Illustration by Isabelle Mulvany
“The critical thing to point out here, however, is that making this lifestyle change was a choice, meaning it is something I have been able to do because my individual privileges allow me to. Everybody’s personal circumstances are completely different, so it would be incredibly ignorant of me to assume that other people would be able to make these same lifestyle changes, and this got me thinking about the main reasons why people choose to shop with fast fashion brands in the first place….”
The term ‘fast fashion’ has become somewhat of a buzzword over the last few years. Its definition can be summarised as the continuous mass production of clothing that is created to meet the ever-changing demands of trend-oriented shoppers whilst being sold at reasonably low prices. Your average British high street will feature at least a handful of the classic big hitters: Primark, Topshop, H&M, Zara, but the rising demand for instant access to thousands of new styles every day has led to online retailers such as Missguided and PrettyLittleThing becoming synonymous with the culture of fast fashion.
Within a few seconds of searching online you can gain access to a wealth of information that proves just how much of a negative impact the fast fashion industry has on the planet, both environmentally and socially. The practices of many fast fashion brands directly contribute to air pollution, water pollution, a huge increase in excess materials thrown into landfill, as well as the exploitation and mistreatment of garment workers across the globe. These facts and figures have recently become widespread on social media, with Tweets and Instagram posts highlighting these unethical and unsustainable practises, instead promoting ‘slow fashion’ : the antithetical movement which encourages making purchases from charity/thrift shops, shopping second-hand online and reusing/reworking pre-owned clothing. When presented with cold, hard facts about the damage caused by fast fashion - particularly when presented via a colourful, easily consumable infographic that can be shared with your followers in seconds - it is difficult to make a counter-argument about why we shouldn’t stop giving our money to these brands. That being said, what these bite sized condemnations don’t allow for is real conversation about the reasons why people shop with fast fashion brands, and consequently why it may not be that simple to shun them completely.
I’ve managed to almost entirely avoid spending money on fast fashion brands throughout 2020, as it was a personal goal I set for myself at the start of the year. This is quite the achievement when I consider the fact that in my final year of university I got to a point where I was seeing Jane the DPD driver at my door, armed with the latest parcel bought using my beloved ASOS next-day delivery subscription, more than some of my housemates. Whilst my frequent presents to myself undeniably brought me a great deal of joy, upon seeing so many reasons why the fast fashion industry is harmful my (very guilty) conscience couldn’t let me continue this cycle of incessant, needless purchasing. Fast forward to the end of 2020, and I can pretty much count the number of new items of clothing I have bought this year on one hand. I have made a hobby out of browsing charity shops for hidden gems (which bizarrely I tend to find predominantly in the ‘boys’ children's section, such as my now-treasured 50p Um Bongo sweatshirt that I’m wearing as I write this), I am a pretty experienced Depop user when it comes to looking for branded items, and I’ve discovered plenty of new ethical and sustainable fashion brands that create high quality wardrobe staples.
The critical thing to point out here, however, is that making this lifestyle change was a choice, meaning it is something I have been able to do because my individual privileges allow me to. Everybody’s personal circumstances are completely different, so it would be incredibly ignorant of me to assume that other people would be able to make these same lifestyle changes, and this got me thinking about the main reasons why people choose to shop with fast fashion brands in the first place.
One thing that is certainly a requirement if you are wishing to cut ties with fast fashion is something that I haven’t heard talked about very much, but is definitely crucial for me: time. I currently only work a few days a week, which allows for plenty of time to partake in my aforementioned hobby of browsing charity shops if I so wish. Charity shops can be a godsend when it comes to shopping for fashion, but not every high street is blessed with the greatest selection. I imagine in big cities the options are a lot more varied, and in the most affluent areas you are bound to find plenty of great quality clothes, and probably the odd piece of designer garb. In a smaller city or tiny town, however, you are far less likely to hit the jackpot. I’m able to dig out the odd bit of treasure in my local cluster of small charity shops, but I have to rifle through what feels like an endless tidal wave of clanging coat hangers to find it. I can easily spend an hour looking in a handful of charity shops, and will frequently come out with nothing except for a £1 paperback novel. Charity shops are undeniably a lucky dip, and if you are out looking for a specific item then it’s almost guaranteed that you will end up disappointed (with the exception of the one time I went into a charity shop looking for a new cardigan, and the powers from above bestowed upon me an M&S number that fit like a glove - I’m not sure what good karma I generated that day but I am eternally grateful). Second hand online marketplaces such as Depop, Ebay or Vinted are the best option when it comes to shopping with a specific wishlist, but these still aren’t the speediest options. A search on Depop for “oversized blazer” can leave me exhausted after three quarters of an hour spent scrolling through hundreds of items at differing levels of quality and price, so it is understandable that people would rather turn to a tried and tested fast fashion site that can meet their requirements without taking up a considerable chunk of their free time.
When considering the draws of fast fashion brands in comparison to more sustainable and ethical alternatives, the most obvious reason that pops into mind is the price. Big fast fashion retailers can afford to cut costs in their production, and are therefore able to sell their products at much lower prices than slow fashion brands. Whilst sustainable brands are able to justify the higher price tags of their clothing due to their higher quality, as well as the costs of running a company that pays their workers fairly and actively minimises their carbon footprint, you can’t blame people for wincing at the thought of paying £160 for a jumper when they could find literally hundreds of options for under £20 elsewhere. During the first lockdown, I realised I needed a new pair of black leggings considering how much time I was going to be spending in the house (and of course I am not going to attempt to lounge around in the cruel confines of denim), and found some from a small sustainable brand called AYM Studio. I paid £40 for a pair of plain black leggings, and whilst they are certainly the best fitting, nicest quality leggings my pins have had the joy of wriggling in to, if I wasn’t living a relatively cheap lockdown life at the time then I may well have opted for a considerably cheaper pair. Charity shops and reselling sites are obviously a more affordable option, but that leaves you with the other drawback of sometimes being limited with choice when it comes to browsing.
The final key reason I think of when considering the popularity of fast fashion as opposed to less problematic alternatives is body type. Charity shops are a complete mixed bag of clothing, so finding an abundance of options in a range of sizes is unfortunately a pipedream. People who are slim or have bodies that align with generic sizing are far more likely to be able to shop regularly in charity/thrift stores than those whose bodies deviate from cultural beauty “norms”, so this of course isn’t a viable option for building a wardrobe for many people. Fast fashion brands may not always be very inclusive when it comes to sizing, but at least the mass production of clothing in a range of styles means that you are statistically more likely to find something that fits when shopping with these companies than if you were desperately pawing through rails of clothing in your local Oxfam. Online second hand stores at least allow you to search by size, but with most sellers operating under a “no returns” policy, you’re taking a much bigger gamble on these reselling sites than when you’re buying from any other fashion brand. You may find an item that is listed as your size but, as we are all well aware, sizing can vary massively from brand to brand- a painful lesson I learnt after buying a pair of extremely tight American Apparel jeans on Depop, which I wore twice for a total of five hours before accepting the fact that I couldn’t wear them without being in a considerable amount of discomfort unless I removed at least two of my ribs.
All of this isn’t to say that we should just accept the fact that buying from fast fashion retailers is unavoidable and forget about the important arguments against it, but rather that we should focus on the reasons behind their popularity rather than being quick to criticise how people choose to shop. Our culture of consumerism and fleeting trends has been developed over many decades- and has undoubtedly been exacerbated by the prevalence of ‘influencer’ culture on social media- so we cannot expect it to just decompose immediately. Rather than seeing fast fashion as an all-or-nothing lifestyle you either participate in or don’t, let’s instead think about small individual changes we can make to improve our own environmental and social impact, as this is the most sustainable way to make progress towards sustainability.
Article by Olivia Cox