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Fast fashion is taking over: It's time for us consumers to choose sustainability

Popular fashion retailer H&M is one of many "fast-fashion" brands that use unsustainable and environmentally harmful practices to fuel its lucrative business. – Photo by Nissy-KITAQ / Wikimedia.org

The world of fashion is well-known for its layers of elitism and questionable ethics. Big corporations carry the torch for ill-fated initiatives and irreversible damage to the Earth via pollution and carbon emissions.

In between are brands who attempt to maintain a positive image despite the harm they cause and brands who push through the negative press to maintain their agenda and profit margins. Meanwhile, many small businesses on Instagram don't have the capital or resources to keep up with the industry heavyweights in the fashion world, and it's an ever-increasing competition to stay in business and compete against different retail and chain stores. 

Fast fashion started to become popular in the late 1990s as companies like ZARA and H&M began to leverage shorter design-manufacturing-distribution cycles. They kept up with the ever-changing demand of fashion while keeping their clothes cheap and fashionable.

What was once a six month process had now been shortened to two to three weeks, and this updated business model allowed stores like ZARA to offer a variety of clothes that changed every week. This perceived variety increased their reputation among consumers and led ZARA and H&M to become household names in America. 

Throughout the 2010s the Ultra-Fast Fashion business model utilized the internet and focused on the online shopping experience to gather information on what’s trending at all times. Additionally, this online presence allowed a continuous feedback loop between users and manufacturers, which reduces logistics costs and improves the relationship between corporation and consumer.

It invests heavily in logistics to distribute their clothes as quickly as possible without needing to operate physical stores. This allows companies to reap most of their profits without having to reinvest in physical locations. 

Industry e-commerce heavyweight SHEIN is the latest example of this business model coming to life. Their popularity has exploded since 2018, and TikToks highlighting their variety and price expanded their reach and marketing power. 

SHEIN also implements digital marketing channels into its business model, which makes it easier to market to consumers. Most companies spend a majority of their budget on marketing, but SHEIN's social media presence and brand loyalty means most of their advertising is done for them via TikTok and social media posts.

Fast fashion companies like SHEIN contribute to 10 percent of the world’s global carbon emissions. It’s also the second largest source of pollution behind the oil industry. These companies produce 150 billion clothing items each year, and most people throw their clothes away after a few uses due to their cheap cost. These thrown out clothes end up in landfills, and microfibers in the clothes end up in the ocean which increases toxic waste. 

In order to keep up with the never-ending demand of fast fashion, most companies exploit overseas workers to maximize profits. Shifting American infrastructure overseas allows companies to avoid American taxes and child labor laws, and most of these workers live in dangerous working conditions with no benefits and low pay. 

In comparison to corporations who focus on efficiency and profits, smaller businesses focus on a unique aesthetic and handmade products. Instagram-based businesses like @jewelzbymealz make upcycled secondhand jewelry, which transforms waste materials into unique and usable jewelry.

Her work uses tiny glass crystals, circular beads and freshwater pearls to create a unique assortment of bracelets and earrings. Similarly, Los Angeles based clothing brand @haveyoudiedbefore creates clothes from recycled fibers and uses iconic pop culture imagery in its pieces.

Handmade products have a much more personal feel to them, and while by definition they are more time-consuming, they feel much more human than shopping at the mall or dedicating yourself to a brand. 

There are countless other small businesses we can shop from, but ultimately, the decision between convenience and sustainability is one that us as consumers have to make. By buying from local and homemade stores, we can decrease our carbon footprint and support people instead of a brand.

Corporations only respond when their profits are affected, and if enough people refuse to buy from department stores and other fast-fashion brands, it proves that our demands for change can be met with decisive action.


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