The social and environmental tolls of the fashion industry are explored in the 2015 documentary The True Cost. Familiar images of couture-laden runways and enormous Black Friday crowds are juxtaposed with shots of cramped sweatshops, collapsed factories and landfills overflowing with clothes. The unethical practices of fast fashion must be combatted with conscious spending on the part of consumers.
“Fast fashion” is the proliferation of cheap clothing inspired by current luxury trends. The low costs of stores such as Zara, H&M and Forever 21 entice college students, many of whom cannot afford more expensive clothing. The clothes are inexpensive and low-quality, and consumers buy and throw them out in large quantities. This can only be sustained by outsourcing labor to countries with paltry regulations.
In 2015, H&M and Next admitted Syrian child refugees were working in their clothing factories in Turkey. This year, a factory in Bangladesh that made clothes for H&M and J.C. Penney caught on fire, exposing a lack of adequate fire safety measures. These events are symptoms of consumers’ voracious demand for cheap clothing with little regard for the workers.
Not only do fast fashion companies take advantage of their employees, but they also exploit the environment. Chemicals and pesticides harm the fields that grow fiber for cloth, and masses of supposedly “disposable” clothing sit in landfills for years.
Consumers hold a great deal of power over companies to change their unsustainable and inhumane practices. Dominique Bobbio, an international relations senior involved in University Students Against Sweatshops, wrote in an email that she encourages students to take responsibility in challenging corporations.
“If [students are] not comfortable with the way a corporation is operating, then organizing actions, delivering letters to store managers, and engaging in social media actions have all proven to be effective means of pressuring corporate giants to change their ways,” Bobbio said.
Alternatives to large corporations exist. Retailers such as Everlane, People Tree, Raven + Lily and American Apparel offer fair trade clothing that ensure sustainable, ethically produced clothes. Ellie Wendland, a student involved in both Spark Magazine and University Fashion Group, discussed the importance of buying less, higher quality clothes.
“Instead of getting caught up in the consumer culture of buying new cheap and trendy pieces each season, students could purchase fewer more classic items that are produced ethically and will last longer.”
Although the prices might seem steeper to the college student on a budget, buying several well-made items costs about the same as inexpensive items that require constant replacement. The fashion industry appears to be a monolith that single consumers cannot change, but just as upstart fast-fashion stores have significantly changed the fashion industry, mass consumer support of ethical practices can exact a more positive change.
Because of the dangers current fashion industry models pose to its workers and the environment, we simply cannot afford to do anything less.
Nemawarkar is a Plan II freshman from Austin. Follow her on Twitter @janhavin97.