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FAST FASHION: What it is, how it hurts, how you can help

In the not-too-distant past, shopping for clothes happened around the changing seasons, special events, or when our sizing needs changed.

As the world “got smaller” with advances in technology and transportation, clothes got cheaper, trends became more top-of-mind for consumers, and shopping became more like a hobby - or “retail therapy” - than it had in previous decades. The global supply chain and online shopping have made cheap, new clothes more available than ever.

Wearing something a few times, then tossing it aside used to be something only well-off people could afford to do. But when brands started producing clothing lines within a supply chain that used cheap labor and didn’t consider the allocation of resources it took to make these clothes, it translated into accessibility to trendy fashion trends for just about anyone.

There used to be four annual fashion cycles, and how there are 50 or more. This translates into 100 billion pieces of clothing being produced, half of which are disposed of, with most of those worn only seven times.

What’s known as “fast fashion” is cheap, trendy clothing that takes ideas from designers or popular culture and quickly turns them into mass-produced clothes. The idea is to get the latest trends into the market place while they are still popular, and before the next “big thing” comes along and repeats the same cycle.

It supports the idea that if you want to be “relevant,” you have to be on top of every new trend, and should quickly discard “yesterday’s look.” And modern production practices make it relatively inexpensive.

But at what cost?

The cycle of overproduction and consumption mirrors the societal changes that have come along with advances in technology. Prior to the 1800s, clothes were made from materials that weren’t always easy to source or prepare for production. Wool had to be shorn from sheep, cotton that had to be grown, leather had to be sourced from animal skins. Then there was all the drying, weaving, and waiting until clothes could actually be produced. So when a piece of clothing was made, it took a long time, and it was made to last so it didn’t need to be replaced right away with such laborious methods.

With the industrial revolution, clothes were easier, less expensive, and quicker to make. That’s when the concept of sweatshops emerged, usually staffed by young - and often immigrant - women who worked long hours for little pay in extremely difficult working conditions to feed the emerging middle-class’ demand for clothing.

In the 60s and 70s, clothes became a way for young people to break out of the staid traditions of their parents’ generation. What you wore was an expression of who you were. But there was still a marked difference in what you saw on the runway and what you saw on the street.

When online shopping became available in the late 1990s and early 2000s, fashion retailers started incorporating catwalk looks into cheaply and quickly produced clothes that made new trends available immediately to the masses. And the masses love it.
Fast fashion brands offer countless styles on point with the latest trends, very short turnaround times from the first look of a celebrity on social media until it’s available for purchase, and cheap offshore labor from countries where workers’ rights and safety are not considerations. Throw in access to global supply chains, and cheap low-quality materials that create clothes that don’t hold up for long, and we end up with an ever-growing heap of low-quality clothing with a very short life.

Not only are we filling landfills with clothes that are thrown away after minimal use, but fast fashion production practices are polluting the planet in ways not seen in prior generations. Cheap - and toxic - textile dyes have made the fashion industry one of the worst water polluters on the planet.

Polyester is a popular fabric for fast fashion. Since it’s produced from fossil fuels, it contributes to climate change, and the microfibers it sheds add to plastic in our oceans when washed or worn. Using natural fibers doesn’t do much to mitigate the environmental effect of fast fashion. Cotton processing in countries like China and India requires huge amounts of water and pesticides, contributing to the risk of drought and competition for resources between citizens and global companies.

There’s a toll on people too, that can’t be ignored.

Garment workers in the fast fashion industry work for little pay in dangerous environments with little regard for their safety or even basic human rights.

One way to adopt a personal response to fast fashion and the harm it causes is to participate in the cycle of thrifting.

By donating clothes rather than throwing them away, you can directly increase employment opportunities among people who are often marginalized, support charitable mission services, limit waste, and extend the lifecycle of clothes by keeping them in service and out of the landfill.

Thrifting is a win-win-win for the donor, the shopper, the mission, and the planet. Thank you for supporting Goodwill of Southern Mississippi with your material donations and your retail purchases. Together we can all make a difference in our communities and beyond.

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