The ugly side to fashion consumption
Leopard print coat. Silk slip dress. Six-inch heels. Faux fur. The perfect vintage Levi’s. Endless pairs of trousers made out of different fabrics. An array of patterned skirts. Band t-shirts and worn in high-waisted denim shorts.
These are just some of the clothing items that make up my carefully curated closet.
Fashion has interested me since I first started dressing in early 2000’s trends as a child, many of which ironically have now come back in style, like the iconic Juicy Couture sweatsuit.
I’ve also been engaged in environmentalism since I joined an after-school club called Kids For Saving Earth in the first grade. It was in these meetings that I was first introduced to activism and learned about the dangers of pollution, the threat of climate change and the impact humans have on the Earth.
My love for fashion and my environmental activism are two things that haven’t always been easy to reconcile, but after watching the documentary The True Cost, I was forced to confront this dichotomy. The fashion industry is one of the largest global industries. According to Fashion United, the industry is valued at around 3 trillion dollars. A huge chunk of this industry is dominated by the incredibly wasteful fast-fashion industry, which consists of mass-produced clothing sold for cheap prices. Fast fashion brands include Zara, H&M, Forever 21, and Topshop — all of which I have bought from before.
Fast fashion originated in the 1980’s, when retailers began speeding up the turnaround cycle of fashion trends. In the past, there were just four seasons in the fashion industry: spring, summer, fall and winter. Now, there are 52 micro-seasons for retailers to deliver clothing to customers. While I covet luxury fashion, I’ve always tended had a tendency to shop at fast fashion stores because I could afford it. As a college student living off of limited means, I can’t justify high end splurges. However, while affordable clothing seems like a positive thing on the surface, cheap prices have actually led to massive over-consumption of fashion items.
Far more clothing than ever before, is being purchased, and worn far fewer times. Sometimes purchased items aren’t worn at all. Clothing is treated as a disposable good, and is often sent to landfills. According to The True Cost, the average American generates about 82 pounds of textile waste per year. Learning this certainly changed how I looked at the brand new dress with the tags still attached that was hanging in my closet.
It’s important to recognize that these cheap prices often add up. Planned obsolescence is a tool retailers use to ensure that customers will need to return to purchase more new clothing at faster rates. Instead of their garments being well-made out of lasting materials, they are made out of cheap fabrics and often with poor quality stitching. Essentially, they are designed to fall apart. Instead of purchasing one high-quality item that will last a long time, people tend to purchase several low quality fast fashion items and then dispose of it once it is unwearable.
I was already questioning my shopping habits once I learned about how wasteful fast fashion is. But it turns out that the incentives for retailers to mass-produce large quantities of affordable clothing also have extremely negative effects on the environment. The rate at which fast fashion is being produced cannot be sustained in the long term. The entire process of fast fashion contributes to global pollution.
According to Greenpeace, the process of pollution begins with the textiles used to produce clothing. The synthetic fibers used for clothing production are created by extracted and refining oils and the cotton used is grown with pesticides or toxic fertilizers. Then, the factories that produce these garments are coal powered and often use hazardous chemicals. Additionally, textile pollution gets into waterways from the manufacturing and the growing of cotton. There is pollution at nearly every stage of textile production for the fast fashion industry.
The fast fashion industry also runs rampant with human rights abuse. According to The True Cost, there are roughly 40 million garment workers in the world. These workers are some of the lowest paid workers, and 85% of all garment workers are women. As a feminist, this exploitation of cheap labor at the almost exclusive disadvantage of women was hard for me to swallow.
I was already horrified by these abuses, but the final straw for me was learning about the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh, the deadliest garment factory accident in history. In 2013, the five-story building collapsed after the building owners ignored warnings to avoid using the building due to cracks in the foundation. Despite this, garment workers were ordered to return to work. The collapse killed 1,134 people. Seeing the gruesome and horrifying images of bloody garment workers brought tears to my eyes. They are truly haunting, and I can’t separate the faces of the wounded from the cheap clothing that hangs in my closet. All these revealations left me with a dilemma: can I be both stylish and ethical? It turns out, you can.
I began researching ways I could make my closet more eco-friendly. I found ethical brands such as Everlane and Reformation, that produce ethically made and on trend clothing. Even second hand clothing has gotten a makeover. With apps like Depop and Poshmark, it’s easier than ever to score lightly-used clothing for affordable prices. Even thrifting is a great option. With so many 1990’s and early 2000’s trends on the runways, sorting through the racks at a thrift store is the perfect place to find mom jeans and crop tops for just a few dollars. And even though my journey to kicking my fast-fashion habit is only just beginning, you can catch me elbow deep in a bin of vintage denim, searching for the perfect, and more importantly, ethical pair of high waisted jeans.
Rae Harris is a third-year journalism major who paid less for her outfit and it’s cuter than yours. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.