Buying better: the fashion industry’s moral and environmental dilemma.

Walking down Haight Street, even walking around Urban, we all see a riot of color and culture. Everyone is dressed head to toe in the various colors of the rainbow, in styles ranging from funky oversized sweaters and khakis to low rise jeans and tank tops. We live in a society of creativity and experimentation, but that often comes with a price: overconsumption. Staying up to date with new trends and finding ways to embrace our sense of self can lead to overindulgence.
As reported by fashion and culture journalist Dana Thomas in her book Fashionopolis, the average American now buys 68 articles of clothing per year in comparison to a mere twelve pieces in the 1980s. According to a survey conducted by The Urban Legend, 40% of the students are buying clothes every month and 13% of them are buying clothes every other week.
Fast fashion has revolutionized the fashion industry. In the same survey, 46.7% of the respondents shopped mostly from fast fashion brands such as Zara, H&M, Shein, Urban Outfitters and Brandy Melville.
Instead of producing large quantities of clothes every couple of months, creating seasonal releases, fast fashion companies are using quick response manufacturing tactics to produce new clothes every single week. Quick time manufacturing is where manufacturers rely on supply and demand data technology to quickly identify fashion trends, analyze the materials on hand, expeditiously mock-up designs and push to simplified production. Until fast fashion companies’ products become extremely popular, they don’t start mass producing in bulk. New trends are always popping up through social media and buying new clothes to stay trendy remains appealing. Fast fashion has become the perfect medium to pursue such behaviors.
“That’s the thing, that’s the keyword–appeal. It’s like a drug. It’s addicting. Everything is so cheap, everything is so trendy. Fast fashion companies are producing things left and right and you don’t really know where their stuff comes from,” said Izzie Ballon ‘22 in an interview with The Urban Legend.
Legacy brands such as Gap, Tommy Hilfiger and Hollister that have been around for generations produce in a completely different way. These companies spend months designing, buying and treating fabrics, followed by a lengthy period of manufacturing and distributing products.
The production method that fast fashion relies on creates two problems: consumption and waste. “Just like a lot of teenagers, I’ll buy a tank top from Poshmark that I don’t really need, but I think it’s cute. That’s the problem,” said Pippa Solmssen ‘23 in an interview with the Urban Legend. Customers buying excessive amounts of clothing leads to companies meeting extremely high demands, therefore, producing mass amounts of clothing. The more clothes that are bought from these fast fashion chains, the more demand for production they have, causing an even larger environmental impact.
Although the fashion industry is not one of the top ten polluting industries in the world, manufacturing processes are connected to each of the main pollutants in the world. In 2018, the United States Environmental Protection Agency reported that transportation, electricity and the mining industry all generated the largest amount of greenhouse emissions, each of which the fashion industry depends on for manufacturing. Clothes are made using electricity and from various materials, including polyester–a fossil fuel– which must be transported from manufacturers to stores.
“It’s all about balance,” Ballon said. “Obviously there are bigger, more pressing matters… but I think not supporting fast fashion brands actually has a great impact on these other [more pressing matters].” Putting an end to consumption is obviously unrealistic, but there are ways to reduce both consumption and waste.
Thrifting is one of the main ways to lower your fashion related carbon footprint and has gained extreme popularity over the last few years. “I would say probably 70% of my closet is thrifted or secondhand,” Ballon said. The pressure to be trendy and still have awareness around the environmental impact of our choices has become much more common. Social media has further popularized the drive for buying second hand, either through online resale stores such as Depop and Poshmark, or going to in-person thrift stores such as Goodwill and The Salvation Army.
According to UC Berkeley’s Student Environmental Resource Center, 60% of clothes worldwide are made from polyester and other synthetic materials. By buying secondhand, clothes that are often thrown into landfills can be reused again instead of being replaced by another piece of newly made clothing.
Even though thrifting is an excellent way to shop environmentally, thrifters often face a moral dilemma: is it ethical to shop at thrift stores? “The problem is [that] the concept of thrifting was originally created for low-income consumers who could not afford fast fashion. So when people who can afford fast fashion and more expensive ethical clothing shop at thrift stores, it takes away from these low-income consumers,” Solmssen said.
As both Solmssen and Ballon have noticed, thrift stores, especially in higher-income or tourist neighborhoods, have begun raising the prices of their clothing. The blame for such price inflation goes on both the company and the consumer. A mix between overconsumption, social media-driven thrift culture, and increased tourism have fueled these increasing prices. The more clothes that are bought, the more are eventually donated to charities or thrown away in landfills. As stated in a report done by Newsweek, the average American gets rid of 80 pounds of clothing per year. The more clothes that are donated to thrift stores, the more it costs for stores to sort and sell clothing. Thrift stores like Goodwill and Buffalo Exchange receive these clothes and drive the prices up even more because they know they can easily capitalize on tourism and thrifting trends. Regardless, only about 20-50% of that sorted clothing is actually being sold, according to the Council for Textile Recycling.
Another course of action is buying from local or sustainable brands. Patagonia, Reformation, Everlane, Revice Denim and House of Sunny are amongst the many brands that have prided themselves on using recycled materials, fair labor practices and minimal carbon emission manufacturing practices. They have spent less money on advertising and marketing to focus more on the clothes themselves: where materials are sourced from and what ethical labor practices should be in place. Although shopping at such brands is environmentally friendly, it can often be costly, ranging anywhere from $90 to $200 for a pair of jeans or $50 to $100 for a blouse. That being said, in a survey conducted by the Legend, 67% of Urban students believe that those who can afford to spend more money on clothing should invest in these sustainable brands.
Ballon says that even if clothes are more expensive, “You kind of have to think about the greater impact on the community when you are in the world. It doesn’t go unnoticed.” It’s challenging to balance self-expression and sustainability in a society whose trends evolve with the snap of a finger. Shopping from sustainable brands, though they do produce more clothing, is still supporting brands that source their materials from many pre-existing resources such as plastic water bottles and leftover canvas fabrics. Ultimately, lowering the rate at which we consume clothes is the most important practice we as a society need to move towards doing. Even practices as simple as wearing your clothes for nine months longer can lower your carbon footprint.
A collective effort between finding ways to repurpose, reuse and restyle the existing clothes in our closets and supporting sustainable brands are key steps towards maintaining more sustainable habits. “When other brands see a shift in widespread consumerist [mentality], where brands are getting really popular because they’re sustainable, it caus[es] a chain reaction,” Ballon said. “You see more brands actually caring about the environment. We all have to work to make sustainability affordable, but our actions have to show our support first.”