One day it’s cool to wear a crop top and yoga pants, and the next being ‘in’ demands you wear graphic tees and baggy jeans. As fast fashion websites initiate styles, rapidly changing trends surge.
Environmental damage due to quick garment production accelerates parallel to society’s demand for conformity. ‘Fast fashion’ is the name for the capacity to keep up with this pressure. The detrimental impacts of fast fashion are complex, but a short definition is the speedy production of trending clothes by underpaid workers to be sold for cheap prices.
Brands like Zara and Shien are well known fast fashion outlets. Brands slip through legal loopholes by choosing regions with a low minimum wage and paying their workers the least amount of money possible. A notable example is British fashion company Boohoo’s connection with Leicester. Some fashion corporations within Leicester are no longer affiliated with the United Kingdom’s employment law. The factories are also known to lie about the number of hours put on the employee payslips to make it seem like they are being paid minimum wage. Boohoo workers’ actual average wage per hour is £4.25 ($4.85), £3.58 less than the UK’s minimum wage of £7.83 for workers over the age of 25.
The environmental impact of the fast fashion industry cannot be overstated. It takes 2,700 liters of water to make one shirt and the fashion industry contributes 8-10% of global carbon emissions. For reference, the agriculture industry also makes up 10% of carbon emissions. Consumers contribute to a cycle of carbon emissions and water waste by buying cheap, poorly manufactured clothes, throwing them away due to their bad quality and then buying more clothes.
In addition to the poor quality of fast fashion, the shortened length of fashion trends contributes to this cycle. A micro trend is a craze that lasts only a sliver of the time a typical five to 10 year trend lasts. It rises in popularity at an incredibly fast pace, and demand falls just as quickly. Micro trends also require buyers to keep up by purchasing new clothes. Fast fashion manufacturers are the only ones able to compete in this market. 2020’s revival of the late 80s bucket hat fad is a recent example of a swiftly moving trend. Current crazes include everything from corset tops to wide-leg pants.
Influencers enable these trends, of course. Personally, Nava Rose on TikTok integrated pants beyond just skinny jeans into my closet. Before social media allowed more people to convey styles, there were a limited number of people that had any control of the fashion industry. Fashion magazines were the main influence over clothing styles, but now with Instagram and TikTok, just about anyone can set off a fashion chain reaction.
Once these instigators set off trends, people are compelled to buy into them. Conformity is a natural instinct, and the fear of missing out can be strong. By wearing what everyone else is wearing, there is no way to wear the wrong thing.
Aside from conformity, the sheer low cost can be enough to convince people to strictly buy from fast fashion companies. Like most environmental issues, wealth or lack thereof is the root of the problem. Sustainable clothing is expensive, so there is less incentive to buy it.
I don’t expect teens to investigate the ethics of where they are buying clothing. The critical thinking that goes along with abstaining from buying fast fashion is not an easy trek. Teenagers also are not presumed to have money to buy from more ethical clothing sources.
One of the reasons that the ethics of fast fashion interest me is my own experience participating in it. It has been a struggle for me to find what type of style fits me best. Is it skinny jeans or mom jeans? Graphic tees or striped shirts? Hoodies or cardigans? I have yet to find the right answer, and I doubt there is one. But in an attempt to figure it out, I bought a pair of $12 jeans from Shien a few months ago. Unemployed and feebly attempting to find my style, Shein was the perfect provider.
The craziest part is that I still probably would have bought the jeans even if I knew the impact of my actions. It was less about how much I liked the jeans and more about how desperate I was to find what suits me best. The lengths I was willing to go to find my style outweighed the environmental costs for me at the time. I ended up returning the jeans anyway due to them not fitting correctly, but my hypocrisy illustrated the widespread assimilation to fast fashion.
Now that I have more of a handle on who I am and have done more research, I try to buy more secondhand clothes by either thrifting or from friends. While it is not as easy to obtain the type of clothes I am looking for, I think the good outweighs the bad. Even so, my experience with fast fashion shows how the accessibility or lack thereof can cause people to turn a blind eye to environmentally damaging sources of clothing. Besides conformity ceasing to exist, one way of handling the issue is to actually allow people to obtain affordable sustainable clothing. The reality is though, making ethical clothes cheap is just as hard as shifting the conformity mindset.
In the struggle to keep up with fast paced trends, the environment worsens and the uniformity mentality accelerates. While trying to find our unique styles, we end up conforming to the stylish trends we are bombarded by every time we open our phones. Despite the terrifying statistics, the truth is that nothing will change unless every aspect of fast fashion — including the companies that profit off of them, sustainable companies and buyers — make ethical changes.