Eighteen years ago, at the tender age of nine, I sat down to watch The Lizzie McGuire Movie: a classic, coming-of-age tale where Lizzie goes to Rome on a post-graduation trip and somehow, during the course of two weeks, the 16-year-old manages to end up exposing an Italian pop star as a fraud. At the beginning of the film, Kate Sanders, aka Lizzie’s nemesis, calls out the protagonist for wearing the same outfit twice. “Lizzie McGuire, you are an outfit repeater!” she shouts. That’s when the cogs in my brain started to turn. “Wait,” I thought. “It’s embarrassing to be caught wearing the same thing twice?”
And it wasn’t just Ms. Sanders. As I grew up into my tweens and teens, a key staple of the movies I was watching (The Princess Diaries, Clueless, The Devil Wears Prada, and Miss Congeniality—heck, even every Disney movie) was the makeover montage. It helped to form an attitude I lived by until my mid-twenties: new clothes = new you. The clothes were fun, affordable, and they made me feel good. Until they didn’t.
Factory worker scandals & climate guilt
In 2014, I first realized the error of my ways. An article about a desperate factory worker’s plea for help found in the pocket of a pair of Primark trousers started circulating. Panicked online searches brought up links to child labor and human rights abuses. I made a vow: no more Primark.
But the orders from other major clothing retailers continued: Boohoo, Pretty Little Thing, Forever 21. I’d failed to understand that Primark wasn’t the sole perpetrator of the fast fashion economy, but rather just one benefactor.
There is an alarming amount of evidence to suggest that workers, mostly women, are exploited in fast fashion factories. There has been more than one incident of factory fires, resulting in the deaths of workers due to a lack of safety regulations. A 2018 report by Global Labor Justice also found accounts of sexual harassment, physical abuse, and forced overtime in factories supplying to brands including H&M and Gap Inc. Just last year, Boohoo was tied to exploitation in its UK factories, reports included poor safety regulations and lack of pay.
And it wasn’t until I started working as a journalist in the sustainability space that I realized the scale of the environmental impact caused by the fast fashion industry. As in: It can take up to 2,700 liters of water to make just one cotton T-shirt! The fashion industry makes up 10 percent of the world’s carbon emissions. Polyester, used in so many fast fashion garments, may take over two centuries to biodegrade. I was devastated.
Shopping’s serotonin hit
As I read more about these statistics, a deep sense of guilt crept in. Those throwaway purchases were contributing to a world I despised. And yet still, I find it difficult to turn down that serotonin hit that comes from making a new purchase. Now, I seek out companies that make clothes from sustainable or recycled materials and buy from much smaller brands. But I still have my moments: Just the other week I bought two new dresses because I felt a bit low.
I know it’s not just me who does this. Joshua Becker, the author of The Minimalist Home, believes that people buy more than they need for many reasons, including escapism. He wrote for Forbes: “We mistakenly look for confidence in the clothes we wear or the car we drive. We seek to recover from loss, loneliness, or heartache by purchasing unnecessary items.”
In the UK’s first lockdown at the beginning of the pandemic, fast fashion shopping habits grew by 46 percent. In the third lockdown, they were up 30 percent. These weren’t purchases made for nights out, or weddings, or offices, none of which were happening at the time. At a time of loss, loneliness, and heartache, people turned to shopping to escape reality.
Fast fashion & Instagram: The gruesome twosome
On the surface, it all seems harmless. Like the teen movies of the noughties, Instagram is a fantasy tale. Scrolling through the platform, we don’t see the day-to-day, mundane part of many influencers’ lives. Instead, we’re drip-fed a constant stream of perfectly posed, shiny posts selling us things. It’s all: buy, buy, buy and your life will be better, better, better.
Instagram is the best pal of fast fashion. Many brands rely on collaborations with the platform’s biggest influencers to shift new pieces. And it works: followers are incredibly engaged with fast fashion influencers, they trust them, dress like them, and want to be them. But there’s one issue I only thought about recently: while they may like to appear differently, fast fashion influencers are not fellow consumers. They are salespeople (who get the clothes they’re pushing for free). Many of them are so good at their job, you don’t even realize they’ve sold you a thing, even when you’ve bought every item in the latest Lorna Luxe x In The Style drop.
Unless something changes quickly, the problems with fashion are only set to get worse. By 2030, global clothing consumption is projected to rise by 63 percent. According to the UK Parliament website, that’s the same as making about 500 billion additional T-shirts.
When there’s a growing customer base lapping up every new clothing collaboration, changing is not profitable for major fast fashion companies. Although they may throw out a collection made with recycled materials every now and again, these ranges do not change the fundamental DNA of a fast fashion brand. But that’s not to say there is no hope. Fashion’s relationship with social media shows us that change, really, is guided by us. Because the follower count decides what makes an influencer successful. And the followers are us.
Changing the way we shop
There are ways we can change our habits and make a difference. Here are three tips from a fast fashion addict (recovery in progress):
Cut down on consumption
Firstly, facing the hard truth that we do not need to consume constantly, regardless of what social media tells us, is important. We do not need new clothes for every occasion; instead, we can get creative with things we already own. And when we do buy, let’s take the time to find well-made pieces that we truly love and will want to wear again and again.
If you feel a need to buy when you’re feeling low, sit with this. And consider reaching out for support, either from a loved one or a mental health professional. (Read more about spending money for comfort and getting support on mental health charity Mind’s website.)
Change up your social media feed
Secondly, if you follow a lot of brands and fashion influencers, I recommend changing up your social media feed. Start following those accounts that get behind ethical brands and messaging. (Sustainable fashion directory Good On You is a good place to start.)
Give yourself time
It’s simple, yet effective. If I see a post of an item I love, I (try to) take the time to mull it over. Where would I wear it? How many times would I wear it? How would I style it? Am I buying it because I truly love the piece of clothing or because I like the way the imagery looks?
There’s no doubt that major corporations have to change their ways before a real difference is made in the fast fashion industry. But change can also start with all of us taking a look at ourselves and searching for ways we can make a difference. Starting by not tapping “Add to Cart” on that £5 dress.