Is it Okay to Buy Fast Fashion?

October 30, 2021

Pinterest pin that reads "is it okay to buy fast fashion?" against a photo of a shelf with many stacks of colorful pants

I’m sick of sustainable fashion advocates who shame people for buying fast fashion. There are legitimate reasons that fast fashion can be tough to avoid, and even if you can’t “excuse” those situations, blaming individual consumers isn’t going to change these unethical systems. 

As a sustainable fashion blogger, here’s why I think buying fast fashion can be acceptable in some cases, and here’s what we can do to advocate for ethical fashion in an inclusive way. 

Don’t Get Me Wrong, Buying Fast Fashion is Not Good

This post is about understanding the reasons someone might need to buy fast fashion, but I want to make it clear that I’m not defending the industry or encouraging fast fashion consumption.

Some people will make these twisted arguments that you’re doing a good deed when shopping fast fashion, as the industry creates jobs, often in poorer countries. They claim that supporting conscious consumption and brands will hurt garment workers, but that’s a sustainable fashion myth.

While fast fashion jobs might be better than other options in the area, that doesn’t mean they’re good jobs. Garment workers frequently experience wage theft and work long hours in poor conditions. At the start of the pandemic, many brands refused to pay for billions of dollars worth of orders, some of which had already been made and shipped. As a result, garment workers lost their already-meager wages, and 75% of them went into debt just to buy food. After all this time and pressure from the public, several brands still haven’t paid.

The garment industry is also no stranger to tragedy, like the notorious 2013 Rana Plaza Disaster, where a factory building in Bangladesh collapsed, killing 1100 people and injuring thousands more. The worst part is that cracks had been discovered in the building the day before, and garment factory owners had ignored the calls to close the factories. In early 2021, a 20-year-old woman named Jeyasre Kathiravel was murdered after suffering months of sexual harassment at an H&M supplier factory. Many major brands are also implicated with slave labor.

The fast fashion industry doesn’t uphold human dignity. Buying fast fashion will not improve the lives of workers. The companies have the money and power to pay living wages already; they just don’t. 

Giving mutual aid is a good deed. Buying a $10 top made by an exploited garment worker is not. 

But, It Can Be Hard to Avoid Fast Fashion Completely

Fast fashion is horrible for people and the planet, but unfortunately, it’s not always realistic to avoid.

Sure, there are a lot of alternatives to fast fashion, some of which are more affordable or even free. Some examples are:

  • Rewearing what you already own
  • Thrifting in-person or online
  • Swapping
  • Mending or going to a tailor
  • Shopping flea markets or garage sales
  • Buying from sustainable brands

I use these alternatives myself, but I know they don’t work for everyone. Thrifting might not work for someone because they’re plus size or not able-bodied. Sustainable brands might not work because they’re too expensive. Someone might have to work day and night to scrape by, so they don’t have the time to go searching for clothes in several shops and online platforms. 

Real-Life Examples of Needing to Buy Fast Fashion

Now, those scenarios are pretty general. There are, in fact, cases where someone might face barriers and still be able to avoid fast fashion, so it can be difficult to understand how someone might “need” to buy from unethical companies. So, let me share some real-life examples where fast fashion was one of my best options, or someone else’s best option (feel free to share your own in the comments).

Example 1: A couple years ago, I needed a pair of softshell pants for a hiking trip. I looked in two thrift stores for them, and couldn’t find any. I also checked REI, but everything was so expensive. I ended up ordering some on Amazon because I didn’t have any more time before the trip. That wasn’t ideal at all, but I did the best I could, and I knew I’d be able to wear the pants for a long time. These days, I might try borrowing from a Buy Nothing group instead, but it wasn’t an option I was aware of back then. 

Example 2: I am extremely picky about my winter socks, as I need a specific mini crew length and fabric composition. I’ve been wearing the same brand and style for over 10 years now, and every time I’ve tried another style, I’ve hated it. This is the remaining clothing item that I still buy from an unsustainable brand. 

Example 3: A friend of mine needs a pair of sandals, as the used ones I’d found for free broke on him, and the ones he bought over the summer make his feet sweaty. I’ve owned a pair of Nike slides for 10+ years now, and they’re still in great condition. Because he knows they work well, and they’re in his limited budget as a grad student, he plans to get those. He could buy used, but there’s the potential issue of knockoffs, and they cost basically the same. 

Example 4: Indigenous water protectors were protesting Line 3 this past summer, and they needed to buy supplies for their camp. They were criticized on TikTok for shopping at Walmart for food, diapers, and underwear. Sure, Walmart is a bad corporation, but the water protectors were working with limited time and money. And when you’re thinking about the overall impact, it’s much more productive to spend your time protesting an oil pipeline than trying to buy all the supplies from ethical stores.

Life puts us in these ethical dilemmas because of unfair systems. Is it fair that the most convenient options are often unethical? Is it fair that the US federal minimum wage hasn’t risen since 2009? Is it fair that individuals need to protest an oil pipeline that threatens Indigenous treaty lands? Is it fair that plus sizes aren’t well-represented in the fashion industry even though the average US woman is size 16-18? Is it fair that thrift store prices are rising and are sometimes more expensive than the original retail price?

Of course, some of these aren’t issues of unfairness, but simply a matter of finding something that works without hours and hours of looking, or lots of trial and error (which leads to more consumption overall). 

I’m often asked what exactly it means to buy fast fashion out of “necessity,” but everyone’s situation is different. The above scenarios seem pretty reasonable to me. On the other hand, buying all the latest trends probably isn’t a necessity. 

I’m not an almighty moral judge or anything, so I can’t say whether or not it’s “okay” to shop fast fashion. Ultimately, it’s about doing the best you can with the limitations you have. And if fast fashion happens to be your best option, you can limit its impact by only getting what you truly need or love, and making it last as long as possible (check out my sustainable clothing care tips!). You can also write to brands to demand that they protect garment workers, stop overproduction, and use more sustainable materials. You are not responsible for these exploitative systems as an individual, but you can use your voice to help change them.

So, We Should Avoid Shaming People Trying Their Best

Fast fashion does harm people in very serious ways, so it can feel wrong to “excuse” any fast fashion purchases. But, even if you can’t see those ethical concessions as legitimate, it’s still ineffective to shame others for buying fast fashion, and here’s why.

1. Necessity shoppers do not build billionaires.

Major fast fashion companies make billions of dollars in revenue each year. For example, Zara’s revenue in the first half of 2021 was 11.94 billion euros. People shopping out of necessity, especially poor people, simply don’t have the wealth combined to create that revenue. As ethical fashion writer Aja Barber has said: “I’m tired of people pretending like working poor and working class (who make up 4% of the wealth in America) have the means to create ALL THESE BILLIONAIRES.”

These systems thrive on overconsumption, which is I don’t blame folks getting a few fast fashion pieces per year. Those people are not actively supporting or promoting fast fashion; they’re just trying to get by. In general, poor people are already making more ethical and sustainable choices because they have financial constraints and have to consume less.

On the flip side, people making massive fashion haul videos are glamorizing overconsumption and fast fashion brands, which has an exponential reach on social media. That’s why I choose to draw awareness to haul culture instead.

2. Shaming people doesn’t change the company’s unethical practices (and is counterproductive).

If the goal is to change fast fashion’s unethical practices, shaming individuals isn’t going to get us there. In fact, it makes the movement look unforgiving, classist, ableist, and fatphobic. 

It’s also pretty ironic. Do you really care about human rights and dignity if you’re going to verbally abuse often-marginalized folks on the internet? In my Instagram comments, I’ve seen “sustainable fashion advocates” tell folks to just lose weight and stop being a “glutton” so they can stop buying fast fashion. It was extremely disgusting, and I removed those comments and blocked that person immediately.

Ultimately, this type of behavior pushes people away from sustainable fashion and makes it harder to fight for reforms. 

If you want to eliminate child labor, forced labor, wage theft, and unsafe working conditions, campaign for that directly. Raise awareness about the #PayUp movement and the International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry. Write to brands to convince them to support these legally-binding commitments. 

If you want to help individuals avoid fast fashion, provide resources for them. Compile a list of alternatives, teach people to mend, show options for restyling or upcycling pieces, host a clothing swap, ask sustainable brands to expand their size range and make adaptive options. It’s not right to criticize people shopping fast fashion out of necessity without doing your part to make sustainable fashion more accessible.

3. Shaming people for trying their best is hypocritical. 

It’s impossible to live 100% ethically in the modern world. Everything from the food we eat to the jobs we have are likely unethical in some way. (Just think of the show The Good Place and how buying a tomato leads to negative “ethical” points because it was grown with pesticides and exploited labor. Sure, you could buy a different tomato, but imagine going down rabbit holes with every single one of our choices; that’s no way to live).

This doesn’t mean we should go and do tons of fast fashion hauls because “there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism.” Not every choice is equally ethical, and the goal is to do what we realistically can.

As I mentioned though, there are cases where buying fast fashion might be the best someone can do. And there are cases where you will have to make ethical concessions in your life as well. Rather than blaming each other, which is hypocritical, it’s more effective to work together to change these unethical systems.


 

This is obviously a very nuanced ethical dilemma, and I wish we lived in a world where things weren’t so complicated.

But until then, I always try to think of the bigger picture when it comes to sustainable fashion. If we can be more understanding and get more people to back the movement, the more likely we are to make meaningful change.

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About Me

I'm Lily, and I run races and go places (& blog about it). I also try to advocate for the planet & its people.
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