Like many other broke college students, I am repeatedly tempted by clothing advertisements announcing the lowest prices ever: $5 T-SHIRTS or FLASH SALE 85% OFF! What a steal! But although these prices are appealing, there is much more to them than what meets the eye. 

Fast fashion, a popular sector of the fashion industry that emerged around the 1990s, has become a go-to spot for young adults with a tight budget looking for trendy clothes. One characteristic of fast fashion is that companies mimic designer and influencer trends at lightning speed.

This speed in turn affects the rest of the fashion industry, causing all other brands to speed up their design, output and turnaround time. Brands like Shein, H&M, Forever 21, Zara and Boohoo have mastered this overturn of styles, with some brands adding 500 to 1,000 styles a week to their websites. 

Although these brands are appealing due to their prices and selection, they are not all they’re cracked up to be in terms of their environmental impact and labor standards. Depletion of natural resources, textile waste, and pollution all contribute to the environmental impact of the fashion industry. 

Unfortunately, fast fashion brands encourage overconsumption by overturning more styles than will be bought by consumers. Unbought clothes are either tossed into a landfill or incinerated, wasting the natural resources used to produce the garment. According to the Sustain Your Style Organization, on average a garment is worn seven times before being thrown away. Fast fashion clothes that are donated are rarely worn second-hand due to the poor quality of the clothes. 

According to a Princeton University article, 3,000 liters of water are used to produce one cotton T-shirt. Additionally, the toxic chemicals used in textile dyeing often leak into surrounding bodies of water, accumulating in oceans and rivers. In terms of pollution, the cheap, synthetic fibers used in fast fashion clothes release far more carbon emissions than other materials like cotton. 

Although the rest of the fashion industry also creates significant waste, the overconsumption that fast fashion brands have encouraged magnifies these negative effects. Nowadays, the average American household produces about 82 pounds of textile waste a year, according to the Encyclopedia of Emerging Industries. In 2019, 62 million metric tons of clothing were consumed across the globe, most of which end up in landfills and are incinerated due to the lower quality of the clothes being produced. 

In addition, fast fashion brands often outsource their labor to countries in South America, East Asia and North Africa because of their lack of labor laws. Some brands choose to manufacture their clothes in the United States, yet their working conditions aren’t much different from sweatshops across the globe. 

In the fashion district of Los Angeles, California, undocumented immigrants working as seamstresses earn as little as five cents for adding trim and three cents for every label sewed on a garment, according to a story by the Equal Times Organization. For a skilled seamstress, this adds up to about $6 an hour. To earn $250 a week, garment workers must work 12 hours a day, five to seven days a week. 

In my time as a fashion enthusiast, I’ve learned that the easiest way to assess a piece of clothing is to think about the story the item holds as well as its future. It’s important to think about how and where it was made and how you plan to wear it in the future. As a rule of thumb, try not to buy new clothes you won’t wear over 15 times. Thrifting is also a great way to reduce your environmental impact. 

One of the reasons I love to thrift is the stories the clothes hold. Since every physical object carries energy, I enjoy imagining who wore it before me and how I will change its course. I want to make it clear that buying new clothes is not a bad thing; it can be okay in moderation and at a thoughtful pace. The problem arises when consumerism culture takes over and we mindlessly buy new clothes without a strict purpose. 

Six tricks for shopping sustainably:

1. Try to resist buying clothes for only one occasion.

2. Don’t be fooled by greenwashing (a marketing technique used by brands to show their products are more sustainable than they are).

3. Think months or even years ahead before buying clothes.

4. Buy from brands that are transparent about their business practices and supply chain.

5. Look for timeless pieces that will not go out of style.

6. Try thrifting… it’s sustainable and affordable!