Niha Elety developed her love for sustainable fashion when she moved to Hyderabad, India at the age of 11.
“The production of textiles was inherently sustainable — especially when we could build relationships with local artisans, block printers, local tailors, which is something that a lot of consumers are aware of, and participate in,” says Elety, a 24-year-old South Asian sustainability blogger and fashion designer who currently resides in Dallas, Texas.
“Growing up [in the U.S.], I just thought clothing was made by machines, I didn't know there were people behind the clothes. And I wasn't super aware of the process.”
Sustainable fashion has been making waves lately on TikTok and other social media platforms with viral thrift haul videos. The hashtag #ThriftTok has 1.2 billion views worth of posts, while the general topic of #thrifting has reached over 4.2 billion views, according to the Toronto Star. The secondhand apparel market is expected to grow 127% by 2026, according to a recent report from thredUP, an online consignment and thrift store. Gen Z and millennials make up a major proportion of these shoppers — and 62% say they look for an item secondhand before purchasing it new.
That said, the fast fashion industry is still going strong, and its primary demographic is made up of young women trying to stay in style without breaking the bank.
With prices rising, it's taking both creativity and determination to strike a fitting balance between sustainability, affordability and style.
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Fast fashion is cheap — but comes with consequences
From big brands such as H&M and Zara, to celebrity-endorsed e-retailers like Shein and Fashion Nova, the global fast fashion industry is projected to grow 8.8% this year, according to a report from market research firm Research and Markets.
Half of fast fashion shoppers believe that fast fashion is harmful to the environment, but they seem to be primarily motivated by its affordability and convenience, says thredUP.
“The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” says consumer behavior expert Michael Solomon. “People are more affected by the pocketbook than they are by their ideals.”
The push to constantly switch up your wardrobe and post a quick selfie of your outfit on Instagram can also pose a problem. One-in-five fast fashion shoppers say they feel pressured to have the latest styles due to social media.
However, “buying a $5 dress isn’t a victimless crime,” notes Aja Barber, U.K.-based stylist and consultant and author of the book Consumed — which tackles colonialism, climate change and consumerism.
“The fast fashion industry runs on a bubble of exploitation because if the clothing were priced in a fair way, with fair wages in our 2022 world, the clothing would be a lot more expensive.”
Fast fashion can be a race and feminist issue since most garment workers tend to be impoverished women of color, Barber says.
It also worsens the climate crisis. The fashion industry as a whole accounts for up to 10% of the global carbon dioxide output and 20% of global wastewater.
Fast fashion relies heavily on polyester (a synthetic material made from plastic), since it’s both inexpensive and versatile. Just doing the laundry releases half a million tonnes of plastic microfibers into the ocean every year.
“Because we're all buying so much clothing, or donating so much clothing … it's an ecological disaster in the parts of the world where our clothing ends up,” Barber explains.
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How can you determine what’s really sustainable?
Solomon believes businesses are facing more pressure to offer and promote sustainable clothing. However, as more and more brands face accusations of “greenwashing”, it can be difficult to determine what’s really ethically sourced from what’s not.
You can get started by checking whether the company comes with certifications — like B-corp brands, which demonstrate transparency and high standards of social and environmental performance.
Just ask the companies upfront, advises Barber. She says even if you’re unsure about the sustainability credentials, you can look into whether these companies have guaranteed they’re paying their employees fair wages and how much clothing they produce annually.
“Right now, the fashion industry pumps out 150 billion garments a year, the human population is only 7.9 billion. And 50% of our planet cannot afford to participate in this system.”
Elety typically looks for items made with natural materials or designed by artists, or “slow fashion” — which prioritizes quality over efficiency and ensures that the production process respects both the people behind the clothes and the environment.
Solomon recommends that vintage stores — which typically offer curated and sometimes rare and pricey items — provide as much information about their clothing as possible.
“I call it brand genealogy,” he says. “People want to know the history of how that thing was made, and of course, the conditions under which it was made and so on.”
What other options do shoppers have?
“Realize your privilege,” says Barber. “When the average shopper buys 68 items of clothing a year, that is a lot of non-essential buying that's happening.”
She suggests shoppers who are willing to spend that much money on inexpensive clothing can opt to purchase fewer items from an ethically sourced brand for the same cost.
“Going cold turkey is really hard, because systems of consumerism indoctrinate us from a very young age,” says Barber, who advises that people start by just re-wearing the clothes they already own.
Elety agrees, explaining that it’s important for her to be intentional with what she purchases. “If I really do need to buy something new, I go thrift first because buying secondhand is making sure that a garment has a new life as well as it being affordable.”
However, she adds that shoppers who do massive thrift hauls may also be contributing to the issue of buying more than what you need. And there can be other drawbacks as well — thrift stores are increasingly carrying lower-quality fast fashion items and charging more for their older but higher-quality clothing.
Online platforms like Depop can make it easy and affordable to purchase and sell second hand as well. ThredUP projects 50% of total secondhand dollars will come from online resale by 2024.
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