When I was 13, I went through a graphic tee phase. The phrases printed on my embarrassingly extensive collection of these shirts included “Mondays,” “Wanderer,” “Très Cool,” and many more. Almost every single one was from Forever 21, was made out of a cheap cotton/polyester blend, and cost me at most $10. Eighth-grade me thought that having a giant wardrobe, regardless of the quality of what was in it, would make me “Très Cool”. It did not occur to me that those shirts were just about as far from cool as it gets. Buying from fast fashion brands, I later discovered, was equally as far.
These days, people mainly shop from fast fashion brands like Forever 21, H&M, and Zara for two reasons; their style is trendy (well, except for Forever 21, which is forever stuck in 2015), and their products are unbelievably expensive. A $5 dress seems too good to be true—and it is.
The trickle-down impact is usually brought up in the context of saving the environment. Beneath all the landfill that fast fashion has created, though, lies their consistently racially problematic behavior. Buried by extensive press coverage of the environmental impact, which theoretically should be enough to convince people to stop buying fast fashion, these controversies generally go unaddressed. But the evidence is clear, and it points to the reality that many consumers are either unaware of or reluctant to acknowledge: we need to stop buying from fast fashion brands—for more reasons than you think. Here’s why:
When there’s no tangible necessity, continuing to shop from fast fashion brands despite their blatant ignorance of social issues communicates that they don’t have to worry about it. In 2019, UK girl group Little Mix released a collection in partnership with fast fashion brand PrettyLittleThing that appropriated the Chinese qipao. The modest traditional dress was given revealing cutouts, changed into heavily cropped top and skirt sets, and more.
Many people of Asian descent on Twitter were outraged. Certain pieces were insensitively branded “Oriental”, and none of the Little Mix members were of Asian heritage. Yet, despite the concerns, neither the band nor brand ever commented; eventually the controversy faded away. The brand still sells 60+ similar products on their UK site—but a quick search of the word “oriental” redirects you to the home page.
Many brands also have a history of stealing designs from BIPOC creators. Early in 2019, Fashion Nova released a crochet dress nearly identical to one created in 2016 by BIPOC designer Luci Wilden and did not credit or compensate her. Fashion Nova’s dress was priced at only $40, while Wilden’s cost about $130. People buy wherever prices are lower, which has the unintended effect of edging out independent creators whose prices are higher due to practices like hand-making the garments and ethically sourcing materials.
Harming BIPOC Garment Workers
Another huge problem with fast fashion is its labor practices. Many garment workers are BIPOC women in developing countries. Often, they are subject to horrific treatment in the factories and are underpaid. For the first three months of the pandemic, female garment workers in South and Southeast Asia—who sometimes make even less than $5 a day—may have only received 62% of their income, even as CEOs of the fashion brands (a disproportionately Caucasian male population) who use their services continue making hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Zara CEO Amancio Ortega, who has a net worth of $75 billion, made $1.9 billion on November 15 alone. If a garment worker who makes $5 a day worked every day for 1.37 million years, they still wouldn’t make $1.9 billion.
Granted, the existence of fast fashion makes clothing accessible to people who are struggling financially. Worrying about the ethics of where you’re shopping from is a privilege; fast fashion brands charge less than $10 for shirts that may retail for $40 or $50 from sustainable brands.
Not being able to completely stop buying fast fashion for financial reasons is perfectly understandable. Fortunately, those who are tighter on cash can still help out—buying fewer pieces or less frequently, saving up for longer-lasting clothing, or buying secondhand are all great options for people of any income.
But for those who choose fast fashion when it isn’t necessary—the $10 you pay for a dress that will probably fall apart after one load of laundry comes with a hefty hidden price tag: a blind eye to cultural appropriation, theft from independent creators, and continued mistreatment of garment workers abroad. Everyone’s choices matter.
Cut fast fashion out of your life. It doesn’t deserve your attention.
Cover photo courtesy of FashionUnited