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Can We Break the Cycle of Fast Fashion?

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“I only shop fast fashion because I feel I have no other choice,” Stevie Minacs tells me over Zoom. The 22-year-old barista and artist dresses vibrantly, layering vintage pieces with a rotating cast of inexpensive basics from Chinese e-commerce juggernaut Shein. Colourful androgynous outfits dominate Minacs’ Instagram grid, and like most creators on the platform, they rarely repeat an outfit. “My style changes, my body changes and my identity changes, and I’ve found myself desperately needing to freshen up my wardrobe without having the budget to do so,” they say.

Minacs is like many young consumers whose social-media feeds are inundated with fashion’s ever-quickening cycle of trends. From influencers who shill for brands with sponsored posts to celebrities who are rarely photographed in the same outfit twice to brands feeding the beast with new collections and daily drops, it’s a force to contend with.

Fast fashion, typically defined as cheap, trendy clothing meant for short-term wear, has been a foundation of globalized living since the late 1990s, when textile manufacturing became easier thanks to sweatshops in the developing world and efficient supply chains. Mega brands like H&M, Zara and Forever 21 turned immense profits throughout the 2000s and 2010s, but as questions arose about the ugly side of the fast-fashion industry—from exploitation of workers to the high environmental impact—experts predicted that it would lose its lustre. (Forever 21 succumbed, filing for bankruptcy in 2019 before selling its licence.) Two years into a global pandemic that has threatened incomes and access to differentiated shopping experiences, fast fashion has further tightened its grip. More e-commerce giants are emerging: Shein doubled its sales in 2020, reaching $10 billion, and Alibaba, another digital conglomerate out of China known for its bargain-basement prices (accessories are often sold for less than $1), owned an 8.4 percent market share of the global e-commerce business in 2020. These brands closely mimic the Zaras of the world but
churn out new products even faster to keep up with social-media algorithms. “Shein hauls,” for example, in which influencers reveal the contents of their shopping sprees, are an increasingly popular form of video content.

“Before fast fashion, people just owned fewer garments,” says Kelly Drennan, founding executive director of Fashion Takes Action, the Canadian sustainability-focused non-profit behind the World Ethical Apparel Roundtable educational webinar series. “I think this is where the media, celebrities and influencers have a responsibility to emphasize the fact that we don’t need to be buying as much as we are.”

In 2020, Vogue Business surveyed 105 British Gen-Z shoppers and found that more than half bought most of their clothes from fast-fashion brands. And it’s not like they were doing so completely blind; often, these purchases were made with the knowledge that some questionable business practices went into producing the items. In an example cited in the survey, employees of a Leicester, England, supplier to e-tailer Boohoo alleged that they worked in cramped, unsafe conditions during the pandemic and were underpaid. “I really do feel bad about it, as I try to live and consume as ethically as I can in other areas of my life,” says Minacs, who has cut out animal products and often shops second-hand. “Expecting young people—who are bombarded on TikTok and Instagram with messages to consume in a time of their lives when fitting in is important—to do the right thing all the time is a very tall ask,” says Maxine Bédat, director of New Standard Institute, a non-profit that tracks data on the fashion industry’s impact.

The threat fast fashion poses is nothing new, and there is increased pressure being put on governments to force brands to comply with what climate activists see as essential measures by imposing tariffs on imported goods that do not meet sustainability standards and incentivizing upcycling. For now, governments are largely ignoring these pleas. In 2021, at least $10 million was credited back to Canadian retailers for destroying textile goods rather than returning them; this was due to the federal duty drawback, which, to keep the import of foreign goods attainable, reimburses business for duties paid on goods that will be sold outside Canada. If the goods don’t end up moving on to their next destination, companies can still qualify if they destroy them.

“I want to say every bit counts, but we don’t have the leisure of time,” says Bédat. “I’ve been in this industry long enough to understand that inside a brand, every sustainability dollar that they spend has to be defended in that it’s going to make them more money.” Capitalism’s maximum-profit model is antithetical to slowing things down, but, as Drennan suggests, new profit models such as clothing rentals, repairs and resale could lead us down a different path if they’re adopted by the big brands. “The model of fast fashion is not sustainable, but it’s not going anywhere, so I think that these brands have a responsibility to take leadership positions in this area or at the very least follow what other innovative brands are doing,” she says. She points to H&M’s recently launched Rewear platform, which allows shoppers to buy and sell second-hand clothing on its website, as one positive advancement.

There are slivers of hope, like a study by ThredUp that found that the resale category is set to surpass the fast-fashion market share by 2028. Until then, says Bédat, those looking to change their buying habits should avoid cues to consume by unfollowing fast-fashion brands and influencers on social media, for example, and unsubscribing from their emails. “It’s really remarkable,” she says. “I don’t see those cues, so I don’t think to go shopping as much.” As I’m ending my Zoom call with Bédat, she inquires about my T-shirt, which is printed with the Ralph Lauren logo except “Lauren” is replaced with the designer’s real last name, Lifshitz. “See?” she says. “Now you’ve influenced me!”

Read more:
ELLE for the Earth
8 Actually Sustainable Fashion Brands to Shop
H&M Canada Just Launched Rewear, a Resale Site for Shoppers

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