How the low price of fast-fashion items can have high costs on the environment and shoppers’ wallets

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Fast fashion refers to low-priced clothing that is quickly produced and sold by large retailers. (Photo: Adobe Stock)

A new study comparing fast- and pre-loved fashion highlights how the industry’s environmental impact also belies a size inclusivity problem.

A recent report conducted by Vestiaire Collective, a platform for pre-owned luxury fashion, claims that fast fashion can have devastating environmental and financial consequences for shoppers. Introducing a new cost-per-wear metric, Vestiaire’s study evaluates an item’s worth based on its total lifespan, resale value, and how frequently it is used. Conducted in collaboration with Vaayu, a software helping retailers track their environmental impact, the new study is designed “for people to understand the true cost of fashion and the true bad cost of fast fashion.”

The term fast fashion refers to low-priced clothing that is quickly produced and sold by large retailers. Businesses like Shein, Fashion Nova and Zara follow this retail business model, which optimizes and capitalizes on quickly giving shoppers access to the latest fashion trends with a price tag that is often pennies on the dollar of luxury retail price-points. However, though those prices appear to be “affordable” compared to high-end fashion items, amidst ongoing inflation, Vestiaire’s study urges consumers to rethink their shopping habits.

“In today’s climate of inflation, it is obvious: Neither people nor the planet can afford fast fashion,” Fanny Moizant, president and co-founder of Vestiaire Collective, told Women’s Wear Daily. “We want to educate consumers about the benefits of circularity while sounding the alarm on fast fashion’s devastating impact. This report is a wake-up call to combat overconsumption and overspending, fueled by tempting low initial prices.”

Despite becoming a leading mode of consumption, the study found that, due to a lower lifespan and frequency of use, fast fashion has a higher cost-per-wear. According to the study, pre-owned high-fashion items, from purses to dresses, offer 33% lower cost-per-wear compared to fast-fashion items, which are reportedly worn less frequently and for lower duration.

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“Affordable, fast fashion is a false economy. Buying cheap fast fashion is deceptive as, in the end, you end up replacing items again and again,” Dounia Wone, chief impact officer of Vestiaire Collective, added.

The environmental impact of fast-fashion products is no secret. Using detrimental amounts of water, materials, chemicals and energy to produce, multiple studies and reports have shined a light on the hidden costs of these trendy mass-produced items. So much so that more shoppers are embracing conscious consumer habits. According to the Conscious Consumer Spending Index’s 2023 study, 71% of consumers shopped with socially responsible brands, and 66% felt it was important to buy from these types of brands and companies.

In an effort to combat fast fashion’s impacts on climate change, which disproportionately impacts Black people, many consumers have adopted more sustainable shopping habits by opting to buy pre-loved items. From thrift stores to online platforms like Vestiaire Collective, ThreadUp and eBay, buying vintage or pre-owned items has become a growing trend. However, though pre-owned item shopping is more sustainable, it is not always accessible, as fashion editor Shelton Boyd-Griffith shared on X, formerly known as Twitter.

“While I agree with these conversations around fast fashion… I just feel like discussing the harms of fast fashion/pushing for people to buy vintage without discussing fat folx & the inclusivity of sizing offered at fast fashion retailers is just a bit disingenuous,” Boyd-Griffith wrote in a thread. “Yes, we must do something to offset the textile waste/production, but also let’s have the convo about where…this [leaves] plus size bodies? Where are we supposed to shop? ASOS, H&M, Boohoo, etc. may not be ethically sustainable, but they do offer extended sizes to the masses.”

The fashion industry has had a long history of fatphobia. From retail racks to the runways, size inclusion and extensive style options for plus-sized bodies have been and continue to be a struggle for consumers shopping most brands. Despite 67% of women in the U.S. being considered plus-sized because they wear a size 14 or higher in clothing, many high-end retailers don’t make clothes larger than a size 12, per Statista.

“Plus-size people, regardless of whether we’re talking about ethical fashion or fast fashion, have really only been able to buy pieces in their size with any level of trendiness — and even that feels tenuous as a plus-sized person — in the last few years,” Marielle Elizabeth, an expert specializing in ethical plus-size fashion told Refinery29.

Given the fairly recent spike in more inclusive sizing, shopping at thrift stores and consignment shops, whether in-person or online, is not always feasible for most body types.

“Vintage clothes back then surely weren’t designed for our bodies, and there aren’t nearly enough designer brands making inclusive sizes today, so what then? Let’s have that convo,” Boyd-Griffith added.

Just as Vestiaire Collective hopes its study will encourage consumers to think about the potential financial and environmental impacts when shopping, its findings also reflect a climate in which lack of accessibility forces the hands of many shoppers. In short, sustainability is directly correlated to inclusivity, and retailers and designers should consider creating more sustainable plus-size options so everyone has the option to be a conscious consumer.

Haniyah Philogene is a multimedia storyteller and Lifestyle writer for theGrio covering all things culture. With a passion for digital media, she goes above and beyond to find new ways to tell and share stories.

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