The Truth About Fast Fashion & How We Can Change It

With Fashion Revolution week underway for another year, STYLE takes a closer look at how the fashion industry needs to change and how we can all play our part. 

Given the fact that, according to the United Nations, the fashion industry creates around 10 per cent of the world’s C02 emissions – which is more than aviation and shipping combined – it’s hard to imagine a future where fashion as we know it will continue to exist.

“I think the bubble is going to burst,” says Jennifer Whitty, Assistant Professor of Fashion Systems and Materiality at Parsons School of Design, New York. “There’s a lot of pressure and want or desire for change coming from all directions, whether it be policy, from governments and consumers.” However, while Whitty believes we are more aware that our current fashion industry model is harmful to the planet, she says we’re still engaging with fast fashion.

To create positive change for the future, Whitty says a good starting point is unpacking what fast fashion means. “It’s starting to become a bit of a mantra: fast fashion is bad. But it’s a lot more complex,” she says. Since the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013, which killed over 1000 people – many of them garment workers – there’s undoubtedly been more scrutiny on the industry’s harmful production practices as a whole.

Yet Whitty says the way the majority of fashion operates is still nowhere near as transparent as it should be. “Work is subcontracted out to factories where things are made in awful condition and garments are from polluting materials that are potentially going to be on the planet forever,” she explains. “And then we have more and more waste that is just building up and up and up, and we haven’t got waste management systems in place to deal with that.”

And while fashion brands are under the spotlight as far as sustainable and ethical practices are concerned, to truly address and mitigate fashion’s detrimental impact on the environment, we need to accept the role we, as consumers play in the fast fashion model. “It’s how we treat the clothes, how much we purchase and how much we discard,” says Whitty. Therefore, at the end of the day, Whitty says, in some ways, we make the fashion fast and we potentially make it more of an issue than it has to be. “Is it the ease of buying something that is bad or is it the fact we’re buying something in increasing quantities and disposing of it frequently? According to reports, many raw materials are going to be on the planet for at least 200,” explains Whitty. “As consumers, we need to question our relationship with all of that.”


Playing our part

Imagining a utopian future where sustainable, ethically minded is the norm is the easy part. Figuring out exactly how we get there, and what role we can all play as individuals, however, can be immensely overwhelming. For a start, sustainable, ethically made fashion isn’t always the easiest, most affordable option – and that’s even if you can figure out whether what you’re purchasing is a more conscious investment.

Whitty admits that not all of us have the disposable income or ability to say no to fast fashion easily. “But I think those of us with a certain degree of privilege need to exercise that privilege and need to speak for those that can’t much more,” she says. “I think we all have power as consumers to be asking when we go into a shop where is this made? And not just settling with the country as the answer,” she says.

If we’re to do that, we would be saying no to such initiatives as Outland Denim – ethically made denim that’s helping pull Cambodian women out of a life of sex trafficking and poverty. And we might end up saying yes to garments made in developed countries under appalling conditions.

Apparel emblazoned with a ‘Made in Italy’ tends to conjure up not only an exorbitant price tag but also images of delicately handmade pieces crafted by the world’s leading ateliers. However, it was only recently that police in Naples uncovered appalling sweatshop conditions where undocumented immigrants were creating handbags and shoes for a manufacturing company that supplies the likes of Armani and Fendi.

“We can’t presume because something is made in a developed country with higher standards of employment laws or rules, that it’s a guarantee,” says Whitty. “We’ve got to look for it. We’ve got to ask for more transparency,” she adds. She draws a comparison between food and fashion – we’ve demanded standards, accreditation and certification for the likes of free-range eggs and meat; now we have to demand the same for fashion.

A new way of fashion consumption

While we’ve got to demand the fashion industry make significant, impactful changes, at the same time we’ve got to try and reshape and rethink our consumption habits. “We need access to more information,” says Whitty. “But we also need to try and combat the impulse of buying things on a whim. We’ve got to try and break down the cost-pear-wear and think will I wear this 30 times at the very least.”

The harmful cycle of fast fashion doesn’t end once it’s in our wardrobe: fast fashion is cheap fashion, and because we’re buying it in excess amounts, more of it’s disposed of after barely being worn. In other words, we’re living in a throwaway culture. According to a study by the World Resources Institute, we’re buying 60 per cent more clothing than we were in 2000 and we’re keeping each garment for half as long. A Censuswide study undertaken in the United Kingdom in July 2019 revealed that Britons would spend £2.7 billion over summer on more than 50 million summer outfits that would only be worn once.

“I think we’ve got two responsibilities as consumers,” says Whitty. “One is to look backwards and see where what we are buying is from – where it was made, how it was made. I what I would like to see people activating their autonomy and being more reaching out, trying to align their purchases with their values more.”

Secondly, she thinks we need to rethink what fashion means. “Currently fashion is incredibly narrow and incredibly keeping us in a kind of dependent state, where we are fed a cycle of products, but most of them only have value for us for that instant moment or a shorter amount,” she explains. “I don’t think we’re allowing for fashion to be as authentic and engaging as it could be”.  However, if we stop falling slave to trends and the fast-fashion model, Whitty believes fashion could be an experience that is far more exciting, liberating and empowering for everybody involved in it.

Whitty believes that our appetite for fast fashion isn’t necessarily the cause of the problem; she thinks it’s a symptom of other issues in our society. Social media, and Instagram in particular, means our lives – what we eat, who we’re seen with, and what we wear – is on display more than ever before. Then there’s the fact that younger generations are less financially secure than the generations before them.

“They can’t afford the main purchases in life than the generations before them did. So instead they’re spending money on things they can afford, such as fashion,” explains Whitty. “That gives them a sense of achievement or validation.”

But just because the problems with the current fast fashion model are complex, it doesn’t mean they’re insurmountable. “We need to look at the cause, the root of why we feel the need to keep buying,” says Whitty. “We just have to start shifting our value system.” Connecting with fashion and what we really want from clothes is a great place to start. “The mass manufacturing system, it worked first for economies of scale, but hasn’t worked in terms of actually delivering products that are meaningful,” says Whitty.

Stop and think about the garments in your wardrobe that you treasure for the moment – it’s unlikely to be the trend-driven Zara dress that seemed like a good idea last summer, but you have only worn once. “We’re not one size fits all and fast fashion is not as inclusive as it could be. We’ve ignored different shapes and sizes,” says Whitty.

Whitty believes for fashion brands to be successful and survive the increasing scrutiny that they’re under, they’ll have to explore a new dialogue with the people they’re designing for. “We need to look at the whole experience of fashion. It’s completely changing and it needs to change radically,” she says. It’s time to move beyond the visual elements that drive fashion and move towards a much more engaged and involved industry. “We need to really look and garments and examine the time span that they think garments are going to be on the earth for.”

Don’t Shop Until You Drop

Whitty says it’s important to ask ourselves questions when we’re adding to our wardrobes. “Is it something that I’m just kind of I’m buying because I’m told to buy more? Or is that something that absolutely sets my world on fire?”

While the low price tags of fast fashion can be alluring, sometimes it can help to think about the current garments in your wardrobe that you’ve cherished for years. We need to empower ourselves to become a little more immune to cycles of trends that just tend to churn out more and more products says Whitty. “I think it’s about building our own – going back more to the psychology of it – sense of self-worth and asking what makes me feel happy? Does this garment really, a bit Marie Kondo, does it give us a sense of joy?”

How to Shop for Fashion Mindfully

It’s never too late in the year to overhaul your wardrobe and get it ready for the season ahead.

Don’t be fooled by trends that come and go

Don’t get us wrong, we love a good fashion trend and we’re particularly excited about all the colour that is set to return to the fashion world in 2019.  But if you find yourself constantly scrolling through Instagram to try and keep up with all the trends street style stars are wearing, it might be time to take a step back and rethink your wardrobe. Trends do tend to come and go and circle back around again, so knowing how to cherry-pick trends that you’ll wear season after season is important. 

“Trends tend to homogenise fashion, demanding we all dress the same,” says Courtney Sanders, founder of Well Made Clothes. Sanders points to the Tumblr from last summer that was dedicated to hundreds of women wearing the same off-the-shoulder Zara dress.  “Before I was aware of any of these issues I felt the pressure to buy new clothes all the time, which meant I ended up with a closet full of clothes that weren’t me at all,” Sanders says. She says she would spend hours agonising over trends and working out how she could work it into her look – often she’d make the purchase and never wear it out of her bedroom. “When became more conscious of the impact my fashion purchases had I started to buy less and really think about whether I would wear it. It has meant my wardrobe is a lot more concise, a lot more me, and I would say a lot more stylish,” she laughs.

Avoid the urge to buy on-sale items just because they’re on sale

If you’ve ever purchased an item simply because it was on sale only to have it sit unworn at the back of your closet, you’re definitely not alone. The allure of shopping for a bargain can trick even the savviest shoppers into thinking that neon-coloured designer pencil skirt marked down by 70 per cent is too good of a deal to resist. But before rushing out to buy on-sale pieces, give overhaul your wardrobe and try and work out what you really need.

“The feeling of getting a bargain when shopping for new clothes is a very dominant factor, which can influence our decision to go shopping,” says University of Auckland PhD researcher, Miriam Seifert. As tempting as sales can be, they can trick us into thinking we’re not doing anything wrong by purchasing products on a whim because we’re not paying full ticket for the product. “We go shopping because we want to experience the joy of getting a bargain and saving money,” she explains.

Seifert says while it’s easy to fall for marketing campaigns peddling slashed sale prices, it’s important to try and avoid impulsive and emotional shopping. She suggests asking yourself: Do I really need it? Do I have something similar already in my closet that I use or haven’t been wearing at all? Will it make me happy to buy it? Walking away from a dramatically reduced item of clothing with a very compelling price but perhaps no foreseeable place in your wardrobe is often the best thing to do. Still thinking about the piece the next time? Then perhaps it’s meant to be.

Think about how your decisions impact the planet

“For me personally, mindfulness is about bringing consciousness to my everyday thoughts and actions,” explains AUT fashion lecture, Leica Johnson. She describes mindful fashion as bringing awareness to fashion purchases we make. “You can simply ask yourself how your purchase affects the planet and the people on it.” While the answer to that question isn’t always straightforward – issues of transparency are fraught in the fashion industry – just pausing to think about why you’re buying something is enough to prevent a regrettable purchase that may be flung to the back of the wardrobe after one wear. Johnson also says the questions tend to nudge the individual towards supporting brands that use social, ethical and environmentally sustainable practices.

Now that you’ve overhauled your wardrobe, here are the five fashion rules you should be breaking right now.