Before the summer began, tennis skirts and sweater vests were all the rage. The Y2K fashion revival was in full swing. Utility fashion burst onto the scene just as the tie–dye fad died down. Fashion trends are transient—rapidly shifting to appeal to the tastes of consumers who are always on the hunt for something new. A brutal consequence of these consumer practices comes in the form of what we now call fast fashion.
Fast fashion describes the rapid turnover from runways to racks, as new styles constantly emerge to keep up with changing tastes. To satisfy these consumer demands, brands produce an endless variety of clothing, with the intention of little—or even single—use.
Its negative consequences are well known, but most of us continue to contribute to the fast fashion industry. Brands like H&M, Zara, and the almighty Shein remain as popular as ever among consumers despite their harmful production processes and questionable disposal methods.
The outfits you purchased from a fast–fashion retailer last year likely won't be in style by this time next year. Consumers are roped into a perpetuating cycle that involves too much unethical labor and too much waste before the end of the season.
But why do we feel the need to reset our closet every few months? Part of the blame might lie in our obsession with the influencers we follow on social media. The need to imitate the styles of the celebrities on our screens overcomes the demand for sustainable clothing. Constantly chasing after the most current styles adorned by our favorite influencer requires countless new outfits. But before the look can be worn more than a handful of times—because, God forbid, we repeat outfits—newer styles have already emerged on the Instagram feed.
Now with faster and more ethically questionable production processes, it's become more and more affordable to shop as much as we want. But the environmental cost of these practices are much higher than the price tag.
In the production of fast fashion, the environment is not the first priority. Polyester, a common fabric, releases microfibers when washed, thereby contributing to the increasing level of plastic in the ocean. The cultivation of cotton requires vast amounts of resources and pesticides, and it increases the likelihood of droughts.
In many attempts to imitate influencer fashion, consumers are also directed towards brands that are at higher price points, which many of us wrongly believe are more eco–friendly than their competitors. Because fast fashion giants are often able to drive down the costs of their goods through the use of low–quality materials and cheap labor, many consumers have come to associate low–cost clothing with fast fashion—and high–priced goods with sustainability.
Take names like Aritzia and Madewell. Despite their elevated price points in comparison to retailers like Zara, both companies were rated poorly by the social impact business Good On You, which evaluates fashion brands based on their environmental and labor practices. Yet, because of the stereotypes we hold about what makes a product fast fashion, many of us get sucked into the trap of equating expensive fashion with ethical fashion—incorrectly believing that, by buying more costly products, we are not supporting a culture of fast fashion.
It's undeniable that the habits and beliefs that we consumers hold are what keep us firmly in the grip of the fast fashion industry, despite our increasing knowledge of the toll that this industry takes on both people and the environment. But how do we break free?
Of course, there are many changes we can make to our purchasing behaviors that reflect a commitment to ethical production. The next time you decide to add to your closet, consider shopping at a certified sustainable store. By buying and selling clothes second hand through thrift stores and platforms such as Poshmark and ThredUp, you can reduce the carbon footprint caused by the disposal of millions of tons of textiles globally.
Yet the most important step we can take towards ditching fast fashion is rewiring the way we think about the constant barrage of trends showcased by influencers and retailers. By cultivating a better understanding of the assumptions that drive our support of the trade, we can work towards bringing down the industry all together.