Shopping for clothes has become the equivalent of ordering takeout

By Lauren Golt

American shoppers buy five times more clothing now than they did in 1980 and, according to the Wall Street Journal, each piece will be worn just seven times before it’s thrown away. 

Why? Because the fast fashion industry provides a never-ending number of options priced so low you don’t feel guilty spending $20 to replicate the latest TikTok trend.

What is fast fashion? Alden Wicker, journalist and founder of Ecocult.com, told NPR that fast fashion is “not created in seasonal collections ahead of time, but is just created on the fly according to what trends are coming up or what celebrities are seen wearing out and about.” 

So what’s fast about it? Everything: the styles, production rate, delivery, decision to purchase, and the lifespan.

These mass-produced, trend-focused garments aren’t built to last; in fact, many don’t survive a few wash cycles. Consumers are being trained to accept poor quality in exchange for low prices, and, with such great deals, they can immediately buy something new.

A Big Shift

Fast fashion can be traced to the 1960s, when designers like Mary Quant mass-produced their best-selling styles, and disposable paper dresses were all the rage. By the early 1990s, stores like Zara and H&M had abandoned seasonal fashion collections for constant novelty, offering consumers hundreds of products each week. Now, one of the largest fast fashion retailers, Shein, launches up to 6,000 new items each day and their prices are 30-50% less than Zara and H&M.  

Clothing designer David Ferron worked for fashion houses in New York before moving to Unionville, Pa., and opening his own shop, Unionville Saddle. During his tenure in Manhattan he saw how fast fashion was impacting the industry.

Clothing designer David Ferron outside his studio/shop Unionville Saddle.

“Fast fashion has changed the landscape of the fashion industry and of the world,” Ferron says. “It was not too long ago when dressmakers were in every town making quality garments for the local clientele. Now fast fashion and online retailers have put those craftspeople out of business and trained the consumer to look for low prices rather than quality garments.”

Wilmington-based fashion illustrator and visual director Dallas Shaw isn’t a huge fan of fast fashion. Having built a career working with industry powerhouses like Donna Karan and Ralph Lauren, she has an appreciation for the time and energy that goes into making and designing clothes. But when a fast fashion brand approached her to design a small collection, she decided to do it because she loves learning new things.

However, she says, “it was not a good experience for me. There were so many limitations in quality and design, because of the fast turnaround, that not a single piece was how I designed it. In the end, I decided not to put my name on the collection.”

For local retailer Sissy Aerenson, owner of Wilmington boutique Peter Kate, Amazon was a game-changer when it came to the way consumers thought about the availability of goods.

“In the beginning, Amazon was so new and then, as it took hold, I felt it was harmful because of the speed at which they delivered and the way in which they incentivized the sales,” says Aerenson. “The competition with the big department stores and the brands themselves were crazy for small businesses like mine because our depth of inventory could not compare.”

This creates a challenging environment for smaller brands and designers.

“Fast fashion has cultivated unrealistic expectations from the consumer,” Ferron says. “Now customers expect designs faster and cheaper. This then incentivizes the corporations to move at lightning speed when creating new collections. Companies with large budgets invest in technology to knock off garments from independent designers, leading to cheap imitations on the market before the original designer has even produced the line for themselves.”

A Lesson For Retailers

How has this affected small, independent boutiques? Aerenson says the fast fashion model has completely transformed the way she buys for her store.

“When we opened Peter Kate 20 years ago, the pre-fall and pre-spring buys were filled with fashion that were to be bought ‘early’ but not worn for at least a month or two,” she says. “Today that world is gone. The consumer buys for something they need that day, week, or for a trip. It’s rare for someone to purchase something thinking they will not wear it for a couple months.”

Ferron, on the other hand, says that while fast fashion doesn’t affect his business directly, he has seen a shift in customer behavior.

“I have noticed that, as stories come out about how fast fashion is impacting the people that work in it and the environment, customers are more willing to spend a little more on clothing with a more neutral impact,” he says. “When I meet with clients for the first time they are often surprised by all of the work that goes into making a single garment. I try to show them that garment-making is a craft that takes an enormous amount of skill. Starting with sketching, draping, and pattern making all the way through fabric sourcing, cutting, and sewing, each step is complicated and time-consuming.” 

Fashion’s Negative Impact

The fashion industry is not environmentally-friendly. In fact, it’s one of the biggest polluters and plays a key role in accelerating global warming. According to the World Resources Institute, manufacturing one t-shirt requires 2,700 liters of water, and making one pair of jeans results in greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to driving a car 80 miles. 

Now, factor in the fast fashion business model. It produces inexpensive clothing made largely from synthetic fibers that won’t break down in landfills, and much of that clothing is quickly discarded. This is a major contributor to the fashion industry’s ever-increasing emissions, which, according to a report by the Global Fashion Agenda, are set to rise to around 2.7 billion tons a year by 2030.

Despite this environmental impact, Shein hit $10 billion in sales in 2020. That’s because people simply love a deal. A study from the Journal of Consumer Research showed that while sustainability is important, the majority of shoppers prioritize price over other selling points.

Designer David Ferron says as the public becomes more aware of the impact of fast fashion, many customers are willing to spend more on clothing that has a more neutral impact. Photo courtesy David Ferron.

“We have gotten so used to low prices and racks on racks of clothing that we forget that every garment is made by hand, even the cheap ones,” says Ferron.

And, unfortunately, those hands aren’t being fairly compensated. A 2019 New York Times investigation revealed that workers creating Fashion Nova clothing in Los Angeles were being paid as little as $2.77 an hour. 

Children are the ones who suffer the most. Fashion supply chains require low-skilled workers, and some employers prefer to hire children because of their small hands, especially in cotton picking. According to UNICEF, one study in India showed 60% of workers in spinning mills were less than 18 years old.

Further, the International Labour Organisation reports that “170 million children are engaged in child labour, defined by the UN as ‘work for which the child is either too young -— work done below the required minimum age — or work which, because of its detrimental nature or conditions, is altogether considered unacceptable for children and is prohibited.’”  

Child labor is illegal in most countries but that does not stop companies from enticing families and children. Global campaign coordinator of Stop Child Labour Sofie Ovaa says, “There are many girls in countries like India and Bangladesh who are willing to work for very low prices and are easily brought into these industries under false promises of earning decent wages.” 

In reality, these girls “are working under appalling conditions that amount to modern day slavery and the worst forms of child labour,” according to recent report by the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations and the India Committee of the Netherlands.

If you’re wondering how companies can get away with this, it’s because the fashion industry and supply chain is multifaceted and complex, meaning companies are not in control of each production stage. But there are ways to combat this problem, both from a consumer standpoint and from a business perspective.

How To Shop Better

“Everything in moderation” goes the old saying. If three out of every five garments produced are thrown away annually, according to a McKinsey study, then why are we buying so much? 

Molly Giordano, executive director of the Delaware Art Museum, says she started shopping eco-friendly five years ago, but went to fast fashion brands when she was pregnant with her son.

“It was hard to forgo fast fashion brands when I was pregnant and my size fluctuated,” she says. “I couldn’t justify spending more on pieces that wouldn’t fit postpartum. Now, I focus on buying quality staples and supporting sustainable brands.”

Consumers can also buy ethically responsible brands. As more research is conducted on the impacts of fast fashion, more information becomes available for brands to responsibly source their materials. Many brands are taking the steps to ensure that their workers are paid fairly and their textiles are sourced responsibly. These brands are transparent about their efforts. Check their websites to see how their mission and values align with yours and decide if they are a company you would like to support.

Try the 30 Wears Test. Marielle Terhart, a writer, photographer and sustainable and inclusive clothing activist, told Vogue, “One of the easiest ways I’ve curbed excessive shopping—and the equally tragic, beautiful garments that I never wear—is asking the simple question, ‘can I see myself wearing this 30 times?’ Yes there are exceptions to the rule, but for the most part anything I’m adding to my wardrobe needs to pass that test. Can I envision them both with other pieces I already own, and equally important, will they actually fit the life I currently lead? Being honest with myself about how practical a garment is for my life has helped curb impulse purchases significantly and ensures the resources that go into making a pair of jeans or a cute blouse don’t end up wasted.” 

Buy — and sell — used. This can go beyond shopping at your local thrift store or yard sale. You can actually sell items on websites such as Poshmark and Mercari. Upload quality photos of gently used or brand new clothing along with detailed descriptions, list your price, and once your garment sells, ship it to its new home. Think of it as a virtual garage sale.

Host or attend a clothing swap. If you don’t want to sell your clothing, this is a free way to change out pieces in your wardrobe without contributing to further environmental impact. Attendees bring the garments they’re looking to discard, and everyone picks from that selection. At the end of the event, the clothing items that are left are donated to a local thrift store, women’s shelter, or other donation center. 

Repair and repurpose what you already have. It’s understandable that not every piece of clothing you own is in its original condition, so making repairs is a way to prolong the life of the garment. Using easy-to-learn sewing techniques allows you to do anything from mending a small hole to transforming an item into something new.

As we learn more about fast fashion and its impact, we are able to make small changes that help to counteract its effects. Educating ourselves is the key to knowing how to make better choices that will benefit us, our families, global communities, and the environment.

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