What is it about Zara that caused people to wait at the store’s doors in endless lines as soon as the lockdown restrictions were eased? Why is it that in light of the COVID-19 induced worldwide economic crisis, the fast fashion industry still managed to benefit despite lockdown measures? It comes as no surprise that fast fashion’s industrial potency is multi-dimensional.
Fast fashion takes artistic inspiration from the catwalk, combines this inspiration with cheap labor and materials via a shortened production chain, and then sells trendy clothes at a low price. This strategy also sells the promise of a more democratic world, one in which you can emulate Instagram’s it-girls without breaking the bank. Aside from its social appeal, fast fashion’s irresistibility has a neurological basis. According to the Atlantic, studies conducted by Stanford, MIT, and Carnegie Mellon used a functional MRI to study the brains of subjects as they were buying clothes. The more the person wanted an item, the more activity was detected by the fMRI. The subjects were then shown the price of an item, and the pain processing portion of the brain reacted to the cost. Thus, the active decisions made when shopping are reduced to “a hedonic competition between the immediate pleasure of acquisition and equally immediate pain of paying.” In short, fast fashion’s provision of items highly desired by the public at affordable prices feeds into this neurological process seamlessly. And so, the general public has access to the trend of the moment for a fraction of the price. Combine this with the immense overturn of trends, and the irrational amounts of clothes purchased find their rational basis.
But beyond the utilitarian utopia of retail therapy and the massive shopping hauls lies an unsettling truth. The tempting price tag means that the brands must cheaply produce the items in order to incur a profit. This allows them to turn to countries with little to no enforced labor laws in order to build their factories under the most inhumane conditions, paying the laborers close to nothing for their toil. The environment also pays the price that the fast fashion customer seems to circumvent. According to Nature Magazine, the fast fashion industry contributes to 8-10% of global CO2 emissions, 20% of industrial water pollution, and 35% of oceanic primary microplastic pollution. This excludes the textile waste resulting from the unsold products that find their way to landfills.
In the wake of a more environmentally conscious world, it comes as no surprise that consumption trends are shifting away from fast fashion in favor of more sustainable alternatives, one of which is thrift shopping. Thrift shopping is already increasing in popularity as an homage to 80s and 90s fashion that is coming back into style. Aside from being a product of current tastes, thrifting provides an affordable and sustainable alternative to fast fashion. In light of the current economic crisis in Lebanon, thrift shopping can be viewed as a fashionable haven — a way of staying in style in spite of the deteriorating currency and rising inflation. This is noticeable in the steady rise of online-based thrift shops in recent months. The owners of these shops sell unworn clothing items from their closets, creating a new source of income from a newly evolving market. However, thrift shopping is still heavily stigmatized; buying used clothes is often viewed as an indication of an imagined lower class, while others consider the act unsanitary, despite the measures often taken by thrift shop owners.
For those skeptical of second-hand clothes, there are brands such as Kotn and Pact that are committed to making and selling trendy, ethically made clothes. This alternative, however, comes at a price that is higher than what one might expect with fast fashion since the cost-cutting measures of fast fashion production are redundant. Another alternative to fast fashion involves spending no money at all. “Shopping your closet” means browsing through the plethora of impulse buys in one’s closet in hopes of seeing old garments with fresh eyes. Instead of taking to stores, one can try to repurpose the garments they already own, cutting down on waste. This ties closely with clothes rental where formal clothing can be rented for particular events creating a cost-cutting, waste-reducing alternative.
There is no doubt that the room for fast fashion in this ever-evolving world is diminishing. With more ethical, environmentally conscious alternatives on the rise, one can hope for a world in which all garments are sustainably made.