What cheap clothing really costs

Ava Fojtik, Contributor

Flip through any college student’s wardrobe and you’re sure to find plenty of H&M, Forever 21 or Zara. It makes sense; these types of retailers make cute clothing cheap. What many people don’t know is that buying from these brands isn’t just a harmless way to spend a weekend; fast fashion is detrimental to both the environment and to people across the globe.

Fast fashion consists of clothing retailers that produce massive quantities of trendy clothing quickly. These garments, due to their low cost, are made of the cheapest possible materials and in the cheapest possible way. These corporations rely on creating short-lived trend cycles, making consumers feel as if their current wardrobe is irrelevant and that they need to continually purchase more and more new clothing. This keeps the destructive cycle going.

Because fast-fashion retailers rely on producing clothing as cheaply as possible, they outsource their production to countries like Bangladesh, India and China, paying workers incredibly little to work in their factories for long hours and under harsh conditions. These employees, 85% of which are women, are put at risk as a result of the poorly managed factories they work in.

For example, in 2013, a clothing factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing over a thousand workers. These workers had noticed cracks in their building the day prior but were told to show up to work anyway. Even just this year, a Cambodian manufacturing facility for Nike and Adidas exposed its workers to potentially lethal fuel fumes, leading to the hospitalization of more than 125 people. While some corporations do try to promote higher safety standards in their factories, these goals simply aren’t stressed enough, and people’s lives are lost because of it.

The fashion industry is the second largest polluter in the world. The entire clothing production process requires an extensive amount of resources: 1.5 trillion liters of water, 70 million oil barrels and 10% of the world’s global gas emissions per year, to be exact. Synthetic fabrics like polyester and acrylic are made from fossil fuel which requires more energy to produce. The countries that corporations outsource their low-level work to are all reliant on coal, which creates one of the worst types of carbon emissions. What’s most absurd about these facts is how unnecessary the whole clothing production process is; the U.S. alone produces 15 million tons of textile waste per year, largely from discarded clothing.

Unethical clothing consumption is a massive issue. As long as the U.S. remains in the materialistic (and ethics-abandoning) sphere, it will likely still happen. However, there is power both in knowledge and in adopting a more critical attitude when it comes to shopping for clothes.

Firstly, get informed. “The True Cost,” a documentary available on Netflix, is a great place to start, expanding on many of the ideas in this article.

Next, research clothing stores that you frequent. Pay special attention to any news articles regarding their factory practices. When looking at a retailer’s website directly, if they are not entirely upfront about having both ethical treatment of all workers and sustainable factory practices, they are likely fast fashion.

Fortunately, there are cheap and accessible alternatives to shopping at unethical retailers. The simplest of these is to shop secondhand. Whether at a rummage sale, local thrift store or vintage shop, fashion lovers will be able to find quality, one-of-a-kind clothing without giving their money to a destructive corporation. There are also apps such as Depop or Poshmark designed to help users buy and sell used clothing. These in particular make ethical clothing consumption easier for online shopping addicts or those who are on the hunt for a particular item or brand.

Any kind of ethical consumption is a challenge. But when one takes a thoughtful look at fast fashion’s global impact, they’ll find that skipping the mall pays off.

This article was originally published in the Dec. 07, 2018 issue.