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Can Fashion be Sustainable?

According to Green America, Americans generate 16 Million tons of textile waste per year, equaling just over 6 percent of total municipal waste (for context, plastics make up 13 percent of our waste stream). This is a byproduct of manufacturers overproducing their stock of clothing. With that in mind: did you know that Shein adds 2,000 new items to its store on any given day? These are 2,000 unique products with their supply chain history.

What is Fast Fashion? Oxford defines it as "Inexpensive clothing produced rapidly by mass-market retailers in response to the latest fashion trends." These clothes aren't made as well because the goal is to sell them at as low a price as possible and keep customers coming back as much as possible. Cheap clothing doesn't last as long, so as the dress falls apart, you will likely return to that brand to replace the item. This business model relies on people constantly buying more clothes. As mentioned, they overproduce products and only sometimes get sold as the trend fades and new ones emerge.

On top of that, trendy brands tend to cater to size inclusivity in a way that many brands don't. In the end, as the trends fade, those products end up in landfills. In 2021 Shein generated around $15.7 billion, a 60% increase from the previous year. Here's some extra troubling information: Shein clothes are manufactured in China but aren't sold there. Shein surpassed Amazon in global app downloads for a short period in 2021.

One of the biggest pushes towards sustainable fashion is advising people to buy "name-brand" clothing instead of fast fashion brands. The claim is, unlike fast fashion, if you buy a few sustainably made pieces, you should be able to use them more often and keep them for a more extended period. Then, if you decide to get rid of them in the future, you can profit from the high-quality piece in resale rather than throwing it away. Typically these brands are also better about using clean items to make their products (fewer toxic fabrics and dyes). If you ordered it online, it's more likely to be shipped in an environmentally friendly container. If it claims to be saving the planet, it may donate proceeds to charities to ensure its brand reputation. They usually try to market themselves as diverse and inclusive (but when you do some more profound research, that marketing usually disappoints you). That's all wonderful, but these brands' trade-offs involve fewer sales. These brands are generally significantly more expensive, so they will make fewer sales despite what they might do to convince them to spend the money. You could be paying $100 more for a higher-quality product. In addition, these brands typically don't support the inclusivity that the world expects and that Shein so excitedly supplies.

Here's the bottom line: "Sustainability" was built for rich people. If you have the money, you can spend it on the better brand, but if you don't, you'll end up spending it on the brand that is killing the planet. Consider this: that definition I gave before encompasses nearly every brand middle- and lower-class individuals shop with. Target? Fast fashion. Walmart? Fast fashion. Zara, H&M, Pretty Little Thing, Forever 21, etc., are all fast fashion. But also consider what people think when someone says "fast fashion." Landfills, sweatshops, underpaid employees, toxic textiles, disposable items that break down quickly, mass waste, etc. Suppose that public opinion on fast fashion was encompassed in its definition. In that case, you can add GAP, Hollister, American Eagle, Victoria's Secret, Nike, and many more brands to your list. And how many of those brands have a size inclusivity that is still trendy and affordable? Only a few of them.

Let's do a little comparing. Please take a look at a brand that builds its clothing to last. $168 for a sweater, $450 for a necklace, $175 for a hair barrette, and $300 for shoes. Compared to a brand like Walmart. $15 for a sweater that looks identical to the $168 name-brand. Of course, many of us want to shop with sustainable brands. But we must wear clothes if we can't afford expensive sustainable brands. If you're going to spend $50 on some clothes, a store like Shein allows people to purchase 10-20 items for that price, rather than just 1 (this is 2 for the price of 1 growth mindset). Fast fashion, at its roots, is trendy clothes for the poor person. The problem is that they throw the clothes out as the trend fades, ending in a landfill. Or when people don't do their research on a brand ahead of time, they end up supporting a brand that is abusing employees.

I'm a big fan of sustainable fashion. It's a cultural problem. Sustainability is becoming increasingly vital for style, from the environment to the economy. Money aside, the statistics about what fashion has done to the planet are accurate and must be considered. Do your research. Don't shop with Shein, but if you can't afford cashmere, that's okay too. Sell your clothes online or give them to a second-hand store rather than throwing them away. Consider buying clothes second-hand rather than buying them from those toxic brands. Learn how to alter your clothes before buying them new. Before you purchase something, try coming up with 5-10 unique ways to use it without buying something with it; if you can't, maybe you don't need it. There are tons of things you can do outside of fashion too. DIY around the house. Grow your food. Recycle. Turn off the lights and take short showers. And you can take empty makeup containers to Nordstrom, and they will find a way to have them recycled properly.

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