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Are We Doing Our Part to Fight “Fast Fashion”?

Students at Lesley are activists who are constantly doing what they can to learn, adapt their behavior, and educate others about the issues that matter.  The fast-fashion industry has become an environmental crisis that our generation cannot afford to ignore.

The term “fast fashion” refers to a new retail model of clothing in which the product is constructed and sold for less money and in much greater quantity.  Instead of four or five seasons worth of clothing per year, stores like H&M, Forever 21, Charlotte Russe, and Zara are coming up on 10 to 12 per year.  And as trends change faster, many millennials are opting to buy more—and because of the outrageously low prices, their wallets aren’t even suffering for it.  So who is it hurting?

First and foremost, it is hurting workers in third-world countries. Many of the inexpensive retailers that target our generation with cheap clothing often make their garments in countries where there is little oversight.  Sweatshop conditions have been widely reported, along with low pay and long hours.   None of these countries have worker protections or even a trade union to fight for their cause.   This has led to tragedies like the 2013 factory collapse in Bangladesh that killed as many as a thousand people, a majority of whom were women.  After the remains of the eight-story, illegally built garment factory were examined, it was reported that among the companies with contracts to make clothing there were such big names as Benetton, J. C. Penney, Carrefour, Walmart, Joe Fresh, the Children’s Place, Mascot, El Corte Inglés, Cato Fashions, and Primark.

The mess that the fast fashion industry has become isn’t just a humanitarian issue, but an environmental one as well.  With more and more clothing being pumped out of factories and into the hands of eager consumers, last year’s trends are filing into donation bins and dumpsters faster than ever.  In fact, the amount of clothing that Americans throw out each year has doubled in less than 20 years, from 7 million to now 14 million tons.  Yes, you read that right—tons.

If you’re like me, you recognize that one person’s trash is another person’s treasure, and you’d rather donate or sell your clothing than simply put it in the dumpster.  But still, the EPA reports that in 2012, 84% of unwanted clothing went into “either a landfill or an incinerator” (Wicker).  That’s because not all donated clothing can be resold.  Some retailers like H&M are combating this by collecting unwanted clothing so that it can be “upcycled”—but only a fraction of a percentage of the garments they receive for this purpose actually are.  This is because it’s quite difficult to return textiles to their original raw state, and hardly possible if they have been bleached or dyed along the way.  And synthetic materials like polyester and rayon cannot be returned to their raw state at all.

Clothing that cannot be resold, upcycled, or even downcycled into wash rags or insulation is baled up and shipped to poor areas in Asia, South America, and Africa.  This has virtually destroyed the textile industries of many countries, namely in Africa, where the worst and cheapest of the clothing tends to go.  In Uganda, for example, 81% of clothing purchased in 2004 was secondhand.  While the colonial implications of this method of disposal are distressing enough, things are bound to change soon for the (even) worse.  For a long time, “American clothing” was synonymous with quality.  But as Alden Wicker points out in his article “Fast Fashion is Creating an Environmental Crisis,” the people in these African countries “might eventually recognize that the secondhand fashion is just cheap, old imported clothing from Asia that made a quick pit stop in the U.K. and U.S. And like Americans, they might decide to just buy it new.”  And the mountains of clothing to be dumped into landfills or incinerated at least doubles in size.

I had an interesting conversation with a Lesley student, a senior named Kayleigh Yaroshenko.  I asked her what the allure of fast-fashion retailers initially was for her.  She told me, “I didn’t do a lot of my own shopping until college, and because college is such a big time for identity formation, I guess I was just trying to express myself through clothes.”  She also pointed out that for college students who don’t have a lot of time or money, “places like H&M and Primark are just easy.”

We also discussed her decision to stop supporting fast fashion.  “I’m slowly trying to make changes to the way I live that align my actions with my values.  This particular change was something that I see as being sustainable and something I can continue to do.”  Noting that it was a very gradual change, she added that ultimately “the prices of shopping secondhand are the same, if not better, than shopping fast fashion.  It all has to do with knowing where and how to look.”

Even though clothing has become so cheap, Americans still manage to spend $250 billion on it every year.  While some are advocating for businesses like Rent The Runway or simply buying higher quality clothing that will last longer in the first place, these options are not palatable to college students who are struggling to save up for their grocery bill, let alone an Ann Taylor blazer for a job interview, for example.  And this is where the beautiful world of thrifting comes in.

You can score a decent blazer for around $8 at Goodwill in Davis Square, which largely does not discriminate its prices based on brand or quality.  To Goodwill, there is no difference between Forever 21 and J. Crew.  That low price tag can get you an item that was made from better materials (think wool and cotton instead of polyester and rayon), and was built to last—there’s a reason that the initial owner paid almost $200 for it.

You can score an excellent blazer at any of the local consignment boutiques.  In just the immediate Cambridge area, Lesley students have access to Raspberry Beret, The Garment District, Buffalo Exchange, Thrive, and Second Time Around, just to name a few.  You might end up paying closer to $25-30, but that’s for the guarantee that this item has already been looked over for damage and comes from a brand that would have charged at least three times what they’re asking for it secondhand.

And you can score the exact blazer you want on Poshmark, ThredUp, Vinted, Ebay, OfferUp, and so many more online platforms by just doing a quick search.  If you want it, there is an almost 100% chance that someone is looking to give theirs up for cash.  Sure, these sites are much pricier than Goodwill, but the feeling of participating in the cycle of sustainability is worth so much more than anything brand new.  Thrifting is no longer about your mom’s metallic vest from the 80s or a good patchwork jacket (although it certainly can be)—in the age of the internet and the hip consignment boutique, recycling is easier and more important than ever.

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