Fast Fashion: the consumerist crisis with an undercurrent of classism

By now, anyone on social media has most likely seen a slurry of posts denouncing ‘fast fashion’ for its detrimental effects on the environment. ‘Fast fashion’ is cheap, mass-produced clothing that typically imitates the high-fashion trends of the season. Online stores like ASOS and SHEIN, as well as physical stores such as Primark, Zara, and H&M are being denounced for churning out new clothing to match current trends, which is then worn just once or twice before being thrown out in favour of the next trend cycle. Not only does this system have a negative impact on the environment by increasing the amount of clothing waste in landfills, but it also relies on slave labour in sweatshops in order to meet the demand for new styles. Fast fashion is undoubtedly becoming a major problem; most of us have probably seen huge hauls and unboxing of orders from these stores on Instagram and TikTok, but should we really be condemning the consumer for buying into fast fashion industry?

should we really be condemning the consumer for buying into fast fashion industry?

For many, clothes from these fast fashion stores are all that they can afford. It’s easy to tout the ‘sustainable shopping’ rhetoric when you have enough disposable income to afford it. The large queues outside of Primark after the end of lockdown were met with condemnation – ‘are you really that desperate for a pack of £3 thongs?’ Yet for many parents, whose children would have grown over the months of lockdown, Primark offers clothing that is more affordable than anywhere else. For those of us with (admittedly excessive) clothing collections, queueing for hours for a cheap t-shirt is unnecessary, but cheap fast fashion stores are the only option for many.

cheap fast fashion stores are the only option for many.

So, what about charity shops and second-hand stores? Traditionally an extremely cheap place for buying new clothes, the rise of online shopping is posing a challenge to these more sustainable options as well. Reselling sites such as Depop and Vinted are currently seeing a renaissance, leading many to find clothes in charity shops and sell them online at a marked-up price. ‘Upcycling’ also plays into this issue, as larger clothing sizes are being bought from charity shops, altered into smaller sized outfits, and then also sold online for a highly inflated price. As the gentrification of the charity shop removes a sustainable and affordable option for clothing, cheaper fast fashion stores become even more important for those on lower incomes.

In a time where saving the environment is more important than ever, it is difficult to say that fast fashion is necessarily good, but to outright condemn stores that are offering cheap clothing is equally difficult. We should always aim to buy from sustainable sources, but when so many of these sources are so expensive it is not always easy to do so. For many of us, the clothes we buy from ASOS or Zara will be worn for years to come – the problem of ‘fast fashion’ lies with the small minority who will only wear a trend once or twice before moving onto the next one. Seeing celebrities and ‘influencers’ criticising fast fashion companies is reminiscent of oil companies condemning us for using plastic straws whilst pouring gallons of oil into the ocean, or seeing Boris Johnson attend COP26 on a private jet. We should all certainly try to be mindful in our consumption of fast fashion, but no one should have to feel guilty for buying a £10 jumper from ASOS rather than a £1500 ‘sustainable’ coat from Stella McCartney.