Story by: Ayo Awofeso

Staff Reporter

March 3, 2023

A sweater is listed on H&M. In a day, H&M’s whole stock will be bought out and set for shipment. In a week, someone will receive this sweater and post pictures of their outfit online. In two more weeks, it will be donated, sitting beside similarly created clothing in a secondhand store. In another two weeks, it will be sitting in a landfill, among thousands of clothing items just like it. This is the story of tons of trendy clothes featured online. Though not unique, the exponential amount of waste just like it is destructive for the future of the fashion industry.

Retailers such as Fashion Nova, SHIEN, Zara, and H&M are some of the biggest leaders in fast fashion in the world, largely because of online sales. Many of the younger generations are more likely to buy clothing from online retailers in frequent and large quantities, or hauls. The demand for new clothing exacerbates the production of these items; leading opportunistic companies to make more and more lucrative clothing items in the cheapest way possible. 

In the online world, trends have a short shelf life. Many people who get a haul one month will find that these clothes no longer fit their style for the next. After Break Magazine points to social media making these trend cycles shorter; “…the trend cycle is being cut shorter and shorter and the concept of the 20-year cycle seems to be becoming less and less reliable as a way of navigating the ever-changing and unpredictable trends being thrown our way…now it’s become a ”dirty word“ in fashion—just an item that‘s gained clout on social media and will phase out in no time.” Boredom forces trends to die quicker. Micro-trends encourage both shoppers to buy more and industries to change their styles faster and faster to keep up with trends. In this landscape, clothing becomes easily disposable, and in the cases of fast fashion brands, results in pollution and unethical treatment of workers.

Fast fashion companies don’t make clothing built to last. To cut back on costs, many pieces of clothing are made from synthetic material, which is often nonbiodegradable. A whopping 551,155 tons of plastic microfibers are estimated to be dumped in the water from the production and washing of clothes every year. A majority of fast fashion companies also use open-loop production cycles, meaning that all unfiltered waste goes directly into open waters and lands.  In total, an estimated 80% of clothing in the world is landfilled or incinerated, which adds to dangerous CO2 emissions and microplastic waste. Fashion Checker recorded that 93% of surveyed brands did not pay their workers a living wage in 2020. This all adds up to an industry that is unhealthy, both for those who buy from it and those who work for it.

To counteract this, many consumers seek to find a better way to get rid of unwanted clothes. Donation to second hand and thrift stores is seen as a way to negate the amount of waste that is caused by buying fast fashion. But this leads to thrifts getting flooded. In 2022, the president and CEO of Goodwill, a retail secondhand brand wrote a response addressing this concern; “The rise of fast fashion has changed the way consumers shop for clothes and encouraged them to overconsume, with a huge cost to the planet.” 

This also means that those who regularly go to the thrift to purchase clothing are met with cheaper quality items. The Weekly Ringer highlights that with the flood of cheap clothing holding space in thrift stores, quality items are less likely to show up. 

On the other side of this argument, there is a phrase that one is certain to hear concerning affordable fashion: ‘There is no ethical consumption under Capitalism.’ This sentence is often used as a shield towards criticism of those who are aware of the negative effects of buying and selling fast fashion items, but do not seek to curb their own habits in any way. Because of this attitude, some blame consumers for buying more clothing than they need. However, this argument fails to acknowledge the majority of those that purchase from these companies. Similar to those who thrift, many people with lower spending brackets will choose to shop from fast fashion brands because of their low prices, in spite of quality. 

For every few fashion influencers making hundred dollar hauls every month, there are hundreds more people that simply buy these clothes because they look good and it’s what they can afford. 

Further, it is hard to define what clothes are necessary for living. There are many hypothetical situations that can be imagined, but ultimately, seeking to blame the individual for the state of the fashion industry lacks nuance. 

So what can be done? The reality is a combination of these ideas. 

It is clear to most people nowadays that fast fashion brands are not sustainable for the planet, and opt out of buying from these companies when they appear. If it is realistic for an individual to buy outside of these brands, doing so is the best choice to not add to clothing waste.

When it comes to buying from name brands, it is good to buy items that are good quality, so that they spend more time being worn than being trashed. Though this often means spending more money on less clothing, the clothing lasts longer than it would if it were cheaper. Choosing sustainable companies can also serve as a substitute for clothing that is still trendy, but less harmful and better for workers.

Thrifting is also an important factor of this. The largest problem with fast fashion is that it creates clothing with a shorter lifespan than usual, creating more waste. If clothing is thrifted, however, clothing of good quality can be salvaged and renewed, and its lifespan can further be extended by reuse and upcycling.

And albeit a tired answer, buying less frequently does diminish potential clothing waste. Identifying micro-trends can make it easier to deliberate on a purchase, and prevent buying items that won’t be held on to for more than a couple of months. 

These are by no means catch-all solutions, but they can be the starting point for creating a healthier fashion world.

Fashion may be cheaper than ever, but it doesn’t mean that personal morals have to be sacrificed to justify buying certain clothing items. Ultimately, it’s up to the individual on whether or not they buy from fast fashion brands or not, and contribute to a better fashion landscape. 

Posted by Ayo Awofeso

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