Sustainable fashion on a college student budget

Illustration of a trendy dress on a fast fashion website, with consequences like exploitation and pollution listed in the price
Jason Yen/Staff

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The nature of fashion has changed for the worse in recent years. Today, fashion is cheaper and more responsive to the latest trends than ever before. A seemingly constant stream of brands turning out new styles at rock bottom prices is delivered directly to your email inbox. However, the affordability of these trendy brands comes at a different cost – environmental damage and poor working conditions for countless workers in impoverished nations. 

Traditionally, the fashion industry has operated on four annual seasons. However, in recent decades, companies roll out new styles in instant response to the latest trends. Fast fashion as we know it was pioneered by international fashion retailer Zara, which gained popularity for its fast production as early as the 1990s. As retailers expanded online during the dot-com bubble of the early 2000s, society glossed over the consequences of these convenient prices. Today, shopping at fast fashion retailers such as Zara, H&M, Forever 21, Fashion Nova or SHEIN is a common pastime. These companies pump out a massive supply of garments and market to your fear of missing out on the latest trends.

Unfortunately, our overflowing closets have a hidden but catastrophic environmental impact. As of 2019, apparel companies produced 53 million tons of clothes annually — a number that will reach 160 million tons by 2050 at the current rate. The fashion industry accounts for 10% of all industrial water usage and is responsible for approximately 20% of worldwide wastewater, which is tainted with toxic dyes that poison ocean life. Additionally, 35% of all microplastics result from microfibers released from cheap synthetic fabrics used in fast fashion. In total, fashion produces a mind-boggling 1.7 billion tons of carbon dioxide annually — more than international flights and shipping. At every step of the process, from production to use to disposal, fast fashion is one of the chief contributors to climate change and environmental degradation.

There are also major humanitarian concerns surrounding fast fashion, especially with regards to international workers. Workers at any given facility are surrounded by chemicals that can cause severe illness, stomach issues and limb numbness. For example, a study of three Swedish tannery industries noted a 50% increase in pancreatic cancer associated with the presence of toxins such as formaldehyde. Beyond the biohazards that these workers deal with on a daily basis, the very structures they work in can be a risk to their livelihoods. In 2013, the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh collapsed, killing more than a thousand workers. This is only one of many tragedies and serves as a clear indicator that the consumption of fast fashion warrants deeper consideration, as it contributes to life-or-death scenarios. 

The first step toward sustainability is rejecting the narrative peddled by fashion companies that more is always better. For example, Fashion Nova releases up to 900 items weekly and posts about 20 to 30 times on Instagram daily, constantly inundating its customers with new styles to buy. Lowering consumption, however, is not only feasible but better for your wallet and the environment. There are several ways in which we can combat the unsustainable nature of the fashion industry. 

First, you can alter consumption patterns. When considering whether or not to buy a garment, think about whether you truly need it and whether you can see yourself wearing it for a long time. Additionally, you can shop secondhand, which has a much lower environmental impact. Used items are often cheaper, so you don’t have to forgo affordability for sustainability. Alternatively, you can set up a clothing swap with friends — an item you don’t wear anymore may be just what someone else wants, so everyone benefits at no cost!

Third, support sustainable brands to convey demand for socially responsible fashion. Sustainable garments are also higher quality and longer-lasting, making them a good long-term investment. Importantly, though, be wary of greenwashing, which is when brands misleadingly market their products as sustainable. For instance, H&M has been accused of greenwashing due to a lack of transparency regarding its Conscious collection and clothes recycling program, which it uses as evidence of its “sustainability.” If a brand lacks transparency or evidence to back up their claims about their sustainability initiatives, they’re likely greenwashing. You can also utilize apps such as Good On You that rate brand sustainability and ethics.

Finally, if you do buy new clothing from fast fashion brands, always examine clothing labels. The composition of the fabric can indicate a lot about an item’s sustainability. Fabrics such as 100% cotton tend to be much higher quality and more sustainable than their highly synthetic, lab-made counterparts.

While fast fashion may be affordable at first glance, it carries a large hidden cost in the long run, both for ourselves and our planet. This is exactly why EthiCAL Apparel was founded in 2010. By collectively becoming more cognizant of sustainable and affordable clothing — and supporting social good initiatives — we can all use our power as consumers to reshape fashion for the better.

Smera Patil and Vivian Kuang are vice presidents of social good at EthiCAL Apparel. To learn more about sustainable fashion, this semester’s Empowering Youth Leaders theme and shop at EthiCAL while donating to local organizations, visit their website (