Parting Ways with Fast Fashion

Photo by Kris Atomic from Unsplash

A year ago my consumer identity was entrenched in the cult of discount shopping. Ironically, at that time, walking past any store that offered bargains would prove to be a losing battle for both my pocketbook and sanity. Whenever I walked past a Forever 21 store, I was instantly mesmerized by the feel-good pop ballads and the smell of formaldehyde veiled in fragrances that emanated from the depths of the store. Once inside my heart began to palpitate at the sights of all the clothes on the sleek mannequins, while my mind quickly imagined all the new personas that I could become. Would I be bohemian? Punk? Or perhaps mod? It seemed that the possibilities were endless. At the completion of my “peek” in the store, I had bought $100 worth of merchandise, most of which were camisoles and t-shirts in an array of colors that did not cost more than $4 each. After organizing the pieces in my closet, I would end up wearing a few of them on a rare occasion, but the majority remained forgotten in the depths of my closet, not to see the light of day until a spring cleaning binge.

I was trapped in this cycle — year after year — feeling as if I did not have anything to wear in the sea of clothes that was my closet. Each and every time I went shopping, I subconsciously knew that I did not need more, but I craved the fleeting moments of happiness that came with buying large amounts of clothing at discount prices. My life was a rollercoaster ride of attempts to combat hedonic adaptation after whirlwind shopping sprees. Even when the clothes would rip for lack of quality, or when I realized I had enough black camisoles to fit in an entire drawer, I did not step back and realize how my addiction to fast fashion was entirely out of control. Being in so deep with American consumerism and so far removed from the supply chain, I lived in blissful ignorance of the injustices that fast fashion was committing.

It was not until sophomore year of college that I would gain a consciousness of how problematic the fashion industry was. As I was sitting in a crowded lecture hall, I watched the premiere of “The True Cost,” a documentary that uncovers the nitty-gritty world of a trillion dollar industry, revolving around the degradation of our natural environment, the dehumanization of garment workers through denial of basic human rights, and the manipulation of consumer society by means of destructive advertising strategies. The documentary focuses on three groups that keep the industry churning: the millions of oppressed workers, the multinational corporations, and the consumers. The workers — the bottom feeders within the global production chain — endure horrific working conditions because they have no other employment opportunities, while the multinational corporations reap all the profits. The average American consumers are portrayed to be helpless masses, unable to envision the horrific conditions that workers face because all that matters is being able to buy multiple pairs of jeans for $20. By being so disconnected from the experiences of oppressed workers, consumers find it easy to continue to participate in non-stop, mindless purchasing. The call to action at the end of the documentary urges consumers to truly think about their shopping habits, so that they can influence the industry to change the way they do business.

There I was, a Global Studies student with a desire to work for an international human rights organization after graduation, yet I was wearing a black dress from H&M and educating myself for the first time on a pertinent international issue. I was ashamed that before viewing the documentary, I had never taken the time to inquire about the livelihood of the people who made the clothes that I wore on a daily basis. Living in my own privileged bubble, I never considered whether or not they earned fair wages, worked in safe environments, or had any ability to unionize. At that moment, I decided to break my dependence on the world of fast fashion and become a socially-conscious shopper. At the onset, this proved to be a difficult endeavor. The lack of transparency in the fashion industry combined with constant societal pressure from the media made me feel like I was not “cool” if I opted out of buying new pieces each season. However, after a year of committing time and energy into reconstructing my approach to buying clothes, I found out it is possible to reconcile both style and conscientiousness. This is my advice for consumers who are looking to change their shopping habits to reflect those of informed and compassionate citizens:

  1. Reject complacency . Don’t be afraid to ask questions on matters regarding where your clothes come from and who makes them. At the sales rack, ask yourself: “How can this skirt be priced at $3.99?” and “How did it arrive in my shopping mall at such a low price?” With prices too good to be true, there has to be someone who pays the price somewhere along the way. Straying away from euphemisms, such as laborers or indentured servants, it is clear to identify that the cost is paid at the hands of slaves. The majority of these slaves consist of women, children, and marginalized groups that do not have the resources to speak out. If you consider yourself to be a feminist, an activist, or just a compassionate global citizen, unraveling even a modicum of truth about fast fashion will fuel the fire to learn more.
  2. Stop being a slave to the system . The fashion industries indoctrinate consumers to trust in a fleeting time frame for clothes, in which the trendiest styles begin to visibly wither on the consumer after a few hours of purchase. Fast fashion retailers are not only cheating their workers but they are cheating you. With a high demand for cheap clothes, companies will continue to manufacture garments at alarming rates and be inept at recognizing the human side of commerce. Take a break from shopping for clothes for a month. For some people who partake in shopping as a weekend ritual, this can prove to be quite the challenge. A month without shopping brings awareness to how tempted we are to constantly augment our wardrobe, more frequently than not with pieces we do not need.
  3. Embrace recycled fashion. The recycled fashion shopping experience — existing as the antithesis of fast fashion — requires time and contemplation that can transform the most mindless consumer into a sophisticated shopper. Buying clothes at vintage, consignment, or thrift stores, reduces the amount of energy used to produce new clothes, therefore giving workers a much needed break. Besides there is the advantage that pieces will be at more affordable price points and of a higher quality than their retail counterparts. If a used piece is in good condition it is a glaring testimony that it is durable and can continue to stand the test of time with proper care.
  4. Invest in high-quality and sustainable brands. Instead of easily buying a cheap sweater on a whim, take your time to put aside money to invest in a high-quality sweater. Saving money requires patience and self-control but in the end it will be worth it when your wardrobe consists of well-thought out and timeless pieces made by socially conscious companies. These companies make a point to ensure that they bring about a positive impact on all fronts, through their customers, employees, natural environment, and local communities. If you cannot find ethical companies in your town, the Internet has hundreds of thousands of resources on ethical clothing lines that can be sure to fit your style and budget. Start with brands such as People Tree or Patagonia for inspiration.

I have faith that globalization and capitalism can continue to flourish without compromising the wellbeing of workers and the environment. Just because other industries exploit workers in developing countries, does not mean it is acceptable for the fashion industry to follow suit. Innovation through design has always been at the core of the fashion industry, so it makes sense that it should be distributed evenly, from the beginning of the supply chain in factories, all the way to the end in retail stores. As consumers we have the power to influence multinational retail companies to treat their overseas workers as valuable parts of their business rather than replaceable commodities. From diverting money from questionable to transparent companies, using hashtags such as #whomademyclothes, to simply buying less, we can be the united force that transforms the way the fashion industry operates.