How To Fix Fast Fashion
Fast fashion, in its current form, cannot ethically or sustainably continue to exist without great detriment to our planet and the people on it. However, demand for affordable clothing will always exist. How do we reasonably meet that demand without perpetuating an industry built on the exploitation of resources, labor, and consumers? I have some ideas.
Fast Fashion Exists to Keep You Poor
There are plenty of people who have no other choice but to buy clothing as cheaply as possible, but the problem is not that you are taking advantage of your limited choices, it’s that your limited choices are taking advantage of you. The fast fashion industry was not created for the poor. Pretty Little Thing isn’t selling chunky sneakers and body con dresses for $2 each out of the kindness of their hearts. H&M is not taking a loss to provide affordable clothing to those who need it the most. Fast fashion is and always has been a system of exploitation since the very first Zara opened boasting an absolutely ridiculous two-week lead time from design to store floors. From overworked designers churning out hundreds of ideas a month—inevitably leading to blatant copying just to keep up with demands—to the mostly female garment workers in the global south who are paid pennies to manufacture these wares in increasingly dangerous conditions, to the retail workers being ordered to destroy unsold pieces to keep the unfashionable and undesirable from nicking them from the dumpster: the goal is to make as much money as possible by selling as much as possible to people who can afford to buy as much as possible.
When Zara made its way to New York City in the 90s, its main draw was selling the “designer look” for less. Of course, those who could afford designer still wore designer, and the difference was obvious, but for the broke and fashion-starved, Zara was a godsend. Over time, more stores dedicated to cheaper and trendier clothing started to arise, and, alongside it, social media evolved rapidly. All at once, clothes were no longer just for wearing, they were for showing, and now you could afford to never show the same thing twice. Suddenly, even celebrities were wearing cheaper versions of the designer clothes they could effortlessly afford, and we ate it up because finally, we could look exactly like whichever actress or singer we looked up to. Fast forward to today, and A-list celebrities are teaming up with Fashion Nova, Missguided, and other fast fashion behemoths to make entire collections made solely to make them money and encourage you to buy far more than you need just to dress like someone who will change right out of that $30 twinset into $900 sweatpants as soon as the promotional shoot is over.
Check the comments on any slow fashion brand’s instagram or search up some tweets about, say, a $58 dollar, union-printed and US-made sweatshirt sold by a certain Congresswoman and you’ll see plenty of people questioning why a piece of clothing would dare cost more than a value meal from McDonald’s. But it gets worse. When Lirika Matoshi’s gorgeous “strawberry dress” was making the rounds on TikTok, there were actual people—yeah, it was Gen Z, but they’re still people—calling the $500 price tag “price gouging” when…well, not only is that not at all what that means, but also all of Lirika’s pieces are produced in-house by a small team one at a time when they’re ordered: it is the very definition of slow fashion, sustainability, and luxury, yet, because of the myriad knockoffs of the strawberry dress that popped up on sites like Shein, the masses were convinced that the real thing couldn’t be much better than a sweatshop-made replica. When the conversation devolved into justifying the purchase of counterfeits (“dupes” as they’re referred to now) by screaming “poor people deserve nice things too” the only poor people worth considering were those who wanted a cheap dress to fit in, not the poor people who sewed it. The issue is not the devaluing of clothing, it’s devaluing the labor used to produce them.
Unfortunately, as the fashion cycle moves faster and faster, quality means less and less to the average person, and so, as the clothes get cheaper, the people making them get paid less and less. To you, it’s absolutely unfathomable to pay more than $20 for a dress when you’ll probably only wear it once before the trend dies or the seams fall apart, whichever comes first. At the same time, it’s absolutely unfathomable to the company selling that $20 dress to pay someone more than $1 or $2 to make it when they’re already only profiting 89% instead of 90%.
But how does this keep you poor?
The automation of jobs is often touted as a reason that “unskilled” workers don’t deserve livable wages. We have machines to pack boxes, build cars, take orders, distress jeans and more with minimal input from actual humans, leading to profits growing exponentially every year and yet, very few industries—if any—are 100% automated. A machine may have taken your order at McDonald’s, but a person still had to assemble the cheeseburger, bag it, and hand it to you. A machine certainly exists to cut out dozens if not hundreds of jackets at once but a person still had to operate the other machine that puts them together. We’re told to simply “learn a skill” if we want to earn anything approaching a comfortable salary, but no one disputes the idea that food preparation, customer service or sewing are all skills. So, who decides when those skills—and the accompanying labor—are worth a survivable hourly pay and when it’s not? A company without labor has no profit, yet the people directly generating that profit don’t deserve to be able to live?
As demand for cheaper and cheaper goods goes up, coupled with the need for instant gratification in all things, the first corners cut often come at the expense of the people creating those goods at a faster and faster pace. Can’t do your job fast enough? There’s someone waiting right behind you who can. Under capitalism, you are disposable. Your only value is what value you can bring to the company you work for. And the second the cost to keep you exceeds that value, you are let go and, in a lot of cases, your job is outsourced to someone with even less choice, in a country with even less protections than you.
As long as some workers are deemed worthy of more than just subsistence—even though all workers generate profit for their employers—over others, you and I are at the mercy of the market. And yet, at the same time, you and I are the market. We tell fast fashion companies everyday that we don’t care how they make our stuff cheaper, just make it cheaper. We want it, we want lots of it, and we want it quickly. And in return, our bosses tell us they don’t care how we feel, how we pay our bills, whether or not we can actually afford to survive, they just want us to make them money, lots of it, and quickly. Until all labor is valued, none of it will be, and we will remain as we are.
I’m guilty of grabbing a $5 cheeseburger and fries once in a while myself, but I would never compare a Whopper to a Wagyu beef ribeye prepared by a chef with decades of training and experience in the culinary arts and served to me by an attentive server in a restaurant with gorgeous ambience and white tablecloths. They’ll both perform the same job of feeding and sustaining me, they’re both made from beef, and they’ll both ultimately be digested and end up, well….you know. But one is just food, and the other is an experience. There’s no real comparison. But if you hang two seemingly identical dresses next to each other, one costing $10 and made from polyester and serged together by an underpaid worker overseas, and the other for $200 made from ethically sourced cotton, fully lined or French seamed with hand sewn buttons by someone who makes a livable wage, someone will inevitably ask why they’d buy the $200 one when the $10 one looks the same. It’s a fair question when the average consumer has no idea what goes into constructing a garment, but it’s still a harmful mindset. Too often when buying a new garment, we focus on the idea of having yet another thing to add to our pile of things, how we’ll look when we wear it, and not really how the garment itself will make us feel. The serotonin boost we get from clicking Buy and having a new package waiting on our doorsteps within a week is hard to beat, but once we’ve gotten it, tried it on, and the novelty has worn off, what did we really gain? It’s no different than that $5 cheeseburger. In the moment, it was great, it was cheap, it was fast, it was easy, it did its job; but afterward, is it a memory you’re going to hold on to? Was it an experience you’ll never forget?
Simply put, our entire thought process behind clothing sucks. And it’s not even our fault. Truthfully, every industry—especially those based in creativity, like fashion—gets to a point where the primary consumers of that industry’s goods have no clue how they’re made. It’s astounding to me how many people I know that can’t even reattach a button. But, somehow, we’ve become so far removed from clothing itself that we both marvel at it and minimize it. Watching someone sew a garment is fascinating: to go from a 2D concept to something that can be worn is a complex process even for the simplest pieces. But the process is more or less the same to make any piece of clothing. Certain variables like quality of material and the techniques used to finish the piece can increase the labor, but at the end of the day, something that didn’t exist before exists now. Yet when we look at racks and racks of lace up crop tops and mom jeans and puffer coats, suddenly it’s not impressive, it’s just something to buy and hang in our closets with the rest of our unimpressive stuff.
We have been encouraged to consume at all costs, and the cost is now, we don’t really have anything. The fashion cycle used to be 2 seasons a year. Growing up, I personally was only able to get new clothes around Back to School in August, and on Christmas—maybe my birthday in the spring, if I had been good that year. Now, the fast fashion year has 52 “micro-seasons” each with hundreds of new offerings. That’s thousands of new pieces every week, adding up to millions of pieces shipped out around the world every single year. Many of us buy at least a few new pieces a month, and yet, think about how often you look at your wardrobe and have literally nothing to wear. It all fits funny, there’s a hole in some of it, it’s out of style, or, worst of all, you just don’t really like any of it. You have thousands of hours of design, construction, education, and labor in your closet, and at the end of the year, you’re gonna toss it out because who cares? A newer, better thing has already come along, and you wouldn’t even be caught dead in what was once shiny and exciting.
The first step toward fixing fast fashion is a cultural shift regarding fashion as a whole. It’s not enough to teach consumers to buy only what we need—that will never happen—but we need to reevaluate what we actually “need” to begin with. Figuring out what actually makes us look and feel best is key, followed by building a wardrobe with only things that fall into that category, is the best and, possibly only, way to discourage mindlessly buying into trends and even decrease the demand for so many “micro-seasons” to begin with. Even switching from weekly bombardments of new styles to monthly mini-collections can cut down on hundreds of thousands of tons of waste, and make us all a little more considerate about what we’re purchasing.
Of course, no problem within a massive industry like fast fashion can ever be solved solely by consumers. While raising awareness and boycotting can certainly get the ball rolling, without a clear (and profitable) path, businesses have no incentive to listen.
We’ve already seen huge corporations like Zara and H&M commit to more “sustainable” collections, but all that’s really done is lead to a new trend of “greenwashing,” wherein businesses market their wares as better for the planet with little to no transparency about what “better” means. Without accountability, the “commitments” mean nothing. But, who’s meant to hold multi-billion dollar corporations accountable beyond just a handful of shoppers who, 9 times out of 10, are still gonna shop at the very stores they criticize?
The push to outsource manufacturing to countries where labor costs only a fraction of what it costs in America has decimated industries to the point that “Made in the USA” is not just a selling point, it’s a rarity. But we have the power to bring them back. Subsidizing American manufacturing, offering tax incentives to companies that produce their goods stateside, and, of course, raising minimum wage are all great starts. But, the issue of massively mass production and waste still need to be addressed. Taking it further, we should also subsidize the creation and use of eco-friendly, biodegradable and recycled/recyclable materials. We should expand textile recycling to be just as ubiquitous as paper recycling, and, for companies that still can’t quite get the memo, tax every pound of waste produced by factories over a certain limit.
For those companies whose bottom line is still better served by producing in other countries, there should be joint efforts between the governments where those goods are sold and where they are produced to protect the workers involved. This means holding overseas factories to the same standard across the board as American or European ones, and forming a committee to do random checks to ensure those standards are being met.
As one last measure, copyright law needs to be expanded to include clothing. As time has gone on, and fast fashion has moved from “inspired by” looks to resorting to blatant copying to keep up with demand, indie designers are often left with no recourse when their designs are stolen. Even worse, many are accused of being the copiers themselves when identical pieces and photos pop up on sites like Shein and AliExpress, obscuring the true origins and making consumers that much more suspicious of small businesses. Now, there is nothing new under the sun. It’s outrageous to expect to be able to copyright—and then enforce said copyright on—something as commonplace as a pleated skirt or a colorblock jacket. But protecting truly new, unique works should be as easy as protecting a melody.
It can be daunting to imagine a world without fast fashion but it’s important to remember that it is only a relatively recent phenomenon. For me, growing up in the late 90s/early 10s, owning even 20-30 wearable pieces was a feat, yet, as time has gone on, we’ve grown to accept several wardrobe’s worth of clothing as the norm, and expect to pay less for it than what a handful of regular garments would have cost only a couple decades ago. That said, the recent pushback against the harmful practices of fast fashion give me hope that, someday, we can find a place of responsible indulgence, save our planet, and save our wardrobes.