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Fast fashion. Also known as McFashion, which kills me. It’s one of those buzzwords that keeps coming up in popular discourse on clothing, but what does it really mean? Basically, fast fashion is what allows us to saunter over to the mall or to the interwebs and buy pants for $15, or a blouse for $10. Think H&M, Forever 21, Nasty Gal, Uniqlo, and Topshop. These are stores where people can enter with $50 and leave with a whole slew of new, cheap clothing, most of which will either be: A. ‘unfashionable’ after a short time, thereby needing to be replaced, or B. worn out after a few washes, which makes replacing it seem not-so-bad since the costs are so low. Some fast fashion does weather washing well, but a lot of it also doesn’t. It’s a consumerist cycle that turns our relationship with clothing into an unsustainable one. So, why does this matter?

A new pair of pants should never cost $20. That’s ridiculous. A high-quality, ethically-made pair of pants should cost quite a bit more than that, and is pretty much guaranteed to last for way longer. Let’s say that a reasonable price for a good pair of pants is between $50 and $70 (this is a conservative estimate for the sake of simple math). When you’re able to get pants for $20, where is that $30-$50 going? It doesn’t disappear with the wave of a wand; it has to be cut from somewhere. The people who suffer are the laborers making the clothing, many of whom are women and children.

Here’s an excerpt from one of my favorite blogs, The Fashion Law, that encapsulates the ethical cost of fast fashion:

“In case you need more proof that your $20 top was made in less than desirable or ethical conditions, here you go. Garment manufacturers in far-flung locations, such as Bangladesh (the world’s second largest apparel manufacturer second only to China), Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam that serve as suppliers to H&M, Zara, Topshop, Nasty Gal, and even Nordstrom – just to name a few – are commonly cited [see: “List of Products Produced by Forced or Indentured Child Labor” U.S. Dept. of Labor (12/2014); “Fast Fashion Tied to Forced Child Labor” (12-2-2014)] as employers of child labor, and even forced child labor. And the conditions are egregious. Individuals working in these garment factories are constantly exposed to toxic chemicals, given limited access to soap, water and working toilets, go without proper medical supplies, and lack proper lighting and ventilation. Factory owners and operators often fail to adequately compensate workers and to observe overtime-working standards, and often abuse labors verbally, sexually and physically. That’s not fashion.”

Not only is fast fashion ethically unsound, but it’s also horrible for the environment. This article lays out all kinds of harmful effects that clothing production can have on our world, but to give a couple examples: it can take more than 5,000 gallons of water just to manufacture a pair of jeans and a t-shirt from cotton, and the manufacturing and dyeing of fabrics is chemically intensive across all textiles. Factor in the mass production demanded by fast fashion, and we have a seriously eco-unfriendly business (second only to big oil in pollution).

So are forced child labor, deplorable work conditions, multiple forms of laborer abuse, and the perpetuation of environmental destruction worth that $30-$50 (again, conservative estimate) you’re saving by going with fast fashion? If your answer is yes, that’s okay; everyone is entitled to make decisions for themselves, and I don’t look down on anyone who shops fast fashion. I used to do so myself, but as I’ve become more passionate about fashion and more informed on the topic, I’ve found myself increasingly unable to reconcile my clothing hobby with my interests in social and environmental activism. But I’m also a broke college student who can’t always afford to shop conscientiously. So, what can I do?

Part of the solution is rethinking how you approach clothing. Your clothes give you the opportunity to make an impression and impart facets of your personality and imagination to other people. Why squander that by dressing in cute but poorly-made clothes that don’t mean that much to you, since they can and will be replaced in a short period of time? When you shop to dress meaningfully, you find that you don’t necessarily need to buy a ton of clothing all the time. That kind of attitude helps to halt rampant consumerism, which is exactly what fast fashion thrives on.

Another part of the solution is simply refusing to support companies who produce fast fashion. This sounds simple, but if you’re someone who LOVES a sweet deal from H&M like I did, it can be really hard to make that shift. As I said before, it’s also difficult not to be tempted by $10 shirts when you’re young and don’t have a lot of money. But, there are alternatives! I thrift about 75-80% of my wardrobe from just about any thrift store I can find (Udelco, L Train Vintage, Goodwill, you name it. Except Salvation Army. They’re evil). Shopping this way is totally different than conventional shopping because you never know what you’ll find, but it’s also rewarding on several other levels. Reusing clothing has zero ethical or environmental implications, which is awesome, and scouting out great deals while thrifting fills the void left behind by finding $10 clothes at fast fashion stores. It’s a win/win!

I try to support ‘slow fashion’ brands when shopping for the other 20-25% of my wardrobe. These include clothing companies whose manufacturing is high-quality, fair trade, ethically-made, and eco-conscious. One example is American Apparel, whose manufacturing is based entirely in the US. Here are some more examples of slow fashion stores, brands, and designers. I also shop frequently on Etsy, since it’s home to many designers who make their clothes by themselves or operate their own vintage thrift stores (very ethical stuff). Some of the stuff costs a pretty penny, sure, but when you save up and buy one cool statement piece that’ll last you a while, it means so much more to you than taking that money and buying five new fast fashion pieces. Dig around for yourself and you’ll find stuff way more interesting than anything you’d see in a fast fashion store.

You don’t need to fake your death and collect life insurance just so you can afford to shop ethically. That seems really complicated and bizarre. There are so many ways to change your shopping habits, and in a time when concern for sustainability is becoming  more and more important, I just don’t think it’s right to shop blindly without considering the implications of what you support when you choose to spend your money. In a system like ours, everything comes at the cost of someone else. If you are informed on all of the downsides of fast fashion culture and still choose to shop at these stores, more power to you. What I can’t get behind is ignorance to how that awesome dress you bought was such a steal without being on sale. Stuff like that doesn’t just happen by accident.

For the record, I do have some fast fashion pieces in my wardrobe still. They’re mostly gifts, but hey, everyone has slip-ups. I’m planning to make ‘eliminate fast fashion from my closet’ the first New Year’s Resolution that I actually keep.

Ho ho ho,