With spring just a few weeks away, many of you are probably starting the “spring cleaning” process of your wardrobes— getting rid of some things that haven’t seen the light of day or been warn in years, and buying new pieces to prepare for the warmer weather.
I, on the other hand, will not be making any warm-weather purchases. What I will be doing is getting rid of more clothes that I don’t need or don’t wear. Don’t get me wrong, I love clothes. But my views on them have changed a bit as my vegan lifestyle continues to evolve. As a newbie to the world of eco-conscious living, I decided about a year ago (just a lil’ while after I went vegan) that I wouldn’t make anymore clothing purchases because I’d made a commitment to living a more minimal lifestyle. This vow spread to all parts of my life, wardrobe included. Luckily, I had a decently curated closet, and although my personal style is kind of ever-evolving (but has pretty much found its most comfortable place at this point), I was really happy with the clothing I already owned and was excited to mix and match the pieces I had in fun ways.
So, that brings me to the topic of this lovely blog post: fashion— well, a very specific type of fashion; fast fashion. “What’s that?” you might be asking. This is one of the best cases of a name being truly self-explanatory. It’s fashion that is produced quickly. Very quickly. The fashion industry is a billion dollar giant that has grown massively over the past several decades. Even if you’re a person who could truly care less about any of the clothing that goes on your body, the fashion industry likely has had some sort of affect on your life in one way or another.
Sure, some of us may scoff at an industry that is largely based on looks, status and elitism, but remember that scene in The Devil Wears Prada when Miranda Priestly tells Anne Hathaway’s character that her bargain basement sweater choice may seem like it was an independent decision made by her and her fashion-oblivious mind, when in reality, it was actually chosen for her by the very people in that room? Well yeah, that’s kinda true. You see, that’s how fast fashion is born— it’s all based off current trends, and these trends change annually, even seasonally. Giant retailers like Forever 21, H&M, and the biggest of them all, Zara, design and produce clothing that matches these seasonal, high-end trends so that everyday people like you and I can partake of the colors and styles of the season at a deeply discounted price than the high-end garments we see on the runway.
But there’s a downside. There are many problems within this seedy world of trendy clothing production. Here’s why fast-fashion is toxic for both people and the environment:
Horrible Labor Conditions
To make clothing for the masses at such a quick rate and at really low prices, cheap labor is required– and lots of it. The fast-fashion industry is notorious for using overseas labor to keep costs down. And the industry is also full of complaints of less than satisfactory working-conditions ranging from long hours in packed factories with no air-conditioning or regulated breaks, to horribly low and unlivable wages, to mistreatment of workers and even the use of child and slave labor. Many of these factories are located in countries like China and Bangladesh where the workers rights are very minimal or hardly enforced1. The 2013 Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh is just one extreme example of the poor conditions that garment and factory workers must endure. Over 1,100 people, including many garment workers died in the building collapse amid many warning signs of imminent structural failure of the building that went ignored by the building’s owners2.Embed from Getty Images
Bangladeshi people protest in the aftermath of the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse.
It’s the knowledge of instances such as this one that make me think twice about this industry. Personally, I don’t like the idea of essentially paying for atrocities like this one to take place. After all, it kinda aligns with the reason I’m vegan. In the same way that I don’t want to pay someone to slaughter animals for me, I also don’t want to pay someone to force a child to sew my sweater for me or to have someone working in unsafe conditions for minimal wages.
They Use Animal Skin and Fur in Production
Another byproduct of the fast fashion industry is less than stellar animal welfare standards. Over the years, companies like PETA have done their part to call out the big players in the world of fast fashion. Because of this, some of them have changed their standards and policies when it comes to using products like leather, wool, and animal skins. For example, PETA came down hard on Forever 21 for using mohair, and as a result, Forever 21 joined the ranks of H&M and Zara in banning the use of the hair, stating that the company would be mohair-free by 20203. I know, I thought the same thing — by 2020? But hey, it’s a start. Zara and H&M have stopped using exotic animal skins but all three companies still utilize leather and wool, although some claim to source their wool in a humane way. The site good on you is a sick resource for seeing how a ton of companies, including the fast fashion Gods are doing ethically, giving them report cards that rate their impact on people (labor conditions), the environment and animals.
The Environmental Impact is Bad; Like, Really Bad
This one makes a ton of sense but really break it down for a sec to understand. If fast fashion retailers are producing a massive amount of clothes every season, and people are buying these clothes every season, what happens after that? Because of the quick production and cheap prices, the quality is often questionable as well. So, we have clothes that are falling apart after just a few years (and some after just a few washes… I mean, hellooo Forever 21 basic tees, ugh.) coupled with clothes that are “out of style” within a year. That leads to hundreds of thousands of pounds of clothing going into our landfills every year. In fact, the amount of clothing that Americans throw out is crippling, clocking in at well over 14 million tons annually4. It only makes matters worse that the majority of these clothes contain synthetic fibers such as polyester, acrylic and nylon, all of which are derived from petroleum. Therefore, similar to plastic, those pieces of clothing will take hundreds of decades to decompose. This is horrible news for the environment. Another disgusting byproduct is water pollution. With the massive amounts of chemicals and dyes used on these clothes, the fashion industry is by far one of the biggest contributors to toxic H2O, producing over 20% of industrial water pollution5.
But I have to Wear Clothes, so What Can I do?
That’s a great question. And honestly, I’m probably not the best person to ask. I’ll explain why that’s the case in a little bit, but it isn’t because I don’t have a few suggestions on how you can cut down on the negative impacts of the fast fashion industry. I actually do have a few tips for that:
- Buy American-made clothes: One way to ensure that you aren’t contributing to horrible working conditions is to buy from companies that make there clothes right here in the good ol’ U.S.A. Companies like American Apparel, Hackwith Design House, Todd Sheltonand Khloe Kardashian’s denim line Good American are all made in America. There are also plenty of designers, such as Pangaia that produce clothing overseas but ensure that working conditions are impeccable — just do a bit of research before shopping. If you’re not American but live in a thriving, Western country, purchase locally-made clothing from designers where you live.
- Shop second-hand: One of the biggest things you can do is to shop second-hand. It’s basically buying recycled clothing. The idea is that by purchasing you clothing second-hand, you aren’t spending your money on more mass produced pieces, thereby supporting the fast-fashion industry. If you live in a major city, shopping second-hand is supa dupa easy. There are usually thrift shops and second-hand stores all over big cities. You’re also likely to find something that will suit your taste because they usually have a wide variety of clothing. And don’t worry about wearing clothing that’s old or used because a) all hail the hipster movement of Gen X and Gen Y that has made dressing like you’re from decades past insanely cool again, and b) personal style is exactly that — personal. Fashion has at least done a few things right– that coupled with good timing because there really is no such thing as not looking stylish anymore. Thanks to creative designers, everything has practically been done in the world of fashion (although designers will continue to try their hardest to innovate and I say go for it) and so long as you rock it with confidence, you’ll always be stylish. My favorite decade is the 90s and I actually grew up during that decade so it’s very fitting. But the point is that I’d be able to find an abundance of cool 90s digs in any thrift shop and so can you.
- Don’t, I repeat DO NOT buy fur or leather: or wool, or angora, or snakeskin… you get the point. I specify this because just shopping second-hand doesn’t equal cruelty-free (if that’s what you’re aiming for). Many second-hand shops sell clothing that is made from animal products, skins and furs. If you want to look out for the environment and the animals, try not to purchase clothes in which animals have been killed or harmed in order to make them.
- Do a clothing swap: I know someone who participates in these and although I have yet to do so, it’s a great way to recycle clothing. Basically, a group of folks gets together with all the clothing they don’t want, and you swap out your pieces for other pieces– sort of like an intimate thrift store among friends. There are two benefits; the clothes are being continuously recycled as you swap them with others, and it’s also a fun way to go “shopping” as you get rid of clothing you don’t want anymore. Let’s say you got a sweater at a previous swap and by the time it’s spring (kinda like now) you already aren’t feeling the sweater or it didn’t look as great as you thought it would look no matter how you styled it. Well, now you can pass it on at a clothing swap guilt-free and get something else in return. Voila, wardrobe crisis solved.
- Make your own clothes: Okay, I know this may not be for everyone, myself included because I’m not really into making clothes and sewing. But you may discover you have a hidden talent or love for making your own clothing. All you need is a sewing machine and some patterns. You can also try going to a workshop or class to discover how to create your own fashions. One of my cousins knows how to make clothes (and just about anything for that matter) and seeing some of her creations solidifies that it’s completely possible to make your entire wardrobe. If you decide to go this route, don’t forget to use sustainable and, if possible, organic fabrics for your creations! The added benefit here is that you’ll have entirely custom pieces, created specifically for your body — kinda like how they used to do in the old days way before fast fashion was even a thing (sighs nostalgically).
Where I Stand
Remember when I said I’m probably not the best person to ask about how to shop ethically? That may have been a little self-critical but I said it because I can’t guarantee that I’ll never purchase anything from a fast fashion retailer again. I also really love contemporary and modern pieces that I feel are sometimes harder to come across in second-hand stores. But I haven’t given up on major retailers yet, especially as they continue to make improvements and move toward more sustainable and ethical practices. It’s similar to the dilemma many vegans face when eating at non-vegan establishments — do we not eat there in protest? Or do we order the one vegan option they have so they don’t take it off the menu and so they realize that people want to order it? If H&M has an amazing organic cotton, chunky knit, over-sized sweater (wow, I started drooling just writing that) that is part of a line they created of American-made pieces, why wouldn’t I buy it? I want to show them that I as a consumer will gladly spend my money on that organic cotton ya know? The same goes for any other brand. My minimalist lifestyle will keep me from decking out my closet with unnecessary clothing anyhow, so now all that’s left is to make sure that the clothes that are in there are as ethical– and cute as possible.
Here’s another website I found that features a few designers and design houses that make ethical, sustainable and/or eco-friendly clothing:
- https://borgenproject.org/facts-about-workers-rights-in-china/ and https://www.lawteacher.net/free-law-essays/employment-law/the-labor-rights-in-bangladesh-employment-law-essay.php
- Bangladeshi people protesting image courtesy of Getty images.
- Earth image courtesy of pixabay via Pexels.com.