I'd like to avoid supporting labor practices that make Upton Sinclair's The Jungle look positively humanitarian.

Fast Fashion is Fucking Up the World

As you can tell from our witty banter on the Bad With Money With Gaby Dunn podcast, Kitty and I consider ourselves to be eminently fashionable gentlewomen. Look good, feel good! That’s our motto! (Just kidding that is definitely not our motto. We don’t have one. We’re still workshopping it. Do you even realize how long it took us to come up with the name of this blog? A long time… and many Excel spreadsheets.)

And yet, I don’t spend a lot of money on clothes. I rarely go shopping for myself, and when I do, it is with all the precision and swiftness of a predator drone. Get in, get the goods, get out. I love me a good thrift store find, few things give me more materialistic glee than purchasing a unique garment at the flea market, and yes, I shop at fucking Target. But these expenditures are few and far between.

This is partially because of my frugal nature. I just don’t buy a lot of stuff. But it’s also because in recent years I’ve tried really hard to avoid an industry that is damaging to both the environment and to human rights on a global scale.

I am speaking, of course, of fast fashion.

Dafuq is fast fashion?

Basically, it’s the global industrial and economic equivalent of Cher from Clueless. It’s a little bit self-destructive, it means well, and it relentlessly chases the new and trendy without thought for the long-term economic ramifications. It does not, however, end up in a questionably appropriate romantic relationship with young Paul Rudd.

Once upon a time, the fashion industry followed a four-season model wherein they’d roll out new designs four times a year. These designs were generally crafted to last with quality material. As a result, prices were higher—about 14% of the average consumer’s annual discretionary spending in 1901, as compared with 3.1% today—and people shopped for it less frequently.

All that has changed in recent decades. Now the fashion industry works on a twelve- to fifteen-season per year cycle. They’re constantly rolling out new designs. And these designs are specifically made to be cheap, with low quality materials that won’t last more than a year. But that’s ok, because at the rate they’re going out of style, you won’t want to wear them longer than that. Which is exactly what the fast fashion model wants.

These designs are specifically made to be cheap, with low quality materials that won’t last more than a year. But that’s ok, because at the rate they’re going out of style, you won’t want to wear them longer than that. Which is exactly what the fast fashion model wants.

Forever 21, H&M, Zara, Topshop… these peddlers of fast fashion are slowly but surely fucking up the world.

Our global infrastructure simply can’t keep up with the amount of textile waste caused by fast fashion. When you’re done with that threadbare cardigan from Forever 21, you probably donate it to a thrift store like Goodwill, right? But Goodwill can’t sell fast fashion, because by the time you’re done with it it’s barely holding together as a garment. They’re only able to use about 20% of clothing donations.

So they donate the rejects overseas to a developing country (“gee thanks, ‘Murica”). But those folks are so inundated with fast fashion cast-offs that they can’t possibly use it at the volume it’s getting donated.

So it gets sent to a company that will repurpose it as rags, insulation, fibers for new garments, or other textile-based recycled material. Only they can’t keep up with the volume of fast fashion either. Only 0.1% of recycled textiles actually gets turned around into new clothes. 0.1%!

So a large portion of it—84% of used clothing to be precise—ends up in a landfill, where all the synthetic materials that went into making it in the first place either seep into the groundwater or are incinerated into the air as toxic chemicals. All because you wanted to save some money by shopping at Forever 21. YOUR CARDIGAN JUST CONTRIBUTED TO CLIMATE CHANGE. GOOD JOB.

84% of used clothing ends up in a landfill.

But really… I don’t blame you. Who isn’t trying to save money by buying inexpensive clothing? Who doesn’t love a good, affordable new fashion find? No seriously: research shows that the pleasure centers of our brain are stimulated by fast fashion. Humans literally get excited by finding a cute top on the rack… and then that excitement doubles when the price tag screams, “Sweet deal!”

So allow me to dampen that excitement a bit. Surely you’ve heard of the raging dumpster fire of human rights violations that is the modern sweatshop industry supplying all these fast fashion garments. Yes, it’s gotten better in recent years. And yes, garment factory work is often a rung up the economic ladder for people in developing countries. But I’d still like to avoid supporting labor practices that make Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle look positively humanitarian.

Ethical consumption of clothes

The reason fast fashion is filling up landfills is because it gets worn out, damaged, or just goes out of style really, really fast. It’s cheap in the worst way. It constantly needs to be replaced. And we can’t keep up with its manic pace.

So slowing things down is one solution. Buying higher quality clothing that will last longer will keep you from having to replace it quite so often, and lessen the sheer volume of textiles ending up in landfills after getting carted around the world wasting resources.

Of course, as we learned from the Boots Theory of Socioeconomic Unfairness, this gets at the heart of why it’s more expensive to be poor than to be rich. I would love to buy all my clothes from local craftspeople and independent boutiques in my city who ethically source their textiles and manufacture their designs on a minuscule scale to ensure the highest quality (thanks, gentrification!). But… I can’t really afford it.

Even the upscale designer brands are a better ethical choice than fast fashion. The quality is higher, and the designs are meant to be timeless. But again, it’s a significant financial investment to buy a jacket at Burberry or Ralph Lauren when you could spend $40 on a lookalike from H&M.

So if you have the means, you should absolutely make ethical consumption of clothing a priority. You’ll be voting with your wallet to support sustainable manufacturing, you’ll save money in the long term, and you’ll get that delicious sense of smug superiority that comes from saving the world.

All roads lead to thrifting

Fast fashion is destroying the planet and ethical consumption is too expensive for most people. What, then, is the solution? How do you square your frugal life philosophy with the responsibility of saving the planet and treating garment industry workers with respect?

You have to get thrifty with it.

Shop at thrift stores. Host clothing swaps with your friends. Repurpose that shit into new and excitingly fashion-forward outfits or cleaning rags or quilts or dog toys or an exciting mix of all of the above that will have your friends going, “Wow. That is… original.” Their eyes will say “abjectly horrified by this definitive answer to the question of whether recycling can ever be taken too far” but their hearts will say “seething with covetous jealousy” and that’s all that matters!

By buying clothes at thrift stores, you’re getting them at a fraction of their original price and you’re saving them from the trash heap for at least another fashion cycle. And while they may still have been manufactured by people working for poverty wages, your money is going to the thrift store or the charity it represents, not to the company that keeps its workers in appalling conditions.

By buying clothes at thrift stores, you’re getting them at a fraction of their original price and you’re saving them from the trash heap for at least another fashion cycle.

It’s not a perfect answer. But until you’re financially stable enough to stock your wardrobe with high-quality, long-lasting staples, it’s an adequate stop-gap measure.

You and your beautiful, unique body

Disclaimer: thrift store purchases simply aren’t an option for some people, and I want to be sympathetic to their situation. My husband, for example, at 6 feet, 8 inches tall and 250 pounds is about the size of an NFL player… minus the paycheck (I really bet on the wrong pony there).

Most retail stores don’t even carry his size, so finding clothes that fit him in a thrift store is nothing short of a miracle. He orders most of his clothes online through various fast fashion outlets. When he needs formalwear—or even just, y’know, pants—he has to shell out the cash to get it tailored.

This article is not for him. Nor is it for anyone with a gorgeously atypical body. The economies of scale are hard at work in the fashion industry. Giant fast fashion corporations have the means to mass-produce clothing across a variety of sizes and shapes, whereas small boutiques and ethical craftspeople simply do not.

So in other words: do what you need to do to keep clothes on your back, ok? But if you can clothe yourself ethically and responsibly, then you should absolutely make the effort.

14 thoughts on “Fast Fashion is Fucking Up the World

  1. The men’s selection at thrift stores are usually only older men’s or toddler clothes. I asked someone about that one and they replied, “men are more likely to meat their clothes until they are completely worn out.” Which made sense since my pants are about 5 years old and my shirts are 7+.

    As far as my wife she will usually find brand new Gap jeans for $3 and a handful of new tops. My son’s clothes come exclusively from thrift shops. Why waste $15 for a kids shirt they only wear for 3 months?!

    1. Kids clothes are ESPECIALLY thrift-worthy. They can change hands multiple times before wearing out, and there’s absolutely no reason to waste money on something that will be used for such a short while.

      I wish I had focused a bit on how the fast fashion industry targets women more than men, but you’re right–many masculine type folks just approach their garment usage differently from their feminine counterparts.

      1. Oh, man, the quality difference between men’s vs women’s clothes even at fast fashion places is insane, too. Why oh why are all the “women’s tees” virtually see through? That and the sizing tends to be more consistent between brands.

  2. I was just thinking about buying a new pair of britches, as a back up for the pair of britches I currently have. This article convinced me to stick with the one pair at a time philosophy that I implemented years ago. Just saved me $50.

    Thanks, Piggy!

  3. Another great read! Blogs need more RuPaul references…we just need it.

    Ohhh I agree with Piggy. If you’re paying full price for kid clothes, you’re​ doing it wrong. Forever 21 has crap quality fabric and so does 90% of the typical American mall set (Torrid, Wet Seal, Claire’s…). But the army of teens and tweens don’t care about that. I’ve pretty much given up on fashion. I’m married…I can eat cake and get fat now.

    The negative about second hand thrift stores is the time consumption to dig out the goods and a general lack of cooperation. Not a lot of people are frugal enough to buy second hand. It’s just not done. I took my husband to Goodwill for dress shirts and he literally told me there was no way anything inside the store he could consider. If you’re in the states, Marshall’s is the way to go.

  4. I 100% agree with you, although there’s no easy fix for this problem. Example: someone says they’d love to shop more “responsibly”, but then you show them a $200 ethically-made dress and they nope out of there so fast.

    I hardly ever shop fast fashion or any mall brands nowadays. When I was a teenager, thrifting was my hobby, and I loved the idea of finding a hidden gem! Even now, whenever I’m in a small town, that’s like my #1 to do.

    One other option to thrifting is designer consignment. A lot of people don’t seem to realize that for a brand-new $50 Zara shirt, you can get a slightly used designer one for the same exact price.

    1. True story: this article was inspired when I was wandering around my city’s trendy af flea market and I fell in love with this gorgeous kimono made from ethically-sourced textiles by a local artist. Aaaaaand it was $150. I decided I could hang onto my old bathrobe awhile longer and save the money. But then I felt so guilty, because this is exactly the business model I want to support. So that led me down the fast fashion research rabbit hole!

      I love the suggestion to check out designer consignment! One of my favorite “thrift” stores here in town is a designer consignment shop. I’ve purchased pretty much every cocktail dress I own there!

  5. Great topic! Plus I love how you worked in Clueless and Upton Sinclair into the same post.

    I bought something that was fast-fashion one time and once it fell apart after only a few washes, I said “no more”. When it comes to clothes, I prefer to buy higher-end but as infrequent as possible and only when I really need it. Plus I have to get it when its on sale – never pay full price!

    1. It is my life’s ambition to meld 1990s pop culture and Progressive Era investigative literature at every opportunity. 😉
      Thanks for reading, and thanks for making smart clothing purchases! I’m with you: shop quality, shop infrequently.

  6. I work in a higher end department store home office, and fast fashion sucks. I could go on and on about the ways they make it tough for a quality store with higher prices and better pieces to compete. Now, I also understand department stores have done some things to hurt themselves but that is another topic all together.

    I buy very little clothing. When I do it is simple and quality, because frankly I am not the most stylish. A white shirt and nice tie goes a long way. Being a tall guy as well, outside of ties I rarely find anything in thrift or designer stores!

    My wife is the queen of shopping for deals. She is an absolute treasure hunter and finds so many amazing clothes for cheap prices. When it comes to our 15 month old, she finds brands that hold their resale value, buys those items new on sale, and we can use them and sell them at breakeven or better! After the initial outlay of funds for baby clothes, we have not had to shell out much more to keep getting new things for the growing crumb cruncher!

    Great article as always!

  7. Thanks Piggy for one of the amazing post. I do agree with you, the fast fashion is really fucking up. Why do women’s have lots of varieties of clothing and accessories while the men’ s don’t? Men deserve something more than what they are wearing now. what’s your opinion in this?

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