Want to get people fired up? Bring up the topic of fast fashion.
From conversations about the impact of fast fashion on the resale market to its role in the sustainability movement or the disconnect between the values of Gen Z and their purchasing decisions, regardless of the context or perspective, the conversation surrounding fast fashion can get heated, real fast.
Whenever the topic of fast fashion comes up, it often leads to passionate discussions, strong emotions, and an active sometimes, aggressive comment section.
Why is this?
We chatted with Dr. Dion Terrelonge, Fashion Psychologist and Chartered Educational Psychologist, in search of answers. She explains that it has a lot to do with our sense of self:
“We see the activities we engage in, our tastes, our environments like the area we live in as saying something about us. So, if an activity that we engage in is seen in a negative or unfavorable light, we feel we ourselves are also being seen in an unfavorable light due to our proximity to it. People then get defensive because that is exactly what they are attempting to do; to defend their sense of selves.”
Dr. Terrelonge continues, “In the same way, a person who considers themselves environmentally responsible may give a smug or self-congratulatory response when the topic of fast fashion comes up, even if the discussion doesn't directly pertain to them. They see themselves as being on the “right” side of the fence.”
Fast fashion is a layered topic that touches on several multifaceted personal and societal factors, from personal beliefs to socioeconomic status, access to sustainable clothing options, and proximity to the impact on garment workers. Any one of these layers can generate strong reactions and lead to polarizing debates.
Fast fashion's impact on garment workers and the environment often leads to polarization because it raises questions about personal responsibility, ethical consumerism, and the industry's role in shaping our values and priorities. Some argue that it is the responsibility of individuals to make informed and ethical purchasing decisions and that choosing to support sustainable fashion brands is a way to promote better labor practices and reduce environmental harm. While others argue that fast fashion is merely a symptom of a larger systemic problem like globalization, capitalism, and consumerism and that collective action and systemic change (including government regulations and implementation of industry-wide standards) is far more effective than individual purchasing decisions.
The debate surrounding fast fashion can also become personal due to socioeconomic factors, such as access to information and the availability of size-accessible sustainable clothing options. Those who can afford more expensive, sustainably-produced clothing may feel that it is the responsibility of others to make similar choices. In contrast, while there are more affordable options out there, those who cannot afford to do so may feel that they are being unfairly criticized for their choices which are driven by their financial circumstances. Those who are unable to find sustainable fashion options in their size may feel as if they are being unfairly judged for failing to shop in accordance with their values when, in fact, it’s the industry that has failed to meet their needs.
Additionally, the emotional and societal factors that drive fast fashion consumption, such as the desire for self-expression and the pressure to conform to fashion trends, can also lead to defensive debate, as some may feel misunderstood or attacked when their choices are questioned.
Dr. Terrelonge points out, “For those who shop fast fashion, the items they acquire are extensions of themselves, they are the visible sins to the people they are…Shopping is fun and people like to feel good. Fast fashion allows people to do this with alarming ease and speed. Essentially, we as humans want to maximize positive emotions and minimize negative ones wherever where we can – this is to promote what we call Hedonic well-being. When fast fashion is pulled into the spotlight for negative reasons, it threatens the availability of feel-good experiences for those who shop fast fashion.”
Despite its polarizing nature, having conversations about fast fashion remains important because it can lead individuals and communities to work together to help shift societal attitudes and consumption habits towards more responsible and ethical practices, ultimately leading to positive change. How can we have more productive and inclusive discussions about fast fashion, taking into account our diverse backgrounds and perspectives, without investing our energy towards fruitless arguments or becoming close-minded?
The answer is in the nuance.
A History Lesson in Fast Fashion
The term “fast fashion,” which refers to inexpensive, poorly made clothing that mass-market retailers quickly produce in response to current trends, was coined in 1989 by the New York Times to describe Zara's quick turnaround time for new designs. However, the origins of fast fashion can be traced further back to the 1960s and 1970s when textile mills in developing countries began to open, leading to faster production and lower costs and relying on underpaid labor in outsourced supply chains.
The fast fashion business model, which emphasizes speed and efficiency at the expense of sustainability and ethics, has led to the proliferation of cheaply made and quickly outdated clothing items. The term “fast fashion” began to be widely used in the mid-2000s to describe this phenomenon.
While fast fashion has arguably made the benefits of self-expression and current fashion more accessible to a wider range of people across the economic spectrum, it has also contributed to overconsumption, overproduction, and throw-away culture, where clothing is viewed as disposable and easily replaced.
From an environmental standpoint, fast fashion is incredibly resource-intensive. The production of cheap clothing requires large amounts of water, energy, and raw materials. Additionally, fast fashion garments are often made from synthetic materials that do not biodegrade, leading to pollution, microplastics, and waste. The frequent disposal of these clothes contributes not only to textile waste but also to waste colonialism.
The impact of fast fashion also extends to society, particularly in the form of labor rights violations. Many fast fashion brands outsource production to countries with low labor costs, where workers are often paid unfairly low wages and work in unsafe conditions. Not only does this perpetuate social injustices, but it also enables a lack of accountability for fashion brands which are not held directly responsible for the conditions in the third-party factories where their products are made.
Despite being aware of fast fashion's detrimental effects on the environment, workers, and consumers, why do people still continue to buy and support this industry?
The answer is just as layered as the issues it causes.
The Attraction of Fast Fashion
Fast fashion appeals to consumers on an emotional, financial, and psychological level through its ability to tap into feelings of self-expression, social status, and instant gratification.
“Feeling is stronger than knowing,” Dr. Terrelonge reminds us, “We may know that fast fashion is detrimental to people and the planet, but the feelings of pleasure gained from finding, wearing, and owning a coveted item is stronger. Another reason is habit. For many people, shopping from fast fashion brands has become a habit that is continuously reinforced – meaning it is kept going and even strengthened - by both our immediate social environment and the wider environment of social media and advertising.”
Other factors that keep the industry alive and well despite widespread knowledge of its harmful effects:
Affordability is a major factor that drives consumers to choose fast fashion over sustainable options. While some brands offer more affordable sustainably-made items, fast fashion brands can produce garments at a much lower cost than sustainable fashion brands, allowing them to sell their products at a lower price. This helps make new outfits more accessible to a broader range of people, particularly budget-conscious shoppers.
Convenience and Accessibility:
Fast fashion is easily accessible in most retail stores and online, making it convenient for consumers to purchase. This can be a stark contrast to sustainable fashion options, which may be harder to find and require more effort to purchase. The convenience of fast fashion is further enhanced by the wide range of sizes and styles available, making it easier for consumers to find something that fits and meets their needs and preferences. However, the limited size options available from sustainable clothing manufacturers can make it difficult for people with non-standard body sizes to find clothing that fits them well. This ease of access and convenience makes fast fashion an attractive option for those who want to efficiently update their wardrobe without significant investment.
Trend-based consumption is a major driver of fast fashion. With the rapid pace at which new trends emerge, consumers are often eager to keep up with the latest styles. Fast fashion brands can respond quickly to these trends, offering new designs and styles at affordable prices, which can appeal to consumers who want to stay on-trend without breaking the bank. Additionally, the constant influx of new designs and styles can create a sense of excitement and anticipation among consumers, encouraging them to continue to buy fast fashion to stay current with the latest styles keeping the consumer engaged and motivated to continue shopping.
Social and cultural influences:
Social and cultural pressures play a significant role in driving consumers to purchase fast fashion garments. From societal expectations around fashion trends and brands to cultural and religious beliefs, these influences can make it difficult for individuals to resist the temptation of fast fashion. Social media platforms, like Instagram and TikTok, exacerbate this pressure by constantly showcasing the latest fashion trends, making it easy for consumers to feel like they need to keep up with the latest styles to fit in with their social circle or make a good impression.
Compared to luxury fashion, the affordability of fast fashion has made it accessible to a wider range of consumers. As a result, owning fast fashion clothing can be a symbol of keeping up with the latest trends and can even lead to the first impression of having the same status as someone who can afford luxury fashion. The desire to feel socially accepted and on-trend can drive consumers to seek out fast fashion as a way to express themselves and their personal style, and the constant influx of new styles and trends offered by fast fashion meets this desire almost effortlessly.
A report by Zalando in 2021 found a disconnect between consumers' intentions towards sustainability and their actions. The study revealed that while 72% of respondents stated that reducing food, plastic, and water waste is important, only 54% said the same about fashion. The report suggests that this disconnect may be due to people's relationship with fashion, as many feel that their self-confidence is closely tied to their clothing. Additionally, the trade-off between short-term and long-term benefits can make sustainable shopping difficult for some consumers. While 44% of participants believe that their sustainable choices in other areas of their lives compensate for less sustainable fashion choices, 56% are willing to make some sacrifices to be more sustainable but may not want to change their shopping habits completely.
The motivations for choosing fast fashion over sustainable clothing vary from person to person and typically have more than one root cause. For example, a person may be motivated by affordability but also influenced by fast fashion's convenience and size accessibility. Understanding the complexity of fast fashion consumption and the various motivations behind it is crucial in encouraging behavioral change and promoting sustainable fashion choices.
The Blame Game
While social and cultural influences play a significant role in driving consumers to purchase fast fashion, the conversation of fast fashion inevitably brings up feelings that the brands and companies producing fast fashion are solely culpable rather than placing the burden on individuals who purchase it. Many also believe that governments should regulate production rather than expect consumers to make ethical purchasing decisions. Some may argue that it is unfair to single out fast fashion consumers when the fashion industry as a whole contributes to negative environmental and social effects.
Others believe that individual consumption plays a foundational role in combating fast fashion and promoting sustainable consumption because it directly impacts demand for fast fashion products and drives the future production and purchasing decisions of the fashion industry. By making conscious choices to buy from more sustainable and ethical fashion brands, individuals can help reduce the flow of dollars into fast fashion and instead support positive change. Additionally, individual choices can also influence the attitudes and behaviors of friends, family, and communities, creating a ripple effect towards sustainable consumption practices. Ultimately, individual consumption choices have the power to drive systemic change within the fashion industry, promoting a more sustainable and ethical future.
Cognitive DissonanceThe reasons why people continue to shop fast fashion despite its negative impact on people and the environment are varied and complex. However, for many, this behavior creates a sense of cognitive dissonance, which is the mental discomfort experienced when holding conflicting beliefs or values.
In the case of fast fashion, this dissonance occurs when a person's beliefs about sustainability, ethics, and social responsibility clash with their actions of purchasing and wearing fast fashion clothing. The guilt and discomfort from this dissonance can result in a range of psychological responses, from denial and justification to a change in behavior.
The primary dilemma posed by fast fashion is its accessibility and affordability while being harmful to both people and the planet. This can lead to feelings of guilt, shame, and anxiety and elicit strong emotions in those aware of its negative effects. This internal conflict can cause discomfort and sensitivity to the topic, as they are faced with the difficult choice of acknowledging the harm they may be contributing to or continuing to partake in an unsustainable behavior. Additionally, being confronted with information or opinions that challenge their beliefs can also trigger a heightened emotional response.
The existence of cognitive dissonance concerning fast fashion underscores the complexity of the issue and the importance of having open and honest discussions about it rather than getting defensive or judgemental when brought up.
The Online Divide
Online conversations about fast fashion can be highly polarizing, partly due to the inability to fully gauge the tone and context behind comments. In digital spaces, the nuances of tone, body language, and facial expressions can be easily lost, leading to misunderstandings and misinterpretations. This can lead to a lack of empathy, making it challenging to have productive and respectful discussions. When we’re conversing in-person, we understand - or at least have the opportunity to find out - the background context of who we’re dialoguing with. When we’re posting or commenting online, we don’t really know who we’re talking to and, therefore, what is appropriate to focus on. Additionally, online conversations often lack the opportunity for follow-up questions, which can result in incomplete or inaccurate representations of someone's perspective. As a result, online conversations about fast fashion can quickly become heated and divisive, hindering the ability to have meaningful, inclusive discussions about complex and multifaceted issues.
While it may be uncomfortable to confront our own choices or the choices of others and the impact they have, it's important to remember that the goal is not to place blame or intentionally make anyone feel guilty but to educate, gain a greater understanding of the issues, and find ways to make better choices for the future that can lead to positive changes.
(This is one reason we’re so excited to gather in-person for the 2023 SFF conference and have these nuanced conversations together!)
Change starts with individual actions, but it is not just the responsibility of the individual to fix the broken fashion system or undo the decades of equities and environmental degradation caused by the industry. It takes a collective effort from all parts of the system to bring about meaningful change.
By fostering inclusive and empathetic conversations, we can address the multilayered challenges posed by fast fashion and create solutions that make sustainable fashion more accessible and affordable for everyone.
“We can try and make conversations constructive by staying open, empathetic, and being curious. Ask others for their opinions on sustainable fashion. Find out what they have tried, would try, and what have been barriers to them engaging more with sustainable fashion rather than fast. Be curious, not convincing, as this allows others to feel heard rather than judged and allows them to stay open rather than defensively shutting down.