In the fast fashion debate, information beats shame

In the fast fashion debate, information beats shame

July 16, 2022 0 By Ellen Novack

During the pandemic, fashion took a pause for many as they hunkered down at home. According to a national survey by jeweler Shane Co., nearly one-third of Americans abstained from clothing purchases during lockdowns. However, researchers also found that “retail clothing businesses have seen a 115.4% increase in sales since March 2020.” This mismatch signals that the majority of clothing purchases are being made by a smaller sector of shoppers.

Many have opted for more comfortable clothes, while others have invested in a new wardrobe that reflects current trends or updated personal preferences. Whether shopping for athleisure, updated denim, or alternative styles, consumers will find that fast fashion has exploded to offer something to nearly every corner of the market. And as shoppers set out to craft looks to “be outside,” fast fashion seems nearly inescapable.

ALL CRITIQUES ARE NOT CREATED EQUALLY

With this growing industry came a recognition of the environmental catastrophes and labor violations that make these clothes possible. Fast fashion is produced at a massive scale targeting the global marketplace, and the largesse of its impacts is overwhelming. Nonetheless, critiques of fast fashion are everywhere—but they aren’t always productive.

Environmental issues have been tactfully framed as the outcome of individual decisions. Think of the carbon footprint, which was exposed as a British Petroleum-funded public relations ploy to divert the public eye away and silence accusations that they were killing the planet. Evidently, there is a lot to be gained from shaming individuals for the harm caused by corporations and the governments that enable them.

And while individual choices undeniably contribute to these problems, they can come at the cost of pointing out the larger forces at play: corporate greed, outsourced labor, and of course, the cultural aspects of capitalism that make consumption part of our identity.

Some participants in the never-ending debate that is social media argue that criticizing fast fashion is equivalent to criticizing low-income buyers who have no other options. It’s classist, they say, to declare that fast fashion shouldn’t exist. Following this logic, fast fashion exists to empower poor shoppers rather than inflate corporate profits via wasteful, exploitative practices.

Not only is this untrue, but the oversaturation of consumer clothing is also a particularly new problem. The deciding factor to purchase clothing wasn’t always affordability—not too long ago, it was primarily about availability.  

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A more long-ranging history of consumer fashion reveals that ready-to-wear clothing is a recent invention. The 1960s ushered in a new era of trends thanks to increasingly visual forms of media. Then, youth culture fads could be bought into or, more economically, be handmade using mass-produced dress patterns. Making one’s own clothes became less cost-effective as clothes became cheaper.

CONSUMER FASHION’S RACE TO THE BOTTOM

America’s transition away from domestically produced garments and textiles began in the 1970s. Factories in Asia and Latin America could produce high volumes quickly and cheaply (and unethically)—but still, in 1980, 70% of America’s clothing was made in the U.S. 

The tides didn’t turn toward fast fashion until the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and other tariff-busting trade agreements which made imported clothing astronomically cheaper than anything that could be produced in the U.S. While a large percentage of raw materials and textiles still came from the U.S., they were then shipped to Mexico, where they would be assembled and finally sold by U.S. companies.

Fashionista’s Sara Idacavage identified a turning point in attitudes toward cheap but stylish clothing: A 2000 New York Times article covering the opening of the first H&M in Manhattan “wrote that the retailer had arrived at the right time as consumers had just recently become more likely to hunt for bargains and dismiss department stores, stating that it was now ‘chic to pay less.’” Clothing that cost even less than traditionally affordable retailerslike Old Navy and Wet Seal—yet reflected trends down to the minute, became increasingly attractive. The idea of nearly disposable clothing was intoxicating.

While buying clothes has never been easier, the stakes seem higher than ever. With more information comes greater responsibility—right? The conundrum builds as numerous studies show that millennial and Gen Z consumers, who together constitute the younger end of the adult demographic, are overwhelmingly concerned about the climate crisis.

CONSUMERS FEEL THE TENSION

The Deloitte Global 2022 Gen Z and Millennial Survey revealed that nine out of 10 respondents developed habits that promote sustainability, and three in four agreed that “the world is at a tipping point when responding to climate change.” But at the same time, most Gen Zers look to influencers, who are known for hawking fast fashion brand collaborations, for style inspiration and shopping advice. The horrors of fast fashion aren’t lost on shoppers, but neither is the allure. While confusing, this tension isn’t all bad—maybe it can tell us about what can be done.

Michele Paiva is a financial therapist and author of How to Heal Financial Anxiety: Rewrite Your Money Story & Your Life. Her work focuses on the impact that finances and personal “money stories” have on people’s mental health. Paiva spoke with Daily Kos about the intersection between cheap, easily accessible goods like fast fashion and financial trauma.

“Financial therapy is about releasing and lifting shame around money. [This helps] someone see their value as a person and better see their path in life,” she says. Clients come to her while dealing with finance-related issues, including abusive relationships and leaving or losing a job.

Her own journey to a minimalist closet began with the loss of her mother, which she chronicled in a YouTube video. Becoming part of the YouTube community, where clothing “hauls” have been popular for a decade, opened her eyes to the addictive qualities of fast fashion. Haul videos feature a YouTuber buying a huge quantity of clothes, typically from one retailer, and trying them on. “It makes you feel like you’re missing out on something, which can contribute to some people’s financial trauma,” she says.

“There’s a dopamine rush followed by guilt. If you’re aware [of how fast fashion works], you know what went into that garment. It creates shame. … It can be traumatic to know you’re potentially hurting someone,” Paiva explains. In her experience, people with financial trauma can become “addicted to feeling good,” which manifests as making as many purchases as one can. Fast fashion is an enabling force: it is tantalizingly easy to get that good feeling with just a few clicks.

Paiva acknowledges that fast fashion purchases can feed a vicious cycle for people with traumatic experiences with money, such as those who grew up in poverty. She asks her clients to question what these purchases do to their expectations when they buy clothes that will only last a few months. “It can lower your expectation of … what you expect out of things.”

Shame plays an important role in the fast fashion debate, but it will not move people to adopt better habits or do more research on the brands they choose to shop from. Especially in regard to the labor exploitation propagated by the fashion industry, Paiva suggests that an educational approach can allow people to see that skipping fast fashion doesn’t have to be expensive. “Saying no to fast fashion is saying yes to dignity … [and] luxury brands don’t always treat [workers] well, either.”

LABELS CAN TELL HALF-TRUTHS

It’s true: Many upscale brands produce clothing in the same factories as down-market brands. As Pratt Institute professor Minh-Ha T. Pham wrote for Jacobin Magazine, “It’s not uncommon to find workers in the same factory producing both fast fashion and luxury fashion garments, or to find them making both the ‘original designs’ and the fast-fashion versions.” The whole industry is blameworthy, but fast fashion is the most egregious example of the garment industry’s ills. The anti-fast fashion camp, though, must recognize that it isn’t just the “typical offenders,” like Forever21, who should come under fire.

Shoppers can only be so informed in this situation, where each piece of a garment could have been produced on different continents under extremely different circumstances. The supply chain is ever-diversifying, and companies are constantly seeking the next-cheapest place to mass produce designs. As it is, the law only does so much to require transparency.

In the U.S., the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) requires brands to list country of origin on all clothing items. However, this only applies to where the garment came from immediately before it reached the consumer. So, clothing that was mostly assembled in another country could be labeled as “Made in the U.S.A.” if some labor was performed domestically before it hit the shelves.

This could be discouraging to those who seek greater accountability from the brands they like. Or, as Australian design consultant Meg Fisher advised in an interview with Daily Kos, it can make us more vigilant shoppers with higher standards. Fisher consults with brands that want to employ more sustainable and humanitarian practices, and previously worked in an ethical production factory. Referencing the winding road of clothing production, which can sometimes happen in multiple locations, Fisher finds that tracking down data on just one item’s origin can be complicated. “There are so many processes before clothing reaches the consumer,” she emphasizes. When clothing production is handled by multiple factories, it becomes nearly impossible to know the full story behind a garment and the ethics behind it.

As a professional in the fashion industry, Fisher notes the importance of data: If market research shows that people are shifting away from wasteful trends, brands will notice. “Now, the only selling point is price,” says Fisher.

FACTS ARE IN THE FIBERS

Since the turn of the century, clothing brands have competed to win consumers by being affordable and trendy. But if more people prioritized other qualities, like labor practices or high-quality sustainable materials, the landscape could change drastically. Fisher finds that we have more power than we believe, and echoed Paiva’s point that education is critical. “Linen is better for the environment than polyester [which is made of plastic]. You can still shop at a cheaper store and look at the fibers,” she says.

A recent article by Bloomberg explored the centrality of polyester to the garment industry, stating that it has overtaken cotton as the most commonly used fiber. Fast fashion, which favors synthetic fibers like polyester, is a boon for oil companies: “Textiles are the second-largest product group made from petrochemical plastics behind packaging, making up 15% of all petrochemical products.”

Fisher added that fibers are our best bet for knowing how sustainable a purchase is, especially because country of origin can be deceiving: “People assume that labor laws are good in the EU, and they’re not.” Natural fibers like cotton and wool are more care intensive and less likely to survive drying machines (which are their own environmental can of worms). They also require less washing, says Fisher. Think of the advice to wash your jeans less: it works because they are made of cotton.

Caring for our clothes properly is another hedge against unnecessary purchases: more air drying, more sewing holes, and more careful storage can extend a garment’s life significantly. Measures like the no-buy month or shopping solely secondhand can work for some, and for others, these initial steps can show that forgoing fast fashion actually makes life easier.

“People have one idea about sustainability,” says Fisher, “that it’s all green or baggy pants.” However, shopping more sustainably (and shopping less overall) opens up many unseen options, like clothing swaps and Facebook ‘buy nothing’ groups. We can do what we can without feeling wholly responsible for the climate crisis. We can point out the perpetrators while identifying shopping habits that we can forgo. Most importantly, we can hold productive conversations that give us all a chance to do better with what we know now.

This story was produced through the Daily Kos Emerging Fellows (DKEF) Program. Read more about DKEF (and meet the author, and other Emerging Fellows) here.



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