Fashion can be very overwhelming, especially in an age of overconsumption and constantly changing trends. The fast fashion industry thrives off unhealthy shopping habits, and because many of us cannot or do not want to spend too much on clothes, price usually comes before anything else. When price is the determining factor of where we choose to shop, it casts a veil over our judgement, and we are unable to see the big picture: the harmful effects of the fast fashion industry.
Fast fashion supply chains depend on outsourced and often underpaid labor from workers overseas. They also contribute to environmental degradation, which is no surprise considering that most (if not all) of their practices are deemed unsustainable. The fast fashion industry is one of the world’s most resource-intensive industries, emitting about 706 million tons of greenhouse gases a year in the production of polyester textiles and wasting hundreds of gallons of water to make a cotton garment. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 84 percent of unwanted clothes in the U.S. in 2012 ended up in either a landfill or an incinerator. Additionally, since the life cycle of clothes continues to decline, they have become more disposable. Clothes are just commodities, not keepsakes, and fast fashion capitalizes off this idea; when clothes are detached from the labor process and perceived as commodities in their own right, we expect a constant flow of new items.
So, how has fast fashion become the new normal? Simple: the fast fashion industry feeds into globalization and the technological efficiency of the 21st century. In the mid-1960s, the U.S. produced 95 percent of clothes domestically, whereas today, 97 percent are produced abroad. Zara is a prime example of how efficient fast fashion brands are, priding itself on a design-to-retail style of about five weeks and introducing more than 20 collections a year. Online retailers like Fashion Nova have made it even easier to tap into our desire to buy more, releasing about 600 to 900 new styles every week.
With social media, the pressure to dress a certain way has increased, particularly due to influencer culture and marketing. When fast fashion brands collaborate with popular celebrities and influencers like the Kardashians, they can dictate trends and influence how ordinary people think about their own clothing choices. This is problematic in a social and cultural sense, since fast fashion is bound to promote uniformity and discourage individuality. Styling our clothes after popular celebrities and influencers, especially when we are not particularly fond of them, is almost never fulfilling. Yet, it pushes us to buy more in an attempt to conform, reinforcing the cycle of overconsumption.
Even though there are a number of cases that should have created significant shockwaves, such as the collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, a garment factory that produced clothes for some popular Western brands, we have continued to turn a blind eye to the costs of fast fashion. Moreover, when consumers justify shopping at fast fashion brands by claiming that there is no ethical consumption under capitalism, they are right, but this way of thinking should not excuse overconsumption. If affordability is an issue, shopping from fast fashion brands is understandable, as long as we are trying to reduce our overall consumption. It is also important to remember that secondhand shopping is always an option, even though it has implications of its own on a broader scale (most notably, gentrification as a result of secondhand/thrift stores hiking up prices).
A move toward sustainability and corporate transparency is what we should be striving for, which seems to be taking place. Sixty six percent of consumers worldwide are willing to pay extra as long as the products or services are made sustainably, yet there is still a contradiction between what they say and what they buy. And because the fashion industry is not changing fast enough, we must examine fast fashion and consumer culture as a whole and hold fast fashion retailers accountable. By treating all our clothes as additions to our closets instead of valuable materials, we kill fashion and lose sight of ourselves. Corporate greed is the villain, but we can always limit the amount of clothes we have and buy to ensure a more sustainable future for everyone.