Whenever we had a free weekend, my friends and I would always find ourselves at the mall. It was the perfect place for a bunch of teenagers to hang out: it had food and shopping (our favorite things). Cheap, accessible options combined with my love of shopping meant that I bought a lot of clothes, all the time. Most of it was from stores such as Urban Outfitters, Forever 21, Brandy Melville, and Abercrombie. They were the popular, trendy stores that everyone around me frequented. I didn’t give a second thought to the darker implications of my shopping, and the larger problem that it contributed to.
The brand Forever 21 is notorious for its unethical practices (Source: Somerset Collection)
I had always been passionate about environmental issues – climate change, pollution, and a variety of other topics. I had always known that fast fashion was “bad for the environment,” but it wasn’t until I started watching a YouTuber who advocated for sustainable fashion that I realized that the environment and fast fashion were incompatible. When I found out that fast fashion emits 1.2 billion tons of CO2 per year, more than air travel and shipping combined, I was appalled. Statistics that showed that fast fashion produces 20% of global wastewater and that 60% of clothes are made of synthetic materials derived from petrochemicals were impossible to ignore. Additionally, the social impact of fast fashion was stark. Not only is 97% of fast fashion produced overseas in developing countries with poor labor laws and human rights protections, but 80% of the clothing is also made by young women, who frequently face terrible conditions and abuse and don’t even make a living wage.
Fast fashion clothing that ended up in a landfill (Source: The New Daily)
Knowing this, I decided to make several changes to make my lifestyle more sustainable. First, I reduced the amount of clothing I bought and pledged to avoid fast fashion brands as much as possible. I also tried to buy from companies that were sustainable. For example, I would highly recommend ASOS’s Sustainable Edit or buying from sites like ThredUP, which is essentially an online thrift store. However, through my own experience and what I have heard from my peers in the sustainable fashion community, I realized that there are a lot of obstacles for young people (teenagers especially) when it comes to switching their lifestyle. One obvious issue is that sustainable brands can be very expensive. For instance, take Reformation, one of the most popular brands that fit the youth aesthetic. It is difficult to find a dress that is under $100 on their website.
This is challenging for students, who probably do not have the means to consistently shop there. Of course, there is an alternate solution, which is to buy secondhand from thrift stores and platforms like Depop. Many find it intimidating to thrift, mostly because it’s not a curated selection of the trendiest finds, unlike most fast fashion brands. When I was in a Zoom hang out with some girls my own age who are fellow ambassadors at Remake (an organization that advocates for sustainability), one issue they brought up about thrifting was that many parents (especially immigrant parents) dislike buying second hand because it is associated with economic hardship. Remake often campaigns for fashion companies to be held accountable for their actions, such as their #PayUp petition during the COVID-19 pandemic, so getting involved with organizations like Remake is a great first step.
Thrift stores are a great sustainable option (Source: Dressember)
It is also interesting that no one I know in real life seems to be very aware of the negative impacts of fast fashion. Even if they are aware, it is not something that actively comes up in their mind when they buy clothing. A 2015 Nielsen survey found that 66 percent of shoppers worldwide say they are willing to pay extra for products or services from companies with social or environmental impact commitments. Yet there still is, as the Harvard Business Review coined it, an “intention-action gap” between what consumers say and what they purchase.
What is the best way to get more youth on board with switching to a more sustainable lifestyle? For one, the rhetoric when educating people about fast fashion is important. It is essential to avoid criticizing someone for their unsustainable lifestyle; rather, show the benefits of a sustainable lifestyle and how they can still maintain their sense of style and wear their values. I definitely think that there is a growing awareness among youth about the harmful practices of their favorite, trendy brands. When discussing with Ayesha, the founder of Remake, she stressed that nobody is perfect and nobody is expected to be 100% sustainable. However, that is no excuse to not take into account the detrimental impacts of your shopping habits and at the very least, reflect on if they reflect your values in the world.