Hajin Cho / Gavel Media

The True Cost of Fast Fashion

Shopping online has become a central part of our lives. You see a $5 shirt, add it to your cart, and within a few days, your package arrives. But with this ease comes many environmental consequences and human rights violations unknown to many consumers. In order to pique our interests with inexpensive clothing, fast fashion companies exploit their workers, the environment, and consumerism in order to increase their own profits. 

Recent heightened consumerism has been a central contributor to increases in pollution and climate change. This constant need for the newest trend is propelled by social media influencers, especially those on TikTok. They have accelerated the trend cycle by promoting each and every purchase they make to their followers, who rush to imitate them and their favorite celebrities. 

Fast fashion companies meet this immediate need for the newest trend by quickly producing dupes of celebrities’ outfits and constantly adding more styles to their websites. SHEIN, the most visited apparel website in the world, adds 1,000 new pieces per day. This variety all comes at incredibly low costs due to the low quality of materials used. However, fast fashion shoppers are largely unbothered by the low quality products, as they buy this clothing with no intention of it lasting them more than a few wears. 

Fashion Nova, a popular fast fashion brand that adds 1,000 new styles to their website every week, has capitalized on their sped up production process in order to provide these constantly arriving items to their shoppers. They fuel their consumers’ addiction to new trends and their need to imitate their favorite celebrities by producing cheaper versions of celebrity outfits as soon as they are seen wearing the item. This business strategy promotes thoughtless shopping, as consumers are drawn to the inexpensive versions of expensive or designer items. Although intuitively it would seem that SHEIN and Fashion Nova should primarily attract shoppers unable to afford more expensive brands, instead many purchase hundreds of dollars worth of clothing from the company. This method of shopping has fueled overconsumption.

The low prices of these products leads shoppers to focus solely on getting more pieces of clothing per dollar while ignoring the true cost of their decisions. On the surface, a shirt for $5 is a great deal and a low cost. But who’s making this item and why is the cost so low?  

David Weil, who led the United States Labor Department wage and hour division, characterized Fashion Nova as having “all the advantages of a sweatshop.” The company does not deal directly with factories, which allows them to distance themselves from the violations of their workers’ rights. Many of their workers are paid for each clothing item that they sew. An employee of one of Fashion Nova’s production companies stated that she made four cents to sew on each sleeve, five cents to sew each of the side seams, and eight cents for the seam on the neckline. Yet all of this is largely unknown to fast fashion shoppers, as they are far removed from the manufacturing process that their purchases support. 

The ability of fast fashion companies to speed up the trend cycle by cutting corners has not only increased their popularity, but has also turned more sustainably produced clothing lines into fast fashion through viral posts. Brands like House of Sunny, whose prices drastically differ from those of Shein, produce pieces meant to last and be unique in one’s closet; however, they've begun to follow large scale trends that go out of style as soon as the newest trend emerges. This decreases the ability of ethical brands to combat the climate crisis. The attempts of sustainable brands and consumers who shop with sustainability in mind are falling short due to the constant new trends created by fast fashion companies and consumers’ need for the newest item. 

The responsibility is falling onto consumers to put thought into their shopping and consider the ethics and sustainability of the companies they shop from. Each purchase has a direct impact on the person making their clothing and the allure of fast fashion is the direct result of workers’ rights abuses. While it is unreasonable to expect each individual to solely shop 100 percent sustainable brands, how much you buy and where you shop has a great impact on the environment and people around the world. Be mindful of your impact and know that each dollar you save on fast fashion is a dollar withheld from those sewing your clothing. 

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