As a freshman girl living in a social dorm, it seemed like every week one of my friends would excitedly say, “I have a package to pick up!” and run to the community center. They’d come back beaming and we’d get a haul — dresses, “going-out” tops, workout gear, sweatshirts. I was just as guilty of this, if not more. I’d be at a party and see a girl wearing the cutest cargo pants and the next morning, bleary-eyed in bed, add it to my cart. I’d spot a girl with the best sense of style in my physics class and then open various shopping apps to try and get the perfect combination of clothing articles to mimic it. I’d think of outfits long in advance — what should I wear for Halloween? Where do I get my birthday dress from? My TikTok For You page is filled with stunning girls unboxing and trying on mountains of tempting clothes, promising 10% off with their promo codes, and I think that skirt set is adorable. Add to cart. Add shipping address. Checkout.
The recent skyrocketing of influencers on social media has led to a new kind of content: glorifying overconsumption and influencing their audience to buy, buy, buy. People (me included) will go out of their way to buy an outfit for one specific occasion, such as a themed party or a concert. We eagerly wait for our packages of dopamine and instant gratification to come in the mail. The calc exam is crushing you? It’s okay, at least you have a package coming. A boy ghosted you? It’s alright, your package of new clothes is en route and you’re going to look amazing Thursday night.
In the opinion article “Make fashion slow again: How social media sped trends up,” Lila Dominous talks about how the fashion trend cycle has sped up fast enough to give you whiplash; many trends and micro trends take just a few months to peak and subsequently decline. Recently, due to the surge of popularity of current it-girl Sofia Richie, I see videos of influencers clearing out their closets and throwing out bagfuls of barely-used, brightly-colored, tiny party tops to pursue Richie’s quiet luxury aesthetic. Now, influencers are scrambling to achieve the new, elegant, minimalist style by shopping from brands like Shein, Princess Polly, Bershka, Urban Outfitters, Pretty Little Thing, Boohoo, Zara and H&M, influencing their audiences to do the same. Of course, these brands are all labeled as fast fashion brands.
Fast fashion brands are characterized by unsustainable practices and poor treatment of their workers. Overconsumption combined with poor quality of clothes often seen in fast fashion results in piles of discarded clothes so high they can be seen from space.
But I’m not writing this to inform you.
I’m sure with the recent discourse and dialogue about fashion, the negative implications of fast fashion brands is something you already know. It’s something that I already know. So why do we continue to buy from them?
Convenience, for one. Lightning-fast shipping time, flash sales, your card and address already saved in the app so you don’t have to go through the motions. Can’t find size-inclusive options in sustainable brands? Many fast fashion brands like Shein carry up to a 4XL. Price is another factor. Don’t have the budget for Alix Earle’s $1300 Zimmerman graduation dress? Here are dupes and cheaper alternatives. After all, there isn’t really any ethical consumption under capitalism, is there? What are we but cogs in the machine? Why should we, as college students — the ones eating ramen and splitting Ubers — be the ones to ditch 10 tops from Shein for one top of the same price from a sustainable company?
Well, the short answer is, you don’t have to. Hell knows I don’t. That’s where the hypocrisy comes in. Can we, in good faith, call ourselves believers in human rights if we buy from brands that exploit their workers by paying them $0.50 per hour? Alright, you say, that’s in developing countries. The minimum wage is lower there. What about garment workers in Los Angeles being paid $5.15 hourly, despite the federal minimum wage in America being higher? Or the incident in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 2013, when a garment factory collapsed killing more than 1,000 workers for brands like Benetton, Zara, Walmart, Primark and Mango? Let’s take a more nuanced look at the situation, then. An individual may fundamentally disagree with, but still contribute to, unethical actions due to the framework of our hypercapitalist and globalized society. This is the fault of the 1% — of governments and larger corporate entities — and not the responsibility of the individual. Or so I guiltily justify after my latest purchase.
Tragedy of the Commons, first conceptualized in 1833 by William Forster Lloyd, is a phenomenon that “explains individuals’ tendency to make decisions based on their personal needs, regardless of the negative impact it may have on others. In some cases, an individual’s belief that others won’t act in the best interest of the group can lead them to justify selfish behavior.” To what extent, then, is it immoral for an individual to make decisions based on their personal needs alone? Does this theory, and the unethical overconsumption I see all around me and knowingly participate in, prove that the human race is selfish and individualistic at its core? That’s a bleak outlook.
Would someone buying from a fast fashion brand out of financial necessity be as immoral as someone who can afford something sustainable instead but chooses fast fashion out of convenience? Or if someone purchases from a brand like Victoria’s Secret without knowing that it is unethical; would it be morally different than if they purchased it after knowing the fact? After all, both situations have the same impact. Something as mundane as clothes shopping makes these questions about morality float around my head, but I’m no philosopher.
I still remember the blatant irony when a friend reprimanded me for a parcel of clothes I received that day from Shein … all while wearing a Nike sweatshirt presumably made in a sweatshop. It’s important to have an understanding and empathetic outlook instead of a condescending and judgemental one. Regardless of whether we know it or not, we all indirectly contribute to unethical practices, be it through consuming fast fashion or using iPhones and iPads. I feel a sense of hopelessness at times knowing that the majority of what I consume, including what I eat, wear and own, was made with the blood and sweat of overworked and underpaid workers. But, like many of you, just a short while after I read a jarring newspaper article or see a horrific documentary, I return to my old ways. Perhaps with more guilt or self-loathing, but unable to change. Boycotting fast fashion also has its downsides; an article quotes “a blanket boycott would lead to the shutting down of factories, forcing garment workers, many of whom are women, to go from a poor job to no job at all. Even worse, some will end up in even more dangerous situations, such as prostitution. Ultimately, boycotting fast fashion doesn’t address the core human effect of the industry: atrocious working conditions.” While I can’t completely stop using my phone and laptop or revamp my wardrobe with only sustainable brands, there are smaller, less drastic steps that I can take instead.
Clothes libraries have been gaining traction lately as a way to avoid wastage by renting out an article of clothing for a specific event instead of buying something you’d really only wear once. Likewise, there has been a sudden surge in thrifting clothes, be it to sport vintage couture or for a thrift-flip. Apps like Poshmark and Depop allow quick and easy ways for users to buy and sell clothes. There has also been a recent “deinfluencing” trend on social media, in which users give their audience their critical reviews of hyped-up products and reinforce that the audience does not need to buy them. Many influencers are now also promoting capsule wardrobes, which push people to invest in high-quality staple pieces that last a long time.
This is not to say that there hasn’t been criticism for some of these sustainable fashion trends; the gentrification of thrift stores has led to increased prices and limited resources in low-income communities, as opposed to bulk buyers or resellers.
I want to reinforce that while there are steps individuals can take to minimize the damage they cause, it is ultimately large corporations that are to blame. Since 1988, just 100 companies have been responsible for 71% of global greenhouse gas emissions. In an article by Chris Waugh, he writes, “Due to these staggering numbers, you would think that the onus would be put on these corporations to change the way they operate. However, this has never been the case. Instead, the common solutions which aim to tackle climate change revolve around consumer choice, and changes individuals can make in their everyday lives.” Individual changes can never match the magnitude of corporate changes, which are rare due to corporate interests being in profit and not sustainability or the working conditions of their laborers. The end goal and solution would be governments enforcing higher labor and environmental standards.
My friends and I are still probably going to fall prey to buying some cute tops or being sucked into microtrends that last as long as the clothes take to ship. I’m probably still going to longingly look at an outfit worn by a flawless, airbrushed influencer. We can take small steps to change, but in the end there’s only one way for this cycle to end. Even though, as conscious consumers, we need to take individual action (purchasing less, making our clothes last as long as possible), these measures won’t solve the issues with fast fashion at their source.
Statement Columnist Myrra Ayra can be reached at email@example.com