We’ve talked previously about some of the negative impacts of fast fashion trends, and have shared alternatives for shopping more sustainably. Today, we’re digging deeper: we’ll get into where fast fashion came from, what it has become (hint: it’s not good for us or the Earth) and how we can all be more mindful consumers.

I understand the thrill of buying affordable, trendy clothing: In the past, particularly when I was younger, I often shopped at fast fashion venues like Gap, H&M and Zara.

And I wasn’t alone: These billion-dollar retailers have stores in countries across the globe. They’ve become fixtures in shopping malls and take over entire blocks in large cities.

These retailers respond to trends as quickly and cost-effectively as possible to sell en masse. They often reflect what’s fresh and new in fashion but at super low prices, making them vastly appealing stores for many consumers.

But beneath those trendy colors and patterns is a dark, shady underbelly we don’t often hear about. From its roots in the fast-moving swirl of 1960s fashions to its modern-day existence in sweatshops across developing countries, fast fashion was never an industry concerned with ethics. In order to achieve wide profit margins, these retailers cut corners, often at the expense of people and the environment.

The History of Fast Fashion

Today, fast fashion retailers work wildly fast, designing and creating items to get them on the racks and into shopping bags within just a few weeks. This hasty process tends to produce low-quality clothing that is priced low to sell fast.

This is a far cry from the methods of the early 20th century, when clothes were made with care and quality, often in small workshops. While the Industrial Revolution introduced new technology like the sewing machine, the rise of fast fashion didn’t truly begin until the 1960s.

That’s when young people in Europe began to embrace the accessibility of cheaply made clothing, flinging themselves into quickly cycling trends. In the 1990s, fast fashion infiltrated the American market on a large scale. As e-commerce began to take off in the 21st century, the availability of cheaply made fashion exploded. Consumers could purchase clothes without pausing to think, and the addiction to immediate gratification grew.

Its Negative Impacts

Across the world, 80 billion pieces of clothing are purchased each year. That number has increased 400% since 2000.

In the U.S., that leads to 11 million tons of textile waste being produced every year. When I stopped to think about these figures, I was overwhelmed by the quantity of our production and waste, and struggled to make sense of it.

As we mentioned, affordability and immediate gratification made fast fashion make so popular. Consumers want more and more. They are using retail therapy as a way to mediate their emotions and want instant access celebrity styles seen on social media or TV.

And so, fast fashion stores imitate these styles and find a lot of success — at a cost.

Many of these companies use factories in developing countries around the world to cheaply manufacture items. Sweatshops usually pay their employees very low wages and offer poor, even dangerous, working conditions.

In 2013, a building in Bangladesh housing several sweatshops collapsed, killing 142 people and injuring thousands of others. The brands that were using the factories to produce their clothing denied responsibility, but this catastrophe inspired activists and consumers to think about the devastating impact of our consumer behaviors.

Fast fashion also takes an enormous environmental toll. The harmful chemical dyeing process results in unnaturally colored rivers, tainted with dyes that pollute local ecosystems and make their way into people’s crops and drinking water. The carbon emissions that result from transporting tons of clothing across the world and then to the individual stores is vast and harmful. And the plastic and Styrofoam packing materials used to ship the clothing to the consumers adds another layer to the already troubling waste problems.

The Alternatives

It’s easy not to think about these factors when making our buying decisions. Many of these social and environmental perils are happening outside of our narrow view, in countries we may have never visited.

But what happens in China or Bangladesh affects us all. We don’t have a Planet B. We need to maintain one standard for our one Earth. If you aren’t comfortable with your neighbors working in sweatshops or your family drinking chemically polluted water, consider what it’s like for others to live this way.

Now that you have the grim truths, you can begin to make some positive changes. Revamp your retail therapy with our alternative plan:

  • Do your research. Read articles about the fashion industry and check out some informative documentaries about fast fashion. We recommend The True Cost, RIVERBLUE and The Story of Stuff.
  • Shop secondhand. Online stores like ThredUP and depop give you instant access to a rotating variety of interesting and beautiful clothing. IRL, you can browse your local thrift or consignment store to find some new-to-you styles.
  • Take care of the clothing you already own. If you’ve bought from these stores previously, don’t beat yourself up — we’ve been there! Work to take care of the items you purchased. Read the product tags and follow the cleaning instructions to extend the often-short lifespan of your items. When you’re ready to part with them, be sure to donate or find a textile recycling program.
  • Purchase from sustainable designers. We’ve featured a number of great, ethical designers in our Designer Spotlight series. Do your research and see which designs captivate you. (And stay tuned — we’ll soon be selling clothing from sustainable designers here on Pildora!)
  • Find other ways to be satisfied. Retail therapy can be a knee-jerk response to emotional difficulty or boredom. Instead of shopping when you’re having a hard day, examine the root cause and see if you can address it in a more productive way. Journal or talk about it with a friend. Take a walk or volunteer some time to a worthy cause. Investing in long-term emotional health instead of finding a quick solution will bring you so much more joy than any item of clothing (fast fashion or not!).

We believe in you! Tell us about your experiences with fast fashion and let us know if you have any other alternatives to share.