How Bad is Fast Fashion *Really*

Are we bad for shopping fast fashion? | emmaelsewhere You heard it here last: shopping at Forever 21 and H&M is bad. Fast fashion retailers have a rep for being terrible for the environment, for our closets and for the fashion industry. As we find ourselves heading to the mall (or more likely online) more frequently, our moral compass continues to point to "poor judgment".

On a similar note, we've come to the point where sustainable fashion is mainstream. Companies like Reformation have sprung up to fill the space where sustainable but trendy pieces didn't exist. There is now societal judgment attached to any statement like, "I got this at Forever 21." With each fast fashion purchase comes the knowledge that you're supporting the terrible trend of overconsumption. However, those of us with limited checking accounts find ourselves wondering - how bad is fast fashion really?

Fast Fashion's Negative Impact...

...On the Environment

When it comes to the environment, fast fashion is a mess - literally. With each passing year, landfills continue to pile up with the cheap clothes that you bought last season.

"But I could sell my clothes to a thrift store and somebody else could enjoy them!"

If only that was the case. As Alden Wicker explains in his Newsweek article, "Fast Fashion is Creating an Environmental Crisis", clothes from lower end retailers often don't make the cut at resale stores. The fashion industry is currently operating at a speed that forces clothing out of a style at a quicker pace. The concept of "seasons" in fashion is no longer relevant. In the world of fast fashion, a season can last a week. Resale shops typically won't buy clothing from Forever 21 or H&M because it will have gone out of style soon after it was purchased and it was made too cheaply. That's just good business from their perspective.

"But I could donate my clothes to an organization that resells to those in need!"

Even this thought, though well-intentioned, is misleading. These types of stores (for lack of a better term), often can't move cheaper items of clothing from fast fashion retailers because of their poor quality. A thinning top has the same issues for those in need as it does for you.

When reselling and donating fail (because they inevitably will), the next-most-likely move is to toss out old clothing in the trash. The rate at which we cycle through clothing is simply unsustainable for the environment.

...On Worker Safety

In addition to environmental concerns, underpaid labor and worker safety continue to be issues in fast fashion. Over the past decade, there have been multiple garment factories that have burnt down or collapsed, costing textile workers their lives. Even with these terrible tragedies, not much has changed for retailers.

With increased pressure from consumers to keep up the pace of "newness", comes increased concern for worker safety. When retailers put their deadlines and customer demands first, workers take fewer breaks and factories fall into disrepair. Unfortunately, these unsafe conditions are often not enough to force workers to look for other jobs. Because these factories often operate in countries with very low (or no) minimum wages, textile workers need their job to survive. Even with the risk of collapse or health endangerment, workers must continue to work for these fast fashion factories.

How to Meet in the Middle

You might be feeling pretty terrible about your current closet situation right about now. Sorry about that! Although the impact of fast fashion is mostly negative, I understand your pain. In 2017, clothing is either cheap and sold from a fast fashion retailer, or costly - whether from a mid-priced brand or a luxury department store. It's not so affordable to stay away from fast fashion.

While there are a few options out there (H&M is working on producing a larger collection of sustainable clothing), you'll probably want to meet sustainability in the middle. Here are a few tips:

  1. Curate your closet - Your wardrobe should be a good mix of trendier, cheaper clothing and quality investment pieces. I'm not talking 50/50. Shoot to have 65% of your wardrobe be quality pieces that are going to last you more than a season, and you'll be doing your part to crack down on waste. Those investment pieces will hold their integrity and be able to be resold later on. Extra points if 75% of your wardrobe is made up of investments!
  2. Shop secondhand - This is an obvious one. If you're buying quality clothes that someone else has already worn, you aren't adding to the constant demand felt by retailers and you're saving clothing from the landfill. Win-win!
  3. Consider the occasion - The only clothing you should buy from a fast fashion retailer are casual pieces that are going to be worn for one season. These type of purchases should not occur frequently. Workwear and occasionwear should be purchased from a higher quality source. Instead of H&M, think Madewell or Anthropologie.
  4. Don't beat yourself up - Staying away from fast fashion isn't easy, and it isn't often an accessible practice to those of us with an average paycheck and regular bills. If you find yourself wandering into Forever 21 when you're feeling spendy, give yourself a break. As long as you can cut down your habit, you're taking baby steps toward the greater good.