“Fashion” entails a myriad of definitions for each individual. As means of expressing oneself, a way to maneuver monotonous surroundings, or perhaps just to keep up with the climate. These and more combine to reflect the ever evolving and fickle mood of human beings. At its core, the trillion dollar industry of fashion is a business. And as all successful businesses do, it caters to and exploits the target consumers’ every whim. Enter center stage, the 21st century world of clothes summed up in two words: fast fashion.
What is fast fashion? It is the term used to describe the process of catwalk to retail. The masterminds behind the expressionless models and clinical lights of Fashion Week seem worlds away from your average suburban inhabitant’s closet. However, this could not be more inaccurate. Fast fashion retailers—H&M, Forever 21, Topshop, Zara, Gap (starting to sound familiar)? – churn out their seemingly endless line of products by dutifully replicating the season’s hottest trends. Manufacturers take inspiration from the “who in their right mind would wear that” outfits off the catwalk, translate it into the average civilian’s wearable outfit, and voila: trendy, affordable pieces for the masses. Next thing you know, people are bringing back the 90’s and obsessing over clothes that resemble a shirt my dog ripped to shreds the other day.
You’re probably thinking, is this even a bad thing? Because of fast fashion, the general public can have access to the latest styles of the moment. Make a great closet without having to break your wallet! Even I have to admit to falling into the dreaded shopping vortex: Firstly, you spot a cool skirt. I don’t know when I would wear that, but look how cool it is! Second, glance at the price. It’s a whopping ten dollars! Fast forward a few weeks – the “cool skirt” sits forgotten at the back of your closet, along with the other ten dollar items that you got because “you couldn’t go wrong with the price.” Congratulations – in the span of a few minutes, you have given into the deadly stream of constant novelty items and human impulse.
Now here’s where the storyline turns sour. When clothing owners decide that a clothing item has lived out its life in their possession, most take one of three routes. Looking to get a tax break, many resort to taking clothes to a consignment or thrift store. The reality is that second hand stores will reject a majority of what they receive due to minor flaws or because the item is simply out of season. When giving to take-back programs where the fabric of clothes can be recycled, less than 1 percent is actually reclaimed into new textiles. The sheer amount of poor quality items with low resale value brings us to the third and final route: the dump.
Americans go through an astonishing 14 million tons of clothing waste per year, a number that continues to climb. As stated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in the United States, over 80 percent of unwanted clothes went to the landfill in 2012. And the products sitting in the landfill and entering the incinerators aren’t your biodegradable banana peels or recyclable newspapers. These cheaply made shirts and skirts have been through extensive chemical processing and manufacturing, which release harmful toxins into the air upon incineration. Materials such as polyester or nylon also take hundreds to thousands of years to break down.
Let’s take a step back and trace fast fashion to what has made this staple of the American lifestyle possible. The answer is found overseas in low production costs. As these huge clothing conglomerates gain speed and power in their mother countries, the low wages and appalling working conditions of overseas factories are reinforced. The economy also takes a hit as massive companies weaken local economies and discourage long-term growth and progress for the nation.
Teens are one of the main target consumers for these fast fashion conglomerates. By spending around 260 billion dollars annually on products, America’s adolescent demographic is a force to be reckoned with. It may not seem like much, but our individual spending power has the power to tip the scales.
I am not calling for a clothing revolution where we all live off of one item of clothing for the rest of our lives. Instead, the next time you become mesmerized by single digit prices or by a three story Forever 21, keep in mind the roll you are playing in the big picture. And the facts don’t lie – the clothing industry is the second largest source of pollution in the world.
So to sum it up, in the words of British fashion designer and businesswomen Vivienne Westwood, “Buy less, choose well, make it last.”