Online shopping holds value. It can be more accessible for some, it gives you space to compare prices and brands, and there is more variety available. Unfortunately, despite there being some positive aspects of the online shopping experience, it has also exacerbated the problem of fast fashion and its impact on us as individuals and the earth. This is because it makes it more convenient, and in some cases cheaper, to shop.
What is fast fashion?
According to Merriam-Webster, fast fashion is ‘an approach to the design, creation, and marketing of clothing fashions that emphasises making fashion trends quickly and cheaply available to consumers’ (2023), and the Cambridge dictionary defines fast fashion as ‘clothes that are made and sold cheaply, so that people can buy new clothes often’ (2023).
The cost of fast fashion
Fast fashion costs the earth. From the resources used to produce the garment to the waste created by old clothes that are put into landfill, there is an impact on the earth at every point of a garment’s life. The fashion industry accounts for up to 10% of global emissions (UNECE, 2018), and textile production creates an estimated 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent (CO2e) per year (University of Leeds, 2018).
Less than 1% of the material used to produce clothing is recycled to make new clothing at the end of its life (Environmental Audit Committee, 19 February 2019). Many consumers may not be aware of this, but fast fashion is designed to be disposable. It may feel like you’re getting a bargain, but when you have to keep replacing the same item of clothing again and again, it is far from cheap! Buying items and returning them if they don’t fit properly or you decide you don’t need them can also feel like you’re not being wasteful. While it is not you as the consumer that is being wasteful, many companies have found it is cheaper to throw away returned items than it is to clean and repackage the item to be resold. This means that brand-new but returned clothing can end up being burnt or in a landfill.
Fast fashion also has a massive human cost. Modern slavery is prevalent, and there are actually more slaves in the world today than there ever have been before – more than 50 million worldwide (Global Estimates of Modern Slavery, 2022). A lot of fast fashion is produced by those living as modern slaves or in exploitative and abusive working conditions (BBC, 2019), as this is the only way it is possible for companies to keep prices so low and turn a profit. The reduced cost to your bank account has a far greater human and environmental cost than we can imagine in many cases.
Social media and online shopping are enmeshed in a way that is difficult to untangle. The age of social media has brought, with it, the microtrend. Microtrends tend to prey on our insecurities about our bodies and feeling relevant, which push us to buy more and overconsume (Tom Crisp, University of Falmouth). This means that online shopping, coupled with microtrends exacerbates an already massive problem. Fashion trends used to cycle every 20 years, whereas now it is every few months.
A Micro trend is a short-lived trend; it rises in popularity quicker but leaves the trend cycle quicker. Some Microtrends last less than a season, and with that comes higher levels of consumption and waste. Social media is widely blamed for the rise of microtrends due to its hypervisibility (Maggie Zhou, 2022) and the popularity of ‘try-on hauls’ (Dorota Dziki, 2022). Recent examples of microtrends include clown core, dark academia and ballerina core. None of these last more than a few months, but they influence shopping habits in the short term.
Although social media plays a big part in microtrends, there is also a profoundly human element behind them. Carolyn Mair suggests that ‘we follow trends because we want to belong. When we follow a trend, we show our belonging to others who follow that trend and dissociate ourselves from those who do not.’ In a way, trends and microtrends could be related to community building. Following a trend allows us to feel part of a community and to feel that we belong. Unfortunately, this is also something that brands can take advantage of by making certain items feel more exclusive or rare; it drives the urgency and the impulse to buy. In turn, these microtrends create more demand for garment production which means more items being produced at lower costs by people that are already likely being exploited, as well as creating even more consumption and waste. Brands will also prey on insecurities and feelings of not being good enough to drive sales; if they create or amplify a problem, they can then sell us a product that ‘will fix it’. Spanx may ‘fix’ a belly, but it’s not a true solution, the true solution is working on loving your belly and figuring out why you feel the need to hide it! It’s the same story with makeup covering blemishes or anti-ageing creams reducing wrinkles.
Instead of buying so many clothes or trying to fix our perceived imperfections, we could focus on fostering a sense of belonging by building kind, supportive, validating relationships instead. This allows the building of a meaningful community, not one that is based solely on external attributes and consumerism.
What can I do to minimise my impact and increase my joy in the clothes I wear?
If you can, invest in slow fashion brands. The price tag may be a little steeper, but I find that most pieces will last far longer and fit better. Slow fashion brands put more time into using more sustainable textiles such as cotton or linen. Slow fashion is the way forward in my mind, but it is not necessarily accessible to everyone. The initial price tag may be enough to alienate some, but buying better quality does last longer (usually!), so if you can afford it, it is worth investing in. Some slow fashion brands I would suggest checking out are: Manners London, WAWWA and Rapanui.
I also tend to unsubscribe from marketing mailing lists and unfollow fast fashion brands or those promoting them. The amount of advertising we deal with daily is astounding and can make you feel like you ‘need’ new things. Marketing experts have found that the average American is exposed to around 4000 – 10000 adverts every single day. A marketing email or text can trigger that urge to shop, so just getting rid of them is a great way to curb the feeling. I find it useful also actively to follow and engage with slow fashion brands – this means that my social media algorithm has learnt that fast fashion brands won’t get any click-throughs or income from me, so it simply doesn’t suggest them anymore.
There is also a new trend of de-influencing on social media, such as TikTok, which is a direct rejection of influencing (Mariah Espada, 2023) and instead promotes conscious consumption. Social media creators are telling followers what not to buy, with a focus on popular and viral products. They encourage people to think a little more about what to buy to avoid overconsumption.
Jess (@impactforgood_) talks about de-influencing in several videos ‘I can’t believe that we, as a collective, are finally admitting that overconsumption is getting out of control.’
I buy second-hand. I’ve had to really face my own consumerist, fast fashion mindset and impulse purchase habit. When I want to buy something I sit with it for a little while and think about how useful it is and if I need it. I still shop online but in a more mindful and considerate way, often seeing if I can buy an item secondhand or a better quality version that will last longer.
I try to mend clothes when I can. I darn my socks, mend holes and sew buttons back on. Again, it is worth acknowledging that this may not be an option for those that are time-poor or don’t have the skills or resources to do so. However, if possible, mending clothes can be helpful for saving money, learning new skills and keeping hold of well-worn clothes for as long as possible. We seem to have moved away from mending clothes as it isn’t particularly fashionable, but mending can be decorative and fun. For example, the Japanese method of Sashiko is a method of visual mending that strengthens and decorates at the same time.
Some people rent clothes. This means that if you do feel the need to keep up with trends, you still can, but in a more sustainable way (Emily Chan, 2021). Anushka Salinas, president and CEO of Rent the Runway, suggests that ‘rental has a smaller environmental footprint compared to purchasing; it’s a smarter choice and a more conscious way to get dressed.’ Rent the Runway estimates that, on average, each rental garment has a 24% reduction in water usage, a 6% reduction in energy usage and a 3% reduction in CO2 emissions when compared to buying new. Further, there is a reduction in clothing production when they are being rented instead.
Minimalism is also touted as a sustainable way of living when it is a proactive choice and not out of necessity. Kang, Martinez and Johnson (2021) ‘propose minimalism as a deliberate paradigm shift in consumer behaviour based on the principle of a sustainable lifestyle’. In response to the overwhelming amount of information and ‘things,’ some people opt to minimise the number of items of clothing they own to wear less but better quality clothes. The Swedish Lagom ‘literally means not too much, not too little, the right amount, and is a philosophy that aims to balance, in every area and juncture of everyday life’. An important aspect of this is to know how to effectively recycle and reuse used items – this concept applies to fashion also, in reusing or upcycling clothing rather than buying less versatile or lower quality clothing at a higher volume. This could be a really useful way of framing purchases.
It is important to remember that each of us can only do our best according to our individual circumstances. What is one simple thing you could change today to move towards a more sustainable way of consuming and engaging in fashion? Individual choices are not enough to stop the climate crisis or the effects of fast fashion and consumerism on the earth.
Collective action can make a difference, but it is really up to the brands to make more ethical and sustainable choices at every step of their supply chain. The purchase options you make can make a statement to companies by showing that we won’t spend money on unsustainable, unethical clothing, but in the end, it will be up to them to make the big changes.
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