We’re knee-deep in the holiday purchasing season and that means a lot of sales, a lot of online surfing, and a lot of spending. According to Adobe, on Black Friday alone, consumers spent a record-breaking $9 billion. In this piece, MEDIAGIRLS Editorial Intern Melody Tuan discusses the cost of the clothing industry–an industry that girls are particularly obsessed with–the role that social media plays in the fast fashion world, and how girls can begin to rethink their relationship with fashion and mindless, wasteful consumerism, more broadly!
You’ve probably come across the term “fast fashion” in reference to popular clothing brands such as: H&M, Fashion Nova, and SHEIN (and the list only goes on and on). What is fast fashion though? The name bears an uncanny resemblance to “fast food” – it’s cheap, the production is speedy, and the quality of the products are questionable at best. On the surface, fast fashion is cheap clothing modeled after luxury fashion trends. But, while this may sound appealing to the average consumer–particularly the average teen–the industrialization of fast fashion is actually doing far more harm than good. Fast fashion may appear low-cost, but it comes at a high-cost both ethically and environmentally.
If you check the tags on any piece of clothing from fast fashion brands, chances are, you’ll see that it was manufactured in a foreign country such as China, Bangladesh, Thailand, or Myanmar where labor is cheap and the factories are oftentimes unregulated. Because the cost of labor and production is cheaper for the companies, the workers (and often child laborers), are subjected to hazardous chemicals, overwork, and accidents from poor safety standards.
Workers in these factories are forced to produce clothing at an alarmingly rapid rate as fast fashion brands cycle through “seasonal collections,” constantly switching out older collections for newer and more “on trend” designs. The issue of the rapid cycling of collections isn’t only mass production, but mass waste as a by-product. The mass production of clothing from the textile industry emits large amounts of greenhouse gases, making fast fashion one of the most polluting industries in the world. According to Vice, since 2000, global clothing production has more than doubled, and 85% of those clothes end up in a landfill. Companies such as H&M have repeatedly been accused of burning damaged and unsold clothes by the ton. We’re producing, consuming, and discarding more than we can keep up with, causing irreparable damage to the environment.
The average American throws away 82 pounds of textiles per year!
(Image source: Rinse)
While fast fashion’s designs often mimic luxury brands, they have also been known to steal from independent artists. In 2016, Zara was accused of stealing designs from independent LA-based illustrator and artist Tuesday Bassen. In 2018, British designer Carrie Anne Roberts found that Old Navy was selling almost identical copies of her graphic T-shirts for half the price. Unfortunately, while these occurrences are all too common in the fashion industry, as a fledgling artist, it’s almost impossible to legally challenge large established brands. Often the independent artists are dismissed because they don’t have trademarks for their fonts or designs. Additionally, because of the profitability of fast fashion, these companies can afford expensive lawyers against smaller artists who cannot financially compete with a lawsuit.
Large, fast fashion brands rip off small, indie designers.
If fast fashion is so bad, then why do we still support it, especially during the holiday shopping season? Well, fashion is an influential part of our culture, and mainstream and social media advertisements sell a materialistic lifestyle to consumers, often saying: your life is not complete unless you are keeping up with the newest trends and threads. If you scroll through your Instagram feed, chances are you’ll see influencers modeling clothes while promoting fast-fashion brands such as: Princess Polly, Revolve, YesStyle, and more. The influencers are donning a new outfit in every post, never repeating a look. Chances are, you’ll see influencers leave their personalized discount codes in the captions, too. This encourages an even greater cycle of consumerism as companies sponsor influencers to then draw in even more customers from their following.
Influencers on social media allow companies to have 24/7 access to consumers.
(Screenshot of @valerialipovetsky’s Instagram account)
Then what can we do to stop the cycle? To break the cycle of blind consumerism, we have to be willing to change our mindset. To start, we can refer to the five Rs of recycling originally coined from Bea Johnson in her book Zero Waste Home. The five Rs are as follows:
Refuse is as simple as saying “no” to buying that cute shirt you don’t need. Refusing can also mean boycotting companies that have unethical labor practices. It means rejecting the idea that we need to be “in fashion” or that we need to constantly be buying to be happy.
Reducing means only buying and using what you need. It’s the practice of reducing the accumulation of clothing in your closet by reducing the amount of things you are purchasing.
Reusing means making the most out of what you have. It may mean wearing that same pair of jeans a couple times a week over a two-year period. There’s no shame in that!
Recycling is being smart with your decisions if you no longer have use for something. If your old clothes don’t fit anymore, don’t rush to throw them out. Donate them or sell them to a thrift shop. There are plenty of apps and websites–like ThredUp–that can help you find a new home for your old clothes.
Repurposing (originally “rot” in Johnson’s book, but changed to repurposing when addressing clothing) is the practice of finding new uses out of old or damaged clothing items. There are plenty of crafting ideas online to make new uses for your ripped shirts! You can get creative and repurpose an item to be useful in a new way!
We have a choice in where our clothing goes!
(Image source: Encircled)
Many influencers have been outspoken about the issues within the fast fashion industry and vow to only support sustainable brands. Ideally, we’d all be able to shop sustainably and only give our money to brands that are ethical and environmentally friendly. Sadly, the reality is that sustainable brands are often more expensive due to the cost of eco-friendly material and fair labor. As a result, shopping sustainably may not be attainable for everyone.
@mikaelaloach is an influencer on Instagram who promotes sustainable practices and consumption on social media.
(Screenshot of @mikaelaloach’s Instagram account)
Buying from fast fashion companies does not make you a bad person. The system is corrupt, and sometimes we do what we can to get by. But there is always the option to make sure we’re making the best decision we can. Bought a pair of pants from a fast fashion company? Make sure you get your wear out of them for more than one season. Need a new sweater? Research brands before buying from them. Thrift, thrift, thrift! Follow blogs that teach affordable sustainability. There are ways that we can all be better consumers.
If we’re able to curb our addiction to shopping and hold companies accountable for the damage they’re causing, we have the power to reshape the fashion industry.
MEDIAGIRLS Virtual Mission Four is all about decoding advertisements and the posts of social media influencers’ so girls don’t fall into the trap of mindless consumption. Check out Mission Four (and our seven other Virtual Missions) HERE!
Melody Tuan is an undergraduate student at Simmons University majoring in English writing and minoring in Asian studies and Art. She’s an international student from Taiwan who loves rummaging night markets and devouring street food. Deeply inspired by cultural studies and creative expression, she writes with curiosity about identity and media influence.
Featured Image Credit: Fashion Revolution
- Fast Fashion and Outsourcing – Fashion stores always seem to have a million new products to constantly keep up with the customer’s needs. But have you ever considered how they make their clothes so quickly?
- Inside the horrific unregulated sweatshops of Bangladesh
- Fashion’s crippling impact on the environment is only getting worse
- Fashion Nova, H&M, Zara: Why we can’t stop buying fast fashion
- Fashion’s copycat problem: why brands like Zara get away with rip-offs
- The 5 R’s of Zero Waste Living – How To Guide – Unsustainable