Fast Fashion: An Explanation and Guide to Buying Sustainably

By Marin Chin

Editor’s note: In a collaboration with Beacon’s Environmental Justice Club, The Beacon Beat is releasing a series of articles concerning accessible climate action and information for teenagers to encourage students to participate in improving their future and current surroundings one step at a time. It may take some time, but every individual action you choose to take towards being more environmentally friendly allows you to care for your surroundings and future.

In a society where trends are rapidly changing and consumer culture continues to spread, it is difficult not to fall down the rabbit hole of what is known as fast fashion. Fast fashion is the production of trendy clothes that can be produced quickly and sold at an affordable price for the consumer. It’s a tactic originating in the 1990s and 2000s where companies strategically mimicked high fashion looks and brought them off the runway to the everyday buyer. The accessibility it posed while simultaneously following the latest styles appealed to many consumers, allowing the phenomenon to quickly gain popularity. 

However, recently, a large spotlight has been shone in the media on the dangerous effects of fast fashion on the environment. Factories use dyes that are often leaked into nearby waters and contaminate the water, harming wildlife and plants. Excess fabric tends to be thrown out, ending up in landfills along with the majority of clothes that are discarded. In these landfills, the clothes are often burned down by using methane which releases harmful chemicals into the air and the soil. These concerns have continued to grow, so much so that they have recently become a public health concern. 

As the public starts to become aware of fast fashion and its prevalent consequences, buyers are more cautious about what they buy. Fast fashion brands, like H&M, Zara, Forever 21, and Shein, can sometimes be hard to spot. Oftentimes, fast fashion brands have a large variety of clothes, after keeping up with so many trends so rapidly. The clothing prices are cheaper and their clothes are of poorer quality. Also, if one cares to look into it more, the brands tend to use offshore labor, where wages are cheaper and labor laws are lenient. 

When seeking more sustainable clothing, it is important to be aware of greenwashing, a tactic used by brands to label themselves and their products with a sustainable allusion to help attract consumers under the influence that the brand is environmentally conscious. Unfortunately, this is often not the case, since words like “green” or “eco-friendly” that push a sustainable image do not hold any legal meaning allowing brands to throw the word around without living up to its definition. Although it’s difficult to spot, you can avoid being greenwashed by verifying data the company puts out to make sure they’re being transparent, watching for deceptive language, and checking questionable certifications.

Some ways that people are already combatting fast fashion include thrifting and shopping at legitimate environmentally-friendly fashion brands, including Reformation and Patagonia. While these tactics are a starting point, a large problem is that people think that these are long-term solutions. Despite being helpful, thrifting only extends the longevity of how many times an article of clothing can be worn, but it does not stop the overproduction of the “new” products that will still be made and in the end, make more waste. Thrifting can also be problematic as it takes away from the original purpose of the stores, which is to provide second-hand clothes that can be sold at a cheaper price for those that cannot afford clothes at higher prices. Fashion that is good for our environment is also often expensive for the average person because of how much more effort it takes to make a sustainable piece of textile, which also results in more energy usage.  

Even though thrifting and buying expensive sustainable clothing are well-known ways to make purchasing clothing better for the environment, these options are by no means perfect. After all this information, an important question to ask is if the problem may be the way consumers approach the clothing industry. When purchasing items, we as consumers can think about whether or not we need this item. We can learn to sew and fix our clothes if they rip, or set up a clothing trade with a friend if we want a change. When people thrift, sometimes it is easy to buy in a bigger size or go to another neighborhood where the prices may be lower, but it is important to keep in mind that you may be taking these clothes away from people who need them. 

By setting timelines for our clothes or equating a garment’s age to its quality, our perspective on the clothing industry has become flawed, and it is causing a domino effect of problems. A healthier approach is the mindset of less is more: it is more important to have good quality clothing rather than having a lot of it. When shopping we can shop with goals to avoid veering off and buying things we do not need. 

The clothing industry causes more than enough problems for the environment, and as our planet’s climate crisis continues to worsen, people need to take the initiative. Corporations must change their tactics and consumers have the power to demand that they will not settle for anything less. Our Beacon Community is very aware of the extent of these issues, however, oftentimes I feel that fast fashion is reached at the very surface level of the issue. It unfolds much more than what I wrote about, but I hope that this article can introduce a deeper insight for students to easily be more environmentally conscious in their choices.