BY: KATHERINE CHOU
We’ve all done it, the strip mall walk of shame where it’s all too obvious that you’ve just walked into a Forever 21...dressed head to toe in Forever 21. Maybe you’ve rushed past a rack of the same shirt that rests on your back and looked away when a salesperson asks where you got your necklace, because its hanging right behind him. Fashion has never been so accessible and affordable. Street style is celebrated on countless blogs, effectively democratizing the creation of trends. Retail chains like Forever 21, Zara, and H&M bring the runway to the masses for a fraction of the price with designer collaborations and cost-effective mass production in order to reconcile the modern consumer’s desire for a constantly revolving wardrobe and his recession-emptied wallet.
Lawsuits against chains from designers angry over the blatant replication of their designs, as well as reports of awful factory conditions, have already raised eyebrows. As if the violation of human rights and copyright weren’t enough, fast fashion negatively impacts the environment as well. The cheap, easy, and disposable mentality it perpetuates leads to increasing disregard for the origins of our material goods. It becomes easy to forget that our possessions don’t magically exist for free consumption when we don’t need to invest much in order to obtain them.
Fast fashion also lowers standards significantly regarding apparel quality because it’s an industry that thrives on frequent change and cost effective materials. Think about how often new merchandise appears at your local Forever 21. Whereas designers once released collections according to the seasons, collections are now released more frequently in order to supply retail chains with new merchandise. The rapid production of these clothes is simply unsustainable. Take two of the most popular fabrics in the retail fashion industry -- polyester is made from petroleum, while cotton is known for its toxicity and requires a quarter of global pesticide use. Throughout the manufacturing process, chemical treatments come into play and factories eat up natural resources, after which more petroleum must be used in the transportation of the product from overseas factories. Factories and landfills release carbon dioxide and methane, respectively, adding to air pollution and global warming.
All of this is wasted on something that is discarded after a few months, if not weeks, for two main reasons. One, clothing is of low quality because of cost-saving strategies. Two, there are so many options available to the average consumer that clothing has lost its value and is thus easily thrown away. According to the BBC, about two million tons of clothing ends up in landfills each year. Our impulse buys and retail therapy end up in the trash more frequently than ever before, adding to a human legacy of landfills.
As Earth Day rolls around, the old adage, “reduce, reuse, recycle,” finds increased relevance. Still, it seems easier said than done. Many Americans continue to struggle financially, and fast fashion appears to be the best option for affordability without compromising style. The possibility of breaking fast fashion’s grip on the industry can only arise from consumers taking action, in whatever small way they can. Every purchase made speaks volumes about the consumer’s values. If they use their dollars against skimpy materials, environmental pollution, copyright infringement, and unethical labor, the fashion industry might get a hint.
In the meantime, how can consumers reduce their own contribution to global warming through fashion? The U.S. government offers tax incentives for citizens who donate to charities like the Salvation Army and Goodwill Industries. Donated clothing that isn’t sold in thrift stores or given to those in need go to textile recycling plants. In the past few years, secondhand and vintage shops have also gained popularity for the quality and low prices of their goods. They’re a decent alternative to fast fashion, and you are guaranteed to find something that is one of a kind. Knowing that the clothes on your back aren’t contributing to the destruction of our planet and freeing yourself from the unhealthy mindset of modern consumers means you can forget the walk of shame and still keep your wallet healthy.