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The Conundrum of Fast Fashion and Sustainability

When I say the word “sustainable,” what do you think of? Assuming we understand the same definition, I doubt the first things that come to mind are fast fashion goliaths that pump out new seasons of clothing like no one’s business. These companies such as Forever 21, Zara, or H&M have always stood on the opposing end of the sustainability movement within the fashion industry. Sustainable retailers rely on a slower fashion cycle and system of distribution to keep up with current trends by developing quality products at higher price points. The higher cost reflects the care put into creating quality products for consumers. They follow trends to an extent, but designers also give their own edge to the products, ensuring that there’s something that stands out. Suffice to say, designers have to make themselves and their products stand out because they have to give consumers a reason to invest in higher quality garments when there are a plethora of cheaper options available.

Fast fashion companies, on the other hand, rely on a polar opposite concept. They create mass amounts of trendy clothing through the use of underpaid workers in shoddy foreign factories with materials that probably won’t last more than a few months. Rather than adding something unique to the industry, they merely use this fast-paced cycle to regurgitate anything and everything that’s popular at the current moment so they can make a quick buck.

With this bit of context, let’s move on to a recent issue at hand: fast fashion companies ripping off designs specifically meant to promote no-waste fashion. If you’ve been on Etsy or Depop anytime recently, you’re sure to have come across tops with various fabrics patchworked together, normally with lettuce edging or thread that creates a high contrast around where the pieces are stitched. This design is unique in that it originated as a way for designers to utilize their fabric scraps instead of letting them live out the rest of their days in a landfill somewhere, eventually decomposing months or even years later. The idea of creating garments that have little to no waste at the end is called zero-waste fashion.

Image taken from

To those who have already adopted slow fashion, seeing these types of tops mass produced by Forever 21 feels like a slap in the face. Possibly even a roundhouse kick. How do we continue to promote shopping sustainably when large companies have now grabbed hold of one of the key garments that is bringing awareness to the possibilities of no-waste designing? How do we steal back the momentum before everyone ditches their carts on independent designers’ websites to purchase $5 knock-offs on Fashion Nova instead?

The simplest answer in this case is to reduce our individual investments in these companies. For every garment we buy from these companies that have stolen elements from sustainable designers, we are directly boosting their leverage in this deadly competition. Consumers of fashion have to be extra cautious around this time of year as fast fashion retailers are notorious for launching sales and campaigns that seem irresistible to the average consumer looking to check items off their gift list without breaking the bank. As tempting as sale racks and limited time promotions are, it may be worth your while to research smaller designers that are having similar sales so you can invest in quality pieces that support eco-conscious production and consumption.

While some fast fashion companies claim that they are taking steps toward sustainability so they don’t lose their conscious consumers, it is obvious that they only focus on the issues that are inexcusable from a consumer standpoint. Ignoring our workers’ concerns about our factory shortly before it collapses and kills thousands? I guess we should speak up on that. Blatantly ripping off sustainable garments from independent designers, knowing that they’ll end up in the trash once our next thousand-piece collection is uploaded next week? I don’t think we have to explain ourselves there.

There are plenty of crimes beyond piggybacking off of sustainable trends. For every seemingly conscious step these companies take (such as H&M accepting used clothing for recycling) there is always a catch (like the 15% off coupon you get for donating clothes, ensuring that you immediately make up for what you gave away by purchasing more from them). It seems reasonable from the surface, but the true nature of their action is backhanded. They want you to think that they’re socially and environmentally conscious, but their existence itself goes against those ideals. They only participate in the movement if they think they can get something greater out of it. If there is no benefit, there is no reason for their involvement.

In an era of unprecedented student debt and an economy that’s looking less and less promising for young people by the day, cheap clothes are a priority for many. Fast fashion companies know this, and they aren’t afraid to rip off small designers to take advantage of that purchasing power (see Tuesday Bassen vs. Zara for example).

Image taken from @tuesdaybassen (IG)

No one is safe in an era where fashion trends can rise to popularity and become a faux pas all within a few weeks. In order to keep up in the battle against fast fashion, consumers need to stay informed and also inform one another about where their money is going when they support these unethical companies. Taking your friend to a thrift shop instead of the mall is just one small action that can make a difference. Fast fashion corporations may not want to hear what we have to say, but they’re all ears as soon as they see that our wallets are going elsewhere. The more financial pressure consumers place on these companies to improve their practices, the higher the chances are that they will listen.

So go buy that vintage grandma sweater you found at your local thrift shop instead of the one you found on the back of that 70% off sale rack. Garment manufacturers, the Earth, and even fish in the sea (hey chemical runoff!) will thank you.

Article illustration by Beyza Çelikmen/@pepperooni.playboy (IG)


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