When one sits on hardwood floors, surrounded by precipitous piles of pastel sweater vests, ribbed crop tops and corduroy slacks; it’s hard to know what outfit to wear. Teetering on a kitchen stool, scouring through the highest shelf in the closet in a desperate bid to find something “different” to wear grocery shopping – last year’s impulse purchases, a tiger print mesh top and tie dye sweatshirt, are flung to the ground. No longer trending, the poor-quality items worn just twice each are immediately dismissed as outfit options.
Half an hour passes and the frantic search continues to no avail. Not for the first time, the progressive obsolescence of my wardrobe hits me like a slap in the face. How can a person possibly own so many clothes and have nothing to wear? I step down from the stool and let out a sigh as I wade through the surrounding sea of crumpled polyester, bested again by the toxic relationship too many of us can’t quit.
Fashion brands have always played on our aspirations and insecurities and on the seemingly innate desire to express ourselves through our clothing. But now, as I entertain the thought of a quick online browse rather than confront my consumerist urges; it seems those companies access their target shoppers not only through the traditional avenues like billboards or prime-time TV ads, but in more intimate spaces and at all hours of the day.
We are inundated with daily targeted advertisements and brand deals, whether through their own channels or, more furtively, by enlisting social media influencers to convince us an item is irresistible, or at least unavoidable. And so, confined to four walls for months on end, the browsing perfectly suits our moods of low-key dissatisfaction. In attempt to scratch an itch that can’t be reached and despite the overflowing wardrobes, we add items to the basket – improbable outfits for imaginary parties in a world that no longer exists.
Since the early 2000’s “fast fashion” has inserted itself into the fashion industry as a means for shoppers to purchase trendy clothing at a fraction of the cost that high end brands offer. In a process driven by rapid turnover, consumers succumb to the inexpensive price tags and find themselves stuck on a hedonic treadmill in which the continuous pursuit of new clothing leaves them unsatisfied and unhappy. Over the past decade, the digital era has bolstered the proliferation of “ultra” fast fashion brands online. As a result, in wealthy countries across the world, clothes shopping has become a powerful pastime, a form of endless entertainment which yields immediate gratification.
The advent of COVID-19 catalysed western civilisation’s redirection of their gaze to their internal surrounds. In the discretion of our own homes, some – much like myself – have felt obligated to address the copious items that besiege them and in turn, reflect upon the consequences of their actions. Yet, in this time of crisis, most consumers haven’t stopped shopping – rather they have limited their purchases to affordable pleasures. Now, more than ever, concerns continue to surface about the human and environmental impacts behind fast fashion and how to best navigate its ubiquitous presence.
Beyond the surface level understanding of fast fashion, what is it really? And what is the true cost of western society’s deeply embedded, customary reliance on cheap clothing?
How can we cut ties with fast fashion and reduce our environmental footprint?
It is important to first address that our relationship with fast fashion is largely propelled by the neurological pleasures associated with the process of shopping. When an individual shops – even just by browsing online, a sense of pleasure is often experienced. In a pattern of thinking deemed “transactional utility”, before buying an item a consumer’s brain will perform a cost-benefit analysis to compare how much they like the product verse it’s cost. This procedure elicits a positive neurological response – especially when the purchase is determined a “bargain” and the consumer follows through.
Essentially, sale-shopping feeds a key part of the human brain’s reward system – making the cheap and seemingly infinite allure of fast fashion hard to ignore. Fast fashion knowingly capitalises on this emotionally charged consumer culture and so these brands have long convinced us that we “need” the garments they offer. By being aware of the neurological processes which partly account for our shopping behaviours, we may be able to better navigate our decisions and break the viscous cycle.
As mentioned in the above explainer video, the impact of how most of our clothes are made can’t be ignored any longer – at least not without causing permanent, irreversible damage. This begs the question: what solutions can the conscious consumer or business employ to negate fast fashion?
Owner of Australian clothing business Sustainable Fashion and advocate for sustainable living Sarah Garrett-Hodoniczky weighed in on the topic and has helped to guide the following suggestions:
Solutions for consumers to break the cycle and be more conscious:
Consumers have the power to reduce demand for cheap garments and encourage the global market to stop the flow – less demand equals less production. While it may be tempting to place the sole blame on big businesses who endorse the industry, there is an individual responsibility for the cycle of consumption and waste caused by fast fashion.
2. Buy fewer clothes.
Instead readjust your gaze and look internally to your wardrobe. Consider how you can repurpose your clothes to align with your current style – rather than mindlessly purchasing something new. If you must seek out new clothes: remember that you don’t have to ditch your personal style to embrace conscious fashion. Stylish, sustainable apparel can be purchased online, in second-hand stores, through clothing swaps or via renting services (if you need an outfit for a special occasion).
“Our whole lives we’ve been trained to believe that to be happy we have to have more and more and more. It’s this wildly untapped marketing strategy based on real science that’s used across all the industries,” Sarah Garrett-Hodoniczky said.
“It leaves consumers under the impression that they aren’t enough until they’ve purchased the biggest television, newest phone model or in this case, the trendiest clothes. The result is a generation full of deeply unhappy people, but it doesn’t have to be this way.”
2. Invest in quality and longevity rather than trend-chasing.
If you prioritise dressing well or have a love for fashion, then put your money where your mouth is. Be meticulous in your approach to purchasing new items and consider if the product on offer adds value to your wardrobe or if it’s just trending right now. Look for versatile pieces that build on top of your existing staples and timeless, statement items that aren’t attached to trends. If your usual justification for purchasing from a fast store is cost effectiveness, consider applying the “cost per wear” formula to calculate the economic benefits of investing in quality items.
“Instead of viewing your purchase as a great success because it cost you, let’s say only 29 dollars, look at how many wears you’ve had from it – probably two? That’s 15 dollars per wear. Comparatively, take my bamboo line for example, I’ve had customers say they’ve re-worn those products for over ten years,” Sarah said.
“They might’ve paid 100 dollars for the garment upfront, but it ends up being better value for money because its dynamic style and quality guarantees long-term wearability.”
3. Re-frame the way you view online shopping.
Look at your 24/7 access to online clothing retailers as an opportunity to research and support brands that best reflect your personal morals and individual style – rather than as an avenue for a quick clothing fix. While the presence of 100% sustainable Australian clothing brands is still limited, demand is steadily increasing and more brands than ever are on offer. This is an exciting prospect, however it’s also important to be aware of and know how to identify “greenwashing” strategies. Sustainability itself is trending, so you’ll have to commit to a little extra digging to ensure you’re buying from an authentic seller. A good rule of thumb is to check the transparency of the website – if the brand openly discusses it’s production process or factory standards and has the certifications to back itself, then you’re probably on the right track.
“These big bands get a nice pat on the back because they release an ‘eco-friendly’ collection but that collection accounts for maybe two per cent of their overall stock. The other 98 per cent still relies on cheap labour and contributes to pollution, it’s still fast fashion,” Sarah confirmed.
4. Wash your clothes less.
Most clothing doesn’t need to be machine washed after every wear. To avoid releasing microplastics into the ocean; unless your clothes are visibly dirty (or heavy on the nose!) try going longer between loads – aim for at least three wears before it hits the laundry. This will help to reduce your water and energy consumption and maintain the longevity of your items.
5. Take care of what you own and rethink end-of-life.
Follow care instructions and keep a sewing kit handy for basic repairs; broken straps, tears and missing buttons can be all be salvaged with just a few stitches. Hang and store delicate pieces to extend their life and before sending off garments that no longer fit to donation or rubbish sites, consider having them tailored. The cyclical nature of fashion guarantees that many of your once-favourite items will soon again be in the limelight – save your staples (like a quality pair of skinny jeans) and save your money.
Solutions for businesses:
Businesses of all size, form and age can implement measures to reduce their wastage and reliance on non-renewable energy. Inhibiting a smooth or rapid global transition away from fast fashion and toward sustainability is not an absence of capability or resources, rather the collective ignorance and lack of accountability from companies in the industry. For the aspiring or established conscious business, some solutions include:
- (Re)evaluate your business model.
In line with conscious capitalism, beyond reductions in packaging and transportation, businesses need to be willing to rework their approach to growth and profit. Identify what facets of the business can be reworked to decrease reliance on non-renewable resources. Call into question your material choices, product’s end of life and the impact of production.
“It comes down to committing to a business plan that really represents you as a person and then having the dedication to see it through. The changes don’t have to happen all at once. This a lifetime endeavour, so progress will be far from linear and is certainly allowed to be gradual.”
2. Bridge the gap between production and sales.
Offering small batch or custom orders can simultaneously reduce waste and meet the demands of conscious consumers. New businesses can implement this from the start and larger, existing companies such as Levi Strauss are already introducing bespoke alternatives. By minimising the volume of production and embracing a circular economy, businesses can create distinctive products that last and establish close connections with customers.
“Avoid the ‘sale, sale, sale’ method to generate more turnover. Businesses have discounted their products so much that consumers think they’re not getting any value from the purchase unless they see how much they’ve saved. This dynamic means the driving factor for sales on both ends is price; what about just providing a good quality, beautiful product that consumers can invest in and know won’t fall apart after two wears?” Sarah offered
3. Emphasise re-shoring.
Accessing materials and resources from local sources and resident manufacturers can strengthen supply chains and ensure safe and fair working conditions for the garment workers creating your products. Localising your business also presents a tremendous opportunity to ease the impact on the environment through a reduction of shipping and storage and in turn a reduction of emissions and energy usage.
“When workers are paid a good wage, like my girls, the garment is made with a whole different feeling. You can tell by the way it’s made that they want to be there and they have the time and energy to do the job well,” Sarah said.
Many paths to sustainability – just start by choosing one.
While each individual and company has a different level of impact on the planet, the unavoidable reality is we all contribute to fashion pollution and the waste crisis.
Through the acknowledgment and reduction of our carbon footprints and the reconsideration of our relationship with fashion, we can slow the demand for – and effects of – fast fashion.
Every journey will look and feel unique and that’s okay – it’s more critical than ever to just start, right now. If you’d like to make the first step, some fantastic resources have been linked below.
For more information on the topics explored in this blog post, check out:
- Australian Style Institute
- IBISWorld – Report
- ehp – Environmental Health Perspectives
- Parliament of Australia – building a circular economy
To shop sustainable, check out: