The Controversy Surrounding Fast Fashion and Thrifting

What is Fast Fashion?

The phrase “fast fashion” was initially coined by the clothing brand Zara in the late 1990s. Fast fashion can be defined as “cheap, trendy clothing, that samples ideas from the catwalk or celebrity culture and turns them into garments in high street stores at breakneck speed to meet consumer demand” (Good on You). The goal of this is to get the latest styles on the market as fast as possible for as cheap as possible. This is why you are able to buy a trendy shirt for $5.00 or a pair of jeans for $15.00. 

Why is it bad?

If you’re not familiar with fast fashion, I ask you, “Is that $5.00 shirt worth it?” with which I’m sure you’ll respond, “Hell yeah! Cheap clothes sound great!” Unfortunately, the reason brands such as Zara or H&M are able to produce these inexpensive clothes at such a fast rate is because “their speedy supply chains rely on outsourced and often underpaid labor from factory workers overseas” (Vox). This means that companies are relying on workers, usually children, to work long, dangerous hours in factories for very little to no pay. The countries these factories are located in, such as Bangladesh, Indonesia, or China (Shwowp), do not have the same labor laws as we do in the United States, so there is nothing protecting these children from working these long hours. 

In addition to the clear immorality of child labor, fast fashion is also contributing to the devolution of our environment. “The manufacturers [in fast fashion factories] rely on fossil fuels such as coal to produce energy and the burning of fossil fuels then contributes to global warming” (Shwowp). 

However, this isn’t even the worst part. The biggest problem of fast fashion concerning the environment is the colossal amount of waste. The entire institution of fast fashion encourages the idea that clothing is disposable, and is not meant to last long-term. “In fact, the average American throws away approximately 80 pounds of clothing and textiles annually, occupying nearly 5% of landfill space” (BMC). Not only is the fast fashion industry encouraging children to work long hours in dangerous factories, but it is also increasing global warming, clogging our landfills, and releasing carbon emissions into the atmosphere. So, I’ll ask you again: is that $5 shirt worth it?

coal factory smoke Photo by veeterzy on Unsplash

What are the most popular fast fashion brands?

Unfortunately, most of the stores you find in your average mall are profiting off of fast fashion. Some of these include, but are not limited to: H&M Zara Victoria’s Secret Urban Outfitters Nike Forever 21 American Eagle Hollister Anthropologie Brandy Melville Free People  Shein/ Romwe/ Zaful (shared owner) If you’re interested in finding other stores that support fast fashion, a longer list can be found on The Pretty Planeteer, a blog dedicated to making everyday products and clothes more sustainable for the environment.

people walking past shops in a mall Heidi Fin/Unsplash

I, like many of my peers, went on a Shein shopping spree at the beginning of quarantine. While it was thrilling to get so many pieces of clothing for so little money, the quality is atrocious, they steal designs from other brands, and they treat their workers terribly. The same goes for Romwe and Zaful, as they are owned by the same businessperson. While it may not be realistic to stay away from every fast fashion brand, it is feasible to stay away from the worst brands, such as the three I just mentioned, as well as Boohoo, Pretty Little Thing, and Missguided.

Alternatives to fast fashion

Ethical Brands So now that you know what fast fashion is, you can see how prevalent it is in today’s fashion world. Perhaps the best, most sustainable alternatives to buying from fast fashion is to either find ethical brands who are dedicated to making environmentally-friendly clothing, or thrift. If the former seems more appealing to you, be warned that since these brands are usually made in the US or countries, where there are fair labor laws, so the clothing can be quite pricey. However, if you are invested in the cause and are in a good financial place to be buying from these brands, I would 100% say go for it. 

Thrifting For those of us who can not afford to spend $60.00 on a shirt, however, can opt for a more affordable and globally conscious method: thrifting. Thrift stores such as Goodwill, Plato’s Closet, and Salvation Army are all stores that collect clothing, handbags, home decor, and other categories of donations. They are then resold at a lesser price, as a way to make clothing, even higher-end brands, more accessible and reasonably priced for those who cannot afford to shop at full-priced stores. 

In terms of the environment, thrifting definitely outmatches fast fashion. “Buying secondhand means you’ll be keeping plastic out of landfills and positively contributing to the decrease in worldwide textile demand and subsequent waste” (UC Berkeley). In other words, by shopping sustainably, you, as a consumer, are taking away the demand from fast fashion brands so they do not produce as much, and therefore, will not waste as much. “Cool,” you’re thinking now, “I’ll just thrift all my clothes!” Unfortunately, while your intentions are in the right place, it’s not that simple.

Young woman looking at different racks of clothes at a store. Photo by StockSnap from Pixabay

The gentrification of thrifting

Gentrification, as it relates to thrifting, is when “increased interest in thrifting from members of the upper class… could mean that thrift stores increase their prices in accordance with their new, wealthier clientele” (Study Breaks). As a result, this could make thrift stores too expensive for the people who actually need them. 

This is an issue that is spreading predominantly on social media apps such as TikTok and Instagram, as well as reselling sites such as Depop and Poshmark. Fashion accounts on TikTok promote the “vintage,” trendy clothes that come from thrift stores, which is all well and good. “For many young, economizing people, thrifting was (and is!) an affordable way to bring more variety to one’s wardrobe and explore identity through fashion” (Medium). However, there is a rising new trend of going to thrift stores not to buy for your own wardrobe, but rather, to resell these “vintage” items for a hiked-up price. “The popular trend of buying clothes from thrift stores and reselling them on Depop for a much higher price hastens the process of gentrification that’s already in motion” (Study Breaks). Depop sellers will thrift a $3 t-shirt in the kids section, call it a “Y2K baby tee” and sell it for $35. Buying from thrift stores just to make a profit takes all the ethicality out of it.

@threadsobsessed via Instagram

So… is thrift shopping taking away from the less fortunate?

The short answer: no. In fact, “84 percent of all donated clothes end up in landfills, according to Newsweek” (Popular Science). This means that there is plenty to go around, as long as thrift stores do not raise their prices. In other words, while thrifting itself is not depriving the less fortunate of clothing, it is instead the reselling of said clothing that can lead to issues in the thrifting industry. That being said, there are still several items that you should stay away from during your trips to your local thrift store, such as winter jackets, business attire, children’s clothing, shoes, and plus-size clothing. These items are usually harder to find and are the most needed items for people who can only afford to shop at thrift stores. 

My final thoughts on thrifting and fast fashion

I’m going to be honest with you: I’m a college student, just like you, and I don’t have the big bucks to shop at entirely ethical brands. I love American Eagle jeans, Nike sneakers, and Victoria Secret sweats are super comfy. I’m not saying you have to completely cut these brands out of your life, as it will be very difficult to find affordable clothing that does not outsource their manufacturing. However, what I am saying is that small changes are feasible. Stay away from the worst fast fashion brands mentioned above. Try out thrifting, and don’t resell on Depop! Exchange clothes with your friends or even try making them yourself. Whatever it is you decide to do, be aware of the social and environmental effects that are a result of your actions. 

So do us all a favor and say no to the $5.00 shirt!

Photos courtesy of Shein

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10

Photo Credit: Her Campus Media Library