Many of us experienced the brain-numbing boredom of lockdown after the COVID-19 pandemic hit. To pass the time, I had the wonderful idea to redo my wardrobe. Obviously, this was not an inexpensive feat, so I found myself on websites such as Shein, Missguided, Nasty Gal and Fashion Nova.
These brands always have the trendiest clothes for insanely cheap prices. $4.99 for a cute little shoulder bag? Score! I couldn’t believe my luck. But the reality isn’t so exciting.
Fast fashion has swept the nation and is one of the most unethical and unsustainable industry practices. Fast fashion means “cheaply produced and priced garments that copy the latest catwalk and celebrity styles.” The fast-fashion business model involves rapid design, production and distribution which allows consumers to get more products at lower prices.
But the fun stops there. The industry comprises nearly 10% of yearly global emissions, which is as much as the European Union emits. Textile production has a large impact on freshwater systems as water is drawn from groundwater sources and dyeing processes and yarn preparation are energy-intensive and use fossil fuel energy. In addition, because fast fashion is cheap and accessible, individuals are inclined to purchase more products and only wear things once or twice before throwing them out. About 85% of all textiles thrown away in the United States — roughly 13 million tons of textiles — end up in landfills or are burned. The average American is estimated to throw away more than 80 pounds of clothes a year.
Not only is fast fashion extremely detrimental to the environment but it is also notorious for its unethical practices. Over the years, clothing companies such as Victoria’s Secret, Forever 21 and Gap have chosen to outsource their labor to countries that have lax labor laws, such as India, China and Bangladesh, in order to get away with paying less for work that is necessary for clothing production. These workers are subjected to horrible working conditions and are often forced to work 14-16 hours a day, 7 days a week. On top of this, workers usually work in unsafe, dirty, cramped buildings with no ventilation. Only 4 out of the top 10 nations that have the highest number of sweatshops pay over $1; historically, a typical Bangladeshi garment worker made less than $40 a month and even today still makes less than a living wage.
Fast fashion also intersects with gender inequality. In the garment industry, 80% of the workers are women ages 18-35. These women are often single mothers without any other real employment options due in part to a lack of access to education. They are often subjected to violence and sexual harassment in the factories they work in, resulting in trauma, depressive disorders and stress.
Quitting fast fashion cold turkey is undoubtedly difficult, especially with the financial challenges that many students face, but we should all be making small changes in our everyday lives. While corporations and policies are ultimately partially to blame for the multitude of consequences that we are facing thanks to fast fashion, they won’t change on their own. We must do our part to transform the fashion industry.
First and foremost we must all stay educated about the effects of fast fashion and do our best to educate those around us. A problem cannot be solved if no one acknowledges that it exists. Research the brands you love and try to make sure they have sustainable and ethical practices. If not, it might be time to cut the cord. Brands that we have shopped at for years and seem far from resembling brands such as Shein are often still fast-fashion, including UNIQLO, Urban Outfitters, Zara and H&M.
Companies such as Patagonia, Reformation, Athleta and Levi’s are brands that advertise themselves as committed to sustainable and ethical practices. For example, Patagonia uses sustainable materials in its products and helps customers repair their items so they aren’t immediately thrown out. Denim production is notorious for requiring huge amounts of water. Levi’s new Water<Less process, however, uses up to 96% less water.
Many more environmentally and socially conscious brands, however, are often more pricey. Exploring thrift stores is an even better way to ensure that you’re not contributing to environmental waste. Thrifting is recycling, and by choosing a preloved item, you’re limiting the number of natural resources it takes to create new fabric, make new clothing and ship garments hundreds of thousands of miles to stores. Shopping secondhand also plays a role in community development. Many thrift stores serve a charitable cause by funding a mission of some kind or simply providing impoverished communities with affordable shopping options.
Finally, an obvious but effective way to reduce your carbon footprint is to shop less. Even the most ethical and sustainable brands make some kind of environmental footprint.
Like every toxic relationship, it’s time to let fast fashion go. Educating yourself on being a conscious consumer puts you on the right path to making a meaningful impact on the transformation of the fashion industry. Don’t shy away from it, embrace it, one purchase at a time.
Joy He is an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley studying at the Rausser College of Natural Resources.