If you’ve ever been inspired by a Love Island contestants outfit and bought an identical one online the next day, or just popped into Topshop for ‘a look’ on your lunch break and then left half an hour later £50 poorer, or, realised you’re down to your last clean pair of pants and bought new ones from Primark instead of actually doing your laundry, then you’re fallen victim to the cult of fast fashion.
It is so easy, too easy, to get wrapped up in a fast fashion whirlwind, but 2020 is the year of slowing down. Here’s why:
What is fast fashion? The term refers to the production of clothes that are made quickly and cheaply, to be distributed and sold exactly the same way. Fast fashion is very trend-conscious, and it reacts to the general public’s demand for inexpensive, easily accessed, cool clothing. And so, on one hand, Fast Fashion has enabled people with less funds and less time to keep their wardrobe up to date.
With the booming advent of online shopping, it is possible to make an order from home and have it delivered less than 24 hours later before you’ve even had to leave the house. The convenience that is associated with fast fashion can be a real godsend for those who are perhaps less mobile, or pressed for the time needed to go to a physical shop.
Convenience, and costs, therefore, are by far the biggest draws of the fast fashion machine. A dress that costs less than a meal out and is delivered to your home in less than a day sounds great, right? But we need to really consider where our clothing is coming from, and we need to think about what we really value beyond currency in our society.
At the beginning of the 19th century, fashion was a slow-moving industry, in which the wealthy chose the best fabrics and patterns (think Meg March in Little Women), and then employed a dressmaker or a tailor to create their garments. The poor had less choice, with many opting to make their clothes themselves, or wearing decades-old hand-me-downs. Clothing was a clear statement of social standing; it made it apparent who was solvent and who wasn’t.
Later, sweatshops were invented — sources place the original usage of the term around 1850. Usually run by the poor house, children and poverty-stricken adults were forced to work to earn their keep, risking their lives in dirty, dangerous factories filled to the rafters with disenfranchised citizens and safety hazards.
Somewhere along the line, employment laws were passed along with more stringent child labour laws, slowly leading to clothes becoming more affordable, but they were still things to be taken care of and invested in. Many people were still too poor to change their look every few weeks, and while industry was faster than ever before, it was nowhere near as ‘convenient’ as it is today.
The buying and selling of fabric and clothing has always been a part of capitalist systems, but these days, it panders to capitalism in a way that is intensified and frantic. Clothes shops keep limited runs of items in order to scare shoppers into a ‘buy it now’ mind frame. They create looks fit for the catwalk in days and they keep money flowing from the public’s bank accounts into shop’s, usually online retailers, profit margins.
The fact is, when you start to think about how these clothes can be made so quickly and so cheaply, the truth starts to look less exciting and enticing, and increasingly problematic. For a start, much of fast fashion’s output is made from cheap materials, which use oil to create them (polyester), or huge amounts of water (cotton). The low cost of fast fashion is, unfortunately, made possible by creating its products in a harmful way.
We are all aware of the urgency with which we need to start taking care of our planet, and buying clothes made from cheap material, dyed with toxic chemicals that seep into our ecosystem, is not the way to do it. Fast fashion is made quickly and cheaply, and unfortunately, that also means exploitatively.
If you are paying less than your hourly rate for a garment, how much do you think the person who made it is being paid after the material is costed and the store has taken their cut? Do you imagine much money has been invested into making sure that the worker’s work environment is safe and secure?
In order to stop engaging with fast fashion, we need a huge group shift in mentality. The public needs to stop finding personal value in constantly polishing and updating their appearance, as the only people it benefits are the conglomerates who want to keep us dissatisfied, so we keep buying their products.
Appearances are important, and they can be impactful for mental health, but the high-street doesn’t want you to feel good about yourself; they want you to keep shopping. If you need to update your look, then try a charity shop or a vintage shop, or ebay or depop.
If you can, try a month of buying nothing new for six months. Try swapping clothes with your friends. And if you really need to shop for new clothes, then aim to make ethical choices when you do. Choosing retailers that use recycled materials, and who can guarantee the welfare of all of their employees, encourages the industry as a whole to think differently.
Beware of greenwashing; ‘uses recycled materials’ might refer to a hundredth of the garment’s make up, ‘charity product’ usually means a miniscule percentage of profit goes to charity. Basically, be wise to what you engage with as a consumer, and rethink your relationship with fashion. Watch Stacey Dooley’s The Shocking Truth About Fashion, The True Cost and read Lauren Bravo’s How to Break Up With Fast Fashion (published by Headline Home).
Leah is a literature graduate from Bristol. Likes: Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, My So Called Life, Goodfellas, and Ally McBeal.