Is “fast fashion” really that bad if it's affordable?
Popular brands like Shein and Forever 21 – known for producing cheap, often low-quality, clothing – are easily criticized for their unsustainable and wildly unethical practices. While the typical fashion cycle operates in four seasons throughout a year, fast fashion companies cycle through trends on a much quicker one-month basis, to keep consumers buying more. When shopping at fast fashion stores, customers purchase large quantities of clothing they tire of quickly and throw away within months, only to buy more to keep up with the latest trends. Thus the cycle of quickly buying and disposing of large sums of clothing continues. The chemicals in these garments not only harm the environment; they also are toxic to the garment workers themselves, who get paid very little for their labor.
It’s not surprising that people on TikTok, Instagram, and other platforms call out consumers for participating in fast fashion, listing all the reasons why it’s indeed terrible, and then directing readers/watchers to more ethical brands and secondhand shops that pay their workers well, don’t use harmful chemicals in their clothing, and don’t have practices that promote clothing waste. That’s great. Problem solved, right?
No, not really. Most people can’t afford to buy a T-shirt for 70 dollars, a $200 sweater, spend $100 for a pair of pants, or buy a bra for $50 every time they need to go shopping. Don’t get me wrong, if you can pay this amount of money for clothes from sustainable brands then you definitely should, but not everyone has this type of money in their pocket. True, there are many second hand shops that sell clothes for cheaper, but options may still be limited and not everyone can easily find their size. It is already difficult for many shoppers to find clothing that fits them in the convenient market of “first hand” shopping, and thrift stores provide an even greater challenge. Given that these types of stores don’t necessarily have a large supply of the plus or petite sizes that are in high demand, some people will have to spend a lot more time looking for clothes that they can wear. As time is a luxury, this is time many people do not have. Additionally, second-hand shops are being increasingly flooded by clothing from places like Shein, or other “unethical” clothing brands, so we are still stuck in the dilemma of immoral shopping.
It seems that a problem arises, not because of those who occasionally shop at low-priced fast fashion stores, but with those who buy “hauls” of clothing from unsustainable and unethical brands every few weeks.
So, what can people do if they care enough to not want to contribute to the damage caused by shopping fast fashion, but don’t have the money for a more ethical option? I don’t think the question should be: “why are people still shopping fast fashion given how bad it is?” Instead, we should be asking why shopping ethically and conveniently is limited to the people who already live lives of privilege and luxury. The privileged few with the leisure time to go thrifting and research sustainable brands are moving in the right direction. Well done to them for using their time and money in a way that supports ethical labor and environmental practices.
The rest of us, though, sometimes have to compromise ethical purity for the sake of not breaking the bank. If you are a parent trying to buy clothes for your growing children, a college student strained for money, or anyone else who has to think about it every time they spend a dime, you can’t always pay the exorbitant prices required to be ethical with your clothing. Those shopping at places they can afford don’t deserve to be shamed for not always choosing the sustainable option. As consumers, we should take responsibility for understanding where our products are coming from and who we could be helping or hurting by buying them. But again, the reality for many is that they don’t have the luxury to be ethical all the time.
It seems that a problem arises, not because of those who occasionally shop at low-priced fast fashion stores, but with those who buy “hauls” of clothing from unsustainable and unethical brands every few weeks. If you are a person who has the means to buy so much clothing that often, you likely have the means to buy less clothing at a more expensive sustainable shop. I think it should be on those who have more money to buy fewer clothes they don’t need, and spend more on clothing items that aren’t harmful. It is also worth noting that not every expensive high fashion brand is ethical either, so it is essential to be conscious about where shoppers spend large sums of their money.
I applaud those working to bring attention to the issues caused by fast fashion, but let’s call out the fast-fashion “haulers” and those dropping bags on equally unethical high fashion brands. In the meantime, is it really so bad for struggling college students, parents, and non-well off individuals to buy a few fast fashion items every once in a while?