Cheap clothes come at a cost to the environment, to the people working across the fashion supply chain, and maybe even to fast fashion consumers too.
In this episode, we are going to explore all of the hidden — the true — costs of fast fashion.
This is the first episode of season 4, which will be focused on dramatically slowing down fashion and envisioning what a post-growth or degrowth future for fashion would look like.
Before we get into all of the ways we can slow down fashion though, I wanted to talk about what is wrong with fast fashion. So hit play for a deep-dive into fast fashion’s environmental impacts and social impacts.
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This episode was brought to you by Green Eco Dream. This sustainably-minded marketplace has eco-conscious alternatives for your health, home, beauty, and on-the-go needs — including your conscious laundry routine!
- What is Sustainable Fashion?
- What is Ethical Fashion?
- What is Slow Fashion?
- The Fashion Industry’s Environmental Impacts
- White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch
- ‘Buy now, pay later’ is sending the TikTok generation spiraling into debt
Other episodes mentioned:
- Ep.1 What is Ethical Fashion?
- Ep. 2 What is Sustainable Fashion?
- Ep.3 What is Slow Fashion?
- Ep.29 Compostable Clothing, Natural Dyes, and Localizing Fashion Systems
- Ep.30 Regenerative Fashion & Building a Seed-to-Sew Supply Chain
- Ep.31 The Reality of the Secondhand Clothing Trade
- Ep.34: The Power of Style
- Ep.40 What It’s Really Like Working for Fast Fashion
- Ep.45 Are Better Brand-Supplier Relationships The Missing Link to Ethical Fashion?
Tune in to this episode of the Conscious Style Podcast below, or on your favorite podcast app
Read the Transcript:
Hey everyone, and welcome back to the show. We are back after a short break and are getting into season four. As I hinted at a little bit in the season three finale, this upcoming season is all about dramatically slowing down fashion and envisioning what a post-growth or degrowth future for fashion would look like.
In other words, we’re going to talk about how we can get away from fast fashion and big corporations and mass-produced clothing and start to truly embrace slow, small, localized fashion systems, both on an individual level and a more systemic level.
So on an individual level that might look like buying less, prioritizing pre-loved, supporting small, slow fashion and artisan-made businesses if that is accessible to you, and participating in the cultural shift around fashion. Changing fashion to be about personal expression, creativity, and art, rather than it being about shopping hauls trends and supporting billionaire corporations.
And on a systems level, which for the record is something that we can all absolutely get involved with as individuals, we can advocate for regulation that will reign in the speed and the production levels of these mass-produced fashion brands.
We can push for incentives like funding opportunities or tax breaks that encourage small artisan fashion businesses and social enterprises, as well as mending and repair businesses. This might sound a bit overwhelming, but there are examples of this happening. For instance, Sweden has recently reduced the sales tax on repair businesses by 50%, which can help make repair more affordable than buying new.
And there are many more examples, but we are going to get into the nitty-gritty into all the specifics throughout the season. So make sure you are subscribed to the Conscious Style Podcast so you don’t miss those episodes, we will have a new episode every Tuesday as usual as we have been doing with the previous seasons.
Okay, so that is a bit about what to expect moving forward. But before we get into all of that with slow fashion and post-growth fashion, I thought it would be important to establish or re-establish some foundations on why fast fashion and mass-produced fashion, big fashion is so harmful in the first place.
Of course, just to put that out there, this is not about shaming anyone who is reliant on fast fashion due to sizing, access, affordability, or whatever it may be. This is talking about fast fashion as a system.
And I think that there is always a very tough balance between not shaming individuals, but also empowering individuals to be part of the change. Like, I believe that you can make a difference, your steps do matter. But also, it’s a waste of time to attack each other, other individuals. And we should rather use that energy to advocate to the brands themselves. And in some cases, perhaps very large influencers and celebrities who are profiting potentially hundreds of 1000s of dollars, millions of dollars off of this exploitative system as well.
In short, my message that I hope to communicate to you is that I firmly believe everybody can be part of the slow fashion movement, no matter in which way that is accessible to you. And I think that it’s a lot more effective to welcome people in and, you know, share about the joys of slow fashion and the beauty of slow fashion rather than shame them to convince them. Obviously easier said than done. But I hope that sort of nuance is coming across somewhat clear.
And I do believe that awareness is one step towards change. It’s not the whole package, obviously. But I think that the more we can educate and make people aware and clarify these things that we can also start to drive more change.
So with that said, let’s get into what is so wrong with fast fashion. And if you need to go back to anything that I share in this episode, you can head to the transcript in the show notes over at consciouslifeandstyle.com. Okay, let’s get started.
So, before we get into what is wrong with fast fashion, it probably would help for me to clarify what I mean exactly when I say fast fashion.
Fast fashion is essentially cheap, mass-produced, and quickly produced fashion.
Fast fashion copies from the runway, from celebrities and influencers, or even independent artists and brands. And these days fast fashion also copies, vintage finds, or upcycle reworked pieces that have gone viral on social media.
Everything about fast fashion is, well fast. Designs are produced quickly, which is why they copy instead of creating designs from scratch. Garments are produced very quickly, trends come in and out very quickly. And unfortunately, garments are often viewed as disposable and are discarded quickly as well.
And this is like the fast fashion mindset as well. It’s not just fast fashion brands. But the fast fashion mindset is what leads to like this disposability culture as well.
And then also fast fashion brands, instead of having two or four or maybe six collections every year, fast fashion releases new clothing weekly, or for ultra-fast fashion brands, even daily. And we’re talking like 1000s of new arrivals. I’m really hoping we don’t reach a day of like ultra ultra-fast fashion where there’s new arrivals hourly, but it wouldn’t surprise me.
And these garments are typically priced quite low. And the brands have frequent sales to push overconsumption. You know, you see sales like 85% Off, 90% Off, I think was a Boohoo I forget which brand had like 99% off sale. So they really want to get people to buy a lot of clothes for cheap prices.
And to be clear, all of fashion has sped up, right, especially if we compare what fashion was like 100 years ago. And we’re gonna get more into the history of fast fashion with a fashion historian and a future episode. So keep your eyes peeled for that, because that will, I think be super interesting.
But fast fashion takes it to a whole new level. It’s like the fastest fashion you can find in the industry. And I’m going to be talking a little bit more about this later, but there also has been like a fast-fashionification of the entire industry where even mid-tier, and maybe even some higher tier, like in terms of pricing brands are speeding up their production and their new arrivals and all that kind of stuff.
So yeah, fast fashion, I think can be summed up by speed and cheap prices. So with that said, let’s talk about the harms of fast fashion.
Okay, so the first sort of victim, so to speak of the fast fashion system that we’re going to talk about is the planet, because this, in fact, impacts all of us and every other living thing on earth.
That said, the climate crisis and other ecological damage impacts some (i.e. the global south, communities of color, low-income communities, and women) far more than others.
But getting into fast fashion and the planet, I think that the most important element to start with is the sheer production of volumes, and then how that sort of trickles into everything, including emissions and fashions’ role in the climate crisis.
So the fashion industry has a serious lack of reputable data, but various sources estimate that the world produces somewhere around 100 billion to 150 billion garments per year. The former status from McKinsey and the letters from World Economic Forum.
It’s obviously a huge variance but either number is absolutely crazy to think about. Especially because that is just an article of clothing, that is not even jewelry, handbags, shoes, accessories. I mean, I can’t even imagine what that number would be if we counted all that.
Also worth noting, most of this is being consumed by rich countries in the Global North. 70% of the world lives on less than $10 per day. So these are not the people consuming all these clothes, does not the entire world consuming insane level of clothing. And I think that’s really, really key to acknowledge.
It also makes these numbers even scarier, like when you think about who has the money to regularly buy new fashion, and then how many garments are being produced and presumably bought, it’s hard to even imagine how people are buying, let alone able to wear all of those clothes.
But the interesting reality is that actually, we’re not even wearing all of these clothes. In fact, a study that surveyed 18,000 heads of households across 20 countries found that people are on average, not wearing at least 50% of their wardrobes, that is half, half of our purchases, half of the clothes in our wardrobe are going unworn.
In the US, the average person hasn’t worn a whopping 82% of their clothing in the past year. And in the UK, that number is still quite high at 73%.
So the point here is that there are way more clothes being produced than is necessary for us to clothe ourselves and even for us to wear. And we’re going to come back to these numbers later when I talk about the cost of fast fashion to consumers. But I think that just goes to show how excessive the production levels of fashion are. It is more clothing than we could possibly ever wear.
And this production has a heavy toll on our collective home. Yes, I am talking about planet earth.
Now to describe the environmental impacts of fashion, I hesitate sometimes to give specific statistics. Since this industry is so opaque and reputable data, again, it’s very difficult to come by.
But let’s talk about some of the overarching issues. And I’ll throw in like some ranges of statistics. So you have an idea of like the impact of fashion.
So first, we have greenhouse gas emissions, which are of course driving the climate crisis, which is perhaps the most urgent but certainly not our only ecological crisis.
And these emissions calculations go far beyond what we might see as shoppers through like the physical stores or the individual shipments we receive from ecommerce. But they start all the way back at the cotton farm, or when it comes to synthetics which are unfortunately becoming more and more common at the oil refinery.
And then we get into spinning the raw material into a fiber, weaving it into fabric, finishing that fabric, dyeing it, and then we have cut and sew factories where the cloth is turned into a garment. And all of this, most of this, if not all of it is done in factories that are powered by fossil fuels, perhaps even coal, and ship their transportation methods that are run on fossil fuels.
And then once the garment is made, it’s typically shipped across the ocean to warehouses and the US or Europe, from Asia, before being shipped to stores or to individual people.
To be clear, all of the fashion industry is contributing to these total numbers. The absolutely dizzying speed of fast fashion is accelerating the industry’s emissions. As the often quoted statistic from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s A New Textiles Economy goes, clothing production doubled from 2000 to 2014 and the average consumer buys 60% more garments, while keeping them just half as long.
And so when we hear things like clothing production has doubled in 15 years, it sounds terrible from a waste perspective and just imagining all these clothes, but if we also consider the emissions and some of these invisible pollutants, you know, that means that fashion’s footprint has also had to dramatically increase.
Truly, absolutely every element of fashion’s ecological impact increases as we increase production.
So I don’t want to get into the details of every aspect of fashion’s environmental footprint, because I actually covered a lot of that in episode 2 of the podcast: What is Sustainable Fashion? So you can go back to that episode. But I want to sum it up here to say that every one of the following impact is increased with more production.
So let’s go through this list here: water consumption and water pollution, chemical use and air pollution, pre-consumer textile waste and end-of-life clothing waste, loss of biodiversity, loss of wildlife habitat, and deforestation. The more garments being made in this mass-produced, overproduced way, the more we have of all of this.
And fast fashion brands like to convince us that there are silver bullet solutions to these things. Whether that’s their use of recycled synthetics, or switching to bio-based materials, or making their jeans in a more water-efficient way.
While yes, these things are great, and we do need them, they will just be a drop in the bucket if we’re not getting to the root cause of overproduction. And they really won’t make much of an impact if we’re still increasing production at increasing rates.
For example, a lot of fashion brands like to talk about bio-based materials. And this is something that is also in like luxury fashion. It’s not just fast fashion. But I want to make a point here. So while yes, moving away from animal-based materials, will potentially help with like deforestation and wildlife habitat loss. If we’re still clearing land to grow new plants for bio-based materials, it could also require destroying native ecosystems for that industrial agriculture.
It’s not just about the actual material, but also the processes, you know, we should be shifting to smaller farms to regenerative agriculture. And for much one regenerative agriculture, I recommend listening to Episode 30 With Nishanth Chopra, because he explains regenerative agriculture a lot better than I am going to.
But in any case, these things are only possible on a smaller scale, like you can’t have it at the level of industrial agriculture. So here, scale is so important to consider.
And then, when it comes to another thing that fast fashion brands love to advertise about recycled synthetics, we still have to be thinking about microplastics. Recycled synthetic still released microplastics. And of course, there’s a lot of energy used in that process and potentially toxic chemicals being released in production too.
So for producing more garments, and we’re just like saying, well, it’s fine, because we’re using recycled synthetics instead of virgin synthetics. Well, no, I mean, 50 billion garments made from recycled synthetics is still gonna release a crazy amount of microplastics.
And then finally, with efficiency gains, whether that’s energy efficiency, water efficiency, better efficient use of fabrics, these improvements are great, but typically outweighed by the increase in production.
So to sort of lay it out, let’s say a brand brags that they are reducing their average garments footprint by 20%. But then, if you’re producing twice as many clothes as you were five years ago, well, then the overall carbon footprint, like the total carbon footprint of all those garments together, still gonna go up, if that makes sense.
Put in another way, even in like a really aggressive sustainability strategy from a fast fashion brand, where a brand was able to half the carbon footprint per garment. If they doubled their sales, that would mean that they would still be leveling off, like, yes, each garment is half the impact. But if it’s double the garments, then the total impact is still the same.
And so while this leveling off is sometimes promoted by green growth advocates as a way to continue to perpetually, exponentially grow the economy and production without increasing the carbon footprint and ecological footprint. We do have to remember that we are in a climate crisis and it’s not just about leveling off and keeping emissions the same but we need to really be reducing emissions. That is the key.
The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has reported that all sectors must cut greenhouse gas emissions by half by 2030. Okay, that is in eight years and greenhouse gas emissions have to be cut in half.
So it’s hard to really when you actually truly think about that number and how huge that is, it’s really difficult to imagine that happening like us being able to cut greenhouse gas emissions by half, while we’re still increasing production and still producing 150 billion garments per year. So I think that’s really important to sort of sit with.
And while I am talking a lot about admission, specifically in this case, because that is something very tangible, this mode of thought can be said about all sorts of impacts, you know, even if an individual pair of jeans was made with 30%, less water, if you’re still increasing, the total number of jeans that you produce every year, you know, is the overall water footprint really being reduced?
So this is what I feel totally different about sharing these sorts of efforts like water saving, energy efficiency, switch to renewable energy, all that stuff. I feel so much different about that, from slow fashion and small fashion brands that produce in really intentionally mindful ways and have smaller batches versus the same efforts from like, big fashion and fast fashion brands that are producing, say, 3 billion garments a year like H&M, you know, the scale makes all of the difference.
And I really want to emphasize that because this episode is all about the impact of fast fashion specifically — and what defines fast fashion is the level of production and the speed of production.
Like, again, all of fashion has an impact. I don’t want that to be misunderstood, expensive designer fashion is not necessarily produced sustainably or ethically just because it’s expensive. But fast fashion’s prerogative is exponential growth. Their business models are only made possible because of their huge production volumes.
And this brings me to the final environmental impact that I want to talk about, which also has a massive impact on people. I mean, every environmental issue has an impact on people and all living things, right?
The climate crisis is massively impacting people and will continue to have even worse impacts on people. Pollution has impacts on people, water use and water contamination have obviously impacts people.
But with that said, the other side of this exponential growth of volume that fast fashion is producing is the waste. So as we talked about fast fashion’s business model is dependent on people buying a lot very quickly and discarding a lot also very quickly, so that they can buy the latest new styles, the newest micro trend. You know, these brands are releasing new clothes every week, if not every single day, in the case of brands like Shein and other ultra-fast fashion brands.
So, you know, in order to buy all those new clothes, people only have so much room in their closets. And then there’s this rise of this movement of decluttering and minimalism. But we also know that people aren’t buying less, right? Consumption is going up. And yet we’re seeing all these things about minimal wardrobes and decluttering and it’s where all of these clothes going.
And lately we’ve been seeing fast fashion brands come out with their, “take-back programs and recycling programs”, which are a bunch of greenwashing. But I won’t go too far down that rabbit hole because we have covered that topic in previous episodes.
But I think the biggest thing to acknowledge here is that with this constant cycle, these clothes are not going away, right? Most of them are made from synthetic materials. Plastics don’t decompose. Maybe after 100 years, they break down into tiny little microplastics but that’s still like pollution. They’re not joining the natural environment in a healthy way. Like they’re not composting into soil like maybe a compostable all-natural linen garment might be.
And we do have an episode all about compostable clothing and what qualifies as safely compostable. So I’ll make sure that episode is linked in the show notes because it’s a really big topic.
But the point here is that these clothes don’t go away. Even though they’re designed to fall apart after a couple of wears go out of style after a month or less, these clothes never disappear. And even with these take-back programs or “recycling programs”, that is not a real solution.
Most of the clothes that get donated are not able to sell in local charity shops when we’re talking about clothes donated in places like the US, Canada, UK, and other countries in the Global North. Most of it either gets downcycled or shipped to countries in the Global South and sold in markets like Kantamanto market in Accra Ghana or Owino Market in Kampala Uganda. And these places are being dumped on with just millions and millions of used clothes.
In fact, the OR Foundation has reported that Ghana receives 15 million used garments every single week. To put that in perspective, the entire population of Ghana is 31 million.
So every two weeks, they are receiving as many garments as their entire country’s population. So this is just way, way, way, way, way, way, way, way, way too many clothes. And for the record, they’re not being donated, they are being sold.
And that is part of the inequitable global secondhand clothing trade, which is another massive topic. But I did discuss this with Nikissi Serumaga of Vintage or Violence in episode 31, The Reality of the Secondhand Clothing Trade. I highly, highly recommend you give that a listen. It’s one of the most important episodes I think I’ve ever put out on the show. Like I just wish everybody could listen to that, whether they’re interested in fashion or not. It’s just such an important topic that I think impacts everybody who wears clothes to like some extent.
But I’ll just leave it, for now, to say that fast fashion is causing a waste crisis that is impacting people, devastating local economies, and destroying ecosystems. Looking into fashion’s waste crisis and how it is impacting places in the global south has forever changed the way that I view how I not only rehome my clothes but also how much I buy and how like messed up this fast fashion system is no matter what fabrics they’re using. It is too much clothing for the world to handle.
So for even more on fashion’s environmental impacts, I’m going to link an article that contributing writer Stella wrote that summarized it all really well and shares how we can find our role in the movement for change. It’s a great article, so that will be linked in the show notes.
But let’s shift on to fast fashion’s impact on people.
With this, there is a very similar theme of the fact that all big fashion or mass-produced fashion is implicated. But fast fashion is exasperating the impacts. So as a briefer or a review, the fashion industry is rife with exploitative labor practices from unsafe working conditions, gender-based violence, excessive working hours (we’re talking 12 to 15-hour days, sometimes without any days off in the week), on unlivable poverty wages, (sources estimate between 92 and 98% of garment makers do not earn a living wage), lack of basic worker protections like the ability to negotiate or organize, and job instability.
And when makers aren’t being paid living wages, they certainly do not have the funds to save for times of unemployment caused by that job instability. So this is a huge issue that can leave workers vulnerable to a host of horrible conditions from getting into predatory high-interest debt, having to skip meals, turning to unsafe avenues of earning income.
I mean, I could go on but I covered all of the nitty-gritty details of fashion’s human impacts in episode 1, What is Ethical Fashion? But I think that gives you enough of an overview for now as we head into what fast fashion’s role is in all of this.
So in the environmental portion of this episode, we talked about the level of production like the volume of production, and how that just makes the impact so much bigger. Now we’re going to talk about the other defining element of fast fashion, which is the speed of production.
So this speed, these rapid turnover times that fast fashion brands require are directly related to working conditions and working hours in factories. For example, if a brand goes to a supplier and says we need 1 million garments by next week, and that supplier only has so many workers in their factory, then that means that those workers have to get that work done if the supplier wants the deal.
And you might say, well, the supplier can just say no, and that’s true. But the brand will likely just go to the next factory, or the next or the next or the next, or there’s endless factories that the brand could go to. So it’s really driven by the brand.
Okay, and then if that volume that the brand wants from the factory is double the normal capacity of the workforce, that presents a big problem, as you could imagine.
A supplier cannot double their employees overnight to fulfill an order next week for XYZ fast fashion brand. So if they have order expectations that are twice what can be done by the workers within a reasonable 40-hour workweek, they have you know, two options.
One, they require double the amount of hours from their workers. Their workers, you know, have to work 80 hours then, instead of 40. And this is unfortunately very commonplace. The Clean Clothes Campaign reports that many garment makers might see workweeks as high as 96 hours. And I’ll just add here quickly that like regular, so to speak, 40-hour work weeks are not the norm at all, and garment factories, it’s just, I’m painting a picture of like an example of the impact of the speed of production.
But anyway, the second option for a factory when they have more garments to produce and they can realistically fulfill is subcontracting, which is quite common. So the factory says, all right, I cannot fulfill this order from that brand but I also don’t want to lose that money so let me contract with other factories that can help me fulfill that order for the brand.
And this is where things get very opaque and murky. The brand may not even know about the subcontracted factory at all. That factory may not even meet the most basic worker standards like being free of child labor or forced labor.
And so with this, yes, there are factories that are bad apples. But the deeper issue is that purchasing practices from these fast fashion brands, and in general fashion brands drive these practices.
So a brand might have in a contract
with a brand that they are not allowed to subcontract, you know they might tell the supplier, and they would have that in the paper. But if that very same brand is then telling the factory, we need you to all of a sudden produce double the number of clothes that you typically do for us and you need to do it in two weeks. If a brand is doing that to a factory, what did they expect?
You know, there’s still human hands making these clothes and they’re not going to magically be twice as fast. And so I think that’s really, really important to talk about. Like, okay, the brand can have all this and that in the contracts but if their purchasing practices aren’t enabling the factory to actually follow those standards, then you can see how it seems a little bit disingenuous when a brand is like child labor gets discovered in their supply chain, like oh, well, it was in our contract that this wasn’t allowed. And it’s like, yeah, well, what drove your suppliers to subcontract? Maybe you should think about what you’re demanding from your suppliers.
So this is a big issue. It’s a bit complicated. I mean, I don’t think it’s as complicated as brands pretend, you know, I think it’s a fixable problem. But it is challenging maybe to understand when we’re not super familiar with how like supply chain practices work.
But summarizing it to say, purchasing practices from brands are a huge problem demanding on a whim large quantities of clothing very quickly makes it challenging for a factory to anticipate the demand and have an appropriately sized workforce, which may push them to do certain actions.
In fact, Arjen Laan, who is the CEO of the fashion manufacturing company Pactics, said in episode 45, that the most challenging part of being a supplier and his point of view, is balancing workload. So like there are slow times when there might not be enough work for everybody. And there are also times where there might be too much for everybody to reasonably finish in time. And better forecasting from brands can help suppliers better prepare and ensure that they have the right amount of workers.
You know, I think we can just even think about this on a personal level, right? Like, if we have a bunch of work projects, we would much rather receive advance notice of said large projects, rather than our boss giving us this massive project and it’s like, due by this Friday. You know, that’s really stressful, and it probably is going to lead to overworking. And it definitely happens at companies. And you might have even experienced it, and it’s not great.
So, going back to fashion, when you have an ultra-fast fashion brand that wants to hop on the latest micro trend from TikTok, and, you know, you might need a turnaround time of a few weeks. In fact, Shein is reported as having turnaround times as fast as 10 days, when things are being produced on the opposite side of the world from where they’re being shipped, that doesn’t really leave much time for the actual production.
So this has a huge impact on workers who are already overworked, by and large, it impacts the pace of the production and also their working hours, you know, with overtime. And the thing about fast fashion is that has sort of pushed a fast fashionification of the entire industry. So even brands that might not have been considered fast fashion 10 years ago, might be in the fast fashion category now.
As Amanda McCarty explained in episode 40, she saw firsthand as a buyer in the fashion industry, that the brands she was working for were speeding up their production, reducing the quality, increasing the frequency, and turning to low prices, or more often constant sales to drive profits.
So fast fashion’s impact goes beyond fast fashion itself, but it has really driven the race to the bottom of the entire fashion industry as well. Instead of brands striving to create the best highest quality product, companies are trying to sell the cheapest products at the highest quantities.
And of course, this has the most impact on workers in the end. If brands bought more product for less, and there are still human hands making it that means more working hours, or more stressful, higher speed production. Most often it means both, but we’re like the same pay or maybe even less pay.
So there is of course more to be said on working conditions and pay could go on and on about that. And in this season, we are going to be exploring the connections between fair pay and safe conditions, and reduced production volumes. Slow fashion and ethical fashion are very intertwined. If they’re done correctly, there’s ways a slow fashion can be still exploitive. But generally, I do find that they’re very interlinked.
But for now, let’s get into the third and final cost of fast fashion that I’m going to cover in this episode: consumers.
Now, this might be surprising to you, because I feel like we often talk about how shoppers are “winning from the system”. They maybe benefit from fast fashion, you know, they have access to endless cheap, stylish clothes.
But I think that there are more hidden costs for fast fashion shoppers than what meets the eye.
The first is the marketing machine that drives fast fashion. We know that we are bombarded with ads, influencer campaigns, and subtle messaging that we need to follow the latest trends and have the newest clothes in order to fit in and be cool or even to be happy, which is ridiculous.
But anyway, I remember when I first realized all of these harmful messages that were being perpetuated by fashion marketing, and frankly, other consumer industries as well. And it was such a shift for me like it is so normalized that a brand is telling us that we need new outfits because it’s a new season.
It’s normalized that a magazine is telling us that last year’s trend is now out and this now is what is in or these days I guess it’s more like TikTok, I don’t know. And it’s also normalized for like brands advertise shopping as being retail therapy or somehow improving your life situation or your mood and well in the short term yes, that’s true. It’s not really a real solution to our problems.
And it’s a bit manipulative to be profiting off of people having a bad day. Or worse, profiting off of people’s low self-esteem and just craving to fit into sort of feel accepted. I think that happens a lot with younger people.
I mean, there’s a there’s such a good documentary on Netflix about Abercrombie, I think it’s called White Hot. And it’s sort of part of this how like, these brands create a culture that you want to like fit in, and you feel like you have to buy their stuff to like fit in and to be cool. And while these days, it’s not really Abercrombie anymore. It is brands like Boohoo, Shein, H&M, Zara, you know, it’s still relevant.
But anyway, all of that messaging that we are so inundated with, like, the moment I realized that that actually isn’t normal, the more I saw it everywhere, like so many brands participate in this. And the harm in that is that it perpetuates this pressure that we need to constantly stay up to date on what is trendy, we need to follow what’s in and wear it even if we don’t feel good in it, and it’s not comfortable for us.
Like, even if it doesn’t suit our body type and it perpetuates self-image issues like we don’t get to wear what we actually feel great in, and what makes us feel like empowered to go about our day, you know, we are made to feel that we have to be always buying new clothes to be fashionable and part of society. And it’s stressful, it can harm our self-esteem. I mean, there’s just so much wrapped up with that.
I mean, there’s just so much tied up with what we wear and self-esteem. I think we’ve all experienced that there’s certain things we feel really good in and certain things that don’t make us feel so great.
And so by fast fashion pushing this trend cycle and sort of putting down our throats what we should wear, we get further and further away from what actually makes us feel good. And we talked a lot about this with Elise Holliday on the episode about the power of style. But like, once you’re happy with what you have in your closet, that’s like the key to shopping less, because you’re so happy with what you already have in your wardrobe, that what you see at the mall, what you see online doesn’t even appeal to you because you love what you have so much.
And that journey to finding your personal style to finding what feels good, is made a lot more difficult by fast fashion and fast fashion influencers on social media that show us that we should be wearing this or that and we just want to keep shopping to fit in and shop to have this certain life that these influencers are promoting. But that’s not leading us to like genuine fulfillment and contentment.
I mean, I can speak for myself, like my own experience, my journey to finding my personal style has been not to be dramatic, life-changing. Because it just has allowed me to feel so much more comfortable not only in the clothes that I wear, but in my own skin.
Like I’m more confident in what I’m wearing, I’m more confident in who I am because I feel good about expressing my style, like I don’t feel like I have to look a certain way. I know that I don’t have to purchase something from this fast fashion brand, to suddenly feel worthy or to feel happier that my life is together or to be like said influencer on Instagram, you know, I just feel so much more comfortable in who I am through my journey of clothing.
And it might not be like that for you. It might not be like that for everybody. I’m not trying to say that, just saying from my personal experience that learning how to sort of reclaim your personal style and reclaim what you love can have so many amazing ripple effects.
But on the other side, fast fashion can sort of take us further away from who we are. Like I think it’s a really common experience that once you’ve been so sort of deep in this fast-fashion world, you don’t even know what feels good anymore. Because you’re just constantly buying, constantly discarding, wearing the thing once or twice that there’s not even this opportunity to connect with any of your clothes or this opportunity to reflect on anything that you’re wearing it’s just this, this constant consumption.
And that can have a really, that can have a very real impact on us. And I really do think that a lot of satisfaction, a lot of happiness comes from finding a personal style, especially if you’re interested in clothes and interested in fashion. It might not mean that much to some people. But I think if you’re listening to this podcast, you probably are interested in fashion.
And I think that people interested in fashion, do find a lot of satisfaction from getting more clear on their personal style, and loving their closets more. And just finding what really, really, truly, truly brings you joy, and what actually makes you feel confident to go out into the world.
So to reiterate what I’ve said a million times, this is an issue that is all across fashion. But I do feel like fast fashions marketing is most aggressive in this because they not only want us to buy once a season and maybe make a few intentional purchases, but they want us to buy daily by at least weekly, you know, have these huge shopping halls hauls we’re not even thinking about what we’re putting into our carts because there’s just so many cheap clothes in there.
And all of these constant pushes to buy, you know, new outfits for every social media post, every party, and so on. This can push us to buy more than we even have the money for. It can push us to buy more than we can actually afford.
Which brings me to the next point, which is how fast fashion and the push to overconsume can put a very real strain on individual finances.
And here I want to remind you of the statistic I shared earlier in this episode, which is that people on average, do not wear at least half of their closets in the US that number is like 82%. And to be specific, that’s clothes that were unworn in the past year. But with a cycle of fast fashion, I mean, people aren’t really keeping their garments longer than a year, scary as that is.
So like, why are we buying so many clothes when we’re not even wearing some of them and we know that this like fear of outfit repeating is really a thing on social media, like a lot of people are just wearing a garment once and discarding it. And I don’t even want to know what those numbers are, I’m too nervous to look that up. But let’s talk about how fast fashion contributes to this.
So the clothes look cheap, right? The individual garments look really inexpensive, $10 for a shirt, $15 for a dress. But if everybody was buying moderate amounts of clothes, these brands could not be the billionaire corporations that they are, they could not be reeling in billions of dollars right? These brands depend on people buying a lot of clothes. They’re only profitable if people buy a lot of clothes.
And as we also talked about in the beginning, there’s only a certain population that can afford to buy a bunch of clothes. So these brands have new arrivals weekly or daily, they pump out new products on the regular and market it very aggressively, as we also talked about.
And this has gotten even worse with ultra-fast fashion. So brands like Zara and H&M would have new clothes on the weekly, you know. They were famous for having weekly micro seasons 52 seasons in a year. But Shein has 365 seasons, they have new arrivals every single day. And they advertise that they drop over 1000 new arrivals daily. It’s really, really difficult to like wrap my head around that.
And real quick that reminded me of another point, which Aja Barber made at a panel at The Sustainable Fashion Forum, which was that all these new arrivals, these constant new arrivals going through all that is super time-consuming.
So something that people might say is that you know, fast fashion is accessible, people maybe don’t have time to sift through thrift store racks, which is very fair, not everybody has the time to go into secondhand stores are not everybody has the time to mend.
But I think it’s also worth asking, well, do people have the time to sift through 1000s of new arrivals on the daily? I mean, like, you know how easy it is to like lose time and shopping or social media, like all these things are quite similar, right? They’re designed to like, grab our attention. And it can be an endless scroll, just like tons and tons of garments.
Like if you’re checking that site every day, which I know that these shopping apps send notifications, and they’ll text you, they’ll send push notifications, they’ll email you constantly letting you know that there’s new arrivals. And if you’re really going through all of that, that’s really time-consuming.
You might be losing like a lot of, a lot of your life, just scrolling through Shein’s new arrivals. But yeah, I just wanted to make sure to add that in there.
But back to the point that I was starting to make before with the finances. So although the individual garments look inexpensive, we definitely see the shopping hauls of people buying $500, $1,000, or even more worth of clothes, all over TikTok or YouTube, or occasionally Instagram.
And so the important point to remember is that just because the individual pieces are inexpensive does not mean that the total checkout number is or the total annual cost of clothing purchases. And when each piece is so inexpensive, it’s really easy to not notice it.
You know, for instance, if you know we’re buying $5 lattes from Starbucks every day, it seems like a really small purchase. But even if we’re only doing that on the workdays, and we’re only having one a day, that’s still $25 a week, that’s $100 a month, that is $1,200 in a year, over $1,000. And that’s only if you’re having one a day, which I know a lot of people have several a day, I know because I used to be one of those people.
So the small purchases can add up really fast. And you might notice if you hop onto one of these fast fashion brands’ websites about how much they push, these Buy Now Pay Later services or point of sale services. They don’t want people to think about how much money they are spending.
So real quick, buy now pay later services, you’ve probably seen them, some examples are like Klarna, Afterpay, and Affirm those are like the most popular ones in my experience. And essentially these platforms enable shoppers to pay for their purchases in installments so that they don’t need to pay upfront for the full amount.
And these services are promoted by influencers on social media. They’re advertised in magazines, these companies sponsor events. And of course, as I mentioned, they are promoted by the very brands themselves.
And I don’t want to get too much into buy now pay later as a system, because not a financial expert. I’ve never personally used these systems. But I do think it’s very important to look at how these fast fashion brands and fast fashion influencers are promoting them.
There is a great article in SF Gate about these Buy Now Pay Later programs and something that the writer Joshua wrote that really stood out to me was how these influencers with their hauls are not just normalizing debt, but even glamorizing it, promoting these Buy now pay later programs as a way for people, largely their Gen Z audience on TikTok to access all the latest, coolest trendiest stuff, even if they do not actually have the money for it.
And the article had some great quotes from people talking about how the scheme’s made it look like you’re not really spending as much money as you are, since it’s split up in several installments. And, you know, made them feel like that they can afford more than they maybe actually can.
And this article even pointed out that many of the buy now pay later companies actually advertise to brands using their services can increase cart sizes or total order amounts. So they’re saying like, hey, brand use our buy now pay later system to get people to buy more from you.
And I think we can kind of all see how that happens. I mean, 10 payments of $100 sounds a lot better than paying $1,000 right away.
But the very tricky part about all of this is that those monthly payments can add up very quickly. And we may not always be able to pay them back on time, they can add up, it can get overwhelming. And this is especially true for young people who do not have experience with things like credit cards or loans.
I am very privileged and very lucky that I was like educated about this stuff growing up from my parents and from having an education in business, having finance classes, and learning about all this stuff. But not everybody is aware. And Gen Z is a significant audience for these buy now pay later systems as it is for ultra-fast fashion brands. So that’s important to acknowledge.
But let’s talk specifically about fashion. So Afterpay, one of these services has recorded that 73% of its Gen Z consumer group uses their buy now pay later service for fashion purchases, according to that same SFGate article.
Now, this is fashion overall. But as the article continues, the rise of ultra-fast fashion has accelerated the pace of trends, driving the desire for constant wardrobe overhauls and therefore constant shopping.
And I think that again, with fast fashion, it is so deceptive because it looks cheap. And it adds up very quickly.
Of course, this can also be a huge problem with people buying luxury fashion when they can’t afford it because they’re like, oh, well, I can afford $125 monthly payments. And you know, they buy these designer goods that they actually can’t afford.
So it’s not exclusive to fast fashion but I do think is interesting how much fast fashion brands are shit, and how these fast fashion influencers doing these hauls basically say that they were able to do that or some of them say they’re able to do that with these like buy now pay later systems. And so it encourages this overconsumption.
So this whole conversation around overconsumption and debt is really a big one. And it’s complicated, and we don’t have all the numbers. Obviously, there are a lot of causes of debt. Like for one inflation, inflation is a huge problem right now.
I know that the debt is a complicated issue, but I think that it’s worth noting fast fashion’s influence on getting people to overbuy.
And personally speaking, that I know Aja Barber talks a lot about this as well, it’s easy to underestimate how much you’re spending on fast fashion because these things each purchase might be $50 or $60 here, $70 there. But when you add it up, you might be spending like way more money on fast fashion, then you might think at first.
And this money is going to be like billionaire corporations is not going to the workers. We know that. So yeah, I think it’s worth adding up the total cost of spending on fast fashion and seeing if it really is cheaper.
I would argue that adopting a slow fashion mindset of buying less, prioritizing pre-love, and considering cost per wear before purchasing something, I think it saves money for a lot of people. Again, I know access is an issue. And I’m not trying to shame anybody but just try to encourage people to maybe think a little bit differently than we’ve been trained to think by these fast fashion brands.
And we’re going to be talking more about the cost to consumers in a future episode about the addictive nature of fast fashion and what we need to be doing about that. So stay tuned for that. I think it’s going to be a really fantastic episode.
And yeah, I think that wraps it up for this episode on what’s wrong with fast fashion.
So I hope that you found it interesting or informative. The goal is to encourage people to rethink fast fashion, how it’s impacting people and the planet, and maybe even yourself, or themselves in the plural. And I also hope to encourage people to give slow fashion a try it doesn’t mean you have to spend $300 on a dress, there are a lot of ways to get involved.
If you can’t quit fast fashion, you can still even be part of the movement by, you know, say demanding better from brands, emailing these brands, and asking them questions about their production practices, or maybe joining in on campaigns led by advocacy organizations, like Remake. This movement really needs everybody. And you can get involved in no matter the capacity that you’re able to dedicate to it. Like we need all of us coming together. No matter what level you’re able to participate, the slow fashion movement needs you.
And that’s a wrap for this episode. I hope that you enjoyed it. Please share with someone who you think might find this information interesting or informative — hopefully, both!
And if you are liking the Conscious Style Podcast so far, it would mean so much if you left a rating or review of the show.
And finally, if you’re looking for more sustainable fashion content, I do have a free weekly newsletter called The Conscious Edit that you can sign up for at consciouslifeandstyle.com/edit. I share articles I’m reading, podcasts I’m listening to, campaigns I’m supporting, brands I’m browsing, things I’m learning, and more. The link is also going to be in the episode description.
Thank you so much for listening to the podcast today. I will catch you again for another episode next Tuesday. And if you’re looking for another similar episode, in the meantime, I recommend episode 3: What is Slow Fashion and How Can You Get Involved?
Alright, that is all for today. Bye for now!