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  • Lily Bradbar

When Is It Okay to Buy Fast Fashion?

Updated: Jan 8

This photo shows a woman in a Zara-type store looking at an admittedly cute sequined crop top.

We've all heard the statistics, and none of us need to hear them again to know that fast fashion isn't exactly the most sustainable business model. Still, when our conscience is covering its ears in the presence of a $5 pair of jeans, a reminder is in order.

Fast fashion is accountable for approximately 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. The industry is notoriously wasteful, producing around 83.5 million tonnes of solid waste every year. This waste is either sent to landfill or set on fire. Since fast fashion relies so heavily on cheap synthetic fibres, the waste ending up in landfill could take up to two hundred years to biodegrade. More than warming the earth and polluting our land, fast fashion also uses and contaminates a staggering amount of water. It is estimated that in 2015, the textile and clothing industry used 79 billion cubic metres of water. This same industry is also responsible for 20% of global clean water pollution.

To make matters worse, the damage doesn't end with our excursion from the shops to our homes. As a 2011 study tells us, washing a synthetic garment even once can generate more than 1 900 micro plastic fibres, contributing to the excessive amount of plastic ending up in our oceans. A 2016 report estimated washing synthetic textiles leads to 0.5 million tonnes of microfibres in our oceans each year. When we decide we no longer want our polycotton nightmare, we either chuck it or try to absolve ourselves by donating it to charity. The problem, however, is that everyone else had the same idea. A single Australian charity shop sorting centre reports that they sort through 10 000 tonnes of clothing every year.

None of this even begins to scratch the surface of the human rights violations fast fashion depends on in order to continue functioning as it does. Sweatshop workers are disproportionately impoverished women and children. These workers are typically expected to clock 14 to 16 hours per day, seven days a week. Accidents are frequent. Physical and sexual abuse is overlooked, and the nature of the work alone pushes the human body beyond its limit. Long hours, repetitive work, and inhaling and handling harmful chemicals all have lifelong effects on the health of these horrifyingly exploited and underappreciated workers. A report from the World Health Organisation found 90% of those who live near or work in Bangladeshi leather tanneries die before 50. All this for a meagre 33 cents per hour, if that.

So, yes, no one would ideally be supporting these businesses, but... so many do. Younger generations who normally appear to be more environmentally and politically conscious are, in fact, the most voracious consumers of fast fashion. Some amount of this can be explained by these companies chasing youth trends. The lower income of this demographic would also contribute. The fact remains, however, that, try as we might, we are not always putting our money where our values are.

Is there any excuse for our hypocrisy? Well, probably a couple, but which ones are valid and which ones are cop-outs?

While not the most rigorous methodology, DW Planet A conducted street interviews in this video in an attempt to understand the gap between consumer beliefs and behaviours. What emerged from these interviews were people citing either apathy or a low budget. 'We are students,' said one respondent, 'so we're pretty low on the funds, but when I get a real job one day, I want to be more aware.' While the video did not excuse apathy, it was more lenient toward low-income earners, concluding, 'Not everyone can afford to think about sustainability.'

This empathy toward low-income earners has its heart in the right place. I would never scold someone for doing what they can with the resources they have, and individual action cannot undo all the damage wreaked by those with the most power, namely corrupt governments and corporations. Still, to what extent is this financial barrier insurmountable?

If you take a look at brands and labels certified as ethical or eco-friendly, you would be right in thinking these options are only accessible to the well-to-do and not those living under the poverty line or up against the precarity of casual work or student living. The first three companies I clicked on from Ethical Clothing Australia's 'Shop Ethically' list did not offer a t-shirt for any lower than $89 — and even that was at a discount. I cannot fault these companies for not offering fast-fashion prices. The reality is that sustainable fibres and appropriately waged labour cannot deliver consumers a $5 t-shirt. The cost of ethical production is simply too high.

Still, while it is admirable that companies are striving to do better, ethically manufacturing new clothes isn't always the ideal choice from a consumer perspective. Buying new still means more fabric, more water, more electricity, more resources. When there are already enough clothes for most people hanging up in thrift shops or at charity sorting centres, we're better using what we already have than driving up the demand for newer, flashier options.

As someone who is no stranger to life under the poverty line and the precarity of student living, I cannot deny the appeal of fast fashion options. The fact remains, however, that if you have the means to order ten items from Shein for $100, you would also have the means to order a similar haul from an online thrift store like SwapUp or thredUP or Salvos or any other suitable second-hand store that ships to your area. There may even be brick-and-mortar options available to you locally if you prefer trying things on before buying.

Having said this, I am sympathetic to those who cannot find suitable second-hand clothing in their size. I have seen the disparity at local charity stores between the racks for smaller sizes and the racks for larger sizes. To those in this situation, it may still be worth a look in case you do find at least a couple of things you like. I cannot, however, fault you if you need to supplement with fast fashion. Fashion has long ignored the needs of those with larger bodies, so it is not your fault if you have to make do with what's available to you.

Whatever your size, shape, or age though, thrifting is only one part of what we can be doing to reduce the environmental burden of our consumer behaviour. No matter what it is we're buying, we should also be striving to buy less. Clothing consumption has increased by 400% since the year 2000, and while some Y2K trends were on the skimpier side, people that year were, in fact, still managing to get dressed each morning.

Buying less may not sound like an appealing option to the fashion-conscious consumer, but mindful shopping does not have to mean a life devoid of colour or embellishment. Firstly, I am not of the opinion we need to live a totally ascetic life in order to be sustainable. There is room for some frivolity. If the peplum skirt excites you more than the utilitarian uniform of popular deinfluencers, buy the skirt! Secondly, and most importantly, buying clothes you can love and cherish will only incentivise taking care of what you own instead of hitting the high street for a seasonal dose of dopamine.

This brings me to my next point: We need to learn to take care of what we have. Fast fashion thrives on excess and waste, turning our wardrobes into revolving doors when, like Leena Norms says, they should be more like gardens: something we tend to, preserve, maintain, and patch up or recolour if needed. This may mean making a commitment to learn the basics of garment construction, even if it's just a few basic stitches and iron-on patches to preserve the clothes you already own and love. It may also mean learning to sew clothes from scratch. (If commercial patterns intimidate you, these low-waste, no-fuss patterns from DIY Daisy might appeal.) If using a sewing machine or needle and thread is not something you trust yourself to do, finding a local seamstress or tailor to alter and mend your wardrobe is a better use of money than replacing an entire shirt because of a minor tear. Dyeing your clothes is also a great option if you have a stain you can't lift or if a colour looked more flattering in the changeroom than when you tried it on at home. (These all-in-one dyes from Dylon are great if you're dyeing natural fibres.) Some of the seasonal colour analysis ladies over at Reddit have even taken to dyeing clothes they bought before settling into a season.

Thrifting, buying less, and caring for what we have are all — in my opinion, at least — cheap, accessible alternatives to the wardrobe fillers fast fashion offers. Having said all this, I do think it is okay to buy fast fashion if no other practicable alternative exists. We can only ever work within our limits, and, for better or worse, nudity is legally prohibited in most public spaces. It is also not possible for our shred of power to undo all that's been done by those with the most power. Still, some of the barriers we may convince ourselves are insurmountable may be perfectly surmountable. Cut yourself some slack for past mistakes or future moments of weakness, but don't forget we all create the conditions for a sustainable future. Shein would not be listing thousands of new items a day if people stopped buying them.


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