flashy signs announcing “New Arrivals are Here!” Or when advertisements pop up on your web-browser, teeming with flowery spring-ready skirts, jean-jackets tailored to the latest ripped ideals, perfect vintage grey-washed mom jeans—all for astonishingly low prices.
But these ads all fail to list the real price: the cheap labor that made them, the resources exploited, the lasting pollution emitted, and the waste they contribute to.
“Fast fashion brands focus on creating clothes that don’t last a long time,” said Rebecca T. ’22, an avid supporter of second-hand and vintage clothing because of its environmental benefits. “You can just wear their clothes a few times and then throw them away.”
With the rise and flourishing of Instagram influencer culture, wearing the same outfit twice has become a taboo for many. And as social media has become a place to document fashion choices (#OutfitOfTheDay), fast fashion brands such as Fashion Nova, Forever21, H&M, PrettyLittleThing, and Zara lend themselves as the perfect place to shop—when clothes cost $10, it’s a lot easier to only wear an outfit once.
While low prices enable people around the world to buy the latest clothing, they unfortunately also give way to a mass-consumer mindset.
“It gives you the idea that you can buy lots of things if they’re cheap, and that because they’re cheap it’s okay if you don’t use them a lot,” Rebecca said. “But there are more costs than just the price you pay when you buy it.”
Exploitation of cheap labor is the foremost example. In 2018, a U.S. Department of Labor report found that giants in the fashion industry like Forever 21 and H&M were using forced child labor in countries like Argentina, Bangladesh, Brazil, China, Indonesia, Philippines, Turkey, and Vietnam among others to make their clothes.
Garment workers, who are primarily young women, face cruel working conditions and long hours with wages as low as 39 cents per hour.
“People don’t think of the conditions in which the workers have to work in order to produce fast-fashion clothes,” said english teacher Kevin Quinn, who boycotts animal skins and because of their inhumane working conditions as well as to be more environmentally sustainable.
In 2013, the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh—which produced clothes for H&M and others—collapsed, killing at least 1,132 people and injuring over 2,500 more. The Plaza was an accident waiting to happen—the building was built illegally high on unstable swamp land, and when workers voiced complaints about cracks in the plaster, they were ignored. Its fall sparked major backlash and increased awareness about the lack of safe working conditions and ethics in fast fashion.
The Rana Plaza collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Image credit: Munir Uz Zaman/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Beyond the poor labor conditions, fast fashion brands are also leaving a destructive trail in the environment. According to the UN environment programme, the fashion industry is responsible for 10% of the world’s carbon emissions—more than the aviation and shipping industry combined.
“The environment plays a role in every single part of the process,” noted Student Council Environmental Campus Steward Chloe K. ’20, whose passion for the environment has driven her away from fast fashion brands. Even after clothes are purchased, synthetic fabrics continue to hurt the environment: when washed, they leave microfibers in oceans or waterways where they stay forever or are consumed by wildlife. A typical wash load of clothes can pollute the environment with around 700,000 microplastic fibers, and over half a million metric tons of microfibers end up in the sea each year from watching synthetic textiles.
Textile-dying also pollutes waters, leaving behind toxic chemicals in rivers or streams. Though there are ways to prevent this from happening, most factories don’t want to spend extra money to do so, instead turning rivers and lakes into chemical wastelands that could be straight from a sci-fi movie.
The pollution from nearby factories in Tiruppur, India. Image credit: HK Rajasekar/India Today — Getty Images
All of these issues have led people to reconsider where they shop and the footprint their fashion choices leaves behind.
“It’s definitely very hard to be someone who really cares about the environment and sees a lot of damage being done,” said Chloe, who buys most of her clothes second-hand to reuse and repurpose fashion. “I want to try to minimize the amount of harm that I cause.”
Other students have taken similar action.
“I avoid fast fashion and go for the higher quality clothes that may be more expensive in the moment but will last longer,” said Malaika M. ’22, who tries to only purchase from more sustainable brands or from thrifting. Her concern for environmental impact has led her away from fast fashion and instead to brands such as Pangaia, which uses recycled materials and natural dyes.
Likewise, Julia tries to research brands before buying.
“I’m just trying to focus on only buying things that I know I need, that I’ll wear for a long time, and that will go with other things that I already own,” Julia said.
However, she points out that many people don’t have the time to go so in-depth and that marketing can sometimes be misleading.
“They’re really good at making it look like they care about sustainability,” Julia said about brands that “greenwash”—claiming sustainability while in reality doing little to support that. “It’s just a marketing strategy.”
H&M, for example, recently came under fire for their Conscious line. Though they have received praise for encouraging recycling and changing many of their materials into organic cotton, they still have a high clothing turnover and continue to produce cheap and disposable clothes.
And while Everlane—renowned for its “radical transparency” motto—does follow through in terms of fabrics and letting customers know which factories make their clothes, it doesn’t fulfill its promise of disclosing worker pay and raw material practices or sources.
There are apps, such as Good On You, which rate brands based on three factors: their labor, use of animal products, and environmental consequences (on which Everlane is rated “not good enough” and notes as failing to “live up to [their] own hype”). However, especially for companies which work hard to keep their production statistics in the dark, Good on You has trouble providing accurate information.
For these reasons, many have found thrifting or buying second-hand to be a great alternative.
“It’s hard to invest your money in high quality clothes, and by thrifting you can get clothes that are not as expensive,” Malaika said.
Even if Malaika doesn’t find the most current styles, she can always upcycle them into her own style.
“You know that you’re reusing something and they’re not disposed of in a bad way because you’re making use of them,” she said. “Thrifting has the same benefits cost-wise that fast fashion has, but it doesn’t have the disadvantages.”
Similarly, Rebecca buys her clothes second-hand or vintage.
“It’s putting old clothes back into the market and recycling them,” she said.
Either way, it’s clear that people should buy fewer clothes.
“Only buy things if you’ll really get good use out of it, or you saw that it would be a good addition to things you already own,” Julia suggested.
Quinn also purchases based on a similar approach. “If you are buying more things, you should take things away from yourself,” he said.
Though it’s certainly not helpful to hoard clothes, people should also be careful of how they dispose of them.
“A lot of the time when we donate our clothes they’re not actually worn, they’re just disposed of somewhere,” Malaika said. “Either hand them down to a sibling or friend, or donate your clothes to places that actually make use of them.”
Fast fashion brands themselves have contributed to much of the waste, facing backlash for burning or throwing away their extra stock.
“I want to make sure that I don’t add to clothes that go into landfills,” Chloe said. Currently, up to 85% of textiles end up in landfills each year, and clothes with synthetic fibers never decay. Chloe also suggests tailoring and patching clothes instead of just throwing them away immediately to minimize environmental harm.
Ultimately, solving the destructive problems embedded in the fashion industry relies on making conscious shopping choices.
“We need to be more decisive about where we shop if we find out that the circumstances under which the goods are produced are unethical or harmful to workers,” Quinn said, “and educate ourselves more on whom we’re buying from.”
Illustration by Anouschka B.