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Fast Fashion Is Out, Ethics Are In: How to Shop Sustainably On a Budget

(Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

On a Saturday evening on November 24th, 2012, a fire alarm rang through the fourth floor of a industrial building owned by Tazreen, a clothing manufacturer, in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Within five minutes, the fire spread through the floors, engulfing nearly 1,200 garment workers in thick black smoke. There were no sprinklers or fire escapes. By the time the fire was under control, at least 112 people had died and hundreds more were injured.

Most American worker advocacy groups would have you believe that the Tazreen fire was a result of lack of regulation. Surprisingly, this isn’t the case. Walmart, who was responsible for 60% of the order being manufactured at the time of the fire, was completely unaware that they were doing business with Tazreen. In fact, after an inspection found the facility in Dhaka unsafe a year before the fire, Walmart had banned its suppliers from using it.

In the time of fast fashion, all focus is placed on speed of production. Quality, worker rights and environmental standards fall to the side so that mom jeans over fishnets and satin slip dresses can be manufactured and shipped as quickly as possible. Often, garment manufacturers have less than a week between receiving an order and shipping it, forcing the employees to work at breakneck speeds. Ensuring quality standards for production facilities isn’t just a matter of cost, it eats up precious time to keep up with ever-changing trends.

Walmart’s order ended up at the Tazreen facility through a series of subcontractors who repeatedly outsourced the order so that it could be produced more quickly for a higher profit. Despite Walmart’s ban on business with the facility, their product got there anyway. This phenomenon isn’t unique to huge companies like Walmart. Brands we know and love such as H&M, Zara and Forever 21 often accidentally do business with megasuppliers that don’t meet their regulatory standards. The chains of outsourcing built to cater to a fast fashion culture are so enormous and complex that top down regulations aren’t a permanent fix. Orders will always be outsourced to facilities that bypass regulation in order to meet the demand.

At the end of the day, a $30 outfit from Forever 21 isn’t worth the ethical price tag. Yes, it’s cheap, yes, it’s cute, and yes, it’s fashionable, but the cons outweigh the pros. Every dollar spent at a mega-retailer condones the destructive effects of fast fashion. For a young person on a tight budget, it can feel financially unfeasible to make a change in lifestyle habits. Luckily, there are plenty of ways to lessen your contribution to fast fashion culture without footing the bill for expensive, “ethical” clothing brands.

  • Clothing Swaps

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve found something cute in a friend’s closet that they didn’t want. If you want to revamp your closet for no cost at all, get a bunch of people together and swap til you drop. I guarantee you’ll go home happy.

  • Thrifting

Thrifting isn’t just Goodwill anymore. There are tons of online sites where you can shop secondhand fairly affordably, like Thred Up, Poshmark, Tradesy and Etsy. Shopping secondhand saves money and helps you create a unique style with a closet full of pieces no one else will have. If you want to magnify your positive impact, center your shopping around local thrift stores.

Carmen Alexandra /She Recycles Fashion

  • Less Is More (a.k.a. Quality Over Quantity)

American culture is dominated by consuming as much as possible, but it’s not hard to counteract that mindset. Instead of buying lots of clothes that you’ll only wear for a few months, buy a few high quality pieces that you’ll wear again and again. If you want to take “less is more” to the next level, consider starting a capsule wardrobe.

Lori Hil/PopCrunch

  • Refurbish, Reuse

Next time your favorite flannel gets a hole in the elbow, pick up a sewing needle. If your jeans get holes in the knees, grab an Exact-o knife and rip them up more. If you’re bored with your denim jacket, break out some fabric paint. Every piece of clothing has a second life in it. For inspiration, do a quick search for “upcycled” fashion. 

If you happen to have some (a lot, this stuff isn’t cheap) money to drop on nice clothes, stick to shopping at brands manufactured in the United States like Levi’s and Carhartt, so that you can ensure their production adheres to fair labor standards. Make a domestic social impact by shopping at black owned and operated businesses like Christian Omeshun, GLOSSRAGS, and HGC Apparel. For an environmental focus, check out EcoCult.

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Helen Cunningham
Written By

(she/her) I'm a senior from Maine and I love writing about social justice almost as much as I love diner food and a morning sea breeze. I'm a big history nerd and nothing makes me happier than a head to head debate over just about anything. I'm deeply dedicated to understanding the complex societal issues in the world and writing about the creative ways people are solving them.

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